Wrong in Russia

December 09, 2003

WHEN ARE ELECTIONS bad for democracy? When they're held the way Russia just held its nationwide vote for a new parliament.

Candidates who opposed the Kremlin's puppet party, United Russia, were tossed off the ballot. Campaign literature was confiscated. Television and the press relentlessly favored United Russia, and ignored the other parties. On Sunday, the day of the vote, there were local pockets of outright fraud. With turnout fairly low, United Russia and allied parties emerged as big winners.

President Vladimir V. Putin said the results show the progress of democracy. That is wrong. European and American observers pointed out the shortcomings of the vote, and said that Russia still has to work on the democratization process. That's not wrong, but it misses the point. Russia, in fact, is headed in the wrong direction.

Mr. Putin has pursued a quiet, non-contentious and surprisingly sophisticated program to push Russia back into authoritarianism. Tax inspectors find unexpected irregularities in the business operations of certain newspaper publishers; the violent deaths of a few outspoken members of parliament go unsolved; an oil baron who got too rich winds up in jail.

Soon, in a system like this, there's no dissent to speak of, even though you'd be hard-pressed to point to an actual crackdown. Whatever it is, it's not democracy.

Mr. Putin is clearly popular among Russians, and is a cinch to win re-election in March. That's not so amazing, considering that he has the media completely on his side and has intimidated most local office-holders into supporting him. He successfully portrays criticism of his administration as politics - and Russians are sick of politics, after the upheavals and failures they have witnessed since 1989 or so.

This still couldn't work, though, but for two things: Oil at $31 a barrel, and a low-grade war in Chechnya.

Russia sells a lot of oil, and that high price means that government coffers are full and prosperity beckons.

At the same time, Chechnya serves nicely to instill a little fear into Russians' hearts, a fear of spreading chaos, disorder and national disintegration.

All this matters to the United States because American interests, particularly in the Caspian and Central Asia, rub right up against Russia's. Three ex-Soviet republics - Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan - currently host U.S. military deployments, with less than solid acquiescence by Moscow. A resurgence of Russian authoritarianism, and the nationalism that inevitably goes with it, demand careful and skeptical handling by Washington, even as the more prominent struggle with Islamic extremism continues.

But the greatest danger is to Russia itself. Mr. Putin seems to want a country that enjoys the prestige and wealth of the European democracies without the messiness of actual democracy, the rule of law, free speech or an independent judiciary. There's an inherent contradiction there. Russia is shutting off the healthy debate that any country needs if it is to develop and prosper. The years ahead promise trouble.

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