professor of Russian studies at New York University and author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His most recent book is titled Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War.
Allegations of widespread fraud in the recent elections that gave Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party a parliamentary majority have galvanized massive street protests in opposition to the Russian political establishment. This comes on the 20th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union. "The reason that the people who control the financial oligarchy in Russia don’t want free elections is they know that if they had free elections to a parliament, the people would vote for candidates pledging to confiscate their property," which was privatized in the 1990s, says Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University. He notes, "though these elections were not free and fair, they were the freest and fairest in 15 years," and that members of the country’s middle class make up the bulk of the protesters. Cohen also argues the American media has failed to report on the resurgence of the Communist Party, supported mainly by working-class voters in Russia’s vast provinces, which could challenge Putin in the 2012 presidential race and force a runoff election. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, 2011 will be remembered as a year of uprisings and mass protests, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. The countries are too many to name: Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Greece, Spain, Britain, Chile and the United States, and the list goes on.
We turn now to look at Russia, which in recent weeks has seen its largest street protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of members of the country’s opposition gathered today in Moscow to support the jailed head of Russia’s Left Front opposition movement. Protesters lacked police approval for the rally and presented it as a meeting with members of the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament.
This is Ilya Ponomarev, a lawmaker from the opposition Just Russia party.
ILYA PONOMAREV: [translated] People gathered here share various political views. They are not only from the political left, but also are liberals and people who are not interested in politics but who are indignant of the situation. We gather here now to discuss what we can do to make it so that there are no political prisoners in our country.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Many of the protesters believe there was widespread fraud in the elections earlier this month that gave Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party a majority in the lower house of parliament. Some have demanded a review of the disputed results.
AMY GOODMAN: Putin has rejected their calls, even as the country has seen its largest protests in decades. On Saturday, more than 100,000 protesters gathered in Moscow. Opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov claims the controversial elections have galvanized opposition to the Russian political establishment.
GARRY KASPAROV: [translated] This is the first time that the people have felt that they are strong. It seems to me that this is a psychological change. There is not the feeling anymore that there are a few of us and many of them. Now we have many. I believe that these people who came out, they are active, successful people. They need to use the internet not only for preparing for these types of events and to organize themselves, but also to propose an alternative to the people in power, that power which is corrupt and incapable of solving the country’s problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Still, Prime Minister Putin says he plans to run for president in 2012 and has promised free and fair elections. All of this comes on the 20th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Well, to discuss all of this, we’re joined by Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University, author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His most recent book is called Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. His latest article, "The Soviet Union’s Afterlife," appears in the new issue of The Nation.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you. Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cohen, talk about what’s happening now in Russia. How significant are these mass protests?
STEPHEN COHEN: They’re very significant. But the problem is, is that the significance is obscured and skewed by the American media narrative of it all. It’s hard for me. I’m a professor by profession, and it startles me sometimes to realize that my students were born after the end of the Soviet Union, so I can’t assume anything. But the information that we’re getting from the print media, in particular, in this country, the narrative is simply wrong.
Here’s a paradox. These parliamentary elections on December 4th for the first time brought out middle-class protesters. We don’t know exactly how many, but tens of thousands in the center of Moscow. And yet—and please understand what I’m going to say—though these elections were not free and fair, they were the freest and fairest in 15 years. There’s a paradox there. What’s the paradox? Well, the historical narrative of democracy in Russia is wrong. The basic line in the Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, where also mainstream television gets its stories, is that democratization began after the end of the Soviet Union under Yeltsin in the 1990s, and Putin has been steadily crushing it, and this is the last attempt to crush it completely. But that’s just plain historically untrue. The high point of democracy, in terms of both journalism, let’s say, and elections, was actually in '89, ’90, ’91. And the reason that's not admissible is it took place in Soviet Russia under Gorbachev. In the '90s, under Yeltsin, began a process of what Russians call "de-democratization." Now let's flash forward—and Putin continued that. Now let’s flash forward to today.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, there was the—when Yeltsin actually attacked the parliament with the tanks. People forget that, right?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I haven’t forgotten it. Russians haven’t forgotten it. And it shames me that the Clinton administration, American academics, the media all supported that, quoting George Washington. Bear in mind that when Yeltsin destroyed an elected parliament in October 1993, it was the first time that had ever happened on the European continent since the Nazis burned the Reichstag in the 1930s. It was almost an unprecedented event. But it was a death blow, because you can’t have democracy without a parliament. You can have a democracy without a president, but you can’t have representative democracy without a parliament. And Russia has never had a stable parliament. It’s had lots of strong leaders.
