The Return of Soviet Dissidents

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Earlier this month, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion with leading members of the opposition in Russia -- Boris Nemtsov; Vladimir Ryzhkov; Oleg Buklemishev, the deputy manager of Mikhail Kasyanov's presidential campaign; and Vladimir Kara-Murza, the manager of Vladimir Bukovsky's presidential bid.

This event was unusual for the AEI, and we decided to hold it because it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear their voices. They are banished from state-controlled television and have been pushed out of national and local politics. In addition, their rallies and demonstrations are routinely prohibited, and when they do protest on the street, they are attacked by riot police and Nashi thugs, who are paid from government funds.

Their colleagues are harassed in their homes and on the streets. They are detained on bogus criminal charges, sometimes beaten unconscious and in a few cases thrown into psychiatric wards. Owners of halls and conference centers are afraid of giving them space for meetings and debates, and many advertising agencies refuse to produce their campaign materials. The police break into their headquarters and take away their computers, leaflets and posters, and the Kremlin-friendly courts never rule in their favor.

In short, Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Kasyanov and Bukovsky are becoming more like dissidents in the Soviet sense than a normal opposition force that you would find in Western democracies.

This transformation is bound to have profound implications for Russia and the world. Governments without opposition are doomed to falter. The blunders of a nuclear superpower drunk on oil and gas revenue are bound to be enormous.

Competitors are "partners" in the political process, even when they actively criticize the government. Without an opposition, the center of political gravity is raised all the way to the top, making the vehicle of national politics unstable -- one without shock absorbers or brakes. Free of the need to explain themselves, the ruling elite begin to believe in their own infallibility.

We have already seen the first signs of the country's institutional debility when the government monetized social benefits to pensioners a few years ago. The law, which affected tens of millions of people and cost trillions of rubles, was adopted by the rubber-stamping State Duma after only a few hours of debate. Monetization of benefits is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Without a genuine debate and participation from the opposition, the government is unable to develop solutions to the huge problems in education, healthcare, pensions and corruption.

Moreover, without opposition as a check and balance, the government is given a virtual carte blanche. Take, for example, the borrowing spree of state or state-sponsored companies -- in particular, Gazprom and Rosneft, which together owe $85 billion and clearly hope for the state to bail them out. This also applies to Moscow's huge exports of modern weaponry to China, a serious geopolitical rival that will be armed to the teeth with Russian weapons and know-how, and to Moscow's support of uranium-enriching Iran. Could these policies have been adopted so easily if the opposition had an opportunity to engage the government in a true debate -- in the parliament, on television or in the newspapers -- exposing millions of Russians to the perils of these flawed policies?

Of course, the Putin's crackdown on the opposition is still a far cry from the repression under the Soviet Union. The four members of the opposition who spoke at the AEI on March 10 and thousands of their colleagues are still far better off now than Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Ginzburg or even Bukovsky were in the 1970s. The Union of Right Forces and Yabloko parties, although marginalized, are still legal. Moreover, the Internet is far more efficient than samizdat, although it now essentially plays the same role in the country's political discourse. And a handful of small-circulation newspapers and magazines that are not afraid to publish articles critical of the Kremlin can still find publishers and distributors. But we don't know how long this will last.

In the meantime, the West should continue to help sustain Russia's new dissidents by giving them a platform and an opportunity to engage in a free debate. Far from "undermining" Russia, this solidarity can best ensure that Russia's democratic evolution will be nonviolent -- similar to the period from 1989 to 1991. Let's hope it is not too late for this.

Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006."