The Magazine

President Putin's Third Term

Russia is a democracy in name only.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Americans might be pardoned for thinking that the presidential race is an out-of-control, ever-lengthening marathon. But defects in our presidential selection process are trivial in comparison with the sinister pantomime that is the March 2008 Russian presidential election.

Under the rule of President Vladimir Putin, political scientists and Kremlin spokesmen have had to invent new terms to describe Russia's system of government. When Putin assumed power in 2000, Russia was said to be a "managed democracy." This was a kinder, gentler label than Putin's own. The former secret policeman had at first declared that his would be a "dictatorship of the law." Unfortunately, he was right, and the emphasis increasingly has been on the dictatorship rather than the law. What was once "managed democracy" is now officially deemed "sovereign democracy."

This "Kremlin coinage," as Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment puts it, "conveys two messages: first, that Russia's regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted, period. Any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia's domestic affairs." In other words, questioning Russia's pretense to being democratic will be greeted as an intolerable attack on Russia's sovereignty.

Russian spokesmen and the Kremlin's professional spinmeisters take full advantage of the fact that the average person elsewhere is largely ignorant of what takes place inside Russia. They try to present the manner in which "sovereign democracy" is practiced in Russia as being just like democracy elsewhere. But it isn't. Kremlin propagandists have to work overtime to maintain the illusion.

Back in early June on WAMU's Diane Rehm talk show, Andrei Sitov, the Washington-based representative for Russia's government-owned and controlled ITAR-TASS news service (and himself a government spokesman pretending to be a correspondent), portrayed the Russian election as analogous to the U.S. race. "There are two frontrunners now," he stated, "the two First Deputy Prime Ministers [Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev]. An intriguing possibility is that [Putin] will say 'I endorse both--you choose'--the Russian people choose." Sitov went on to explain how these two would be promoting themselves to the Russian electorate just as American presidential candidates would do after the two parties have completed their nomination process.

At which point the U.S. commentators cried foul, explaining that Medvedev, a St. Petersburg lawyer and former head of Putin's administration, and Ivanov, the former defense minister and an old KGB crony of Putin's, are members of the same ruling cabal that has been progressively tightening its grip on Russia.

A comparable situation in America, clarified Stanford's Michael McFaul, would be "if George W. Bush decided that Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice would be the two candidates and all opposition Democratic candidates would not be allowed to run. Second, all of the television stations from which Russians get their political news are either owned or controlled by the state. These are the reforms that Putin has instituted as president of Russia."

Unfortunately, this type of debate takes place only too rarely, and when it does, it's almost always somewhere outside of Russia. One of the few who has spoken out is the well-known reform politician Boris Nemtsov, who was a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and later served as an adviser to Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution. In a piece that he wrote last week for Russia's respected Vedomosti newspaper, Nemtsov pulled no punches: