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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Its Old Politics, New Names, For Ex-Soviets

The current Congress of People's Deputies shows the shallowness of democracy's roots in Russia's highest governing bodies. But such reactionary politics is not confined to the Kremlin. In small towns across the former Soviet Union, old-style command politics masquerades as democracy.


Two small-town mayors, one in Lithuania and the other on the Kuril Islands, together personify the cynical process that has renamed old bureaucrats "mayors", but has done little to build democratic foundations.


I met Mayor Nikolai Pokidin on the island of Kunashir in September. Like many mayors across Russia and the former republics, Pokidin has never faced election. A career bureaucrat, he was appointed to his post by the Sakhalin regional governor, Valentin Fyodorov.


The difference this made in his behavior was striking. When asked about a letter from citizens on the neighboring island of Shikotan -- also managed by Pokidin -- requesting that the island be turned over to Japan, the mayor replied that this was "not relevant".


In a democratic society, a mayor who dismisses the wishes of his citizens as "not relevant" is in the wrong line of work. But in the top-down political world of Russia's provinces, mayors often are more like colonial governors.


Eight time zones east of Kunashir, in Lithuania, Vytautas Streikauskas, head of the administration of Kaishyadorys, has much in common with Pokidin.


Streikauskas is also a career bureaucrat who was appointed to his post. An appealing, intelligent man who manages the farm region 70 kilometers north of Vilnius, Streikauskas quotes figures on boiler output, eggs and beef off the top of his head. But when it comes to politics, his views are just as out-of-touch with his constituency's.


I had come to Kaishyadorys in order to assess the mood in the Lithuanian countryside prior to November's parliamentary elections. I spent a rainy morning outside a small supermarket interviewing shoppers and found that nearly everyone supported the former Communists over the Sajudis nationalists who had ruled the country since independence. Citizens called for better relations with Russia, they blamed the energy crisis on ruling Sajudis stubbornness, and were angry over what they viewed as an unfair land policy.


Yet Streikauskas belittled relations with Russia and called the energy crisis a "Russian invention". He concluded by predicting a Sajudis victory. He was wrong; Communists went on to gain control of the new Lithuanian parliament.


The danger of the shallow democratic roots in the former Soviet Union is all too clear: To blow it all away would not take much of a storm.