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The First Steps From Authoritarian to Civil Society

August 27, 2000|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn has written for Foreign Affairs and is a columnist for Suddeutsche Zeitung, a leading German newspaper

WASHINGTON — It's hard to see how Russian President Vladimir V. Putin could have handled the Kursk submarine crisis any worse. Each move he made seemed to come out of the old Soviet playbook: Lie, cover up, then, when all else fails, blame the West.

But after a week of remaining on vacation, tooling around on his water scooter and refusing vital foreign assistance that might have helped avert the death of all 118 sailors aboard the submarine, Putin may have started to turn a corner. A torrent of criticism and outrage by Russian citizens and the media put him on the defensive and forced him to confront the crisis. In an age when citizens around the world want elected officials to feel their pain, he's learning you can't mirror the actions of an aloof czar or isolated dictator and that public relations increasingly matter almost as much as effective action. Late last week, Putin made his first attempts to reach out by holding a town meeting with relatives of the sailors who perished and calling for a national day of mourning.

The truth is that, however tragic, the submarine crisis may be a blessing in disguise for Russia. It has dramatically accelerated the country's evolution from a backward, authoritarian country into a civil society, where individual citizens' voices cannot be ignored. As globalization, the Internet and mass media take hold in Russia, the secretive structures that supported the Czars and then the Soviet empire are being undermined.

The big question has been where Putin stands. Elena Bonner, widow of Andre I. Sakharov, the human-rights advocate and Noble Peace Prize winner, has declared that Putin's presidency is "a new stage in the establishment of a modernized Stalinism." But many Western leaders, including President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have hailed Putin as a democrat who can establish order in a chaotic country.

Who has it right? The submarine crisis may show which road Putin intends to travel down. While he has indeed suggested rolling back Russia's Westernization, it's all remained at the noise level. If Putin is bold enough and has enough power, he might reverse course and seize on the submarine crisis to push through real reforms.

Putin's dilemma over Westernization is not new. Ever since Peter the Great created St. Petersburg and, as he put it, "flung open the window to the West," Russia has agonized over whether or not to emulate the West. Slavophiles have argued that the Russian soul needs to be safeguarded against alien influences, while Westernizers have sought to modernize the country. But the Slavophiles have usually had the upper hand: The 18th-century writer Marquis de Custine noted, "In Russia, everything is turned into mystery," and, two centuries later, Winston Churchill famously explained that Russia was "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

But it was the 1986 meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the precursor to the current submarine disaster, that put an end to the Soviet government's ability to lie to itself and its people. That nuclear accident became a textbook example of how not to deal with a crisis in an era when television and other technologies made it impossible to shield Russians from what was actually taking place. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev used the meltdown to try out his policy of "glasnost," or openness, and to turn to the West for help. But Chernobyl took the Soviet Union along with it.

The Kursk fiasco could prove as consequential. For one thing, it was the first event of this type to be covered essentially round the clock on Russian television. This intensive media coverage of a disaster--bread and butter for American cable television--is something quite new in Russia, and it fueled anger against the authorities. The military still doesn't seem to have a clue: "Why should a housewife know what is happening with the Kursk in the Barents Sea?" complained one Russian military official.

Given these obsolete attitudes, Putin himself may not be in the strongest position to carry out reforms--even if he wanted to. For Putin declared last year that Russia should never become a "second edition of, say, the United States or Great Britain . . . . For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly, which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a guarantor of order and the initiator and the main driving force of any change."

Whether Putin has the imagination and power to overcome such attitudes is highly questionable. One of his first acts as president was to step up the war in Chechnya--which, indeed, went over well with most Russians. He also attacked the business oligarchs, a necessary move, but his first target was a troubling one--the Media-Most broadcasting empire. This was condemned as an assault on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, just as these are struggling to be established in the formerly controlled society.

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