Back to the Future in Russia

by on September 14th, 2004

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday announced an overhaul of the entire Russian political system, with the ostensible objective of making the country stronger in its ability to contend with terrorism. Setting aside to some extent the question of Beslan (and the other catastrophic terrorist incidents in Russia’s recent past), this move will almost certainly result in less freedom for ordinary Russians at the very moment when they need more. It calls to mind the hoary (and apparently anonymous) statement by an officer in Vietnam, “we had to destroy the village to save it.”

Putin’s intention is not only to return Russia to electing people by party lists (sound familiar?) but also to take away from outlying areas the ability to directly elect their own regional governors, putting this authority — where else? — in the hands of the presidency, with a rubber-stamp approval by regional legislatures. This would allow Putin to finally bring to heel the regional governors, a continuing thorn in his side, and would consolidate further the powerbase already solidly established in Moscow.

This deck chair-rearranging exercise at a time of national crisis must be seen in the overall context of Putin’s style of governance. He was elected with a sweeping (71%) majority earlier this year, and Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked presciently that he had concerns with the lack of openness in the campaign as well as the “level of authoritarianism creeping back” into Russian society. Russians already knew their country was in trouble, and difficult times often call voters back to strategies they believe worked in the past; in this case, many ordinary Russians found themselves valuing order over freedom. Indeed, under Stalin, Brezhnev and Krushchev, there was a plenty of order.

But as with the Soviet Union and nearly every other authoritarian state in memory, eventually the house of cards, the Potemkin Village if you will, comes crashing down. The trouble with this type of power consolidation is that it presumes that the state, in the person of the president, is the sole repository of knowledge and capability for problem-solving. Authoritarian leaders begin to believe their own press, and inevitably thrash about for more power as things go wrong, making increasingly irrational decisions and distrusting their advisors, however well-intentioned they may be. Each authoritarian thinks he has learned from his ideological ancestors, but like a Greek tragedy, they all end up in the same spiral to disaster.

It was precisely this concern that drove America’s founding fathers to build checks and balances into the Constitution. And checks and balances on power are what Russia will soon lack.

The saddest part is that Russians need a hero right now, someone to believe in who will guide them out of this dark period. And they need to be able to believe that even if one leader, or political party, steers Russia in the wrong direction, the state will eventually return to the right course by democratically cleansing itself of those beliefs and supposed leaders that brought ruination upon them. Russians are a great and proud nation, and most informed observers believe that they are capable of great things, given the opportunity to work, live, and speak freely.

Speaking about constitutions, Ronald Reagan said,

“…All those other constitutions are documents that say, ‘We, the government, allow the people the following rights,’ and our Constitution says ‘We the People, allow the government the following privileges and rights.’ We give our permission to government to do the things that it does.”

Is it too late for Putin to make the same realization?

Marc C. Johnson