Remember when President George Bush gazed into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and decided he knew the man's soul, here was a man he could trust? Instead, Mr. Bush ought to have had chills running down his spine. While Mr. Bush may be many things - a courageous president in difficult times, for one - a perfect reader of the human soul he is not, as developments in Russia have demonstrated.
Mr. Putin is no democrat, as Mr. Bush as assumed, and while he talks a good game, he is no free marketer either. Indeed, he is poised to tighten his grip on the power structures of Russia with the parliamentary elections coming up next Monday, Dec. 7.
The elections will certainly not be anything like the free wheeling, dramatic and exciting political events Russia saw in the 1990s, when reformers and hardliners competed, tugging Russia in different directions. Back then, the world followed the results with bated breath. Today, Russians may have more stability in their lives than under the chaotic and unpredictable President Yeltsin, but they also have much less hope of living in a true democracy.
"Putin has already shoved Russia below the threshold of democracy," says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University, who specializes in democracy building. "I would call Russia an electoral autocratic regime," a system characterized by the mere semblance of political diversity.
Mr. Putin also has a word for it, "managed democracy," and in the context of the run up to the parliamentary elections, it means controlling the media environment, intimidating candidates and using all the powers of the state and the security services to orchestrate the results.
It is astonishing, for instance, that in a country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, where teachers, doctors and soldiers often go unpaid for months, where an AIDS epidemic is running unchecked, and the war in Chechnya continues to be a nasty festering wound on the body politic, the president himself still enjoys a popularity rating of 80 percent. That's "management" all right, and it makes the result of Russian presidential elections in March a foregone conclusion.
At stake on Dec. 7 are the 450 votes in the Russian lower house, the Duma. These elected seats offer opportunities for all sorts of lucrative personal gain, but today they are not conducive to political change. The odds on winner in the election is the Putin-backed "United Russia" whose list contains numerous high-level bureaucrats, regional leaders and members of the president's inner circle. Also expected to do depressingly well are the Communists, the recipients of the protest votes of older Russians who long for the good old days. In reality, however, the Communists can be counted on to support the Putin government.
The people we here in the West consider economic reformers don't seem to have a prayer. Gregory Yavlinsky's "Yabloko" party may not even clear the 5 percent electoral hurdle. Equally dodgy are the prospects for the market-oriented, pro-reform Union of Right-Wing Forces associated with people like Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais.
Rather than a democratic enterprise, the Duma election appears to be a strategic part of Mr. Putin's project -- now in its fourth year -- to consolidate his presidential control. A former intelligence agent, Mr. Putin is a crafty autocrat, whose real desire is to rebuild Russian greatness. "I would call him a state builder, not a democracy builder," says Mr. Diamond.
A Russian nationalist, Mr. Putin early on in his tenure expressed admiration for the builders of the Soviet empire. The system over which he presides today has few of the checks and balances that the American Founders so carefully wrote into the U.S. Constitution. The checks that do exist, like the courts and the Duma, have been corrupted.
Other centers of power are being eliminated. Under Mr. Putin, the electronic media in particular have lost any semblance of diversity. And the recent crackdown on Yukos, Russia's largest oil conglomerate, showed Mr. Putin ready to finish off the Russian business oligarchs as well. If they are so vulnerable, no one is safe.
The reports of international election observers after Dec. 7 must be taken seriously in Washington and in the capitals of Europe, and the appropriate protests launched. Europeans and Americans alike are actively courting Russia for strategic reasons, but none should have any illusions as to the kind of regime we are dealing with. We know democracy when we see it, and this ain't it.
Helle Dale is Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times