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Spy Poisoning Case Raises Questions About Russian Democracy

December 11, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: In the shadow of the Kremlin, Russians are having fun this winter. A massive ice rink fills Red Square, a gift to the people of Moscow from one of the city’s largest department stores. It has the look and feel of Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and the Muscovites slipping and sliding on the ice say life is good.

MOSCOW CITIZEN (through translator): This is just superb. It’s a great place to go and have fun. And there has never been anything like this on Red Square. I hope this happens every year.

SIMON MARKS: The ice rink sits on the cobblestones of Red Square, over which Soviet tanks used to rumble during the annual May Day parade. It is redolent of a new Russia emerging under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, prosperous and confident thanks to an oil-fuelled energy boom, but to some foreboding and cold.

Political murders increase anxiety

Arkady Dvorkovich
Department of Presidential Experts
It's just impossible, and is not true, I will say. And I would say that any reasonable person would agree that there is no sense for Russian authorities to do things like this.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV, Reformist Lawmaker: You know, people feel that no one could feel himself safety, so all of us feel that life is nothing.

SIMON MARKS: Vladimir Ryzhkov is one of the last remaining democratic reformers in the Russian parliament, the Duma. He has been outspoken about a series of unsolved murders and assassinations of prominent Kremlin critics that he says are spreading fear through political circles in Moscow.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: Any critic of regime in Russia is now in the risk. Political murders in Russia today is normal instrument of political life and political struggle. And this is the main dangerous thing.

And I think that, if you take a list of victims, all of them are liberals, liberal critics of regime, so that means that violence mostly oriented against liberal flank of Russian politics.

SIMON MARKS: The most recent death to hit the headlines is that of former KGB man Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London by the radioactive substance polonium-210. On his deathbed, he accused President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering his assassination.

He previously claimed the Russian leadership was behind the October murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist who wrote critically about Russia's military campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya. She was gunned down in an elevator in her Moscow apartment building.

Also murdered this year, Alexander Kozlov, the deputy chairman of the Russia's central bank, shot to death in the midst of waging a campaign against money laundering.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in any of the murders, but President Putin himself has warned the British not to create what he called a "political scandal" over the death of Mr. Litvinenko.

Arkady Dvorkovich heads the Department of Presidential Experts, a council of advisers that reports directly to the Russian leader.

ARKADY DVORKOVICH, Department of Presidential Experts: I think the only way to consider these cases, especially the case related to Andrei Kozlov, who was one of my friends, actually, it's just criminal thing. It's not related to politics at all.

SIMON MARKS: Do you preclude the possibility that, at some level, power structures here were involved in this?

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: Yes, I believe there is no chance, no grounds. It would not be possible that Russian authorities were involved in all of this. It's just impossible, and is not true, I will say. And I would say that any reasonable person would agree that there is no sense for Russian authorities to do things like this.

Changes to the political process

Lilia Shevtsova
Carnegie Endowment for Peace
I would assume situation that, if these assassinations, especially abroad, really are being made by Russian perpetrators, Putin is losing control over the situation.

SIMON MARKS: Despite those denials, the murders have cast a dark shadow over the Kremlin and over the political elite here. Lilia Shevtsova is one of Russia's most prominent political analysts, and she's written extensively on the Putin era.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Moscow is full of rumors, speculations, and creeping fear, very nasty fear.

SIMON MARKS: She says that, in spite of the Russian president's desire to project an in-charge image -- recently, he was even shown on Russian television participating in target practice -- the killings may be a reflection of his relative weakness. The Kremlin, she argues, is consumed by infighting, ahead of the transition to a new leader that's due to occur in 2008.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: Putin and the authorities, of course they understand that these murders, these assassinations are a kind of blow, very heavy blow, not only to their reputation, but to their position and to their power.

And I would assume situation that, if these assassinations, especially abroad, really are being made by Russian perpetrators, Putin is losing control over the situation. And in this situation, fears, anxiety, concerns, complexes will be only multiplying, and people will be scared to talk, to move freely, to suspect the authorities, to criticize the authorities. And in this situation of creeping fear, anything might happen.

SIMON MARKS: The sense that almost anything can happen in Russian politics these days has been boosted by a series of changes the Putin administration is making to the rules of the political game.

The laws governing Russia's elections have been revised. There will no longer be any minimum turnout required for an election to be declared valid. And "negative campaigning" about any candidate's record is now banned, though the phrase is very vaguely defined.

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: We are just moving in same direction as other countries did during their history. So if we are talking about negative campaigning, on paper the rule is good, I would say. The most important thing about it is that it should not be used abusively towards parties.

SIMON MARKS: So you acknowledge there's a chance that it could be?

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: Certainly, there's a risk, and there's always a risk, when any restrictions are being set, any, in any sphere, in economic political sphere, that restrictions can be used with abuse of law. So we need by the work of civil society to prevent possible risks.

