In a recent visit to Estonia, 82-year-old Russian human rights activist Ljudmilla Aleksejeva admonished western intellectuals for being misled and tolerant of undemocratic tendencies characterizing Russian society today. In fact Aleksejeva describes Boris Jeltsin’s Russia of the 1990’s as being more rooted in democratic fundamentals than today.
The possibility of Stalin’s portrait being displayed during the May 9 victory day celebrations in Moscow is symptomatic of the low value placed on notions such as human and political rights, she says. She hopes Russian officials will have enough sense to refrain from idolizing the former dictator.
Being labelled as a dissident and exiled for decades to the west for human rights activities, Aleksejeva returned to Russia after the collapse of the USSR and has convened public demonstrations on the 31st day of each month of that length. Demonstrations bring attention to a paragraph 31, which outlines the existence of human rights in the respective legislation. The March 31st demonstrations are expected to take place in 25 different cities.
Westerners have ignored the problems, or are naïve and conciliatory, Aleksejeva indicates, and Russians are deeply disappointed by this. Supporting these arguments is Russian political scientist Lilia Ševtsova, who has recently criticized the indifference displayed towards the goals of Russian liberals by the authoritative western journal, Foreign Policy. The paraphrased Foreign Policy position was: “Give it time. Russia will democratize, eventually. One shouldn’t hurry it along.” This attitude is seen as being widely accepted. If it wasn’t based purely on ignorance, Aleksejeva finds this to be deliberately serving the interests of the autocrats in power.
Ševtsova: In contrast to Soviet times, Russian democrats are finding it difficult to gain even moral support from western intellectuals. Western politicians take Russian authoritarianism with pragmatic indifference and they preach not to worry, Russia will democratize very soon, or they emphasize that a “sovereign” democracy has a good fit with Russian culture and therefore it makes no sense to force Russians to accept western values.
According to Aleksejeva Russia currently could be seen being ruled by “soft authoritarianism”, where a certain freedom of speech, certain political freedoms, certain personal freedoms are enjoyed, but where the main media and real political-decision making are controlled by an indeterminate power, which the illusionary democracy cannot budge. Perhaps the current powers-that-be are more self-assured than that of the Soviet era, which had a paranoiac fear of the slightest hint of opposition.
Unacceptable to Aleksejeva is the stereotyped expression that Russians by their nature are not suited to democracy. Forceful pressure from the public can make Russia move towards democratic principles. According to her, elections will not be an effective vehicle for change and neither will reforms in legislation or the judicial system be the solution.
The well-financed propaganda campaign has successfully painted a democratic picture of Russia that is far from being deserved, says Aleksejeva. She reminds the west that her former colleague Andrei Sakharov maintained that a country that doesn’t honour the rights of its citizens is a potential threat to other nations.
Aleksejeva and Ševtsova also admonish those who strive to win favour with Moscow for personal gain and who condemn criticism of Russia as useless hatemongering. An appropriate example would be of those Estonians who go on Russian junkets at the hosts’ expense, who stress that criticism of Russia stems from paranoia and preconceived notions. A former prime minister fits the bill precisely.
Aleksejeva and Ševtsova: the west must do more to support democratization in Russia