Repression, election fraud remain in Russia
"One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude," wrote French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, reflecting respectively on the United States and Russia.
The election again of ex-KGB career enforcer Vladimir Putin as president of Russia, after his ally Dmitry Medvedev served an interim term to satisfy constitutional term limits, seems only to underscore the point. Truly representative government is still not a reality there. Putin's return to the top job argues powerfully for the proposition that a cabal of cronies holds continuing control, with no alternation in real authority.
The voting has been widely and rightly criticized as tainted. Human-rights activists both at home and abroad are complaining bitterly about fraud. The Russian activist group League of Voters has publicly denounced the election. Impartial international observers agree that extensive irregularities characterized voting.
Last December, legislative elections in Russia witnessed similar controversy, centered on accusations that Putin's United Russia Party committed widespread vote fraud. In reaction, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called for holding the elections again, with no success. Yet even with alleged ballot stuffing, Putin's party registered a substantial loss in support in voting for the lower house of the state Duma, a sign that cabal control is not complete.
More generally, signs of positive progress are undeniable in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. During the decades of dictatorship by the Soviet Communist Party, reinforced by the Cold War, elections were a complete sham. There was zero tolerance for open dissent, and nonconformity meant automatic imprisonment, and possibly death.
By contrast, in Russia today, old-fashioned totalitarianism is dead, and party competition plays out before a global audience thanks to pervasive Facebook, Twitter and other electronic information media. This underscores how dramatically the context of politics has changed, even as veterans of Soviet communism try to employ heavy-handed repression that no longer can be kept private. Public criticism of Putin and other leaders takes place in ways inconceivable under communism.
Russia still is dangerous for dissenters. In early 2009, near the Kremlin on a sunny day on a public street, activist attorney Stanislav Markelov was murdered. Journalist Anastasia Baburova was killed as well while trying to aid him. The hit man was a practiced pro, his pistol equipped with a silencer.
Baburova worked for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya of that paper was prominent in investigating human-rights abuses in Chechnya. She was murdered in 2006.
The killings reconfirmed in bloody manner that ruthless repression takes place, especially regarding the media. While print journalists occasionally have been gunned down, the Kremlin has been more systematic if restrained in trying to restrict television, with expanded direct state censorship.
Such abuse provides a continuing test for the Obama administration. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a press conference that allegations of fraud should be investigated and criticized the arrest of demonstrators in Moscow, but also noted that Putin was the winner, with nearly 64 percent of the vote.
Pointedly, Clinton held the press meeting jointly with Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski of Poland, a nation that suffered invasion and occupation by the Soviet Union.
De Tocqueville wrote about America and Russia at length, with fascinating enduring insights. He contrasted American commitment to plowshares with Russian preference for swords. Today, the undeniable global trend is toward plowshares, meaning markets and representative government.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College. He is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com). E-mail him at email@example.com.