A Nation of Inhabitants, Not Citizens

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

With the rest of the world worried about the economic crisis, the news of yet another politically tinged crime in Moscow gets little more than a shrug. It draws the same response in Russia, even though the killing of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova last month provided a glimpse into a murky, Byzantine abyss lying just beyond the country's facade. It's a frightening sight in normal times but especially so in a worsening economic climate.

The crimes themselves -- and the usual ho-hum reaction to them -- testify to the absence of even a rudimentary civil society. Russia is a country of inhabitants, not citizens. Citizens have a stake in their political entity, and murders like these target the very foundations of a nation. This is an occasion on which citizens of all political persuasions would have found a way to make their voices heard. Instead, Russia's inhabitants go down into the streets to protest higher duties on foreign cars.

On www.Vedomosti.ru or www.gazeta.ru, for example, any article criticizing the Kremlin or showing a pro-Western or liberal bias is certain to trigger comments accusing its author of being on the payroll of some foreign power or disgraced oligarch. It seems that the Russian public has become so polarized that those who hold one set of views simply can't imagine someone else expressing different views without being paid to do so.

The Russian government seems to realize that what it presides over is not a nation in a traditional sense but an assemblage of interest groups who happen to share geography and language but otherwise have so little in common that they don't even understand each another. Why else would the government be persistently silent on these and other political murders?

After the 2006 murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security service officer Alexander Litvinenko, the West's capacity for outrage against Russia has been nearly exhausted.

Since then, Moscow's anti-Western posturing, its invasion of Georgia in August and its gas wars with Ukraine have placed Russia among the world's most malevolent irritants -- located somewhere between Nigeria and Venezuela. Since Russia's petrodollars have dried up, even Western businessmen who earlier sang self-serving praises to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have fallen silent.

After the traumatic experience of communism, Russians began to come together as a nation in the early 1990s, when they prevented a hard-line coup in August 1991. But economic hardship and half-cocked reforms derailed this process. During the fat years of the oil boom, special-interest groups began to emerge and diverge from one another even as the Kremlin's efforts to eradicate even loyal opposition killed the last hope for creating a Russian nation.

Fragmentation is the reason why no side in the case of Colonel Yury Budanov -- the most likely cause of Markelov's murder -- has been willing to accept any court decision. Russians no longer look to their state for justice. This is why the killer apparently took matters into his own hands. This is why the government will always be suspected of bailing out cronies at the expense of everyone else, regardless of what it does to address the economic crisis.

The great upheavals of the 1990s -- from the fall of communism to the 1998 default -- passed without social turmoil or large-scale civil conflicts. But back then, Russia was more of a nation than it is today.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.