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Authoritarian “democracy” in Russia

February 25, 2008

Is authoritarianism gaining a new lease on life?

Clifford Levy’s coverage of Russia’s politics in the New York Times makes the situation crystal-clear: Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia, are determined to govern without opposition, and are fully prepared to use all the forms of intimidation and coercion that are necessary in order to succeed (article). The use of bogus charges and show trials against potential rivals is familiar from the example of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, former boss of the Yukos gas monopoly. (See the Amnesty International dossier on this case; dossier.) The arrest of Gary Kasparov prior to the recent elections is another example.

What Levy’s coverage this week adds to this highly publicized willingness to use the power of the state and judiciary against rivals, is a similar heavy-handedness on the ground. Levy documents the party machine’s use of its power to compel supporting votes from auto workers through threats made by the foremen; the machine’s use of school children to coerce the votes of their parents and to monitor their political choices; and the use of intimidation and harassment to silence the activities of one of Russia’s few opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces. Quoting Levy from this article, “Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin’s wishes.” Why is this a problem?

First, it is a huge problem for the political rights of ordinary Russian citizens. Citizens cannot freely decide what candidate or party to support — both because their own behavior as voters is supervised, and because they can’t gain access to organized voices advocating for alternative policies. This silencing of opposition parties means a limitation of the agenda of discourse to the issues and candidates favored by the ruling party. And this means that the ability of ordinary citizens to have a meaningful voice in the large policy choices that the Russian government inevitably will make is reduced to a blade of grass.

But Putin’s willingness to use authoritarian power to control democratic activities also means that Russian citizens are much less able to advocate for very simple local issues and needs — environmental change, better transportation, better education. This is because every effort to organize in support of a local priority or need becomes, potentially, a sign of potential dissidence. And as such, it needs to be repressed. So activism around common local issues — environment, transportation, education — is also silenced.

A third harm that is created by this authoritarian rule, is the fact that it shelters the ability of powerful interests to continue their exploitation of the Russian economy. One of the social mechanisms through which corruption and criminal behavior by large companies are detected and deterred is the operation of investigative journalism and a free press. But Putin’s rough treatment of the media and the press is well known; so investigating public or private corruption is a dangerous activity. (How dangerous it is, we know, when we consider the string of killings of investigative journalists on Putin’s watch; see the article in Business Week on this subject.)

Some conservative observers in Russia say that the Russian people want a strong, effective government, and this requires strong measures. But this is untenable on its face. If people genuinely wanted the government and policies of Putin’s party, then open and free elections would be easily won. So the behavior of the state actually expresses a deep lack of confidence in the democratic acceptability of the policies of the party.

Finally, it is hard to see how Russia can develop into the modern European state that it wants to be, without genuinely subordinating itself to meaningful democratic institutions and individual rights. Russia will be a stronger society and, in the long run, a more innovative and creative society, when it recognizes the ultimate responsibility of a state: to preserve the rights and liberties of its citizens and to respect their will through fair and free democratic processes.

We may have thought that the book has been written on authoritarian government in the twentieth century. But Vladimir Putin is writing new chapters, and they add up to a tragedy for the Russian people.

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