Impeding democratic reform

Vladimir Ryzhkov
Reformist Lawmaker
There are no any conditions for honest and free elections in Russia today. That means that next parliamentary elections and the next presidential elections will be totally manipulated.

SIMON MARKS: But some of those very civil society groups have found themselves snared by a host of new regulations governing their activities in Russia. In October, nongovernmental organizations, like Human Rights Watch, were ordered to complete voluminous paperwork in order to register with the authorities. They also had to file highly detailed plans of their proposed future work and expenditure that could leave them vulnerable later.

ALISON MCGILL, Human Rights Watch: If, God forbid, there is a serious human rights crisis that starts tomorrow and our office would want to engage with that problem, of course, since we didn't predict it, it wasn't in our annual plan. Since we didn't know about it a month in advance, we couldn't inform the authorities of the change, so it really does take away the possibility to sort of do emergency response.

SIMON MARKS: Lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that, taken together, the Kremlin's moves are aimed at further sidelining democratic reformers. They suffered enormous losses in elections two years ago and are in no position now to launch any viable bid to succeed Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: There are no any conditions for honest and free elections in Russia today. That means that next parliamentary elections and the next presidential elections will be totally manipulated. And it will be very simple: Putin will nominate his successor as a candidate, and this successor will have huge, enormous resources for to be re-elected.

SIMON MARKS: Resources that include a virtual Kremlin stranglehold on Russia's broadcast media. All the country's national television networks are now owned by state-run entities, and the Russian government is even funding an English-language network that broadcasts news from Russia to the rest of the world.

Neo-fascism and nationalism

Alexander Belov
Movement Against Illegal Immigration
We want freedom of speech; we want free elections in a free country; we want freedom of assembly; and we want the authorities to respect our constitutional rights.

SIMON MARKS: With Russia's democratic reformers now firmly on the sidelines, a new force has been rising to political prominence here. Russian nationalists have been gaining ground ahead of next year's parliamentary elections, raising the prospect that the next political battle here could be between the Kremlin and forces of the extreme right-wing.

Last month, the country's ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists took to the streets of Moscow, participating in a rally that city authorities claimed they had banned. Campaigning with the slogan "Russia for Russians only," they called for illegal immigrants, many of whom have come to Russia seeking work from the former Soviet republics, to be removed from Russian soil.

NATIONALIST RUSSIAN CITIZEN (through translator): Look, they are taking away our jobs; they are raping our wives; they are killing us; they are mocking our children; they are studying in our schools; and they commit crimes.

SIMON MARKS: Far-right leaders say support for their movement is growing, as Russians embrace an anti-American message increasingly prevalent in the country's media, and turn against darker-skinned migrants from the outer fringes of the old Soviet empire.

Russian, facing a plunging birthrate and falling life expectancy, needs the influx of labor, according to political analyst Fydor Lukyanov.

FYDOR LUKYANOV, Editor, Russia in Global Affairs: The Russian demographic situation is quite terrible. And we see that Russian society is completely unprepared to accept a major group of foreigners, people with different culture, with different color. And this is objectively a very big problem.

SIMON MARKS: Nationalist leaders are now flexing their political muscles. Sensing a chance to score electoral gains next year and emerge as a powerful force in the Russian parliament, they're in the ironic position of seeking the government's tolerance for a fundamentally intolerant message.

ALEXANDER BELOV, Movement Against Illegal Immigration (through translator): Originally, our slogan was very simple: Russian order on Russian soil. But now we've decided to add to it. We want freedom of speech; we want free elections in a free country; we want freedom of assembly; and we want the authorities to respect our constitutional rights.

SIMON MARKS: Those demands have more usually been made in the past by the country's democratic reformers and represent a challenge to the Kremlin. Political analysts in Moscow say the Russian leadership is split over how to respond to such a potent political force.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: My gut feeling is that, on the level of the Kremlin, there are some clans and gangs that will be ready to play the nationalist card, "Russia for Russians," and they continue to play this card.

At the same time, there are moderates, pragmatists within the Kremlin -- and I include Putin himself among these people -- who have started to understand, to realize that they have let the genie out of the bottle.

SIMON MARKS: The nationalist' angry message is made more attractive to lower-income Russian voters by the enormous economic disparities that you can witness in Moscow today.

The city is in the middle of an unprecedented construction boom. It's now one of the world's most expensive cities for residential real estate. The boom, fuelled by rising oil prices, has seen property values increase five-fold in the last five years alone.

The buoyant Russian economy is helping Vladimir Putin enjoy approval ratings in excess of 70 percent. And his Kremlin advisers insist that he is committed to creating a modern Russian democracy, but that the process inevitably takes time.

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: Parties will become stronger, civil society will become stronger, and fears will disappear, certainly.

SIMON MARKS: Russia's remaining democratic reformers disagree. They argue that the Kremlin is doing nothing to ease the climate of fear and that Russia is now sliding backwards, as the hopes for representative democracy slip away.