Vladimir Putin has penned an article in Kommersant today outlining his vision of Russian democracy. Just try to make it through the opening lines and not laugh:
Real democracy cannot be created overnight and cannot be a carbon copy of some external example. Society must be completely ready for using democratic mechanisms. The majority of people must see themselves as citizens of their country, ready to devote their attention, time and efforts on a regular basis to taking part in the process of governance. In other words, democracy is effective only when people are ready to invest something in it.
Read the late Anna Politkovskaya’s book on Putin’s Russia for a catalog of the ways in which Putin’s regime has dismantled democratic norms and liberal freedoms and of the taste of the ‘civil society’ of which Putin would like to deepen in Russia, first as president from 2000 to 2008 (and then as prime minister from 2008 to present). The lack of respect for freedom of the press so infects Russia today that Politkovskaya and other courageous journalists have lost their lives or have been forced into asylum abroad for their efforts.
The Russian presidential election, scheduled for March 4, has all the marks of a rigged affair.
Only five candidates were permitted to ‘register,’ including the perennial Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the comically-named Liberal Democratic Party. In the sour days of the 1990s, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky presented a true challenge to Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in what was arguably the only election this side of “fair and free” in Russia’s history. In the ensuing 16 years, both Zyuganov and Zhirinivosky have both been co-opted and cooperated with Putin’s regime. If it weren’t pathetic enough that the same opposition figures from 1996 remain to challenge Putin (imagine Barack Obama facing reelection against Bob Dole and Ross Perot), these two have essentially been reduced to comic book villains by the standards of any real political measurement.
Notably, longtime liberal reformer Grigory Yavlisnky was barred from standing in the race.
Two other candidates remain, including the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who made his fortune on the basis of the privatization of Norilsk Nickel in northern Russia, one of the world’s largest nickel mining operations. Now one of the richest billionaires in Russia (he owns the New Jersey Nets!), Prokhorov is speaking out in a way that’s been virtually unheard of since 2003, when another oligarch, Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was imprisoned in what virtually all internaltional observers describe as an unfair trial. The Khodorkovsky crackdown had a chilling effect on speech in Russia, and it sent many of the oligarchs who benefitted from the Yeltsin era running to safety abroad. That Prokhorov is allowed to continue to speak out, combined with his prior coziness with the Putin regime, leads liberal reformers in Russia, such as blogger and Putin critic Alexei Navalny, to scoff that he is a Trojan-horse candidate — he is being allowed to stand for election to distract from any genuine opposition.
(For more background on Prokhorov, watch this hilarious interview from 60 Minutes when he bought the Nets).
The remaining candidate, Sergei Mironov, was until very recently, a strong Putin ally. A fuller BBC rundown of each candidate is here.
All of which leaves… no real contest to speak of, with no true candidate representing a threat to the current Putin regime. As the race develops, Putin has already ruled out debating his opponents, even while he proclaims a new dawn for Russian democracy.
But at least he’s taken a bold stand on the key issue of the day.