Russian democracy will likely come of age, eventually

MOSCOW - Russia today is a country that takes three hands to describe.

On the one hand, it is impossible any more to call Vladimir Putin's government "democratic," given the way it has neutered the Russian parliament, intimidated or taken over much of the Russian press, subordinated the judiciary and coercively extended its control over the country's key energy companies.

On the other hand, it is obvious talking to Russians how much the humiliating and dispiriting turmoil that accompanied Boris Yeltsin's first stab at democracy left many people here starved for a strong leader, a stable economy and stores with Western consumer goods.

And on the third hand, while today's Russia might be a crazy quilt of capitalist czars, mobsters, nationalists and aspiring democrats, it is not the totalitarian Soviet Union.

The Yeltsin democratic experiment is over, to be sure, added Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, "because it was delegitimized by the 1998 ruble crash and because it was a time of supreme corruption and dominance by oligarchs - but the Russian democratic experiment is not over because Russia is such a changed place."

Gottemoeller, an American, told me she recently visited Ulyanovsk, Lenin's birthplace, in the heart of Russia's aging industrial rust belt, and went out to dinner with three Russian couples, all new entrepreneurs.

"After they plied me with drinks," she recalled, "they said: 'OK, we have a question. We want to know how you define middle class' - and did I think they were middle class? And that just flummoxed me. They wanted to know what middle class was in America. It meant a lot to them to think they were linked up to a broader community of middle class. (They) are not out in the streets with a banner, but their aspirations are huge and in the right direction."

People who identify themselves as middle class often end up fighting for legal and civil rights to protect their gains, without even knowing they are fighting for them. That said, the pace of democratization here will most likely depend on three things.

"When oil prices became higher, the reforms became slower," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal Russian Duma member from Altay.

"Russia became a more closed country with a more state-oriented economy. Last year we saw record oil prices and not one reform. (That is the) reason Freedom House last year proclaimed Russia a 'non-free country.' The question for you Americans is: When will prices go down? It is the only hope for us Russian democrats."

Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.