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Democratic Transitions

Russia: Less Than Democracy
An interview with Alexander Podrabinek
Editor-in-Chief, Express Chronicle Human Rights Weekly

IDEE: Eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union, does Russia have a democratic government?

Podrabinek: To say that there is a democratic government in Russia would be a great exaggeration. In Russia, there are, or it is better to say there were, tendencies towards introducing democratic reforms and building democratic institutions in government. These tendencies could be seen over the ten year period beginning with perestroika. But these tendencies did not have a stable political or social foundation and in the current period these reforms stalled and are now reversing course. 

Here we are, ten years after the system started breaking down, and with horror, we must admit that communism was not totally and finally defeated in Russia or elsewhere. Throughout the former USSR, communist forces have been determined to regain their positions of power and influence — the former communist party leaders of six former Soviet republics (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are the presidents of their newly independent states. Two headed their country’s  KGB as well. In Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma directed the USSR’s largest nuclear missile factory before becoming president. Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenka and Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmonov were leading state farm directors, or kolkhozniks. Of course, Latvia and Estonia remain relatively fortunate states. It is also true that not all of the former communist leaders have acted to repress civil liberties to the same degree. Russia differs to some extent from Turkmenistan, and Moldova from Belarus. Nevertheless, it remains striking that today former communists fill so many government and administrative posts. Such a high concentration of former communist in these position presents a clear danger to the emergence of democracy.

IDEE: What preconditions would have been necessary to create democracy? What mistakes were made in the mid 1980s and early 1990s.

Podrabinek: Two main things were not done, two basic serious steps were not taken. First, the old communist government and political structures were not dismantled. Second, there was no public discussion about the nature of the ideology of the old regime, the ideology on which the old regime was based. Communist ideology is not the dominant ideology of Russia today. Nevertheless, the lack of public discussion prevented the adoption of laws that would have restricted higher-ranking communists from holding elected or appointed positions of power — laws adopted in other countries like the Czech Republic and Estonia. Such laws lacked both political initiative and public will, yet their lack of adoption has hindered greatly the development of democracy.

IDEE: Has Russia had free and fair elections? Was it possible to create conditions for truly democratic elections in your view? 

Podrabinek: The electoral system in Russia today is not so bad when compared to the previous one. But that is because there was no free “election system” at all in the USSR, only the illusion of one. The elections that have been held in Russia took the place of a compete void and for better or worse the system functions.

The are elements within the system that work. For example, the free press and small and medium-sized businesses didn’t exist at all before and now they can function relatively freely. But the army, police, internal affairs, and various departments of the government were merely reformed at the edges, not changed. As a result, most of these institutions hardly function. Moreover, the government still controls macroeconomic decisions and this realm is protected as it was before by the same former Soviet functionaries who had control over the economy in the old times.

IDEE: Would you have banned the Communist Party?

Podrabinek: The Communist Party’s existence today as a legal political party is evidence that even though the communist system has ended the epoch of communism endures. The end of this period will come only when society deliberately, and of its own accord, clearly condemns the communist system and makes judgement of those who ordered and carried out its numerous crimes either in a court of law or at least before a tribunal of public opinion.

Many of the leading criminals of the communist movement have been named in person. Yet, the activities of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation are not banned as a consequence. A murderer is sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment and is justly deprived of many civil and political rights for life. In the same way, a society that had regained its self-respect would impose at least a 15-year ban on the communist movement, a truly murderous enterprise. Such a political decision would be accepted by people with understanding, if not greeted with dancing in the street. 

There were two moments — in August 1991 and October 1993 — when a complete return to power of communists came near to success. In either case, the decision should have been taking to ban activities of the Communist Party in any form, to dismantle the KGB, to introduce lustration, and to adopt legislation prohibiting reorganization of the communist party on any basis. But the authorities were opposed to such action. As former communists themselves, they found it hard to take action that in the future might affect them adversely. Democratic parties, meanwhile, hardly existed.

I believe that prohibiting the activities of the communist party for ten or twenty years would have been appropriate — equivalent to a law restricting the freedom of criminals by putting them in jail. Activities organized under the criminal ideology of communism should have been prohibited for a set period of time.

IDEE: Is there a civil society today in Russia? How would you compare it with Poland, the Czech Republic, or Ukraine?

Podrabinek: Civil society in Russia today exists in a completely enigmatic situation. We can’t compare civil society in Russia with that in United States or Great Britain. It is difficult even to compare it with the Czech Republic or Hungary. It is easier to compare Russian civil society with what exists in the former Soviet states, with for instance, Ukraine or Belarus. 

The former Soviet Union is more or less on an identical level. There is no civil society that informs people’s political choices or affects the political situation in an organized way. This leaves the field open to extremists, both communist and fascist. While we cannot choose another society, we can welcome the educational activities of those few democrats who are continuing to write and publish articles, who are sparking discussions, and and who are creating independent organizations that stir others to civil and political activity. Hopefully, we shall not need forty years in the desert before our nation gets rid of its servile reliance on strong leaders and shakes off an apparent indifference to its own fate and that of future generations.

