Why does Russia bother to hold elections?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 3 2008 6:47 AM

Putin's Potemkin Democracy

Why does Russia bother to hold elections?

Dmitry Medvedev. Click image to expand.
Dmitry Medvedev

Last Wednesday, Dmitry Medvedev took a break from his job as deputy prime minister of Russia and held a public meeting. Dressed in shirtsleeves, he talked about pension reform, promised to improve education, and shook a few hands. As public meetings go, it was an ordinary one—except for the fact that it was the first and last public meeting of Medvedev's presidential campaign. If you wanted to see the candidate before Sunday's vote, that was your one and only chance. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, spending millions of dollars and wearing themselves thin, must be green with envy.

But Medvedev was certainly right to save his strength. Exit polls and early returns show him winning with 70 percent of the vote, which is a relief to some; anything higher, one of his campaign staff conceded, might have been "embarrassing." As predicted, this was a farcical election, a battle between Medvedev, the Kremlin's candidate, and three officially sanctioned opponents: a clapped-out "Communist," a complete nonentity, and the ludicrous anti-Semite and vulgarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is genially tolerated by the Russian media. Mikhail Kasyanov, the candidate from what passes for the only genuine opposition party, was not allowed to stand. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, along with various other European election observers not usually known for their bravery, refused to monitor the campaign at all; even the head of the electoral commission conceded that media coverage has been, well, biased in Medvedev's favor.

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Only one question remains unanswered: Why did anyone bother holding an election at all? Given that the inner circle of ex-KGB officers that controls the Kremlin also controls the country's media, its legal system, its parliament, and its major companies, why do they need elections? Why didn't Vladimir Putin just appoint Medvedev, or keep the presidency himself? The answer, I think, can lie only in the ruling clique's fundamental insecurity, odd as that sounds. Though the denizens of the Kremlin do not, cannot, seriously fear Western military attack, they do still seem to fear Western-inspired popular discontent: public questioning of their personal wealth, public opposition to their power, political demonstrations of the sort that created the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. To stave off these things, they maintain the democratic rituals that give them a semblance of legitimacy.

The need for legitimacy also helps explain the string of vitriolic, aggressive attacks on Western democracies that presaged yesterday's election. In the past couple of years, Putin has also openly compared America to Nazi Germany, set up an institution designed to monitor America's supposedly dubious democracy, and frequently accused both Americans and Western Europeans, especially the British, of hypocrisy and human-rights violations. This rhetoric serves several purposes, but above all it is designed to inoculate the Russian public against the example of more open societies. The message is simple: Russia is not merely a democracy, it is a better democracy than Western democracies. Indeed, much of Putin's rhetoric in recent years makes sense in this light. Take his hostility toward neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, countries where post-Soviet regimes dramatically lost their legitimacy in recent years and are evolving in a different direction. Though Putin cannot possibly be militarily intimidated by any potential NATO relationship with Georgia or Ukraine, he may well be afraid of the example set by those countries' Western orientation, since their geopolitical choices challenge his own.

Even some of the shockingly Soviet interpretations of history promulgated in Russia in recent years—famously, Putin described the breakup of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century"—make sense in this context. Surely a part of their purpose was to create an alternate version of post-Soviet history, one that supports the Kremlin's current rule. According to the Putinist explanation of history, the fall of the Soviet Union was not a moment of liberation but the beginning of collapse. The hardships and deprivations of the 1990s were not the result of decades of Communist neglect and widespread thievery but of capitalism and democracy.

In other words, communism was stable and safe, post-communism has been a disaster, and Putin's regime has set the country on the right track again. The more Russians believe this, the less likely they are to want a truly open, genuinely entrepreneurial, authentically democratic society—at least until the oil runs out. Asked about the unnatural dullness of this election campaign, which even the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass described as "a bore," Putin's reply was straightforward: "We have had a 16-percent rise in wages this year. ... This answers your question." But everyone needs a backup plan. In case oil prices drop again, the democratic rituals must go on.

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