The Election of Vladimir Putin
From the editor: The following was written by Paul Goble of
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. You''ve read my opinions on
the upcoming Russian presidential election. I thought you''d like
to see someone else''s. Special thanks to Martin Zvaners of RFE.
Toward Totalitarian Democracy?
Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin''s suggestion last week
that only his office can "guarantee" the rights and freedoms of all
Russian citizens betrays a serious lack of understanding on his
part both of what freedom is and of how it can be defended in a
More ominously, Putin''s remarks suggest that the Russian leader
hopes to use populist rhetoric to re-establish in Moscow a
powerful state unconstrained by the Russian Constitution or by
Russian laws and one ultimately beyond the control of the
Russian people in whose name he claims to be acting.
Such an approach, whatever superficial and immediate
attractions it may have for Russians tired of the current chaos in
their country or for Western leaders interested in promoting free
market reforms there, has very little in common with the
principles and arrangements of liberal democracy.
Instead, it recalls the ways in which authoritarian leaders in
Europe and elsewhere have used the language of democracy in
order to subvert democratic arrangements and democratic ideals,
efforts Israeli political scientist J.L. Talmon described so
cogently in his classic study "Totalitarian Democracy."
That work has reminded a generation of Western readers that
leaders in a variety of countries have cloaked their authoritarian
or even totalitarian pretensions in democratic language. And it
thus has warned against taking their professions of loyalty to
democratic ideals at face value.
Putin''s remarks in Irkutsk last Friday [2/18] clearly invite such
scrutiny. Speaking to university students there, the acting
Russian president said that "you have to create a society and
forms of leadership which will not strangle the most important
thing, which is democracy, because without democratic
processes, the real development of a government and society is
"But," Putin quickly added, "there should be a clear institution
which would guarantee the rights and freedoms of citizens
independently of their social situation, economic situation, and
so on and so forth." And he concluded that "this institution can
only be the institution of the presidency."
Putin''s remarks are troubling on three grounds.
First, they suggest that he understands far better than his
predecessor the combined appeal both inside Russia and abroad
of a political platform that combines populist rhetoric and calls
for a new strong hand at the helm in Moscow.
Many Russians want a respite from the dislocations of the past
decade, but most also remain committed to democracy, however
imperfectly understood. And Putin promises them both, a
revived state with a powerful leader and democratic principles
guaranteed by himself.
And many Western leaders too welcome Putin''s commitment to
a stronger state, viewing it as the only way for Moscow to take
the steps the West has urged it to. Indeed, one leading American
newspaper yesterday without apparent irony entitled its analysis
of where Russia is headed "Putin''s Steering to Reform, But With
Second, Putin''s words in Siberia imply that he has little or no
genuine understanding of what democracy is about and is
counting on others, again in both Russia and the West, to accept
at face value his professions of commitment to that form of
In liberal democracies, the rights and freedoms of individuals are
protected not by one man however powerful but by an elaborate
system of checks and balances between parliaments and
governments, by the existence of an independent judiciary, and
by constitutional and legal arrangements which enjoy widespread
Such arrangements generally take generations to evolve; in no
country have they ever been introduced by executive order. But
like other Russian leaders before him, Putin is clearly appealing
to those of his countrymen who would like to short circuit this
process as well as to many in the West who are reluctant to
commit to such a long-term and open ended struggle.
And third, the words of the acting Russian president and former
KGB officer suggest that he views democracy less as a system of
government capable of defending individual rights and ensuring
that its citizens have a genuine and continuing voice in its
operations than as a means of building state power.
Putin is hardly the only world leader to have adopted this
approach: he is simply the latest. But those who find his words
encouraging may soon discover what more than one political
philosopher has observed: any state powerful enough to give
people everything they say they want will likely be powerful
enough to take away everything they have.
Copyright 2000. RFE / RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission
of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
*Next Week: China / Taiwan update.