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Diamonds on Red Square

3rd December 2007
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At the exact moment when Russian President Vladimir Putin was threatening opposition groups and the police were breaking up protests - pacifying those political activists who continued to disobey the Kremlin - another event was taking place a short distance away which was of great importance for Russia's image.


At this second event, the Russian financial elite were taking part in a fair for millionaires, where one could purchase, for example, bathroom tiles forming a reproduction of Rembrandt's Night Watch (for a million dollars), a diamond-encrusted Mercedes or the skull of a mammoth. While chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov was being tried and put behind bars for leading an "unsanctioned" opposition rally, Russian oligarchs spent $700 (zł.1,739) million at the fair.

 

Disgust in Europe

 

The civilized world recognized that both these events were far removed from the political and social norms of the European Union. The President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso declared that the EU was very concerned at the "harsh crackdown by the Russian authorities on participants in opposition rallies."

 

That is typical "diplomatic concern" from which nothing more will result. On that very same day, opinion polls came out which indicated that in the Duma elections to be held on December 2, Putin's United Russia party would gain an overwhelming majority of more than 60 percent. Therefore the European Union - whether it wants to or not - needs to decide how to build further contacts with Putin's Russia.

 

An exotic partner

 

Europe still wants to see a partner in Russia, a partner which is striving towards democracy of global standards, in which the economy is developing in accordance with the rules of the capitalist world, where politics are open and stable and society is, to a certain degree, predictable by Western models. When this idealized view differs from reality, as it often does, Western politicians are surprised and outraged. Europe knows that it must come to an understanding with Russia but it totally lacks a vision and strategy to make contact with it meaningful.

 

Perhaps it would be easier to take note that democracy and civil society in Russia are still as far removed from the average Russian as are the culture and lifestyle of Russian millionaires. Perhaps, in building a model for contact with Russia, it would be better to keep in mind that its democracy is young and fragile, and that the desperate financing of a weak political opposition and numerous scholarships for the intellectual elite will not positively impact in any way on economic ties with Moscow.

 

Scholarships for the children of millionaires?

 

A Western political scientist once share with me an idea that was cynical and pragmatic in equal measures - an offer of scholarships for the children of the rich. It is the oligarchs' children and not those of the poor opposition members, who will start to take power in Russia in two decades. This political scientist envisaged scholarships for the oligarchs' children at the most prestigious European universities, where rich young Russians would learn democratic principles, civil society, solidarity and social assistance, responsible business and sensitivity to the needs of others. This, he said, was because the time will come when they themselves will start to foster democracy.

 

Why? Because 33 billionaires and 90,000 millionaires live in Russia, and Moscow, after New York, holds the world's greatest concentration of wealthy people. At the same time, however, one-third of the population gets by on less than $200 (zł.495) a month. Such a disproportion may some day stir old themes in Russian veins - a bloody uprising and the purging of the wealthy.

 Joanna Wˇycicka

Joanna Wˇycicka is the former head of the foreign section of the Ţycie Warszawy and Ţycie newspapers and the former head of the foreign department at the Polish Press Agency (PAP). j.woycicka@hotmail.com


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