Paul R. Hollrah
Russian Democracy: A Missed OpportunityIn a
December 5 column for the Wall Street Journal, former Reagan
speechwriter Peggy Noonan told of a recent holiday gathering in northern
Virginia. The guests were all Washington movers and shakers... one a
U.S. ambassador, home on a brief leave from her foreign post.
December 10, 2008
discussing the reaction abroad to Barack Obama’s election, the
ambassador described how Russian newspapers had "generally played down”
the Obama victory. As she explained, the Obama victory "got in the way
of the establishment line: that the corrupt American democracy is
composed of two warring family machines (Bush and Clinton) that have the
system wired and controlled...” According to the ambassador, the
Russians see us as a "pretend” democracy, a "hypocritical” one, which
"helps the Russians rationalize and excuse their infirm hold on
democratic ways and manners.”
Noonan’s Journal piece brought to mind a March 1991 encounter
with official Russia’s first faltering steps toward democracy... an
encounter which placed me, at least temporarily, at the nexus of
Russia’s democratic aspirations.
Early in the
post-Glasnost, post-Perestroika era in Russia, when friendly visits by
groups of Americans were still viewed with some suspicion, I was asked
by the president of the National Republican County Officials Association
to arrange an official visit for a group of forty of fifty county
officials. Their purpose was entirely altruistic; they wanted to be of
assistance to the emerging Russian democracy in any way they could.
I made the request through proper channels and
on February 19, 1991, the Moscow City Council (Mossovet)
issued a formal invitation.
A month later, while on
a business trip to Moscow, I was unexpectedly summoned to Moscow City
Hall; the Mossovet wanted more details regarding the purpose of
the trip by the Republican county officials. Upon arriving at City Hall,
my interpreter and I were ushered into an ornate hall, an immense room,
where we found a committee of people’s deputies seated on one side of a
long conference table. The Russians were led by Mr. Sergei Trube, the
Deputy Mayor of Moscow, and Mr. Anatoli Shulgin, head of the Association
of Russian Cities.
extended an official welcome, to which I responded with words of
appreciation for the hospitality we’d been shown. I then explained that
the purpose of the visit by the American county officials was to learn
what problems were being encountered by local and provincial officials
as they made the difficult transition from a planned economy to a market
economy, and from state socialism to a representative democracy. I
assured the Russians that the county officials wished only to be of
assistance, to the extent that they would be permitted to do so.
Russians smiled and nodded their assent. Trube then explained that he
and his fellow deputies, like all local and provincial officials
throughout Russia, understood that democratic institutions could not be
dictated from the top... by the Kremlin. They understood that Russian
democracy had to grow and flourish from the bottom up, as it had in
proceeded to outline a program of US-Russian cooperation, suggesting
that our two countries adopt an ongoing program wherein forty or fifty
local officials from the U.S. would travel to Russia each year. And
after a one or two day orientation session in Moscow with their Russian
counterparts, the Americans would spread out across the country, in
groups of two or three, to live and work with their Russian counterparts
for several days... learning the kinds of problems the Russians
encountered on a daily basis and how they attempted to deal with them.
Russians visualized the process, all of the participants would then
reassemble in Moscow, during which time they would share what they had
learned. Then, six months later, the Russians would bring a delegation
of similar size and composition to the US and the process would be
repeated. The entire process would be repeated on an annual basis.
dropped a bombshell. He said, "You must understand. The entire
responsibility for bringing democracy to the Russian people rests on our
shoulders... the shoulders of local and provincial officials. We get no
help, no advice, from the Kremlin. They know nothing. The only way that
Russia can ever become a successful democracy is through a program such
as I have described. You must help us. Can you do this?”
No one had
to explain to me that a committee of people’s deputies, representatives
of local and provincial government throughout the Russian Federation,
had just placed the entire future of Russian democracy on the table
before me. I was stunned with the enormity of the moment.
When I had
collected my thoughts, I responded, "Mr. Trube, everything you say is
true, and the program you’ve outlined is most desirable. But you must
understand... I appear before you without portfolio. I am not authorized
to speak for my government.”
understanding the significance of what was being proposed, I could not
allow the opportunity to pass. I said, "But I can speak for myself, and
yes, I assure you that I can do what you suggest. I will begin to make
arrangements upon my return to the states, but there are many people
whose cooperation we must have. I would suggest that you be prepared to
come soon with a small delegation so that we can obtain the agreement of
all the necessary people.”
The Russians agreed to
an August 16 arrival date and upon my return to the states I arranged
meetings at the White House, the State Department, the Republican and
Democratic National Committees, the National Governors Association, the
National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of
County Officials, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In preparation for the
visit by the Trube delegation, I was joined at my home in eastern
Oklahoma by Herman Pirchner, President of the American Foreign Policy
Council, and by our Russian partner, geophysicist Vladimir Svirski.
(Because of his long support for free market reforms, Svirski had
previously been assigned to map mineral resources in western Siberia.
However, by 1991, Svirski headed the Center for Science, Technology, and
Social Initiative (CNDC), Russia’s largest business conglomerate,
comprised of some 5,000 individual companies with 1.5 million
upon their arrival in San Francisco, where they planned to rest for a
day before traveling on to Washington, the Trube delegation was ordered
back to Moscow and instructed not to speak to any Americans. We had no
idea why our plans had been so suddenly and inexplicably obstructed, but
late that evening TV news bulletins gave us the reason: hard line
Communists in Russia had staged a coup d’état.
Gorbachev was under house arrest at his dacha on the Black Sea, and
across Russia the KGB was rounding up and arresting the twenty most
wanted men in Russia... the top leaders of the pro-democracy, pro-free
market movement. My house guest, Vladimir Svirski, was on that list.
Fortunately, the coup was short-lived and within three days
Mikhail Gorbachev and his family were set free.
The Russians knew,
instinctively, what they had to do. Unfortunately, our well-conceived
effort to plant the seeds of democracy and the free market in Russian
soil was brought to a sudden and tragic end. The plan for an on-going
people-to-people exchange of state and local government officials was
never revived and Russian democracy missed what was perhaps its best
chance for success.
History is most often made by large cataclysmic events, but
the tides of history are also turned by small, seemingly insignificant,
twists of fate... tales that the history books will never record.