Lessons from Russia on perils of pushing democratization too fast

February 08, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

IN HIS STATE of the Union address, President Bush renewed his pledge to support democratic movements in "the Middle East and beyond."

The notion of bringing democracy to the Arabs has become the verbal centerpiece of the administration's strategy to fight terrorism.

In practice, the advent of Mideast democracy will be a long time coming, irrespective of successful elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

That does not mean the concept should be disparaged. But if their efforts are to be more than propaganda, U.S. officials ought to take a hard look at the Russian experiment with democracy and deduce why it is failing.

The administration often holds up the democracies that emerged from communism as proof that the Middle East can create democratic institutions in countries that have known only authoritarian rulers.

Russia, led by Mr. Bush's ally, Vladimir V. Putin, still has democratic trappings. But after a brief post-communist flowering of free press and political competition in the 1990s, the Russian Federation has reverted to an authoritarian state.

I spoke about this tragedy with Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the last independent liberals in the Duma, who at one time was its first deputy chairman. Mr. Ryzhkov was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which used to see a large annual delegation of Russian economic reformers and businessmen in attendance.

That number has shrunk since the Kremlin jailed leading Russian oilman Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, purportedly for tax evasion, but in reality because he dared to finance and encourage political opposition to Mr. Putin. Since then, Russian businessmen keep their profiles low and their mouths shut, and their presence was barely visible in Davos this year.

"The political scene in Russia is very strange and dangerous," Mr. Ryzhkov told me. The Duma, the legislature, has been totally muzzled. New laws make it almost impossible to form a new political party. The only way to raise money for such a party is from the business community. But after the experience of Mr. Khodorkovsky, "business understands very clearly," Mr. Ryzhkov says, "that if you support a party, you will be arrested."

Those who oppose the government can also be in physical danger. "In October, one of my assistants was invited to the [secret police] office," Mr. Ryzhkov recalled. "One officer said, `Let Ryzhkov be careful.' I don't exclude physical pressure against me."

Meanwhile, in a huge nation where few can afford newspapers and most get their news from television, the government has taken control of national networks away from the former private owners.

"All TV is under the control of the Kremlin," Mr. Ryzhkov says. "From morning to night is propaganda which speaks of Putin's successes and how bad is the opposition."

Mr. Putin's pursuit of Mr. Khodorkovsky has destroyed business confidence, leading to a massive outflow of capital and increasing Russia's economic dependence on oil. In fact, says Mr. Ryzhkov, Russia is coming to resemble an authoritarian Middle Eastern oil state.

Russians soured on "democracy" because their old communist institutions collapsed too fast, leaving many people impoverished.

In the rush to establish free markets, pushed by U.S. advisers, Russia privatized state assets overnight. This created a new class of super-rich oligarchs but left millions of ordinary Russians without jobs or savings.

Unfamiliar with free institutions, Russians came to associate the term "democracy" with chaos and criminality. Mr. Putin won popularity with a populist pledge to restore order and prosperity.

The lesson for democracy-building in Iraq and elsewhere?

Rapid change and chaotic conditions can create a yearning for order that trumps any desire for abstractions such as democracy.

Also, elections alone do not a democracy make. The march toward democracy is a long process that will be colored by a country's history and culture.

Mr. Ryzhkov believes that outside pressure can still help Russia. Russians look to the West, he says. They will be receptive to U.S. and European criticism of Mr. Putin for squelching the institutions that can bring them closer to membership in Europe. So Mr. Bush should keep talking to Mr. Putin about "Western values" and urge a more open system for Russia.

But Americans should be aware of how internal dynamics can affect democratic progress in a country such as Russia. All the more so for Iraq.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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