December 6, 2007

December 6, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

Bearing down on democracy

"A good example of domestic political stability" is the way Russian President Vladimir Putin described Russia's parliamentary election. If so, the stability of rigor mortis is settling into the country's moribund democracy. No wonder Mr. Putin is pleased. Not only did his party, United Russia, get 63 percent of the vote, but its coalition partners in the Russian Duma also pulled in almost 80 percent. Indeed, the Russian president is doing almost as well with Russian voters as Saddam Hussein used to be with the Iraqis, who re-elected him with 99 percent support time after time.

What happened Sunday in Russia should be a reminder that elections and democracy are not synonymous. After the 1990s, when democracy made huge strides around the world, recent years have seen setbacks that include a trend toward constitutional coups (one just failed in Venezuela over the weekend). Autocrats like Mr. Putin are trying to take back the reins of power carefully and one piece at a time.

In years past, Mr. Putin has eliminated the power of the provincial governors, who are no longer popularly elected. He has emasculated the Russian media, and he has jailed any part of the business community that threatened to become an independent power center. Another piece of this authoritarian puzzle that fell into place over the weekend will allow Mr. Putin to stay in power far beyond his current constitutional term.

Charges of strong-arm voter intimidation, vote-buying and other fraud were widespread in weeks and months leading up to Sunday's vote. Opposition activist and chess champion Gary Kasparov, for one, called the elections "the most unfair and dirtiest in the whole history of modern Russia." Mr. Putin was not about to take any chances that would allow a surprise result as happened in Ukraine and Georgia. In the year prior to the election, the Russian government tried to starve the budget of the election-monitoring Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Having failed to put the organization out of business, Russia then allowed only 330 observers into the country, a ridiculously low number for a country spanning 11 time zones. And that group was placed under severe restrictions.

The election "was not fair and failed to meet any of the OSCE's and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections," observers from those two organizations said a press conference in Moscow. They pointed to "abuse of administrative resources" and "media coverage strongly in favor of the ruling party."

Mr. Putin now has at least two ways of perpetuating his hold on power. He could run for prime minister when his presidential term is up, moving the center of power from one institution to the other. He would then be free to run for a third, non-consecutive term as president. Or he could have a referendum to eliminate the two-term limit in the Russian constitution, which he would probably win handily.

"The vote affirmed the main idea, that Vladimir Putin in the national leader," said Boris Gryzlov, head of the United Russia Party, which is Mr. Putin's main base of political support. Well, there is no doubt that Russians like strong leaders who help restore their national pride, and it is true that through ruthlessly leveraging Russia's energy wealth, Mr. Putin has put the country back on the map internationally.

But national leadership comes in many shapes. You can be the leader in the mold of Western elected officials whose political power is subject to checks and balances, and who relinquish power in an orderly and predictable fashion. Or you can be a national leader like Joseph Stalin, who even today is held in regard nostalgically by some Russians. There is, unfortunately, no doubt which direction the Putin presidency is taking.

It will now be up to international leaders to let Mr. Putin know that this is not acceptable. By international standards, Russia cannot be called a democracy anymore - as German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked to her credit. She knows something about political repression, having grown up in East Germany. There should be consequences.

Russia, for instance, could be denied a seat in institutions composed of democratic countries. It never actually did belong in the G-8 group of major democratic industrialized countries, and was only invited to join in the 1990s in support of Boris Yeltsin. Disinviting Russia from the G-8 is an option that would have real sting to it, as autocrats like Mr. Putin crave few international respect and deference. At least, it is in our power to deny him that.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times