Feature

Russia: Still waiting for democracy

Even for Russia, said Anne Applebaum in Slate.com,

Even for Russia, said Anne Applebaum in Slate.com, “this was a farcical election.” On Sunday, Dmitri Medvedev, 42, became the country’s president-elect, certifying an outcome that was preordained last December. That was when outgoing President Vladimir Putin personally anointed Medvedev, his Kremlin crony, as his successor. You have to wonder why anyone bothered voting at all. The only viable opponent, the liberal former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, was disqualified. Instead, Medvedev was pitted against three carefully picked straw men: “a clapped-out ‘Communist,’ a complete nonentity, and the ludicrous anti-Semite Vladimir Zhirinovsky.” Medvedev held no press conferences, didn’t debate his rivals, and spent only a single day campaigning. Yet he captured 70 percent of the vote. “The Kremlin did not just fix the elections,” said The Economist. “It made a mockery out of the process.”

So much for dreams of a free Russia, said The Boston Globe in an editorial. In his eight years in office, Putin has transformed a fledgling democracy into an authoritarian state that “braids together political, corporate, and secret-police powers.” He is not about to relinquish his grip. When Medvedev, as promised, names Putin prime minister this spring, he’ll likely continue to wield covert power. “The transition, in other words, is fooling no one,” said Adi Ignatius in Time. Yet Russians apparently don’t care. After the malaise and economic chaos of the Yeltsin years, they’ve welcomed the anti-Western bombast and especially the vast oil and gas revenues that have flowed on Putin’s watch. It’s a devil’s bargain: “There will be no democracy, but if you behave, we will give you opportunities to get wealthy.”

Don’t expect any changes under Medvedev, said David Remnick in The New Yorker. Some optimists, noting that the soft-spoken former law professor practices yoga and likes tropical fish, think he’ll be more moderate than his suspicious, steely patron. They should wake up. Medvedev is Putin’s “junior partner,” chosen for his ability to execute his mentor’s wishes. He’s not positioned to be a reformer; Putin has “eliminated or co-opted” all possible opposition, and Medvedev has no power base of his own, in either the military or the security apparatus. “With time, Medvedev may become his own man, but there is no real sign that he will alter Putin’s legacy.”

Still, anything could happen, said The Christian Science Monitor. “Shared leadership is something new for Russia,” and it’s not certain that the Kremlin will continue to march to Putin’s drumbeat once he’s stepped down. For what it’s worth, Medvedev is talking openly of genuine change, pledging to fight corruption, criticizing Russia’s “legal nihilism,” and even endorsing “freedom in all its forms.” It remains to be seen, of course, whether such words reflect genuine convictions. Until now, Medvedev has been “Putin’s lap dog.” The question is whether he “will eventually leap to the ground and discover his own legs.”

The U.S. can’t afford to sit on the sidelines while Russia sorts this all out, said The Washington Post. There’s more at stake here than democracy and human rights. Under Putin, Russia has become a genuine regional concern. It has threatened to target Ukraine and Poland with nukes, bullied Georgia, encouraged Serbian extremists, “and tried to use its control over oil and gas pipelines to Europe as a political weapon.” The West needs Russia’s help to deal with Iran, arms control, and other challenges. At the same time, though, we should stop indulging Russia with G-8 membership and special relationships with NATO and the E.U. An “increasingly belligerent police state” such as Russia need not be treated “as an equal by the world’s leading democracies.”

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