TIME magazine has named Russian President Vladimir Putin the “Person of the Year” for 2007, although the writers took great care to stress that they are not honoring or endorsing him, just acknowledging the tremendous influence that he has on world events. TIME also notes that while Russia has somewhat receded from the American public awareness over
the last decade, it has not ceded its effort to remain a major player on the world stage. On top of that, the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, questioned whether recent political moves by Putin are evidence of a retrograde from democracy and a return to a more authoritarian, potentially more dangerous, force.
In short, Mr. Putin, who is arguably the richest man in Russia with a myriad of hidden investments estimated at over $40B in net worth, has arranged to stay in power despite term limits by leaving the presidency and becoming Prime Minister. According to the WSJ, the changes “would effectively cement Mr. Putin’s one-man control over a Russian political system of his own creation. The former KGB agent now commands a platform from which he can influence not only the course of his nation’s history, but the world’s.”
On the one hand, Mr. Putin’s moves appear to continue an autocratic trend. As Serge Schemmann, in a recent New York Times editorial, noted, “No Soviet leader ever left office voluntarily. Most simply died, and the two who did not — Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev — were forced out.” So perhaps Mr. Putin is simply doing the obvious, retaining power. On the other hand, he makes an a different claim, which is worthy of some consideration. “Mr. Putin, for his part, insists that he is building democracy at a pace suitable to a country with a centuries-old tradition of autocracy,” says WSJ.
Also from the WSJ, in further explanation,
Kremlin officials argue that Russian voters are still too tainted by decades of communist rule to be relied on to make responsible choices in the voting booth. “We’re a very leftist country that’s not the least bit concerned with obeying the law,” said one. “When our American colleagues talk about democracy, freedom of the press and such, they don’t understand at all.”
And, Putin claims
Russia would need “strong presidential power” for years to come. Parliamentary democracy — of the type tried in the early 1990s — would be “very dangerous” for Russia . . . for at least another decade. “Without internal discipline, and without ideology to unite people, it all leads to chaos.”
This assertion made is rather shocking. That is, Mr. Putin implies that a democratic form of government might not be the appropriate government form of government at this time for Russia. It is a conversation rarely heard in the “developed” world, particularly in the United States. Whether the country is Iraq, Myanmar, or Afghanistan, there seems to be an assumption that democracy is always good&mdashif only the despots, tyrants, and power mongers that are currently in power will acquiesce and allow it. For example, in the WSJ, rather than allowing the possibility that Mr. Putin might have a point, the situation is posed as a choice between “was he a true believer in democracy who later became disillusioned? Or was he infiltrating a nascent democratic movement to undermine it?” There is no suggestion that he might be a realist who is adjusting the structure of government to fit the national culture.
The general assumption, particularly by the Bush administration, is that “people seek liberty” and will therefore embrace democracy if it is offered to them. But, in reality the beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors of a population are shaped through their socio-historical journey. At the very least, democracy requires that its citizens have the ability to trust institutions to more or less act fairly and in the citizen’s best interest; it also requires people to follow laws and to preserve the general principles of democracy, such as freedom of religion and speech. Yet, in many, many countries, centuries of authoritarian rule and corruption have taught them something quite different. Instead, the people have learned only to trust certain people who they follow and expect protection from in return. They have learned that institutions do not have to follow laws and may egregiously violate laws with impunity.
For an enlightening exploration of how the a history of nomadic, decentralized tribes in the Middle East teaches them a completely different way of looking at the world than is typically understood in the West, see Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem: Revised Edition. He provides an astonishing perspective of how actions that seem obvious and commonsense in the West make little sense to a middle easterner.
,Similarly, Adam Seligman, in The Idea of Civil Society describes in detail how religious traditions also influence the the establishment of a civil society that can support a democratic government. With regard to Eastern Europe, he says,
The establishment of civil society is, however, threatened by precisely the continued existence of ethnic solidarities whose terms of individual membership and relations to society at large as well as to the State are not defined solely by such interests and instrumental-rational modes of behavior. Quite the opposite. The continuity of ethnic loyalties and solidarities (and so also the potential for ethnic exclusion) within groups undercuts the very definition of universal citizenship within the nation-state upon which the former (Western) type of interest group is based (p. 164 – 165).
In the language of systems theory, a stable human system comprises a configuration of mutually supportive elements. So in a very basic model of a democratic society, civil society must produce behavior that supports rule by law, and the government function must in turn fairly administrate justice and protect rights. This model exposes the challenge of installing a new government “on top” of an old one, because the governed must also change their behavior at the same time. Given a long past experience of persecution, oppression, and corruption mixed with values that prefer one’s own religion and suspect outsiders, it is very difficult for a country to suddenly become democratic. Becoming a democracy might be better thought of as an evolutionary process.
So perhaps before deciding that Mr. Putin is making a power grab or undermining Russian democracy, we should consider if is position has merit. I’m not saying that he isn’t trying to consolidate his power or hasn’t done some brutal things, but he might also be doing what it takes to continue Russia as a stable system. Moreover, if we understand that democracy might not be right for everyone at point in history, perhaps it leads to new thinking about what should be happening with the U. S. effort in Iraq and to spread democracy around the world.