The Russian lesson

December 04, 2007

The Venezuelan embassy in Moscow is an unobtrusive pink building on a quiet side street a mile or so from the Kremlin, but we imagine the staff there is going to be plenty busy in the weeks ahead. The question from Caracas must be: How does he do it? The "he," in this case, would be Vladimir V. Putin, and the "do it" his ability to wield so much unchallenged power.

Even as the price of a barrel has skidded down to $88, the world is poised to witness the emergence of what might be called "Oil Democracy," a new form of national management in which the managers buy off the voters with the easy money of petroleum exports but maintain the hollow rituals of representative government.

Both Russia and Venezuela are major oil producers, and both are stuffed with cash. The governments of both countries have made sure that the benefits are liberally shared with the people - not all the benefits, to be sure, but at times like this there's money to spare. And it goes around.

Both countries, too, had important elections Sunday that were widely seen as referenda on their respective leaders. But here's where Russia showed itself to be the more sophisticated of the two. President Putin is actually stepping down from office next March, yet his name and his portrait were everywhere, floating as if above the fray, and his party's landslide victory gives him the means to hold onto power in one form or another after his term is over.

Contrast that with Hugo Chavez, who had bluntly asked the Venezuelan people to change their constitution so that he could keep running for re-election. His current term isn't even up until 2012, and voters may have reflected that giving someone a license to make a bald power grab several years into the future might not be so wise.

Mr. Chavez also wanted constitutional changes that would push the country toward an embrace of socialism, but a large number of Venezuelans seemed to sense that the good life is finally setting in - and who wants to trade that for the Cuban model? (Paradoxically, the poor in Caracas are struggling with inflated food prices, but to many other Venezuelans that just looks like a consequence of governmental incompetence.)

Mr. Putin, on the other hand, stays away from ideological labels. He's not about any belief; he's about strength and orderliness and respect for Russia. He also isn't recklessly rewriting the constitution; power in Russia is not so blind that it can't find its way around the constitution if it needs to. Everything is managed, especially the politics, and this is how Mr. Putin can "do it."

Mr. Chavez is the cruder of the two. He lost Sunday because a sufficient number of Venezuelans were leery of his plans. But unlike Mr. Putin, he also lost because he neglected to rig the vote. The fractured opposition finally came together; many thousands of his supporters stayed home. Venezuela showed itself to have the healthier democracy.

"Dissent has its place in unity - that is what we should now accept in our country: unity in diversity," said a Chavez ally, retired Gen. Raul Baduel. That's good advice for any democracy, our own included. But we doubt Mr. Putin will ever heed it, and we fear that Mr. Chavez will try to learn from the Russian's example.

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