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Fading Legacy

Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov were giants. Why do so few Russians remember them?

In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev's revolution from above -- open criticism of the powers that be.

One of the most memorable speakers in those weeks was Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Prize winner who was the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Two years earlier, Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, had been released from exile in Gorky and allowed to return to Moscow, where they were beacons of hope for those who believed in human rights and democracy. Sakharov's appearance in the legislature seemed to be a singularly radiant moment.

On Bonner's death Saturday, June 18, in Boston at age 88, it is worth recalling once again their legacy, one that seems to be fading in today's Russia.

It was on display, in part, during those hectic two weeks of 1989, when Sakharov made the opening speech at the parliament, and a longer, more detailed one in closing. In between, the Congress became an explosion of public debate and unprecedented criticism leveled at the KGB, the military, and the country's leaders.

Sakharov, in the closing remarks, called for repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on power. He wanted a political system that would be built by "genuinely democratic methods," based on principles of the rule of law, including freedom of speech and conscience, and the possibility for citizens to contest the actions of their government at all levels. He wanted pluralism and competition.

When Sakharov called for the repeal of the party's hold on power, even Gorbachev lost his cool. He unplugged Sakharov's microphone.

Sakharov died later that year, and the Soviet collapse in 1991 led to the rise of a democratic Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. But Sakharov's vision has only been partly realized. After a raucous period of openness in the 1990s, Russia today is once again without political competition and largely dominated by a single power structure, that of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia today is not the same as the Soviet Union. Putin exercises a kind of soft authoritarianism. But if Sakharov could see the political system today, he would surely detect some of the same elements he and Bonner so bravely fought, including the suffocating lack of competition and the use of police-state methods to squash dissent.

Bonner, who founded one of the most active human rights groups in the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s, kept the flame alive in the two decades after Sakharov's death. She backed President Boris Yeltsin in his violent confrontation with hard-liners in 1993, but also harshly condemned Russia's brutal crackdown on Chechen separatists in two wars. Bonner was among the prominent figures who signed petitions protesting Putin's rollback of democracy in his eight years as president. She also established the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow, which features exhibitions and seminars on Soviet repression, the Gulag, and Sakharov's life.

In the second of his memoirs, Sakharov wrote of Bonner, whom he called Lusia, "Truly, she is the only person who shares my inner thoughts and feelings. Lusia prompts me to understand much that I would otherwise miss because of my restrained personality, and to act accordingly. She is a great organizer, and serves as my brain center. We are together. This gives life meaning."

Sadly, a generation of young people in Russia who have grown up since Sakharov's death only dimly grasps his importance. Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times reported in Sunday's paper that when a group of college students at the Russian Law Academy in Moscow were asked recently for their views of his legacy, they fumbled. Most seemed never to have heard of him. Schwirtz reported that a survey conducted last year by the Levada Center, a respected polling organization in Moscow, found that 44 percent of Russians ages 18 to 24 knew nothing about Sakharov. Of those who did, only 9 percent knew that he was a champion of human rights and a dissident.

Unfortunately, the apathy about politics today in Russia is not only among young people. Absent genuine competition, people aren't interested. This leaves Putin and his men relatively free to carry on as they please. Putin and Medvedev talk openly about making the decision among themselves about who will be the next president -- and rarely mention that the choice should be with the voters.

Sakharov would not have understood nor approved of this. So much was sacrificed for freedom, he might say, that it is not something you can allow to fall into disuse.

DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

Bad Guys Still Matter

Why 2011 is turning out to be a very bad year for dictators.

The rot appeared to set in for autocrats with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy became the only respectable way to govern. It was the "end of history." For the following decade, prospects looked bleak as new democracies took root in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. But gradually, autocracy rallied. Dictators and strongmen learned how to go through the motions of an election while maintaining power.

The techniques were not so complicated once you got the hang of them. If you had sufficient money you could bribe enough swing voters: Think the 2007 Nigerian elections. Failing that, your army could intimidate the supporters of your opponent into staying at home: (Zimbabwe, 2008). As a default option you could always miscount the votes, à la Kenya in 2007.

