When you think about Russia, democracy is the last word that comes to mind. Yet, Russian citizens believe that President Putin is promoting democratic values and fulfilling the will of his constituents. The caveat is that this is “democracy” the Kremlin way.
During a discussion with former President George W. Bush in 2006, Putin was quoted as saying, “Nobody knows better than us [Russia] how we can strengthen our own nation. But we know for sure that we cannot strengthen our nation without developing democratic institutions. And this is the path that we’ll certainly take; but certainly, we will do this by ourselves.” Since the meeting in 2006, Putin frequently uses the term democracy in his public appearances. In 2012, during his address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, he stated that “Democracy is the only political choice for Russia.”
When speaking with former President Bush, Putin suggested that Russia is on the path to building democratic institutions and implied that there would be challenges Russia would need to resolve on its own. Yet, years have shown that Putin’s Russia is far from democratic. Using weak institutions and administrative bardak (which translates as “mess” in Russian), the Kremlin conceals corruption and human rights violations.
A troubling pattern has emerged under Putin’s time in office— potentially problematic legislation is validated by stating that it is fulfilling the people’s will by promoting traditional Russian values. In the same vein, Russians are told Kremlin’s policies are branded abroad as solidifying Russia’s role as a global moral compass. More importantly, the Russian people have been told that Putin’s actions have returned Russia to a prominent position on the world stage.
Putin is not scared to brand his country as a “democracy.” He wouldn’t have gone through the effort to domestically justify the invasion and annexation of Crimea through a referendum if he was nervous about people heading to the polls. However, in practice, the branding is an illusion created by the Kremlin to flip the narrative on the democratic process.
In 2012, new legislation was passed that stated that any potential candidates with criminal conviction were prevented from running for public office for a ten-year period. This law was recently used as the legal basis for banning Alexey Navalny, a prominent opposition leader, from running in the 2018 Presidential elections. Navalny, who in 2013 was found “guilty” of embezzling $500,000 worth of timber, argued that the Kremlin fabricated the case to use the legislation passed in 2012 to obstruct a fair election process. His appeal in the Russian court failed.
Navalny did not stop fighting, and in October 2017, he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ruled that the fraud allegations were fabricated and there was no substantial evidence to prevent him from running against Putin in the 2018 election.
Putin’s greatest defense tactic in justifying his legitimacy as a leader is using the administrative bardak of the post-soviet space to cover his authoritarian policies and re-brand Russia as a democracy. However, the hard part is not branding a process as democratic; it is following through with the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. We know that Russia is not a real democracy. Instead, Russia’s institutions are facades for the age-old corruption schemes, which undermine the Russian values Putin supposedly defends.
In looking beyond the 2018 elections, President Putin is likely to continue positioning Russia as a model of alternative democracy in contrast to the United States. For many backsliding countries, Putin’s portrayal of a democracy is appealing. The ability to build a democracy in a post-conflict country (Chechnyan War), plagued with terrorism and dependent on oil prices is more relatable than the Boston Tea Party. While this representation is not accurate in the broader context, if we have learned anything from Russia’s “democracy,” it is that perception matters.
While the Cold War was a battle of ideology between communism and democracy, the real challenge for the US is defending America’s brand of democracy against Russia’s. If more countries model their governments after a country that kills and imprisons journalists, openly invades other countries and shoots down passenger airlines, then not only is the United States in direct danger, but our ability to overcome this threat by creating alliances is also significantly diminished. America must keep finding creative avenues for exposing the authoritative intentions behind the bardak democracy Putin created.