All those who consider elections the hallmark of Democracy should know better by now. Georgia, Kenya, and above all Russia are recent examples of how a well-orchestrated election is nowadays the key instrument of a modern, 21st century dictatorship. It’s a vital tool in the arsenal for sustaining state control, and the rhetorical platform essential to accusing critical Westerners of hypocrisy.
The December “elections” in the former Soviet Union predictably saw United Russia, led by Russia’s strong-man and Time Magazine Man of the Year Vladimir Putin, win with 64 percent. Despite Putin’s genuine popularity, those 64% were not just ‘votes freely cast’ but conjured up by Putin’s mix of suppression and intimidation. Systematically keeping the opposition away from the media helped, too.
As a campaign device, Putin’s Blame-the-West game reached a fevered climax in the leadup to the “election”. In the Gospel according to Putin, press reports about Gary Kasparov’s beating were –naturally– the fault of the hostile press; US propaganda drove OSCE poll-watchers away from monitoring the Russian election; and Russia’s ‘near-abroad’ imperialism, using more stick than carrot, is merely a defense against hostile Westerners, NATO, and missile defense systems. The same goes for suspending the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) arms control treaty – caused by “exceptional circumstances ... broaching on the security of the Russian Federation”. (He must speak of the threatening poses assumed by mighty Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.)
Indeed Putin’s brand of neo-Soviet xenophobia seems the hot ticket these days. With BBC Russian broadcasts banned and Putinista textbook reforms invoking the sunny side of Stalinism, Russians associate the new Dear Leader with restored national pride. Labor camps were a small price to pay back then, now it’s just the rule of law and free elections. So far, anyway.
The European Union, suddenly realizing something is not right, wonders if total energy dependence on Russia might be imprudent. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, said that Europe wants to be firm in dealing with Russia (about the WTO negotiations) “but not macho.” There seems little risk of becoming too “macho” with Russia. Short-term departures from basic civilized standards mustn’t detract from big-picture goals like world peace and harmony––not to mention effective emissions controls.
Besides, no one can prove the assassination of Litvinenko on British soil was state-sponsored.. Multiple murders of critical journalists, novel prosecutions of non-Putinist captains of Russian industry, and that odd stray Soviet…sorry, Russian…missile falling on ‘misbehaving’ Georgia are just some of those things that happen in our risk-prone modern world.
Russian jets intruding into Western airspace to ‘test’ what they find, is less easy to attribute to serendipity. Yet what should Russia do, faced with aggressive Western rhetoric? The Economist, a well-known journalistic agent of Western interests passing as an independent forum for news and analysis, goes so far as to suggest that Putinism amounts to institutionalizing KGB (Chekist) control of Russian politics; indeed: Russian life.
While The Economist grants that Putinism might not portend “mass repression”, it notes that “in a country where fear runs deep, attacking selected individuals does the job. But the concentration of such power and money in the hands of the security services does not bode well for Russia.” The West timidly agrees, even if Russian voters may see it differently.
For today’s Russians, national pride and access to wealth—thanks to surging energy prices—trump concerns about the regime. No wonder Mr. Putin stresses Russia’s heritage; even those aspects that have a darker side.
Exactly how Putin circumvents term limits blocking his run for the Presidency is less vital than the certainty that he will. He might head the Belarusian-Russian Union State, remaking the Soviet Empire at a measured pace. The fear that the tough Lukashenko might dominate the senior partner has become laughable--’Nobody tougher than Putin.’ He can also be Prime Minister, with a puppet president beholden to him. Or he might simply be declared “National Leader” – for which the vote will be invoked as a referendum. (Which in turn explains why voter participation was so important to United Russia, despite --and because of-- its imposing lead.).
While Western apologists commend Putin for not changing the constitution outright (the preferred choice of his South American friends Chaves and Morales), Putinism – a kinder, gentler, less genocidal Stalin-inspired fascism – has proven a winning political strategy. Firmness, order, and authority on the world stage are what Putin wants for Russia and Russians from Putin. And who delivered that better than the Great Leader?
By 2012, the constitution will likely be changed to allow five or seven year terms, meaning the prospect of ‘Putin’s Russia’ for decades to come isn’t unlikely. As Vyacheslav Nikonov told the Financial Times, “Only in 2026 will Mr. Putin reach the age that John McCain is now.” That should put fear of God (or rather the FSB) into those Russians who work, frequently at risk of life and limb, for a law-abiding, open, honest, and free society.
Sadly, these values are not in high demand among much of Russia's populace, for which there are good historical reasons. The country that thinks of the time under Boris Yeltsin as the “great shame” seems to collectively bat their eyes at the prospect of endless Putin sequels. High on Russians’ agendas are: respect, wealth, “a man that doesn’t drink”, and Putin reruns. For Russians, Putin’s got a bit of everything. Offered at a price that neither Russians nor Westerners seem to care much about.
But maybe they are taking note. It is fitting that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was named man of the year. His hero and model, Joseph Stalin, was named twice, and of course Hitler got up there once, too. Putin’s style certainly suggests that he feels more closely related to them than two-time Man of the Year Mikhail Gorbachev.
Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation
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