A martyr for democracy

The huge crowds were protesting against gangsterism, contract killings and corruption
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY, the Russian democrats - old Soviet dissidents, the intelligentsia, pro-Western market economists and more - turned and, aided by the ordinary folk of St Petersburg, showed that they were no longer willing to take lying down what has been going on in the former Soviet Union. Twenty thousand people queued in freezing cold for four hours to lay flowers by the coffin of Galina Starovoitova, a heroine of perestroika and now a martyr of the democrats of the post-Soviet era.

Ms Starovoitova, an outspoken parliamentarian and human rights activist from St Petersburg, who fought to get Boris Yeltsin in power but who - unlike him - remained one of the few unsullied champions of liberal democracy - was murdered last weekend.

For several years, the democrats have been so divided, their ranks corroded by their failure to adequately protest the Chechen war, internal bickering, and political scandals, that there were times when it was hard to call them liberals at all. They seemed to belong to a grimy political landscape in which the only defining feature was the general venality of the post- Soviet years.

But the murder changed that. Yesterday brought together their leaders: former prime ministers Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kiriyenko; Anatoly Chubais, the privatisation guru; and Boris Nemtsov, the liberal from Nizhny Novgorod. As they stood shoulder-to-shoulder to honour Galina Starovoitova, a red- eyed Chubais stood over the coffin and said: "Our people are being killed, but we are not going to be deterred or frightened. We will make it in the end."

Will they, though? After several years of calling the shots, the democrats are barely represented in the two-month-old government of Yevgeny Primakov. Yesterday - by contrast - Communists, nationalists and old Soviet apparatchiks are riding high. Red-black forces dominate the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) and have a number of heavyweight representatives in the administration.

Surveying this mess, even optimists about Russia now struggle to see any sign of hope. What, then, can we now expect? Which way is Russia going? Could the West's greatest fear - revolution or dictatorship - become reality?

Despite everything, after dozens of conversations with Russians in different parts of the country in the last few weeks, I believe popular unrest involving significant numbers remains unlikely. The overwhelming impression is that the country has become profoundly cynical about all politics. It is hard to imagine it rallying enthusiastically around any ideological banner, let alone - in a century in which so much blood has been shed - laying down their lives beneath one. The huge crowds in St Petersburg were to honour an individual, and to protest against gangsterism, contract killings, and corruption which have blighted Russia's second city and its government.

But so often Russians explain that their only concern is to survive day to day, in spite of - rather than with the help of - their leaders. They are heartily sick of abrupt change, especially the mass outbreak of kleptomania that accompanied the privatisation of the Soviet Union's enterprises.

Unbelievably - given the scale of their problems - many seem to prefer a government that does nothing to one that tries to rule. Mr Primakov, whose short stint in office has produced little more than inertia, fits the bill. Thus, in a matter of weeks, he has become a leading contender to replace Boris Yeltsin. (Few take seriously his repeated protests that he does not want the job.)

Yet many dangers lurk. Scattered violence from extremists - notably young fascists - has become a reality and could easily grow as they become bolder, unchecked by any effective law enforcement agencies. Heart-rending protests from the worst victims of the depression have become commonplace; last week, a pensioner, unpaid for months, immolated himself on Red Square. Suicides and alcoholism, the symptoms of utter despair, have rocketed. Nor does corruption - or, for that matter, contract killings - show any sign of diminishing.

But perhaps the most concrete threat is to one of the few remaining achievements of the Yeltsin years: free speech. The Moscow-based mass media, particularly TV, is making less and less effort to disguise their allegiances to the democrats.

The Communists have been clamouring for media restrictions, a task made easier this weekend by some of the wilder allegations flung in their direction by their enemies over the Starovoitova murder. Any worsening of the political climate could easily prompt Mr Primakov -who will be keen to keep the far left happy - into caving into their demands on the pretext of maintaining order. There would be a huge outcry from the liberal chattering classes. But the odds are that Russia would lose an essential component of a free society.

In much of the country, it is already too late. Many Russian regions pay little heed to the constitution, and the civil rights it contains, and have begun flexing their muscles with added force, sensing the centre's weakness. Frequently, their press is but an organ of the local bosses. The days when Moscow was the imperial capital are truly over.

There is little evidence - despite the recent bleatings from the tinpot republic of Kalmykiya - that its 89 regions and republics want outright independence, apart from Chechnya and possibly its neighbour, Ingushetia. But plenty of them are recasting their relationship with the centre. Cut off from reliable support from Moscow, they must weave ties with their neighbours such as China, Japan, and Finland. The federation which formally holds the country together, at best, will become looser.

This does not mean, however, that a weaker Moscow will become any easier to deal with on the world stage. Its relationship with the West has deteriorated markedly since the full extent of the failure of market reforms became clear this summer with a debt default that cost Western investors around $100bn (pounds 60bn).

The thrust of Mr Primakov's tactics during his two and a half years as Russia's foreign minister was to compensate for Moscow's withering status by constantly challenging Washington's omnipotence, and showing a readiness to forge ties with America's foes. Russia's attempts to fight above its diplomatic weight underwrote much policy - from opposing Nato bomb strikes against Saddam and the Serbs in Kosovo, to its decision to sell nuclear technology to Iran. As its power and wealth shrivels, amid deepening resentment of the West and its failed remedies, the impulse to waltz with the planet's mischief makers will grow stronger still.

So what can the West do? Its choices are limited. Throwing more IMF dollars at Russia is pointless as it will only be stolen or wasted. So, too, is cheering on its favoured choice for president from the sidelines, although the current choice is pretty unsavoury. (Apart from Mr Primakov, there are legitimate concerns about the autocratic and nationalist impulses of the other front runners - General Alexander Lebed and Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.) Such is the suspicion of the West in Russia that Western support is regarded as a negative.

The time has come for the world to work quietly, strengthening economic ties with the regions, discreetly supporting human rights organisations and the institutions of democracy, including the parliament. It won't save Boris Yeltsin, but it might just help preserve a few shreds of the ideals which, long ago, he sought to bring into being, with the help of Galina Starovoitova. The only difference was that she stuck by them all her life.