Democracy, Soviet-style

The Economist
October 4, 2007
THE timing was surely no accident. On October 1st newspapers in Moscow were idly speculating over who might be Ukraine’s prime minister after yet another indecisive election. This was the moment when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, chose to announce that he would head the pro-Kremlin United Russia party’s list in the general election in December, adding that it was “entirely realistic” that he might become prime minister when his presidency ends in March.

This tale of two prime ministers speaks volumes for the state of democracy in the two neighbours that sprang from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Mr Putin’s slide into autocracy since he became Russia’s president in December 1999 is well documented, as are his background in and his zealous promotion of the Russian secret service. In nearly eight years in the Kremlin he has crushed opposition, stripped regional governments of their autonomy, reasserted state control of Russia’s energy resources and eliminated most independent media.

Yet thanks to the stability that he has brought, and even more to oil-and-gas-fired growth, Mr Putin remains extremely popular with ordinary Russians. Indeed, the only real question among Moscow’s chattering classes this year has been how he will retain his grip on power after next March, since the constitution sets a limit of two consecutive terms for a president. Now that question has been answered (see article). Wary of a crude constitutional change, and keen to avoid unflattering comparisons to the presidents-for-life of central Asian ex-Soviet republics, Mr Putin will find a placeman to stand for president (perhaps the man he just plucked out of obscurity to be his own prime minister, Viktor Zubkov). He himself will then take the post of prime minister, which he held briefly in 1999, probably with enhanced powers. After a decent interval, he could then return to the Kremlin as president.

Nowhere in these manoeuvrings is there a trace of democracy as understood and practised in the West: it is far more reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. Mr Putin’s supporters maintain that Russians are not ready for liberal democracy, preferring their tradition of a benevolent dictator/tsar. They contrast the stability and prosperity of the Putin years with the chaos and poverty of the Yeltsin years. Some go further, echoing Mr Putin’s view that, even if nobody wants to return to communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union was still the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the late 20th century.
The Ukrainian model

Many Russians also point gleefully to the chaotic politics of Ukraine as just what they want to avoid. In fact Ukraine offers them a proud example. It is true that the country’s politics has been messy since the “orange revolution” of late 2004 propelled Viktor Yushchenko into the presidency, ahead of Russia’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovich; that Ukraine’s wealthy business clans have too much political influence; and that corruption is entrenched (as it is in Russia).

Yet the election on September 30th was still a thoroughly democratic and unpredictable affair, more honestly conducted than any before it. After some hard bargaining, it seems likely to produce a new orange coalition government (see article). There is no longer serious talk of the country breaking apart: all political parties want to move closer to Europe. Unlike Russia, Ukraine now has independent media, a real opposition and the prospect of a genuine presidential contest in 2009. It also has a fast-growing economy that is likely to get into the World Trade Organisation before Russia does.

What can the West do to promote the democratic cause in the post-Soviet space? The answer in Russia is: not much. Mr Putin is sensitive to outside criticism, but not enough to make him more democratic. Western economic leverage over Russia is limited. Indeed, the bigger risk is that the Russians’ stranglehold on gas supplies to Europe is putting more leverage into their hands. Tellingly, the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, this week again threatened to cut supplies to Ukraine.

But the West could do more to foster and encourage fledgling democracies in places such as Ukraine and Georgia, through better trade access, more favourable visa arrangements and stronger support in the face of Russian bullying. The European Union would also do these countries a huge favour if it were willing to hold out the prospect, however distant, of their becoming members. This has worked wonders in central and eastern Europe, and in the Baltics—there is no reason why it should not do so in other bits of the former Soviet Union. Above all, the successful establishment of working democracy in countries like Ukraine offers the best hope of one day luring Russia down the same road.