Signs of civil society revealed in Russia

January 20, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- For all of its damaging and dangerous effects, the war in Chechnya has uncovered signs of a true civil society -- one in which there is give and take between the state and its citizens.

The evidence is everywhere.

Mothers have signed anti-war petitions and staged protests from the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East to Murmansk above the Arctic Circle. The military has been forced not only to listen but to comply with some of their demands.

Local legislatures have passed resolutions censuring the central government. Television news has shown scenes of carnage and of soldiers routed by the enemy.

Newspapers have relentlessly published criticism of military and political leaders. And despite rumblings from the government and behind-the-scenes threats, officials have not yet openly tried to limit freedom of speech.

Boris Nemtsov, one of the most engaging and successful of Russia's new politicians, said the nation has changed so pervasively that there is little room for retreat to the past.

"Now we have Russian public opinion," he said. "We have an independent press, not only in Moscow but in the regions. We have an opposition. And most people aren't afraid to say what they wish."

Mr. Nemtsov, 35, is the governor of the region around Nizhny Novgorod, the former secret city of Gorky. It is laden with old-style factories, parts of the failed military-industrial establishment. But Mr. Nemtsov, a physicist, has turned his territory into a model for privatization and factory conversion.

He is also Nizhny Novgorod's representative to the upper house of the national legislature, the Federation Council. He was appointed governor by President Boris N. Yeltsin but is not afraid to criticize him.

Russia's leaders were too inclined to the conservative, Mr. Nemtsov said, dating the philosophical retrenchment to the strong electoral showing of ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky in 1993. But national leaders failed to take notice of local elections in Nizhny Novgorod in November: There were 16 members of Mr. Zhirinovsky's party campaigning for office. All of them lost.

"The average age of the Moscow politicians is 55," Mr. Nemtsov said. "They didn't believe we had public opinion, and they didn't believe we had an independent press. Now they understand everything, but it's too late for them."

Not every television station or newspaper has dared report an unvarnished view of the Chechen situation. But many influential publications have done so with courage.

NTV, Moscow's independent television company, which began broadcasting a year ago, came under intense pressure for its frank reporting. There were rumors the government was going to take over the station, but when the rumors were met by protest in the rest of the news media, the talk died down.

Station director Igor Malashenko told reporters this week that he thought authorities had accepted the idea of independent reporting -- until Russian troops entered Chechnya.

"Since the conflict in Chechnya began," he said, "the illusion evaporated and was replaced by prosecutor's checks and telephone instructions in the form of 'friendly advice.' "

Mr. Nemtsov and the Nizhny Novgorod mayor flew to the war zone last weekend, taking 60 tons of goods to the Nizhny soldiers there. They had collected the clothes, medicine, food and stoves from the region's people -- another new concept in a society not accustomed to charity.

The two politicians traveled with an entourage of local reporters. The Russian army, which has generally prohibited access to its soldiers in Chechnya, didn't interfere, Mr. Nemtsov said.

Vigorous dissent has appeared nearly everywhere:

* The president of Chuvashia, a semiautonomous republic on the Volga, announced that he would protect service members from his republic who refused to fight.

* Meeting in emergency session Tuesday, the legislature in the Far East city of Khabarovsk voted to condemn the Moscow government for its "thoughtless national policy."

* More parents are descending on the war zone every day, demanding to take their sons home. The public was so outraged by the sight of 18-year-old recruits dying that the military was forced to promise no more inexperienced conscripts would be sent to the front.

This awareness that government should rule only with the consent of the governed is an enormous departure from the past. In the Soviet Union, the individual existed only to serve the state.

"A civil society is only now being formed in our country," said Vladimir N. Druzhinin, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Psychology. "Citizens are moving toward supporting institutions instead of leaders."

But the authorities have been slow to catch on, he said.

Just as in the Soviet era, the leadership failed to take the wishes of its people into account and instead counted up soldiers and shipped them out.

"The people see them using our young soldiers as cannon fodder," Dr. Druzhinin said.

Dr. Druzhinin himself is testimony to the new individuality and social awareness developing in Russia. The Academy of Science was once the ultimate Soviet institution, with lots of people in bad suits quietly working for the motherland.

Dr. Druzhinin, a youthful 39 in a nation where people tend to look much older than their years, now comes to work wearing jeans and a sweater. He cheerfully observed that his government is still lying to its people, especially about the numbers of casualties in Chechnya.

"Of course, our people are used to lies," he said. "But before 1991 they didn't take a lie as a lie. But now there is a difference. Now we realize we're being told a lie, and we don't like it.

"So I'm an optimist about the development of our civil society."

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