'Democracy,' Russian-Style

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A FEW MONTHS ago it looked as though the subject of the Group of Eight summit in Russia would be Russia itself. Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has retreated from the democratic ideals to which it aspired when it was invited into the G-8; in a speech in May in Lithuania, Vice President Cheney took aim at this backsliding, accusing Mr. Putin's government of unfairly restricting citizens' rights. But during the three days of summitry that ended yesterday, the attempts to call Mr. Putin to account were limited -- and Mr. Putin batted them away with contempt.

President Bush raised the subject of Russian politics deferentially. "There will be a Russian-style democracy," he conceded, borrowing from the Kremlin's talking points; "I don't expect Russia to look like the United States." British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the same approach, saying he would raise the question of democracy "without wrecking the hotel room." But this gentlemanly style did not appeal to Mr. Putin. When Mr. Bush recommended democratic reform for Russia, Mr. Putin went for the jugular: "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq," he said. When questioned about Russia's rampant corruption, Mr. Putin suggested that the British were the experts, and he invoked a campaign finance scandal that has tainted Mr. Blair.

If this is how Mr. Putin behaves when the eyes of the world are upon him, the coming months look bleak. Russia's leader has already squashed the independent media. He has emasculated the powers of Russia's parliament and the independence of its judiciary. He has abolished regional democracy, replacing elected governors with Kremlin appointees. Anyone who challenges Mr. Putin's authority faces semi-legal harassment: tax inspections, lawsuits, regulatory restrictions on efforts to open offices or hold meetings.

This is not enough for Mr. Putin, however. Writing on the opposite page Saturday, Masha Lipman called attention to electoral "reform" that has consolidated the dominance of the United Russia party, whose only policy is to support the Kremlin. One reform measure equips the Kremlin with more than 60 pretexts to exclude unwanted candidates or parties from elections; another allows "early voting," a practice that permits ballot boxes to be brought to voters in places unobserved by election monitors -- a well-known recipe for rigging elections. There is less and less prospect, in other words, that Russia's presidential election in 2008 will approximate an open or fair competition. When Mr. Bush talks of a "Russian-style democracy," we trust he means something better than this.

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