So, what happened on December 2nd was fantastic in one sense, in that the results of the official—the official results, if you bring—a guy has compared all the exit polls and all the pre-voting surveys, and the official results are only about 5 percent off what it appears people actually cast, whereas in the past it was 15 or 20 percent. So, two and two may not equal four, but it was equaling eight a couple years ago, and now it’s down to five. So, what sparked these protests is something a little different. But I think—and this is what’s important—that though there’s this bleak, kind of grim view of it, it’s all good, what’s been happening in Russia, for democracy. It’s probably the end of de-democratization. Is it new democratization? We’ll see.
What’s good? Well, the vote more or less reflected the official tally, more or less reflected the way people really voted. Then people, who had been passing, came into the streets. The government didn’t shoot them. The mayor of Moscow even helped bus people to the protest. The people who had become skeptical about even voting now see, even in Russia, where they are meddling with their vote, that it’s important to vote, because the ruling party in these so-called fixed elections lost 15 percent of its popular vote. It still has its majority in the Duma, but here’s the other important thing: its majority is no longer big enough for it to operate without coalitions and vote in negotiation with the other parties in the Duma. That’s what a parliament is for—to build coalitions, and, you know, we call it bipartisan compromise. I don’t like that stuff, but nonetheless, in Russia it’s necessary. So I think, at the moment—we don’t know what’s going to happen next—this has been a step forward for Russia.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the other big issue is the resurgence of the former Communist, the Left party in Russia, as well.
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s interesting you mention that, because it’s basically been deleted from the whole narrative. The fact is, is that since the end of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, as it exists today in Russia, which is not the Communist party Gorbachev tried to create through his reforms, but the Communist party that opposed Gorbachev, that stood behind the putsch against Gorbachev in 1991, this party has been, until Putin came to power, the most successful parliamentary party in Russia. It doubled its vote. It’s still being cheated. It probably got 7 or 8 percent more. But the reality is, whether we like it or not in this country—and this is why the media can’t figure out—communism was supposed to die in Russia in 1991—what is it doing, what does it mean? The Communist Party, as it’s constituted today, is the only real nationwide, organized, electoral, political opposition in the country. That’s a fact. And it’s that party that Putin is really worried about, not these people in the streets, because in these last elections to the parliament, many middle-class people, lots of my friends in Russia, though they’re anti-Communist, cast their vote for the Communists as a protest against Putin. If that were to happen in the presidential election, Putin would be driven into a runoff, which he doesn’t want.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And it’s your theory that the declaration of another one of Russia’s billionaires that he’s going to run for president is actually an attempt to siphon off opposition, to push back the Communists?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, look at it like this. Mikhail Prokhorov, who has $18 billion, which he obtained through the—with the backing of the Kremlin, and who retains it due to the grace of the Kremlin, and who wants to move it offshore, part of it being the purchase of the New York Nets here in New Jersey, who will move to Brooklyn into a Barclays Center—so he’s got a half a billion dollars invested in Jersey and in Brooklyn. He can’t move that $500 million to the United States without Putin’s OK.
