Perhaps best known for throwing a glass of juice in the face of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky during a debate on a TV talk show in 1995 (and getting away with it, at a time when Zhironvsky was at his most menacing), Boris Nemtsov has long been the golden boy of post-Soviet Russia, the country’s best imitation of JFK. Granted, even the actual JFK left much to be desired — so a Russian knock-off is hardly likely to save the world. But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is tsar — and a white paper he recently published assessing the accomplishments and failures of the Putin administration deserves close attention.
At the tender age of 27, in the communist Russia of 1986, Nemtsov made his name leading a protest action to block the construction of a nuclear reactor in his home town of Sochi in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in nearby Ukraine. He then attempted to translate that notoriety into a parliament seat, but was stonewalled by the local Communist Party. Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization reforms had not yet sufficiently taken hold.
But a few years later, as the Soviet regime began to collapse and Gorbachev’s liberalization reached its full flower, Nemtsov tried again to enter parliament, and this time succeeded. When the USSR collapsed, he was appointed the first non-Communist governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region (a major metropolis east of Moscow), and subsequently won the first-ever election to that post. This position also meant he entered the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament. He quickly won international praise for his effective policymaking in Nizhny Novgorod, and was soon brought into the presidential administration. From March 1997 to August 1998, he was former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister for energy. Scapegoated along with the rest of the administration by Yeltsin for Russia’s economic collapse of the late 1990s, Nemtsov then formed his own political party, the oddly named “Union of Right Forces,” and they won nearly six million votes in the December 1999 parliamentary elections — almost 10% of the vote, an amazing result for a brand new political entity consisting of rank outsiders. Soon, however, proud KGB spy Vladimir Putin was in power and Nemtsov along with all the other liberal parties were squeezed out of the parliament.
Nemtsov then joined the “Other Russia” opposition protest movement, and on November 25, 2007, he was arrested for taking part in an unauthorized street protest. He declared himself a candidate for president in 2008, but withdrew his candidacy in support of liberal former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was then forced off the ballot by the filing of criminal charges.
A few months ago, Nemtsov also withdrew from the Other Russia group. He did so because he was about to publish his white paper examining the actions of the Putin administration during its two terms in office, a document that would include strong criticism of Putin’s record, and he did not wish to bring the Kremlin’s ire down upon the organization.
Through the efforts of our expert Russian translator and columnist David Essel, my blog La Russophobe has translated Nemtsov’s paper from the original Russian and made it available in PDF and HTML format. Unfortunately and predictably, the Internet is currently the only place where the material can be found. Writing in the Moscow Times, author Richard Lourie (A Hatred for Tulips and Sakharov: A Biography) states that “all Russian bookstores have reportedly refused to carry [Nemtsov's work], whose title has been variously translated as Putin: The Results and Putin: The Bottom Line.” One can access the paper in Russian on Nemtsov’s website and a few other locations, but since only about 12% of Russians access the Internet on any given day, that means most can’t access it at all.
Newspapers are unlikely to be a source circulating the Nemtsov paper.
Freedom House has just released its 2008 report on worldwide press freedom. Russia ranks an appalling #170, tied with Kazakhstan, Sudan, and Yemen and more repressive than Venezuela and Afghanistan, and is classified as “not free.” According to FH, only 22 nations on the entire planet, out of 195 under review, have less press freedom than Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Only 33% of the reviewed nations are classified as “not free,” and Russia is among them. Only three nations out of 33 in Eastern Europe have lower scores for press freedom than Russia (Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan). Ukraine and Georgia are both much more highly rated, and Russia’s arch nemesis Estonia is #1 at the top of the group. Russia is in the bottom 10% of its own region — not even a leader there, much less in the world. Russia’s ranking has fallen from #145 four years ago, a precipitous drop for a country that was “not free” even then and didn’t have much room to fall still further — showing that Putin has been working hard to root out the very last vestiges of real reporting in the country.
Despite his pretensions of courage and power, Putin is afraid of Nemtsov just the way the tsar feared Pushkin and the Politburo feared Solzhenitsyn. They’re afraid mere words will bring them down. And the only response they can come up with is crude repression.
Scholarly and mercilessly thorough, Nemtsov’s paper systematically dismantles the claimed achievements of the Putin regime and paints a picture of failure and looming disaster that is genuinely disturbing to read, not least because of the dispassionate and clinical tone that the author adopts. It is, in his own words, meant to be “a sober and realistic analysis of how our lives have changed during the years of Putin’s rule.”
