[Boris Kagarlitsky]

"The Moscow Times", Friday, Mar. 2, 2001. Page 8

Something a Little Like Pluralism

By Boris Kagarlitsky It would seem that the spring thaw in Russian politics is already upon us. Both the Communists and Yabloko have lately announced a "stiffening" of their opposition to the government. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky even declared that his party was now a "systemic opposition."

Yabloko politicians believe that the government's economic policy is correct, but that the people implementing it are wrong. If only matters were handed over to some liberal intellectuals, they say, instead of these dense KGB types and Leningrad provincials, then everything would be fine — the reforms would proceed and democracy would be saved.

So the liberal intelligentsia has been eagerly anticipating some major personnel changes coming in the administration and the government, and are trying to jockey themselves into favorable positions. The media has been full of speculation about who is coming and who is going, although most likely it is all just the typical wishful thinking of Russian intellectuals.

The indecisiveness of the government's economic policy in 2000 had nothing to do with any personnel mistakes by the president. Upon taking hold of the reins of power, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref's team found itself faced with a choice: either proceed with its program despite the fact that practically the whole country neither understands nor supports it, or compromise its principles in the face of this reality. If the former, the state faces serious opposition from the general population, which wants neither "housing reform" nor land sales nor tax breaks for the rich. If the latter, the government faces liberal criticism that it is "inconsistent."

Strange as it may seem, this is not an easy choice for the administration. After all, they see the liberals as "their own people," and are persuaded by their arguments and stung by their criticism. It is a domestic dispute within a single family.

The general populace, on the other hand, is seen as foreign and just an obstacle to the proper management of the country. Moreover, the threat it presents is less clear, and, as long as the people continue to manifest their seemingly endless patience, it is hard to say how that threat might emerge or what its dimensions might be.

Obviously, changing personnel in the government will just place new faces in front of the same dilemma. That is why many politicians secretly see the possibility of high office not as a way of making their careers, but as a way of ending them. Being in the "opposition" has become an alibi for them, allowing them to spout liberal slogans and support social ideals that are acceptable to everyone in the abstract.

But this situation cannot last forever, and the time of reckoning is fast approaching. In order to advance its programs, the government will soon be forced once again to "break" the country. And the liberals understand that they will need the KGB types for this.

When this happens, the present "opposition" will fade from the scene. But what will the new opposition be like? A consistent struggle for democracy must be based on a consistent defense of the people's fundamental social rights. But it is certainly very difficult to defend the masses when they simply refuse to defend themselves.

The traditional helplessness of Russia's left-liberals is actually a result of our famous Russian patience.

If there is a bright side to Putinism, it is that it has led to a split within the establishment, and, therefore, to something a little like pluralism.

I would say that Russia has never been as close to democracy as it has been for the last 18 months. Faced with its difficulties and dilemmas, the Kremlin has been seeking a way of consolidating the elite. The scary part will only come when it figures out how to do this.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.

[Boris Kagarlitsky]
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