Monday, December 3, 2007
Russia chooses authoritarianism
It was, as Vladimir Putin has proclaimed the morning after, a "doubtless success." According to official results, his United Russia party won upwards of 64 per cent of the vote in yesterday's Duma elections. According to Vladimir Vladimirovich himself, that translates into 315 of the 450 seats in parliament.
That two-thirds majority in the Duma allows Putin and his acolytes to alter the constitution. They can abolish term limits so that Putin can run again in the presidential vote this spring. They can rename the country Putinistan.
There's no question now that Vladimir Putin will continue to dominate the Russian political scene after his term ends next year. If he doesn't find a way to retain the presidency (and I remain convinced that he will), he'll be the most powerful prime minister Russians have had since the post was created. If he's neither president nor PM, he'll be the man who yanks the strings on both.
It all seems so anti-democratic. And yet, yesterday's election results - and the passivity with which Russians went to the ballot boxes to lend their endorsement to what's going on - reminds us again that Putin has done all this with the consent of the vast majority of Russia's 142 million citizens.
Never mind the weak protests from the OSCE and American-backed NGOs like Golos. The West can kick and scream all it wants (with justification) about media manipulation and suppression of dissent under Putin. But take a drive 100 kilometres outside of Moscow - or better yet, fly to any city east of the Ural Mountains - and you'll see that the liberal elite whose rights we're so concerned with don't represent more than a tiny minority of Russians.
The masses voted for Putin yesterday - and will again if he finds a way to run for president - because their lives are far better now than they were under the Western-sponsored "freedom" and "democracy" of the Boris Yeltsin years. They, like the country, are back on their feet again economically after the economic chaos of the 1990s, and they give Putin nearly all the credit for the turnaround.
(A recent Kommersant examination of the Putin era found that "the country’s history has hardly seen another period when the prosperity of the population improved at such a fast rate." The newspaper reported that Russians' real incomes had grown from 6,087 rubles a year in 2000, the year he took office, to 11,425 in 2006.)
That Putin could preside over eight years that included the Kursk submarine disaster, the Nord-Ost theatre siege debacle and the Beslan school massacre and still be seen as a "stability" president speaks to how disastrous the Yeltsin years - and Western policy towards Russia immediately after the end of the Cold War - really were.
Much has been made of the Kremlin's near-complete control over the airwaves, and rightly so. The fact that most of the country gets little news beyond what they see on state-controlled television has definitely warped the Russian political map in Putin's favour. But whenever I travelled in Siberia and suggested as much to the reputedly brainwashed people who lived in the Russian heartland, they'd scoff indignantly. They're not stupid, was the reply. After decades of living in the Soviet Union, they know when they're being told the truth and when they're not. Better than any Westerner, they can spot propaganda when they see it.
My argument here is not that the elections were "free and fair." I've written just last week about what a fraudulent process this election is. No one can or should believe that 99 per cent of Chechens voted for United Russia, as Ramzan Kadyrov and his thugocrats are claiming.
What I'm saying is that Russians aren't fooled as easily as many seem to think. Rather than rising up and demanding better, they went to the polls yesterday and cast their ballots. By doing so, whether they voted for United Russia or not, they tacitly backed what Putin's been doing, and whatever he'll do next.
Yes, there were instances of intimidation, but so far such reports are few and far between. With far more thought and experience than most outsiders give them credit for, the majority of Russians have chosen resoundingly chosen to back Putin's vision for their country's course.
They've chosen security and oil-fuelled economic growth over freedom and democracy. Likewise, they've backed an independent, often anti-Western course on the international scene rather than bowing to Washington's leadership.
A day after Putin's "doubtless success," it's time the West accepted that, together with all its many implications.
(For more on this theme, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a fascinating interview with the Wall Street Journal, said he supports Putin and the "transitional democracy" he believes Putin is creating. Gorbachev also claims Dick Cheney once admitted to him that the West wanted to keep Russia on his knees. For those without a WSJ account, lawyer-blogger Robert Amsterdam has posted a full transcript here.)