While these techniques were sufficient to frustrate the "end of history," they did not challenge it intellectually. But the rise of China did just that: Autocracy appeared to outperform democracy at delivering economic development and social peace. Once-failed states like Rwanda put up impressive numbers by following the Chinese model: plenty of state-led growth, but very little freedom. Authoritarian city-states like Singapore and Dubai surged to global prominence. In Africa, autocrats saw that they could not just resort to skulduggery to win elections; they could hold their heads high while doing so.

By 2010, autocracy looked to be so firmly back in business that Laurent Gbagbo, the dictator of Ivory Coast, felt emboldened to take the final step in the degradation of democracy. Gbagbo succumbed to the Achilles' heel of autocrats: sycophancy. Any informed observer could have told him that he stood no chance of winning a fair election. But his entourage did not dare to tell truth to power. So duped was Gbagbo by his toadies that he actually invited the United Nations to observe the election and pronounce on the result. The United Nations duly announced that he had lost. What followed was the logical culmination to a decade in which democracy had been undermined both by incumbents' low tricks and China's high growth. In what might have been the coup de grâce for democracy in Africa, Gbagbo declared himself to be the winner despite the vote.

And then came the disaster of 2011, which in its first few months was already a dark year in the annals of autocracy. Out of the blue, the two helpful forces of cheating and China were countered by two new and utterly different forces: one from the top down, the other from the bottom up.

The top-down force was the international community. This was a surprise. Although after the genocide in Rwanda the United Nations had been embarrassed into adopting the "responsibility to protect" doctrine -- the idea that countries lose their sovereignty when they kill their own people -- it had remained a dead letter. Partly as a reaction to the Iraq war, most governments have been hyperallergic to international interference in other countries' internal barbarisms. Autocrats were lulled into a belief that the international community was made of jelly. But at some point even jelly solidifies.

In 2011, the international community was at last faced with actions that it found intolerable. In Ivory Coast its interventions, while far short of heroic, were sufficiently resolute to weaken Gbagbo to the point at which the modest military force available to the winning candidate, Alassane Ouattara, was sufficient for victory. One might quibble with the pace of intervention, but the amazing thing was that sufficient action was taken to trigger the regime's downfall. The world has drawn a new line in the sand. And it happened just in time: In the coming months Africa faces 19 elections. Incumbents will now be more cautious about overriding election results.

And that is not the only shift: The bottom-up force of information technology, which has shifted the balance of power between governments and their citizens, is making it much harder for governments to keep things secret and is radically lowering the cost of citizen coordination. This is the extraordinary implication of the North African revolutions: Young people can mass in huge numbers through channels that the state cannot control. Autocrats now fear the street in the way that they once feared the IMF. Although the organization of the street may be inchoate, its message to government is unambiguous: jobs and justice. For all but a few autocracies, it's a chilling demand. They lack the technical competence to deliver jobs, and to deliver justice would strike at their raison d'être, which is the preservation of privilege.

All this has combined to produce an excruciating squeeze even on the world's seemingly most secure incumbents of power, from Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, all of whom have amassed some of the worst governance records of the last several decades, as the Failed States Index shows in devastating numerical detail. If repression can no longer be relied upon, the only remaining models for autocrats are generosity and efficiency. Government handouts can probably still buy off citizens, but the scale needed probably makes it viable only in truly resource-rich states. Efficiency is so difficult that it is simply beyond the capacity of most autocrats. China's astounding growth can probably underpin its autocracy, but even this carries risks. It may be that income growth eventually brings with it pressures that destabilize autocracy: Whereas political violence appears to decline at higher income in democracies, in autocracies it actually appears to increase.

Last year, I wrote in Foreign Policy, "Bad guys matter, and when they rule, they make weak states weaker." Failed states like Zimbabwe aren't simply the product of bad luck; they're invariably the result of terrible decisions made by terrible men.

What we have seen in 2011 is not the end of autocrats. But perhaps history will shortly be over after all.

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