We are all agreed: living in Russia these days is not exactly a fairy tale. The country has large quantities of natural resources at its command, providing ample means for unprecedented economic development, but the vast majority of the population – demographically in decline – do not benefit, and poverty remains endemic. Even more worrying: where does this persistent malaise, this feeling that Russia has lost its momentum in social and cultural progress, come from? Why, after visiting this magnificent country, do we want to clasp our passport murmuring “how lucky not to be a citizen of Putin’s Russia?”

Once again the sickening odor of autocracy rises to our nostrils, the impunity of power and of its judicial and police henchmen throughout the land. And that doesn’t seem to bother many people out of Russia. It seems to be easier and more fashionable to attack the Americans. It’s true that as a nation they like to see themselves as more moral and blameless than others, so it’s particularly difficult to tolerate their brutality and egocentricity – it will soon be clear that Obama’s choice of personnel are far from choirboys. Any abuse of American power is sanctioned with the greatest firmness – which would be fine, if at the same time we pursued those who fall far short of the democratic standards of America with the same zeal. Starting with our cousins in Russia.

What should we think about Putin’s visit to the Olympic Games where he offered $1 million to any Russian judo or wrestling competitor who won gold? What do the Games mean for this lifelong Russian despot? Pierre de Coubertin would have turned in his grave – both at Putin’s bribe, and at the silence with which it was met by the IOC and other high-standing political visitors to London. However, the message is sadly clear: Russian power exercises its will through a common or garden variety despotism. It’s a reality that doesn’t seem to bother anybody much because for more than 20 years, Russian oil and gas have bought their clients’ silence, and that of its citizens. Fear and arbitrariness reign supreme in Russia, where corruption is both moral and financial.

Navalny was the most active and visible blogger during the latest Russian presidential campaign, calling out for another Russia. He has now been arraigned for the most preposterous charges ever in such an unfounded criminal case. Khodorkovsky has been bricked up alive in a State lie. The provocative young artists of Pussy Riot were thrown into prison and cast in the role of heretics and anti-Putin witches. The good offices of Russia in Syria produced no comment. As for the article published in this issue on that most admirable and courageous organization “Russia Behind Bars”, it is a perfect measure of the reality of current power in Russia. Whichever angle you take, Putin’s power has reached its full maturity; there is not the smallest atom of democracy left in the Kremlin at the moment, however much one might have imagined there once was.

To believe that the Russian people should live under the yoke of a brutal and repressive power is to insult this great culture, indeed, to display a deep contempt for them. To believe that we can live as neighbors next door to a violent and despotic power such as Putin’s is an act of cowardice that will one day cost us an exorbitant price. Russian power is an obstacle to the democratization of the world. Transforming the governance of the world, not only that of the Security Council, will happen with Russian democracy. Not with a judo gold medal ceremony. Democratization is a necessary passage to prepare the world to face the huge challenges of tomorrow. Without a democratic Russia, the world will not change; Russia’s current message of impunity and lawlessness will remain, ready to attract less enlightened leaders.

If, meanwhile, the Americans could close Guantanamo – and give it back to Cuba, why not – such a message would certainly carry unusual weight. It would make more sense of the boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and Obama might not have to ask himself if he hadn’t lost his re-election because of a tiny annexed territory in Cuba. It’s not all about the economy…

September 2012, Jean-Christophe Nothias, Editor-in-Chief.

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