Apr 052004
 
Authors: Brent Ables

Attending Madeline Albright’s address last week, I was struck by

the former Secretary of State’s optimism and general confidence of

prediction in regard to certain world affairs. Specifically, I

remember Ms. Albright’s comments on the nature and power of

American influence and democracy: as she expressed it, the strength

and tenacity of America lay not so much in our military and

economic might (although this certainly exists) as in the power of

our ideas. It was only a matter of time and steady effort, Albright

seemed to think, before the moral superiority of democracy would

win over the world’s citizens.

One trend that Albright cited as an indication of this

democratic influence was the spectacular decay and collapse of the

Soviet Union in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in which Russia and

those smaller countries formerly unified under communist rule as

the USSR experienced a series of apparent revolutions in the

direction of democratic rule. Albright, of course, has a more

personal justification than most of us for celebrating these

events; as an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, she has experienced

the threat of 20th century-style communism first hand.

This is not to say that Albright is somehow biased towards the

issue; certainly, there was almost universal celebration upon the

collapse of Russia and each of the smaller states. Currently, the

three remaining communist nations – Cuba, China and North Korea –

are each struggling in their own ways with the pitfalls of that

particular political ideology. Whatever its theoretical attraction

may be, it seems to be the general consensus that communism as a

practical political system has extremely reprehensible

consequences.

This positive outlook, however, is being repeatedly challenged

in subtle and obvious ways by the nation that launched the original

communist revolution – Russia. The Russian government, and

President Vladimir Putin in particular, have shown signs of a

distinctly antidemocratic attitude, one that, while certainly not

communist in the sense traditionally associated with Russia, is

nonetheless repressive and should perhaps give pause to those of us

whose faith in the power of democracy may hinder us from keeping a

wary eye on the challenges to human rights and political freedom in

the international community.

To give one example: one of the most fundamental rights for

those in democratic nations is the right to elect one’s

representatives in government free of coercion; this political

freedom is the basis of numerous other powers and privileges. The

most recent presidential election in Russia, however, was marked by

scandal and international criticism as Putin was accused of

interfering considerably with the elections to favor himself and

his party. Political dissidents within the country charged that

Putin had nowhere near the support the election results attributed

to him (he won by a vast majority of votes.) One of the most

troubling features of leaders like Stalin and Khrushchev was their

reluctance to let the citizens have a say in the choice of the

political leadership; thus, charges of election fraud are not to be

taken lightly.

Just last week, we witnessed another troubling setback to

Russian political rights. With an overwhelming majority consensus,

the Russian Parliament went through the first stages of passing a

law that would ban demonstrations of any kind in most places in the

country. Unsurprisingly, the bill was heavily supported by

President Putin, who has often identified himself with issues of

national security and public order. The bill prohibits rallies

outside government buildings, on or near major roads, near public

gathering places (i.e. schools, stadiums and religious centers) and

allows even permitted gatherings to be blocked and broken up if

“their aim contradicted… generally accepted norms of public

morality and federal law.” Unfortunately, this sort of criterion is

much too loose and open to interpretation, and essentially allows

Putin and his government to end any demonstration they choose.

These are some of the specific troubles, but they do not end

there. Putin has been charged with heavy interference with the

Russian media in favor of his own party and other forms of

political censorship. The government’s treatment of the Chechen

“rebels” has come under international scrutiny as well; human

rights organizations have accused the government of torture,

unwarranted beatings and civilian killings and the use of Russian

police forces to herd civilians into detainment camps that resemble

the conditions at Guantanamo Bay.

In discussing this information, I don’t mean to be overly

alarmist; certainly, Russia is better off than it ever was under

Stalin or his successors. But merely because the nation is no

longer officially a communist state, we can not assume that Russia

is not susceptible to the threat of totalitarianism. Admittedly, a

nation with such a brutal and repressive political history can not

be expected to have a perfect democracy in less than two decades.

This does not mean, however, that we can excuse the issues

discussed here; rather, it means we should give them all the more

attention. Russia set an example 15 years ago of how communism is a

doomed system. Now, we must assist them in setting an example for

the triumph and attraction of true democracy and its power to weed

out the roots of political corruption and totalitarianism.

Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every

Tuesday.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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