by Tyler Roylance
Last week, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin published an article—in the business newspaper Kommersant and, in shortened form, in the Washington Post—on the topic of “democracy and the quality of government.” Skeptical readers may scoff at the idea, but the fact that the Russian leadership devoted time and resources to the piece makes it worth investigating.
It is clear from Putin’s article that he is responding to the antigovernment protests and online activism that have flowered since the fraudulent State Duma elections of December 4. He repeatedly endorses civic participation, declaring, “Democracy is effective only when people are ready to invest something in it.” He explains and takes credit for the new spirit of activism: “Many people have become more prosperous, are better educated and are therefore more critical.…This is what we wanted to achieve.”
He contrasts this “maturity” with the bad old days of the 1990s, when “our society consisted of people who had been freed from communist dogma but had not yet learned to be the masters of their destinies, who still waited for benefits from the state, often yielded to the temptation of illusions and had not yet learned to stand up against manipulation.” That time has come and gone, but today, “the quality of governance in Russia lags behind the readiness of civil society to participate in it.…We need to modernize the mechanisms of our democracy so that they correspond to this increase in social activity.”
What follows is a laundry list of proposals that seem reasonable enough in their own right, but are totally inadequate, fail to address core problems, and often repeat ideas offered in other speeches and articles over the last 12 years.
For instance, on the political front, Putin suggests easing registration requirements for political parties and candidates, specifically with respect to signature collection. But the regime has tinkered with such rules many times before, with little tangible result other than the exclusion of Putin’s potential opponents (as occurred most recently with liberal presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinksy). In his first annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2008, Medvedev proposed guaranteeing Duma seats for small parties, abolishing the requirement of financial deposits to run in elections, and of course, “we should also discuss the gradual reduction of the number of voters’ signatures that need to be collected for participation in the elections to the State Duma.”
Similarly, earnest pledges to tackle Russia’s rampant, systemic corruption have been repeated many times, to little effect. In terms of specific proposals, Putin’s article states that officials must “agree to absolute transparency, including their spending and any large family purchases.” Medvedev in 2008 called for officials to “provide additional information on their incomes and assets, including assets belonging to family members.”
Responding tacitly to the question of why they have not acted sooner in their long period in power, Putin and Medvedev have often declared that Russian society is reaching a “new stage in its development,” as in the Putin article’s statement, “Now that we are at a new stage of our development, we are bringing back direct elections of governors.” The phrase has appeared in some form in many of the past years’ presidential addresses to parliament. The idea is that democratization is a long, evolutionary process, the pace and course of which is determined unilaterally by a permanent executive. This fundamental misunderstanding of democracy carries echoes of the inexorable march toward pure communism, guided by the visionary leaders of the Soviet Communist Party.
In addition to holding the latest proposals up against those of the past, we can contrast Putin’s article with his recent personal utterances. For example, even as he praises civic activism in writing, he mocks protesters’ white ribbons by saying they resemble condoms. And though he claims to welcome a more educated and critical population, he attacks a respected critical radio station, Ekho Moskvy, for pouring “diarrhea over me day and night.” A few weeks after the latter remark, the state-controlled owner of the station dissolved its board of directors.
The article’s assertions also clash with the reality of the regime’s performance. Its characterizations of the Yeltsin era, meant to make the Putin era seem better by comparison, actually sound very much like the present: “an under-the-carpet power struggle among clans and a feudal system with officials eking a living from their posts”; “arbitrariness by self-appointed ‘elites,’ who flagrantly disregarded the interests of the common people”; “a situation where democracy is nothing but a front, where government by the people is reduced to a political entertainment show.”
Many statements are simply head-scratchers. On the new demands of the “information age,” Putin writes, “A huge, ever-increasing number of Russians are already accustomed to receiving information instantly by the press of a button. Freely available and, more importantly, uncensored information on the situation in the country naturally motivates people to participate in policy-making and governance on a regular basis.” This appears to be a reference to the effects of the internet, with the implication that other media have been censored. If so, whose fault is that? The notion of press freedom is never mentioned directly.
The anesthetizing technique exhibited by this article has worked in the past because the target audience—which certainly includes foreign investors and policymakers—wants to believe what it is being told. Understandably, people would prefer to believe that Russia’s leaders (and China’s, for that matter) have things well in hand, or at least that they might and should therefore be given more time. To think otherwise would demand action, intervention, setting aside one’s own affairs. Nevertheless, many Russians have proven of late that they are ready for action and unwilling to be mollified any longer. Those watching from abroad should do the same.