Speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin went out of his way to dismiss a very American political system: The U.S. electoral college.
Toward the end of a lengthy question and answer session, Putin contrasted Russia's direct voting system with America's indirect electoral college system. His assessment was harsh. "There is no true democracy there," Putin said, referring to America, "and you are trying to convince us that we are not [democratic]?"
The electoral college has been a target of criticism both in America and overseas. But for Putin, America's electoral college system — whereby the president and vice president of the United States are elected by "electors" from each state who are chosen by voters — has proved a particularly beguiling subject of fascination over the years. His view of it appears to have sunk lower and lower.
Back in February 2005, for instance, during a joint news conference with President George W. Bush, Putin positively linked the electoral college with Russia's own system.
"I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president. The candidates will be presented — will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens," Putin explained, responding to a reporter's question about democracy in Russia."This is, in essence, a system of the electoral college which is used on the national level in the United States. And it's not considered undemocratic, is it?"
It wasn't a particularly critical assessment. Behind the scenes, however, Putin's view of it may have been more conspiratorial. According to an account relayed to Peter Baker, while talking privately to Bush in 2005, Putin used the college to contrast with his country's own foibles. "You talk about [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, and I talk about Enron," Putin said. "You appoint the Electoral College and I appoint governors. What's the difference?"
By 2010, Putin's view of the electoral college seemed to have hardened. While appearing on the CNN's Larry King show, he took the opportunity to criticize the electoral college at length while speaking directly to an American audience.
"Now, as regards to democracy, this has been a long-term dispute with our American colleagues," Putin said. "I'd like to recall the fact that twice, twice, in the history of the United States of America, there were cases, the candidate to the presidency who subsequently became president of the United States, who was voted by majority of electorate, with the delegates presenting the lesser number of electorate as a whole. Is that democracy?"
Putin went on to criticize American attempts to influence Russian politics. "This is our tradition and it's going to continue like that," he said, later adding, the "Russian people have unilaterally made their choice in direction of democracy in the early '90s. They will not be led astray."
Speaking in Sochi almost four years later, Putin returned to that theme, using the electoral college to make the point that the U.S. should not be so critical, and that Russia's democratic system was still evolving. "We are trying to fine-tune our system, we have no intention to go back to our totalitarian past, not because we're afraid of something," Putin told the audience. "I am convinced, but more importantly the Russian public is convinced, that totalitarianism is a dead end."
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this post.