Thursday, August 27, 2009

A difficult problem

I have just taken part in a discussion on the BBC Russian Service about the elections in Afghanistan. This was a general talk about the problems of trying to run democratic elections in a basically undemocratic country and whether democracy can grow where there are no democratic traditions.

My immediate point was that the problem with Afghanistan is the war going on there and just recently the military situation had deteriorated. There was no time to suggest that one reason for that may have been that Iraq is a good deal more stable and some of the erstwhile insurrectionists have gone to Afghanistan. Also, the Pakistani government has announced that the Taliban is leaving their country. We must wait and see how true that is but if it is, they must be going somewhere and Afghanistan seems the obvious first port of call. Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, has suggested that "foreign al-Qaeda fighters were now leaving Pakistan for Somalia; others were returning to their home countries in Sudan and Yemen".

As it happens I do not think all countries with less than democratic histories are hopelessly lost to the concept of liberal democracy, though that does involve considerably more than just elections. Just look at post-war Japan, suggested I cheerfully.

The Russian interviewer and interviewee, a professor of political science in Moscow, were less sanguine as they referred to the example of Russia in the nineties, where elections were fixed because otherwise Zhirinovsky's Communists most probably would have won and the first free election would also have been the last.

The problem of building civil society and liberal democracy in Russia appears to have no immediate solution and under President Prime Minister Putin and his mishka, President Medvedev, the process has suffered severe set-backs.

Another piece of news, that can be related to this topic, was that one of the largest railway stations in Moscow, the Kursk-Kol'tsovaya Station has been refurbished to its pristine 1950 look, which includes carved slogans that glorify Stalin, including the famous war-time cry: "За родину, за Сталина", "For Stalin and our motherland". (You can see the pictures here.)

A number of humanitarian organizations are planning to go to court, to demand that the slogans be removed. The assumption must have been that the station will be refurbished without those words. The big question is, therefore, what will the courts decide and will financial considertaions prevail over people's sensibilities. An even bigger question is what sort of public reaction are we likely to see.

And while we are on the subject of Russia and nostalgia, Sergei Mikhalkov the poet has died at the age of 96. He was a very well known and fairly talented children's poet. If pushed, I could probably recite some of the poems I learned as a very young child even now. He was also a writer of prose works and film scripts, some very successful. I find from the Russian Service website that he was a war correspondent who was wounded at Stalingrad.

His greatest claim to fame, however, is that he wrote no less than two (well, two and a half, since he had to remove references to Stalin in 1977 from the original) versions of what was first the Soviet, then the Russian national anthem, both to the same tune. Amazingly enough, the new words refer to the great country protected by God and Mikhalkov cheerfully explained that, of course, he had always been religious but could not admit to it in the Soviet period.

He was, of course, a good party apparatchik who led the attacks on Boris Pasternak, Andrei Sinyavsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, among others.

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