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Those memories help explain why Russia is now less free and less democratic than at any other point in its postcommunist history. When the Soviet Union was disbanded 20 years ago on Dec. 8, it seemed as if Russia's rejection of 70 years of communism meant it would turn to Western-style democracy as eagerly as its citizens turned to blue jeans. That hasn't happened. As President and as Prime Minister, Putin has ruled Russia in classic strongman style--consolidating power to the Kremlin, canceling regional elections and creating an environment in which dissenting journalists and businessmen are beaten, bankrupted, exiled, imprisoned or murdered. His unique brand of crony capitalism has sent Russia's corruption rating plummeting: out of 178 nations on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions index, Russia ranked 154th last year, in a dead heat with the Central African Republic. The parliamentary elections on Dec. 4 will be the first test of Russia's reaction to Putin's announcement that he'll run again for President next spring (the vote has been confirmed for March 4), but United Russia--part of a Kremlin machine with deep control of media, banking, energy, automotive and other industries--is virtually assured of a majority.
In recent years, Russians have been more than happy to accept la carte freedom rather than the full buffet; they can buy any kind of car and even listen to liberal radio if it pleases them. Street protests and calls for reform have been the province of other nations. But that may be changing. Russians even younger than Arshinova who don't remember the chaos of the '90s are beginning to wonder why their country is not as liberal or prosperous as the rest of Europe. Putin may be the old party boss, but in his next term he'll have to meet these new expectations. And the U.S., whose fate was once so tied to the Soviet Union's, will have to reckon with a changing Russia too.
Two Cheers for Democracy
The simplest answer to questions about why Russians are not more free: after everything they've been through, it just hasn't been a priority. Shortly after Putin took office in 2000, 81% of Russians surveyed by the Levada Center polling group said they wanted order even at the price of personal freedom and democracy. Seven years later, as Putin was ending his second term, 68% of respondents still held this view, despite the fact that he had muzzled the opposition and brought the most important media under state control. Russian wages had increased nearly eightfold during those first two terms. The economy had nearly doubled in size. "Democratization quickly fell to the back of people's minds," says Boris Dubin, a sociologist with the Levada Center.