Russian Lesson

The campaigns are winding down; the polling booths are being readied for voters. The Russian authorities are engaged in a massive get-out-the-vote effort. By this time next week Russia will have a new president, or a reelected one. All seems to be well in Russia’s new democracy.

Or is it? One of the difficulties of analyzing democracy in Russia — or Venezuela, or Iran or soon, possibly, Iraq — is that while the outer forms of democracy are in place, much of the inner substance, the bits and pieces we usually take for granted, is not. True, elections will be held in Russia Sunday. But the chances that President Vladimir Putin will fail to be reelected are non-existent, and always have been. He has, after all, the unanimous support of the national electronic media complex, much of which is owned directly or indirectly by his friends. He has no serious rivals, because he has jailed, expelled or undercut anyone who appeared likely to become one.

Even the get-out-the-vote effort, necessary because Russian election law requires 50 percent voter participation, has been tainted by evidence that local authorities are being browbeaten to ensure that people show up and vote for the president. In Kaliningrad, city officials say they will set up grocery stalls offering voter discounts at polling booths. In Khabarovsk, hospitals have threatened to refuse treatment to patients who have not filled out absentee ballots. In Moscow a businesswoman told a British newspaper that she’d been asked to secure 50 voters before being granted a restaurant license. “They usually want money, not votes,” she said. “I guess it’s a sign of the times.”

But what is really missing in Russia is not just a political opposition but the machinery needed to create one: yes, free media, but also politically independent businessmen willing to provide the finance, politically savvy people willing to work for the president’s defeat without fear of reprisal, and politically educated voters who feel they have a reason — other than a desire for cheap groceries — to turn up at a polling booth. Not all these elements are equally abundant in every mature democracy, including ours. But they are sufficient to ensure that elections are, most of the time, genuine contests between at least two plausible political parties.

The difficulty with these missing elements, of course, is that if they aren’t there to begin with, they are very difficult to create from scratch. Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that the most successful developing countries — Taiwan, say, or South Korea — are usually those that are first ruled by “liberal autocracies” for several decades before becoming actual democracies. But in the case of Russia, there wasn’t time to set up a liberal autocracy before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There won’t be time in Iraq, either.

Our ability to foster the growth of a Russian or Iraqi political culture, complete with independent businessmen, independent journalists, independent election officials and, above all, voters who do not still retain some fear of independent voting, is extremely limited. Nevertheless, there are minor ways we can influence the process, as our experience with Russia should tell us. Clearly the selling of democracy — through the provision of scholarships for journalists, seminars for judges, textbooks for lawyers — shouldn’t stop once a new democracy begins to hold elections. The tools of “democracy promotion” and education aren’t powerful but they are, by foreign policy standards, quite cheap. It will cost a lot less to teach Iraqi schoolchildren about their new bill of rights than it would to send in the Army and Marines again 10 years from now.

Most of all, the lesson of Russia is that we should always avoid the temptation to throw up our hands, declare victory and announce that democracy has arrived when it clearly hasn’t. We made this mistake in Russia twice. First, Bill Clinton welcomed Boris Yeltsin to the democratic club far too early. Then George W. Bush, having “looked into the eyes” of Vladimir Putin and found him trustworthy, did it again. Both American presidents were later embarrassed by their professed faith in men who didn’t, in the end, share their values. Both also helped create doubt in the minds of Russians about the nature of the “democracy” that Americans said they had already achieved. I don’t think we’re likely to make that mistake a third time in Russia, but the coming weekend’s elections should help remind us not to make it anywhere else.

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