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A Tale of Two Democracies

I had to laugh over the weekend when the BBC website started reporting, under its dramatic "Breaking News" logo, "Putin party leads in Russian elections". (Never underestimate the power of 24-hour news media to wring every possible drop of drama even out of statements of the fucking obvious.) The aforementioned election campaign lacked just about every one of the components of a real democratic process; in the absence of any discussion of policies or clash of ideologies, with opposition politicians being arrested simply for holding meetings and the media abandoning any pretence of impartiality, it may occasionally have looked like an election – even, from time to time, sounded like an election – but Russia's parliamentary polls were irredeemably phoney, a pale shadow of the real thing. It was rather like watching Gus Van Sant's pointless remake of Psycho; we knew we were supposed to be in suspense, and yet we felt all empty inside because we had, in every sense, seen this movie before.

It's hard to get across just how surreal these elections were. Never mind your hanging chads and Supreme Court cliffhangers; when these people rig an election, they do it with panache. Only four parties made it into the Duma, and three of them are Putin's creatures; as well as his United Russia party, the Kremlin also controls A Fair Russia and the mordantly-named far-right Liberal Democrats, led by one-time Western bogeyman Vladimir Zhirinovsky. (The only independents in the new parliament, ironically enough, are the Communists.)

The media gave only fleeting, and largely negative, coverage to opposition parties. Regional governors, appointed by Putin, stood at the top of United Russia lists across the country, competing to deliver the most votes for the ruling party. Public sector workers were forced to go out and vote, and warned that they would lose their jobs unless they reported to their managers by midday to confirm that they had voted for United Russia. It seemed to work; in Chechnya, not hitherto noted as a hotbed of pro-Moscow loyalism, early results showed that United Russia had won 99% of the vote on a 99% turnout.


Perhaps most egregious of all, the [alleged] murderer of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, Andrei Lugovoi, whom Moscow has refused to extradite to Britain to face criminal charges, was elected to the Duma and now enjoys immunity from prosecution as a direct result. He joins Vladimir Putin himself, who will continue to wield power behind the scenes when his Presidential term ends next year. The OSCE, who were forced to send only a token force of election observers to monitor the polls after Russian authorities played silly buggers with election visas and restrictions on movement, have confirmed that the elections were in no way free or fair.


Contrast this sorry state of affairs with – and I never thought I'd say this – the results from Venezuela yesterday. Hugo Chavez narrowly failed to win approval for his raft of constitutional amendments which would, among other things, have weakened judicial due process and strengthened the executive powers of the presidency during a state of emergency, removed term limits on the presidency, thus allowing him to carry on in power until his stated retirement date of 2050. I must confess that I thought this vote was every bit as much of a gimme as the Russian polls, and I was wrong. A newly emboldened opposition, led by a brave student movement, saw the danger in allowing Chavez to strengthen a hand that's already stacked in his favour, and the electorate reaffirmed their commitment to democracy in the face of strong pressure to vote yes to Chavez's "reforms".

As Gene says over at Harry's Place, a bit of perspective is no bad thing. Hugo Chavez is by no means uniquely evil among world leaders; far from it. He's a petty thug and a blowhard, not a fanatic or a mass-murderer; a sub-Peronist pantomime villain, little more. And if the choice is between using your country's oil money to bribe the poor, as Chavez does, or sustain a hyper-rich feudal monarchy, as in Saudi Arabia, I certainly prefer the former. But it's a source of constant amazement to me that the mere mention of his name is enough to get a certain section of the international Left purring in admiration.

Prior to the vote, a number of the leading lights of this movement in Britain – Harold Pinter, Ken Livingstone, Ken Loach, you know the cast – wrote a letter to the Guardian (where else?) urging the international community to respect the results of a referendum which they fully expected their hero to win. (How I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when Mrs Pinter read him the results in the paper this morning. I'll bet there was a Pinteresque pause after that.)

It's worth repeating for emphasis; not only are these people impervious to criticism that their pin-ups are, at best, authoritarian bullies, and at worst mass murderers (let's not forget that Pinter remains a leading light in the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Miloševi?) – but they actively endorse, and lobby for, the removal of checks and balances on their idols' powers. The anti-democratic left's arguments are as discredited as those of any movement in modern political history, their criteria for beatification no more sophisticated than gauging whose anti-Bush rhetoric gives them the hardest erection; and yet they are garlanded far and wide.

Ultimately, though, it's been a mixed weekend for democracy. Venezuela has had a lucky escape, its democratic processes proving robust enough to withstand the best efforts of its loudmouth president to subvert them. Russia gives much more cause for concern. Unless you're a Venezuelan citizen, Chavez doesn't matter; but Putin matters to us all, and his influence in international affairs is almost entirely malevolent. As Oliver Kamm rightly noted earlier today;

The fiasco raises yet again the question why Western governments ever saw Putin as a prospective ally. He is in truth more like the late Slobodan Milosevic – in election fraud if not genocidal aggression. I noted a few months the strong circumstantial evidence of his campaign of assassination against political enemies, as well as obstructionism and anti-democratic instincts in foreign policy. To this list we may add his authoritarian meddling in Ukrainian presidential election, encouragement of Iran's nuclear deceptions, and sabotage of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations by his unilateral opening to Hamas. There is a new Cold War; and Vladimir Putin is its instigator. 

I fear that Vladimir Putin will continue to be a force in world affairs long after Chavez, and for that matter Harold Pinter, have been relegated to the status of punchlines.

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