Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Russian Democracy

A couple days ago on Morning Edition, Gregory Feifer reported on the upcoming election in Russia and how Putin is doing his best retain power. As R has reported in his blog several times, Putin has already served the maximum number of consecutive terms that he can under Russian law (depending on how you count, he might have actually served an extra partial term already) and there are lots of theories as to how he'll retain power. While I find all the potential political machinations fascinating, what I find scary is how little Russians seem to care. In fact, Putin is so popular in Russia that most people would welcome him staying in power indefinitely. This is scary on two fronts:
  1. Putin's government is, for all intents and purposes, an authoritarian regime. He's using the same sort of fear propaganda that Bush uses against the Axis of Evil, referring to the enemies who "toppled the Soviet Union and sowed chaos in the 1990s" and saying a vote for his party as the only way to save Russia. Russia is cracking down left and right on freedoms and liberties, everything from disqualifying a political party because they aired an ad that said Putin is leading the country backwards to (according to a recent Business Week article) pulling a Pepsi ad showing teenagers playing music and just raising the volume when the neighbors complain because it was deemed that it incited anti-social behavior. But Russians don't care; they love Putin.
  2. Russian Democracy is being dismantled after only a few years, and it seems like most Russians actually support it! They don't care if Putin changes the Constitution or changes laws, as long as he stays in control.

One of the quotes in the piece summed it up - a Russian woman said, "The thing is, people really feel a sense of stability and order right now. I'd be perfectly happy if Putin stayed for a third term and violated the constitution". It makes me wonder, how long does a country have to have Democracy before people become a true advocates of the system? We always talk about "bringing Democracy" to the Arab world, and it's clear there are countries which are not yet ready for it - where you need to start slowly and build up the economy and make people feel secure before you have complete Democracies so people don't immediately vote for the strongest candidate out of fear. But Russia has been a Democracy for a while now and it was, more or less, working out, so why don't people care that it's slipping away?

I try to compare it to the US - I think most Americans are extremely proud of being a Democracy and of every citizen having the right to vote*. If someone tried to break the constitution here there would be huge outcry (as there was with warrant-less surveillance). While I think I would have been tempted to set aside constitutional limits on how long a President could serve if it would have allowed Bill Clinton to stay in the White House instead of our current excuse for a leader, ultimately I would never have been in favor of it since laws like that keep also limit the amount of time a horrible leader can be in power. So how long does it take? Do you need to be a Democracy for 30 years? 50? more? before your citizens, who might not agree with each other on most things, at least feel like being a Democracy is more important than their differences?

I guess we'll all have to wait and see how far Putin's "cult of personality" takes him.

* Even though I heard another NPR story last week about how 43% of Americans would trade their right to vote for a $50 Olive Garden gift certificate.


Alex said...

Being an ex-Russian, I just had to write a response.

SabraGirl said...

Your answer puts my lowly blogpost to shame. Beautifully written.

Alex said...

The hero of Russian democracy is also known as the hottest shirtless hunk of all times: