Putin's Russia: Unaccountable Government, Irresponsible Citizens

October 06, 2003 // 12:00pm1:00pm

In a recent talk at the Kennan Institute, Masha Lipman, the Editor of Pro et Contra at the Carnegie Moscow Center, described "Russia's plague of irresponsibility and unaccountability." She argued that the two most serious problems facing Russia today are the lack of state accountability toward its citizens and the indifference and cynicism with which citizens relate to political issues. She provided numerous examples of questionable government activities that never faced significant public inquiry, and argued that civil society in Russia has broken down in the face of an increasingly hostile state.

According to Lipman, when Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000, he was faced with the challenge of a weak and ineffective state. Putin has frequently stated his intention to strengthen the Russian state. However, Lipman believes that Putin's reforms have made the government less accountable for its actions rather than more effective at running the country. She noted that journalists, political analysts and the public must rely on hearsay and rumors regarding the motives behind state actions because "there are never any public explanations given."

As evidence of the unaccountability of the Russian government, Lipman gave several examples. One example was the aftermath of the "botched rescue attempt" of the hostages held by Chechen terrorists in a Moscow theater in 2002. Over 100 hostages died when Russian troops used a knock-out gas that the operation's leaders refused to identify even to doctors treating those exposed to it. According to Lipman this provoked some public outcry, but there has not been an official investigation into the rescue operation. Another was the lack of accountability in the Kursk submarine tragedy. She noted that although a dozen naval admirals were fired a year later, they were never specifically implicated in the Kursk disaster, and most were immediately hired to high-ranking government posts. Her final example was the Kremlin's involvement in the St. Petersburg gubernatorial elections. In direct defiance of a law he himself had signed, Putin endorsed a candidate for governor without facing any legal consequences.

Lipman puts much of the blame for the decreasing accountability of the Russian government on Putin and his policies. However, she also believes that the citizens of Russia have the ability to demand more accountability from the state, but are not doing so. Instead, Russians respond to political issues with apathy. Lipman argued that the period of intense civic activism and a sense of hope in the late 1980s and early 1990s has all but died out. She noted that ordinary people feel hopeless and alienated from the state, and that even the powerful commercial elite have not been able to come together and effectively resist the Kremlin's latest attacks.

In conclusion, Lipman argued that those who claim that a stronger or even authoritarian state is necessary to promote reform in Russia should note that the Russian state is not authoritarian; it is only ineffective and unaccountable. Lipman believes that the hope for Russia's future is in a reawakening of civil society and civic activism. In order to have an accountable government, the people of Russia must demand it.

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