Let the Russians sort out Russia
By Rodric Braithwaite
March 11 2008
Now that we have endured all the speculation about how Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president, will turn out (we will know soon enough, won’t we?), we should look more closely at a much contested question: are the Russians even capable of democracy?
Many people – both here and there – argue that the Russians have no democratic tradition, that they prefer the iron hand of the autocrat, that the place is too big, too heterogeneous and too disorderly to be ruled any other way. Vladimir Putin is more subtle: he believes that the Russians are not yet ready for democracy, that they need to be brought to it by a managed process, lest everything collapse in chaos. He reminds one of the British, who argued that Indian independence must be postponed until the natives were capable of governing themselves.
Given the chance, the Russians – like the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Pakistanis and others – turn out in large numbers to express their views through the ballot box. That is not enough, of course, to establish a working democracy in any country. But the result may well be a genuine expression of the popular view. Most ordinary Russians, thoroughly inoculated against the western model by the chaos, humiliation, poverty and corruption of the Yeltsin years and angered by endless hectoring and ill-conceived advice from the west, are willing to pay a price in democracy for the stability and growing prosperity that have accompanied the Putin years. So in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections they twice voted heavily for a continuation of the “Putin system”. In the circumstances, that was a rational choice.
The Russian government manipulated the electoral process – outrageously – to get the right result: a curious sign of Putin’s weakness, not his strength, since no one doubted that most people would vote the way the government wanted, for their own good reasons. Nevertheless both elections had a certain legitimacy despite the obvious flaws. The voters were offered a choice on March 2 and many of them took it. One in five voted for Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran Communist – nearly twice as many as predicted. One in 10 voted for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the rightwing political showman. We may not like these results – it is always disconcerting when people fail to vote the way you think they should. But it is very different from what happened in Kazakhstan in 2006, when President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who had been in power for 17 years, was re-elected for another seven by 95 per cent of the voters.
Democracy is about throwing the rascals out and most Russians are reconciled to their current rascals. It was different in March 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev organised the first contested elections in any Warsaw Pact country, under an electoral system of mind-boggling complexity designed to preserve the Communist party’s monopoly of power. But the voters recognised the rascals all right. They voted tactically and with great sophistication to throw out the bosses of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, a quarter of the regional party secretaries, a heap of generals and a large number of unpleasant people throughout Russia.
This remarkable democratic experiment then went wrong for a number of reasons: the sense of national humiliation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ensuing poverty, the inability of the liberal intelligentsia (the self-styled “conscience of the nation”) to agree on any effective course of action, the determination of the hard men in the army and the party to get their own back.
That does not mean the Russians are “genetically” incapable of democracy. Their history and their culture are not propitious: Russia has indeed for most of its history been a closed and imperial autocracy. But here, too, the Indian example is instructive. A country with a far larger population, an even more heterogeneous culture and an unbroken history of autocratic and imperial rule has run a remarkably successful democracy for the past 60 years.
Although Russians today do not enjoy our kind of democracy, they do enjoy an unprecedented, if precarious, degree of personal prosperity, of access to information, of freedom to travel and even – within limits – to express their views. To argue that they cannot go on to construct their own version of democracy is a kind of racism. It may take decades, even generations; the construction of democracy always does. But if the Indians can do it, so can the Russians.
George Kennan, that great Russia-watcher, got it right when he wrote in 1951, at the height of the cold war: “When Soviet power has run its course . . . let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of ‘democrats’. Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good.”
It is the wisest advice – blissfully ignored by our policymakers who, like latter-day Christian missionaries, believe that we have a duty to spread the gospel of democracy, if necessary by military force (for which they are unwilling to pay). Not only Russians find that proposition distinctly suspect.
Sir Rodric was British Ambassador in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union. His latest book is Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War (Profile Books, 2006)