Nemtsov begins by pointing out that Putin enjoyed an average oil price more than double what Yeltsin had to work with, five times greater in recent months, and that Putin has not used any of the oil windfall to “carry out economic reforms, create a modern army, and establish public health and pension systems.” All but the economy, he says, have degraded, and the economy has merely been “stabilized through a stroke of luck” having nothing to do with Putin.
He shows that there were already clear signs of recovery before Putin came to power, and argues convincingly that the problems Yeltsin’s Russia faced were those of the communists’ making, not Yeltsin’s. As important, he shows that Putin simply didn’t obtain power through policy success; he was named president arbitrarily by Yeltsin, and this was followed by the relentless use of electoral fraud and media suppression to guarantee his election. He writes: “We are all supposed to be over the moon at the success of the economy under Putin. In reality, however, it is not doing that well. Given today’s oil prices, our GDP growth has actually been remarkably modest.”
He points out that Russia is #143 in the world when ranked for societal corruption, tied with Angola and lagging behind Zambia, with corrupt business increasing more than sevenfold under Putin’s rule, including an itemization of the kleptocracy’s evils. And Russians have no recourse in courts which have been “used as a tool for the removal of private property in favor of Putin’s inner circle.”
He turns to the army, and shows that it has been dramatically weakened even as Putin creates new enemies for Russia to deal with. In addition, highways have degraded, the population is shrinking, and the social fabric is frayed and failing. Economic inequality is soaring, both between rich and poor and between Moscow and the unwashed hinterlands.
And the political fabric has also gone up in smoke. Nemtsov powerfully makes the important point that Russia is not only no longer democratic, it isn’t federative either. Governors have been excluded from the parliament and are now appointed directly by Putin, wiping out the concept of federalism and centralizing power in Moscow — despite a Supreme Court ruling that governors must be directly elected; Putin has, in other words, directly flouted the constitution.
It would be wrong to think of Nemtsov as a white knight on a fiery steed, charging to Russia’s rescue. He’s not the country’s last, best hope. He is not running the kind of open public campaign of defiance displayed by Mohandas Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King in the United States. He’s doing the least he can do, not the most, and he’s too often allowed personal considerations to cloud his judgment in the past. His report stays away from really tough criticism aimed directly at Putin personally, and doesn’t lay out a specific plan to remove him from power. Such words could land Nemtsov in prison or the morgue, one more statistic in Russia’s terrifying litany of political murders, and it’s not clear yet that he’s prepared to make such a journey on behalf of his country. And yet, given the fact that Russians have shown no inclination to rise in support of the rule of law the way others rose to support King or Gandhi, one must be impressed that Nemtsov is undertaking a thankless — and perhaps hopeless — task for the good of his country.
Some critics have pointed out that there isn’t much news in Nemtsov’s report, that he’s just cataloging failures that have already been documented rather than laying out a bold and specific plan to confront them, and that’s fair enough.
He writes “the police state has to be dismantled and human dignity returned to the people.” But he doesn’t even say how to wrest power from Putin, much less to undo his authoritarian regime. But such criticism is beside the point. Russia can’t begin to reform until the people of the country have agreed that reform is needed, which they can’t do until they’ve been told the true facts, and Nemtsov knows that because of Putin’s crackdown they simply don’t. Indeed, they can’t even buy his book in bookstores, and most can’t access the Internet, which is increasingly under siege from Putin as well, as we’ve previously reported.
Though we in the West are more aware of Putin’s failings, we’ve yet to push forward specific plans to address the neo-Soviet threat either — and there are still some who seek to argue that Putin is a success. It’s questionable whether our own leaders really understand the basic points Nemtsov is making either. The Bush administration has failed to respond as Putin has consolidated his dictatorship, and without American leadership Europe’s response has been haphazard and ineffectual. The boldest Western leader has been Sen. John McCain, who has among other things firmly called for Russia’s ouster from the G-8 panel: but McCain does not hold the reins of power, at least not yet.
In a hopeful sign, the prestigious New York Review of Books has used my blog’s translation to review Nemtsov’s effort, adding a welcome shot of publicity and gravitas. Hopefully, this can jump-start a trend. It’s time Mr. Nemtsov (or at least his text) received an invitation to the White House; if the president can entertain Chechnya war criminal Vladimir Shamanov, surely he can find a little time for the other Boris. And maybe Larry King, Tim Russert, and even Oprah could do likewise. Only then will we be able to say we’re avoiding the missteps of our fathers in allowing the Russia problem to fester until it explodes in our faces.
Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the PJ Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.