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February 24, 2008
Russia's New Autocracy
I guess it's now official. If the New York Times refers to Putins Russia as an autocracy, it must be so.
That aside, the Times has a stellar article today on Putin's Russia and how his autocratic state works:
Shortly before parliamentary elections in December, foremen fanned out across the sprawling GAZ vehicle factory here, pulling aside assembly-line workers and giving them an order: vote for President Vladimir V. Putin’s party or else. They were instructed to phone in after they left their polling places. Names would be tallied, defiance punished. The city’s children, too, were pressed into service. The article makes clear there's not much of a free press, industries have been nationalized, and politics have been reduced to doing things Mr. Putins way or else.
At schools, teachers gave them pamphlets promoting “Putin’s Plan” and told them to lobby their parents. Some were threatened with bad grades if they failed to attend “Children’s Referendums” at polling places, a ploy to ensure that their parents would show up and vote for the ruling party.
Around the same time, volunteers for an opposition party here, the Union of Right Forces, received hundreds of calls at all hours, warning them to stop working for their candidates. Otherwise, you will be hurt, the callers said, along with the rest of your family.
But at the same time, Russia is still a far cry for the old Soviet Union:
Mr. Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. For most Russians, life is freer now than it was in the old days. Criticism of the Kremlin is tolerated, as long as it is not done in any broadly organized way, and access to the Internet is unfettered. The economy, with its abundance of consumer goods and heady rate of growth, bears little resemblance to the one under Communism. The Times might have added that Putin doesn't hesitate to employ murder and bully boy tactics to intimidate opponents and bend the country to his will.
Still, as was made plain in dozens of interviews with political leaders, officials and residents of Nizhny Novgorod over several weeks, a new autocracy now governs Russia. Behind a facade of democracy lies a centralized authority that has deployed a nationwide cadre of loyalists that is not reluctant to swat down those who challenge the ruling party. Fearing such retribution, many of the people interviewed for this article asked not to be identified.
All in all, Russia may have slid into a one party state but the people apparently are content. Even without the tactics of repression, Putin's party would have been the overwhelming choice at the polls last December. What this says about Putin is less important than what it ultimately says about the Russian people.