Nevertheless, it is notable, and remarkable, that even the Russians now feel obligated to use this kind of language. I have to presume that Lavrov doesn’t care one way or the other about democracy in Syria: He went there because Syria buys a lot of weapons from Russia, because Russia was spooked by the fall of Moammar Gaddafi and because unrest in Syria might be bad for other Russian interests in the region. Once upon a time, a Soviet envoy visiting the beleaguered head of a client state in a similar situation would have used words like “comradely solidarity” instead of “democracy,” and he would have brought along some very visible military advisers for good measure.
Nowadays, that sort of thing just isn’t acceptable. It is not good for one’s international prestige to be seen as the leader of a nasty dictatorship. Slowly, it is also becoming more difficult to move one’s money around the world or to educate one’s children in Swiss boarding schools.
More to the point, even authoritarian regimes worry about how their warm relationships with other authoritarians look to those at home. Lavrov represents a regime that, although not endangered at the moment, certainly fears popular discontent, anti-corruption rhetoric and, of course, political demonstrations of the sort that created the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Arab Spring across North Africa. And thus Russia feels the need to maintain a semblance of legitimacy.
During the last Russian presidential elections, President Dmitry Medvedev did not travel around the country and did not meet with supporters. The Russian media covered the story, with Medvedev receiving almost all of the television coverage while his opponents got little or none. Nevertheless, people were encouraged to vote, and all of the fluffy trappings of democracy were present, even though there was no doubt about who would win.
The same is true in Russian diplomacy. Lavrov, and his bosses, clearly don’t want Russians back home to think they support a regime that is firing on demonstrators — although they do — particularly in a week when demonstrators have thronged the streets of Moscow, carrying banners calling for “honest elections.” It makes them look, well, undemocratic. So the Russian foreign ministry has to pretend to be fighting for Syrian democracy, even as the Syrian army is simultaneously waging a full-scale war against its people.
I’m of two minds about this “pretend democracy promotion,” the natural offshoot of Russia’s pretend democracy. On the one hand, it cheapens the language. If “we support Syrian democracy” really means “we support Syrian dictatorship,” then we’re in an Orwellian world where nothing means anything anymore at all.
On the other hand, people are not stupid: Syrians and Russians both know the difference between “democracy,” “constitutions” and “referendums” on the one hand, and naked violence on the other. The more the Russians use those words, the more obvious it will be, to Syrians and to Russians, that in this context they are meaningless. Perhaps some of them will eventually decide they want the real thing instead.
Anne Applebaum is director of political studies at the London-based Legatum Institute and writes a monthly column for The Post. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.