A singular vision

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 20/11/07):

Russia’s parliamentary elections, on December 2, pose the first big test for the system of “managed democracy” pioneered by Vladimir Putin.

Judging by the latest opinion polls, everything is going perfectly – from his government’s point of view.

The president’s party, United Russia, is set to win a landslide victory, with about 60% of the vote. The liberal opposition will be routed, while modest success for the Communist rump will add authenticity to the proceedings. And Putin, who is ostensibly stepping down next March after two terms, will be free to pick his next job.

Whether his new post is prime minister, president emeritus, chief executive of Russia Inc or simply resident Kremlin eminence grise, in the manner of Ivan Grozny, does not really signify. Upwards of 80% of Russians firmly expect Putin will continue as chief guide and arbiter of the nation’s fate; over 50% would make him president for life.

So well managed is Putin’s “managed democracy” (aka “sovereign democracy”) that political opponents wonder aloud whether there is any point in having elections at all.

That may be the next step. But for now, the Duma polls are a test bed, of sorts, for March’s presidential elections.

Many suspect that, if Putin has his way, Russia’s next president will be an easily manipulated nobody plucked from his predecessor’s pocket. Fairly or not, the placeman most likely to succeed is said to be Viktor Zubkov, elevated from obscurity to the prime minister’s office in September. His chief political quality is loyalty.

Putinism, as the managed democracy phenomenon is coming to be known, depends on firm central control of all the main levers of power and influence – and is thus not dissimilar to some Soviet era “isms” of varying respectability. According to Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, the system has been gradually refined since 2004, when Putin won re-election.

“Increased regulation of political parties, civil society and NGOs, the cancellation of elections for regional governors, changes to the Duma election procedures, and raising the threshold for parties to win parliamentary seats are all measures that have advanced this cynical approach,” Kasyanov said.

Absolute, centralised controls on internal security forces, on expanded state monopolies and on the electronic mass media were also part of Putinism’s toolbox, he said. Anti-democratic trends at home had been mirrored in foreign policy during the same period, for example by Moscow’s attempts to manipulate Ukraine’s elections and its unhelpful stance on Iranian sanctions. And the decision to withhold visas from international election observers was typical of the new chauvinism.

Speaking to the Russia Foundation in London today, Kasyanov warned that a “KGB spirit” was dominating and haunting his country. If Russian voters and the outside world “swallowed” parliamentary elections that were certain to be deeply flawed, and accepted the theft of the presidential poll as well, then a “dark totalitarian future” awaited Russia.

Kasyanov said his People for Democracy and Justice party was in talks with other opposition groups, including Yabloko and Garry Kasparov’s Other Russia, to try to agree a shared platform and a single presidential candidate. If a united front was achieved, he said, it could command more than 20% support.

“There is still a hope that the presidential election can be ‘normal’,” he said. But he did not appear very optimistic. Even if the Kremlin juggernaut fails to crush them entirely, Russia’s opposition parties, notorious for internecine feuding, may do the job themselves.

Just as Russia once exported Marxist revolution, it may now be creating an international market for Putinism. While the western democracies have grown vociferous in their criticism of Russia’s subversive state, “managed democracy” is gaining a growing number of fans elsewhere.

Former Soviet republics in Azerbaijan, Belarus and central Asia are following fashions set in Moscow. Developing countries such as Venezuela and numerous African and Asian states are swinging that way, too.

More often than not, instinctively undemocratic, oligarchic and corrupt national elites find that an appearance of democracy, with parliamentary trappings and a pretence of pluralism and transparency, is much more attractive, and manageable, than the real thing.

Putinism, as it is now evolving, fundamentally challenges American assumptions that the 21st century will see the inevitable triumph of “western values”. In Putin’s controlled, shuttered world, liberal democracy is a plot, not an opportunity. He will certainly “win” next month’s election battle. And his brainchild could yet win the wider war.