Russia’s Election Problems

The Kremlin's spin-masters have invented a term for what happened in Russia on Sunday; they call it "managed democracy." European parliamentary observers had different words for that election today: they called it "unfair." The vote "failed to meet standards for democratic elections," the observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's parliamentary assembly and the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly said in Moscow. "There was widespread abuse of administrative resources … [and] media coverage was strongly biased in favor of the ruling party."

Amid a blaze of media adulation of President Vladimir Putin some 65 percent of Russian voters chose United Russia, the official party of bureaucrats and careerists, which Putin heads. Nominally "contesting" the election were two other parties that also vocally support Putin—and a third, the communists, who claim to be antigovernment but who have, in practice, voted more or less as the Kremlin wishes for years. Among the latest crop of newly returned members to Putin's rubber-stamp parliament is Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB officer wanted for the poisoning of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko in London last November. In Putin's assertive new Russia, Lugovoi is considered a national hero.

It's hard to blame the Russians for their overwhelming support for Putin. To the average Russian voter "democracy" conjures nothing but memories of politicians' lies, official corruption and the thieving of the Yeltsin era. Similarly, "free market" means, to most Russians, the loss of their savings, grinding poverty and the spectacle of an undeserving clique of Kremlin cronies amassing obscene fortunes at the public's expense.

Putin, in seven years in power, has presided over a dramatic improvement in ordinary Russians' standard of living, paid off the country's debts, and stood up on the international stage to defy what he calls American "hegemony." Small wonder that Russians voted wholeheartedly in favor of the institution of a wise tsar over the dangerous uncertainties of real democratic choice. Yet in truth, the death of Russian democracy is a tragedy—and a dangerous tragedy that will come back to haunt Russia and the world in years to come.

The real problem is that the idea of Putin's wisdom and greatness is built on a carefully constructed myth. The Kremlin has succeeded, after having stamped out most independent media in the country early in Putin's first term, in persuading the Russian people that their newfound prosperity is due to the superior management and vision of Putin and his team. He has also convinced a certain number of gullible Westerners of that, too—the kind of people Stalin called "useful idiots," to be wined and dined at Kremlin expense and carefully spoon-fed the party line. But the reality is that the whole foundation of the Putin economic miracle lies in a twist of the world's commodity markets, which have sent prices for oil, gas and metals skyrocketing—and with them, Putin's ego.

Putin's popularity is, at base, simply shorn up by an endless stream of free revenue, which gives him the luxury of not having to bother with such mundane concerns as balancing budgets, raising taxation and optimizing economic performance to stay in power. Many of the Kremlin's macroeconomic policies, such as putting aside oil money into a "stabilization fund," have been sensible enough. And Putin is certainly nowhere near as crazed as the world's other petro-demagogues, like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (though he is friendly with both). Yet the difference is one of style; in substance Putin, like the others, owes his swagger to one of the great redistributions of wealth of our times, as the industrialized world pours its dollars into the coffers of those countries lucky enough to have mineral and energy resources under their soil.

Putin's killing off of Russian democracy is worse than a crime—it's a mistake. The president has missed a historic opportunity to create a truly stable Russia. Instead of using Russia's rising prosperity to encourage a functional civil society, a responsible media and truly public-spirited political parties, Putin has done the opposite. He has cracked down on critical media outlets and he jailed Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, after he dared to challenge Putin's political power by funding political parties. He also reduced parliament's powers to little more than those of its Communist-era rubber-stamp predecessor. As Putin's recently appointed prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, observed, "the Duma is no place for discussions."

One former top Kremlin official, who spent years in Putin's inner circle, told me last week that the suspension of democracy was all temporary. In time, he said, Russians would be empowered by their newfound freedoms—to travel, to watch and read what they like, to make money and spend it—to demand more rights from their rulers. For the time being, though, "stability is everything—we cannot make any progress without stability, so we are willing to sacrifice democracy for its sake."

Yet behind the high-minded talk of having to "manage" democracy for the sake of stability lies a very different, and baser, motivation: Putin and his cronies have eliminated democracy to keep themselves in power, and in business, indefinitely. Vast financial empires are controlled by the individuals in Putin's inner circle. In the Yeltsin days top businessmen known as oligarchs used their connections to the Kremlin to get rich. Now the new generation of Putin-era oligarchs are themselves Kremlin bureaucrats, who have used the power of the state to bring private business under their control. Elections, and the uncertainty they bring, threaten those lucrative businesses. Similarly, a free press is a threat to corrupt bureaucracies everywhere, so it must be stamped out.

Clearly, the Kremlin's managed elections aren't designed to be an instrument whereby the voters can actually remove the incumbent government. Nor are voters actually offered a choice of credible alternatives for whom they wish to rule them. Rather, the system Putin has created is powerfully reminiscent of the old East Germany, where the Russian leader spent the formative years of his career spying on colleagues at the Soviet consulate-general in Dresden—and where communist-approved political "parties" would fight fake elections that posed no danger to the status quo.

One day, maybe not soon, commodity prices will fall. In destroying the mechanisms of Russian democracy, instead of nurturing them, Putin has sown dragon's teeth for the future. One-party systems are inherently unstable; so are economies dependent on a narrow basket of commodities for their stability. Moreover, Putin has played on ugly nationalism to boost his already sky-high popularity. He has created creepy, loyalist youth groups to act as shock troops against the enemy of the moment—whether it's Kasparov or troublesome neighbors like the Estonians or the Georgians—whose xenophobic credos could metamorphose into something far darker and more dangerous if Russia's economy starts to crash. Putin killed democracy and has created in its place a secretive oligarchy, one that will doubtless split and squabble as soon as the economic pie starts to shrink—with disastrous consequences for the country's stability.