White House officials viewed election results in Russia with mild alarm, murmuring without attribution of a “retreat from democracy.” What the election results demonstrated, however, was that democracy is not enough.
Democracy is simply a way of choosing rulers. For people to have a fighting chance of living in a decent society, it is also important to have a civil society strong enough to provide a curb on government power, a conception of limited government and the institutions of and respect for the rule of law.
There is still a chance those concepts and institutions will grow in Russia. For now, however, the London Telegraph headline — “Putin to assume the power of a Tsar” — while somewhat exaggerated is not all that far off the mark.
Perhaps Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies for the Cato Institute, was closer when he said Russia’s system is like “Boss Tweed-style democracy, with the form of elections but really a rigged game.” He noted that Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, which got 37.1 percent of the vote, has become adept at using the power of the state to buy or influence votes.
Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noting the same use of state influence on the electoral process, said, “Whether we should continue to call it democracy, I don’t know. I am less and less confident that one should.”
But using state power to influence votes is a matter of degree in a democratic system. Who can doubt that President Bush’s lobbying for the recently passed Medicare bill, or every president’s strategic use of government contracts, is at least partially geared toward influencing electoral outcomes?
Among the factors that temper the impulse to use the people’s money to buy their votes are a free and aggressive press, an independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law, and the kind of skeptical attitude toward politics and political leaders that is characteristic of a thriving civil society. Russia, a dozen years after emerging from totalitarian communism, has none of these factors in abundance.
It looks as if Putin can hold power as long as the Russian economy keeps growing. Whether such growth will contribute to the development of the kind of civil society that will eventually undermine the kind of autocratic power he prefers to wield is still up in the air.