Now he announces he’s going to run against Putin in the election. As my grandmother used to say, "Please." I mean, he’s put out there because they think that Prokhorov, who is six-foot-eight, rather good-looking—young entrepreneurs think he’s an admirable figure because he’s got billions, and women like him because he’s good-looking and a playboy—can siphon off some of the protest vote. But he can’t do—first of all, he’s not on the ballot. He’s just announced he wants to be. Then you have some other—it’s very interesting. The guy you just showed, Ilya Ponomarev, who was protesting the arrest of this guy, he represents a—it’s all, in Russia, complicated. He represents a party called Fair Russia, which was created by the Kremlin eight years ago but is kind of drifting away from the Kremlin. So, everybody is interconnected in Russia, but the problem is, the Kremlin is losing control of these creatures.
AMY GOODMAN: But the sports news headline here is that the owner of the Nets could be the president of Russia. I want to ask you about him—
STEPHEN COHEN: When I’m elected, I’m going to make you my vice president, absolutely. And we should start planning on that right now. If Prokhorov wanted to be serious, he’d be right here in the United States, because the Nets are dying, and there’s a player they want to get. And he should be here talking to this player. But Putin said, "You can’t go to the United States right now." Actually, he’s in Switzerland at the moment for the new year. If you’re going to run for president in Russia, you don’t go to Switzerland in an extremely expensive—I mean, most Russians couldn’t afford with 10 years’ salary the trip he’s made to Switzerland. I mean, if you were really running for president, you obviously wouldn’t do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Cohen, I wanted to ask you about a man you know, Gorbachev, who was a frequent critic of Vladimir Putin, the former president, Mikhail Gorbachev. This is what he said earlier this month about the state of democracy in Russia.
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: [translated] We do not have a real democracy, and we will not have it if the government is afraid of their people, afraid to say things openly, to prove their point and to suggest their projects. I do not believe that this team will take responsibility and suggest a project on modernization of political structures and political foundations to us and create grounds for people to come and vote for their project, for their plan. They will not dare to do it. I think the situation now is that the authorities are near a red line. They need to stop and come up with a different platform, a different attitude, by the time of the presidential elections. They need to come up with a new system of power.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the former president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Professor Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, full disclosure: I’ve been personally close to Gorbachev for more than 25 years. My wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, very close to him. Our daughter thinks he’s her godfather, but he isn’t. So, it’s been a family connection. I admire him enormously. I think he’s one of the greatest reformers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest reformer in Russian history. But I don’t agree with what he’s been saying.
His first call was to annul these parliamentary elections. But if these elections were to be annulled, it would be a blow to the process of elections in Russia. Which elections would ever be accepted? If would be, if you don’t win, we’re going to annul them. Moreover, these elections were a step forward, and Russia needs steps forwards, not any kind of revolutionary destabilization.
There’s a struggle for Gorbachev’s soul. He’s getting advice. Though he’s not popular in Russia, he remains a symbolic figure. I understand where he’s coming from. He considers himself, rightly, to be the father of Russian democracy. The United States said it was Yeltsin, but that was just Clinton’s nonsense. It’s Gorbachev. And he sees democracy going down the drain. He wants—he doesn’t want to die as another tragic Russian reformer who failed. He wants to think—and he’s in his eighties, he’s not well—that his democracy is going to survive. So he wants to have an impact. Now, he had planned to speak at the second large protest, which I think was last Saturday. And at the last minute, he was persuaded not to, which I think was the right thing, because he would have been booed. People blame him for the end of the Soviet Union, and even a lot of middle-class people miss the Soviet Union. But he’s in a kind of tragic position. He sees a second chance to have an impact in favor of democracy. So he came up with this idea of annulling the election.