IDEE: What could the opposition in Russia have done differently in the period from 1989 to 1991 to prevent the current situation. What could the opposition have done. What mistakes did they make at the beginning?

Podrabinek: In Russia, the biggest mistake was that the dissident movement and civic movement didn’t use the opportunity to create a political opposition. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of political dissidents in Russia took a different route and chose to cooperate with the authorities. If the dissidents in the Soviet Union had attempted to distance themselves from the government, even those part of government that were carrying out reforms, then they would have become more independent and a stronger force, and today we would have a political movement oriented towards democracy and the rule of law. However, the dissidents decided to support the reformers in power and stopped being an independent force. To a certain extent, this meant that they assisted completely unscrupulous leaders of an unreformed government. And they lost the chance to become a political opposition that could have moved the country in the direction of real reform and genuine democracy.

It is now clear that the idea that the best way to improve the situation was to share power with the authorities was a grave mistake: while given only limited power and denied access to decision-making, they had to assume full responsibility for the government’s actions and performance. While this political experiment was short-lived and the democrats either resigned or were dismissed, precious time and a unique opportunity were lost. And because the democrats allowed the former communist authorities to share their positive image, “democracy” ultimately has become associated with the vagaries of the existing regime. Today when ordinary people say “democrats,” they mean the ruling authorities; “democracy” means a post-communist regime headed by former communists!

At the time when the democrats were too eager to play rebel in the corridors of power, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the opportunity was missed to create a genuinely democratic opposition, one that could have confronted the authorities and exposed their undemocratic mistakes and crimes but prepared itself for coming to power by gaining majority support in elections. The human rights community could have become the core of such an opposition if many of its activities had much of it not been seduced by the cheap trappings of power-sharing. Such an opposition, having human rights as its central value, would today have been respected in society and not been besmirched by the unprincipled and bloody deeds of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin administrations. Such an opposition would today have had a realistic chance of restraining communist ambitions and rebuffing other anti-democratic tendencies.

The dissidents shouldn’t have counted on the success of the moment, but should have thought about the long term. They should have formed a political party that could have participated in the elections, and in the meantime not take responsibility for the actions of a government of which they weren’t a part. They should have organized themselves to continuously check and criticize the government’s activities even when the activities seemed to be moving the country towards democracy. They should have stopped critisizing the government only at that moment when a full-fledged democracy was established.

If Cuban dissidents do what the Russian dissidents did, if they don’t try to distance themselves from the regime, and I don’t just mean from the Castro regime, but a communist regime that takes the place of Castro, if they don’t try to take an idealist position in regard to democracy and human rights, then Cuba will have a lower chance of moving towards democracy.

IDEE: What if we compare Cuba to the Soviet Union in1989? At that time, the democrats agreed to participate in elections to the Soviet parliament thinking that they could influence the democratic process. How could they have known that this was a mistake?

Podrabinek: After Gorbachev allowed for pseudo-competitive elections to be held, Andre Sakharov set the example and was then followed by many others. The system of elections was patently undemocratic: instead of standing in an open contest, he was elected as part of a quota for representatives of “non-governmental” organization, in his case, the Academy of Sciences. Saksharov and others were guided by the idea of creating an opposition within the political system itself. This is not a bad idea in principle, perhaps, but in practice this strategy proved wholly unproductive.

The opposition allowed themselves to make mistakes by believing they were acting rationally in the politics of pragmatism. The political and democratic opposition should orient itself on moral values and not political expediency. Perhaps in states where there is a stable democracy, democratic activists can think more about political benefit, but this is not appropriate for those states that are trying to move away from communism. Communist and post-communist states need an opposition that arouses the populace on issues based on morality.

IDEE: Some people believe that the neo-communists, such as Gorbachev, weren’t like Brezhnev and could have carried out modernization. Do you believe this was possible? And if we speak about Cuba, what do you think would happen if market oriented communists were to come to power? What would happen? 

Podrabinek: If a new generation of communists were to replace the old, then Cuba would experience what Russia is experiencing today. Today, we have neither a clear break with the old regime nor a transformed society. What we have are reforms in the neo-Brezhnev style. This means that the [leaders] try to change just a few parts of the structure, but not the system as a whole. In this case, there is the continuing danger that we will return to the old structures in the neo-Brezhnev style, and the new system, which is only slightly altered, cannot work with a full-fledged democratic system.

IDEE: Suppose we use this example for Cuba. If Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba were to collapse, what sort of future would you see for Cuba?

Podrabinek: I am an optimist in this regard. It seems to me, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and more precisely in Russia, is a specific example. If the system collapses in Cuba, then I think the outcome will be more humane and the transition more similar to Eastern Europe – those counties not part of the Soviet Union. In the case of Cuba, I believe that communism would be rejected, and the communist system would not be preserved. Perhaps this is because of the influence of Latin America or the mentality of the Cuban nation. It seems to me that the Cuban people are not as infected with the communist ideology, which seems to have less influence in Cuban society than in the Soviet Union. It seems to me that the end of communism in Cuba would be more fundamental and democracy would be the more likely and successful outcome.

(This interview was published with No Vivas en la Mentira, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (in Spanish) in the Cuba Democracy Pamphlet series)

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