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Anne Applebaum on "Talking to Russians"

January 31, 2008 -- RFE/RL Broadcast Center, Prague

Author and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum shared her thoughts on current political developments in Russia, the increasing pressure on civil society in the country, and the role international broadcasters such as RFE/RL can play to counter the current trend during a briefing at RFE/RL's broadcast center in Prague.

Applebaum described what she sees as the Kremlin's two-track strategy to keep itself in power: On one track it is upholding a democratic facade to cover its essentially autocratic political system. The staging of elections with seemingly competing parties is Putin's way of lending his regime democratic legitimacy, while in truth his government ruthlessly suppresses all political dissent and competition. On a second track - a more recent and complementary phenomenon -- the Kremlin is creating what Applebaum calls a fake Russian civil society. Worried by political upheavals such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Russian government has spun an intricate web of seemingly independent organizations, clubs, and activities for many strands of society, with a focus on the politically curious and energetic parts of the young generation. This allows the Kremlin to absorb political energy while making it easier to keep ultimate control over political activities.

However, Applebaum thinks that the current Russian structures are not as stable as they might seem: A close look at crime statistics, levels of corruption and the nature of the Russian economy suggest that the system is more fragile than the official rhetoric of the Kremlin wants us to believe. Applebaum thinks that this is something international broadcasters such as RFE/RL can exploit. Their reporting can expose the facade of democracy and progress the Kremlin is trying to uphold and put a spotlight on the lives and fates of ordinary Russians. The immediate effects of such undermining tactics might not be obvious, but Applebaum was optimistic that they can contribute to the corrosion of the regime's power and legitimacy in the long run.