Now, in this interview, which wasn’t fully translated here, he switched. And what he says is that Putin has to present a new political program to the country, a new system of power, of distribution of power, when he runs for president. And I think that’s what he should be saying.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the situation with the press in Russia. Now, you’ve also said that under Gorbachev, there was perhaps a freer press than there was certainly under Yeltsin and now in the Putin era. The dangers to journalists these days in Russia and the murders of numerous journalists—what is the state of the press today?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, here, again, the Western media narrative is wrong. Every time a journalist breaks a leg, they say the Kremlin did it. They also say—and I don’t know what the number from the Committee to Protect Journalists is at the moment, but roughly 80 journalists have been killed since the end of the Soviet Union. What they neglect to point out, that more than half died before Putin came to power. Why is that important? Because if you want to understand why journalists are being killed, you have to know the history.
It began with the privatization of vast state assets. Overwhelmingly—overwhelmingly—the journalists who have been killed have been killed because they have investigated, threatened to report or reported the theft of millions and billions of dollars of property. It’s people desperate to keep their corrupted property. This is built into the Russian system, which rests on stolen state property. Every poll done of the Russian people wants this property taken back by the state, including middle-class people.
You know, I’m very old. I have had several careers. I was a journalist. I worked for American television networks. I wrote a column. My wife is a journalist. We know a lot of these people. Our friends have been killed. We’re very close to the main opposition newspaper in Russia, which is called Novaya Gazeta, the New Gazette, who three of its leading reporters have been assassinated. But the editor, Dmitry Muratov, doesn’t believe for a minute that the Kremlin did it. He thinks the Kremlin could do more to find who gave the contracts to have them killed, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Anna Politkovskaya.
STEPHEN COHEN: Anna Politkovskaya was the closest to us, but a man by the name of Yuri Shchekochikhin, my wife’s best friend in Russia is his widow. And they’re still investigating that. He died of toxic—toxic poisoning in a hospital, very suspiciously. By the way, there’s a new film about him that’s going to come out soon.
The point here is, if we really get to the basis of what’s wrong with Russia, and we leave aside its history—you can’t, but we’re going—it’s the fact that the nation doesn’t accept the privatization of property that occurred in the 1990s. Now, again, the American narrative deletes the 1990s. But the reason that the people who control the financial oligarchy in Russia don’t want free elections is they know that if they had free elections to a parliament, the people would vote for candidates pledging to confiscate their property. This is the main obstacle. Now, some democrats have tried to figure a way around this, like a forgiveness tax, a one-time supertax on these billions of dollars of property. And then—and it would all go into Social Security or education, and then we would forgive, you know, the oligarchs. But this is what Russia faces. This is the real problem, not Putin, not the Russian tradition.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the reason why the United States likes to conveniently forget that is because this—the collapse of the Soviet Union and the privatization of all these assets opened up all these new markets to our own companies, right?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, there’s two reasons. There’s the fact that it opened up markets. It’s the fact that a large part of the stolen wealth is parked in the United States. I mean, we know the Bank of New York, for example, which was investigated, how a lot of it’s already in real estate. But the main thing is, is it was supported, full-throatedly, by the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
Now let’s flash forward. Many of these people in the squares are fine people, but the so-called liberals on the podium—not talking about the ones who aren’t the liberals—they are people from the 1990s. They have no political support in the country, like Garry Kasparov, the chess master whom you just showed. First of all, he lives in New York. But I mean, the main thing is, is that these people are disliked in Russia because they’re associated with the era when the nation was plundered. That’s why the Communists have gotten traction. They are not associated with that. But what Russia now needs are people who come forward to offer leadership who are not tied to the 1990s. But if we flash to Washington, Washington’s ties, including those of Mrs. Clinton, and all our pro-democracy organizations, are to these people from the '90s, like Boris Nemtsov. They talk on the phone all the time. This doesn't promote democracy in Russia. It associates democracy with oligarchy and with foreign intervention. So, Russia knows how to do democracy. It proved it in the 1980s. It doesn’t help when we come forward and then embrace people who are, to put it mildly, odious figures in Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University, author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His latest, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, it’s just out in paperback.
And that does it for our broadcast. We hope you tune in on Monday to our 2011 Year in Review, a year of global uprisings, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.