Election Season in Russia
March 4, 2008; Page A17
It is election season again and the interest of the Russian people in the candidates has been high. There has been regular TV coverage, including debates. There is a tangible atmosphere of impending change. The election to which I'm referring is the U.S. presidential race. There is far more curiosity here in the Hillary/Obama debates than in the shuffling that is taking place in the Kremlin.
Our own presidential vote took place on March 2, but the choice had already been made for us. The highly-publicized appointment of incoming President Dmitry Medvedev by President Vladimir Putin was accompanied by some light electoral theater, but only those candidates who pledged total loyalty to Mr. Putin and his ruling clan got as far as appearing on the ballot. They will receive whatever number of votes the authorities feel is sufficiently marginal but not embarrassingly low. Overenthusiastic supporters pushed Mr. Putin's United Russia party over 100% in some districts in last December's parliamentary elections, requiring a unique brand of recount.
This does not mean the democratic opposition will remain silent. The Other Russia coalition has organized "Marches of Dissent" in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia for this week. Our application to rally yesterday was denied out of hand by the municipal authorities in Moscow. They did not even bother to suggest an alternative venue as required by law. "Find another place," they replied, meaning, "find another country, or another planet." We will march regardless. It is the only way.
Meanwhile, we are watching the American elections closely along with the rest of the world. The Russian ruling elite is rooting for Hillary Clinton, who represents a known and predictable entity compared to Barack Obama. John McCain has been outspoken on behalf of democratic rights abroad, including Russia. Regardless of the doubts about Mr. McCain's conservative credentials at home, the thought of him in the White House strikes fear into authoritarian leaders everywhere.
Mr. Obama, as his Democratic opponent has ceaselessly pointed out to no advantage, is largely an unknown quantity. But like Mr. McCain he has a history of compromise, of being willing to cross his own party and to cross the aisle. Mr. McCain horrified the GOP on campaign finance and immigration reform. Mr. Obama has been attacked by his primary opponent simply for acknowledging President Reagan's achievements.
This stands in contrast to the Bush-Clinton philosophy of energizing the base by attacking the other side. This year may see the creation of a new electoral map, with both candidates vying for independents and traditional red and blue lines breaking down.
This matters abroad because American democracy is still considered a bellwether around the world. The Florida debacle and Supreme Court involvement in the 2000 election are brought up at every opportunity by those nations looking to excuse their own failings in the democratic process. An additional chapter in a two-family dynasty would be another blow, especially to those in nations suffering from quasi-nepotistic succession practices elsewhere in the world -- including Russia.
The intriguing thing about this year's U.S. presidential race is that Mitt Romney's unlimited spending and the well-funded Clinton party machine failed to push their way into power. This is significant for the world to see. American voters are relying on impressions of character this time around. Personal integrity is back at the top of the voters' agenda.
Looking back over the past 20 years, it is not difficult to see why that is. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton squandered the limitless opportunities of the immediate post-Cold War era by failing to exploit the moral and military superiority of the world's sole superpower. Accommodation and non-confrontation were the order of the day, as the "peace dividend" went into dot-com stocks and an isolationist and delusional pre-9/11 mindset.
Shaken awake by that vicious reality check, the second Bush administration moved radically in the other direction, from inaction to pre-emptive action. There were solid grounds for this shift, however debatable it may have been in the case of Iraq. But the legitimacy of this policy collapsed not in Baghdad, but when it became apparent that for this White House, democracy was only to be promoted in a few select locations.
U.S.-supported elections were touted in Palestine and Iraq while the Putin regime rolled the nascent Russian democracy back into a KGB dictatorship. This while Mr. Putin shared smiles at the G-7 summits with George W. Bush, Tony Blair and the rest. If Mr. Medvedev, after elections every independent observer and media outlet agree were a complete fraud, is allowed to take Mr. Putin's chair in the Tokyo G-7 summit this summer, we will know that empty words have again won the day over meaningful action.
Do not believe that the West has no leverage in dealing with the Russian energy giant. Any perceived weakness in Mr. Medvedev's credibility with the G-7 nations will throw the Russian ruling elite into a panic. The countless billions they have looted reside in the U.S., Europe and tax hideouts around the world -- not in Russia's shaky banking system.
This is the only reason the Kremlin bothers to stage these Potemkin elections. The Putin-Medvedev regime cannot afford the Belarus-level pariah status it deserves. Instead of shrugging their collective shoulders, Western leaders can investigate the money flow, deny visas to the crooks and those guilty of human rights violations, and at last make it clear that destroying democracy has a price.
Russia was finally mentioned in one of the seemingly endless U.S. presidential primary debates. Mrs. Clinton, prompted by the moderator, managed to stutter out something resembling "Medvedev" when asked for the next Russian president's name during a debate in Cleveland. It came out as "Medved . . . whatever," which accidentally focused on the key point. Who Mr. Medvedev is is far less important than what he is -- a hand-picked appointee with no democratic credentials.
Unfortunately, it was only a trivia question that served to show how far off the American radar Russia is. I would have been delighted to hear the answers to the follow up, "will you, as president, push for the removal of Russia from the G-7 since you have just said it is no longer a democratic nation?"
If the next U.S. president fails to address that question, any attempts to speak on behalf of global democracy will be hollow. In that case, for many of us around the world, change will be no change at all.
Mr. Kasparov is a leader of The Other Russia coalition (theotherrussia.org). He is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and resides in Moscow and St. Petersburg.