What democracy can Putin destroy?

Russia is joining the ranks of nascent dictatorships, and Vladimir Putin is the executioner of Russian democracy. Right? Wrong. Russia is not a dictatorship, and the political system President Putin is trying to reshape is not a democracy. In its transition from the Soviet Union, it never got there. More important, before we lament the passing of Russian democracy and put the blame for its demise on Putin, let us consider our own record of dealing with Russia since the Soviet breakup, and how the Russians themselves might see that record.

The notion that Russian democracy is dying or dead because of Putin's proposed reforms is no more accurate than the idea that Russia was ever a democracy. The bloody confrontation between Boris Yeltsin and his parliament in 1993, the patently unfair reelection campaign Mr. Yeltsin waged against his Communist opponent in 1996, and the equally skewed parliamentary election campaign of 1999 are just a few examples of Russian democracy in action that do not pass the "you know it when you see it" test.

Putin's move to appoint, rather than elect, regional governors is hardly a major blow to Russian democracy. Elected governors, once hailed as guarantors of Russian federalism and a hedge against an all-powerful central state, have acquired a reputation as feudal barons eager to pledge total loyalty to the sovereign in exchange for the right to run their fiefdoms with impunity. Since the introduction of elected governors in the mid-1990s, gubernatorial elections from Moscow to Vladivostok have come to symbolize the unholy alliance between money, politics and, in some instances, crime, as well as the "administrative resource" - a popular Russian term used to describe the advantages used and abused by incumbents.

Western observers tend to view Russia's record of the 1990s as a time of progress and hope, when democracy made advances at the federal, regional, and local levels and a market economy took hold. During that period, Western advisers were closely involved in Russian policymaking and politics. Advisers funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) were deployed throughout key Russian government agencies, while nongovernmental organizations funded by USAID offered democracy-building advice to political parties. Privatization and democratization were welcomed by Western leaders and publics alike as the two key successes attained by Russia in the 1990s. They treated the pain and suffering of the Russian people as little more than an unfortunate but necessary price of transition.

To many Russians, though, things looked different then and still look different now. They never mistook the political system of Yeltsin's Russia for democracy. To them it was chaos. Western endorsements of Yeltsin as the democratic leader of Russia were greeted with suspicion. Western endorsements of economic changes in Russia were viewed with disbelief as the nation teetered on the brink of insolvency, while a handful of fabulously wealthy oligarchs flaunted their wealth and influence. Then Russian finances finally crashed in 1998.

Since then, as the average Russian sees it, Russia has followed its own course. Foreign advisers have left. The state has reasserted its guiding hand in strategic sectors of the economy. And the state has consolidated its control of the media. The oligarchs have been reined in. Russia's international prestige has been restored, and the country has assumed its rightful place in the firmament of global powers. All that and the economy's 7 percent annual growth rate have led many in Russia to the conclusion that the country is back on track.

The tragedy of Beslan has shattered the image of Russian stability. Despite renewed state control of the media, the public has not been left in the dark about the terrorist attack. Russian newspapers - and especially Russian Internet media - have reported and analyzed the attack, its aftermath, and its consequences. Russia has not gone back to the Soviet Union.

That leaves the United States and its allies with a set of difficult options. We can criticize Putin and Russia for responding to the crisis in an undemocratic manner. But as Washington does so, it needs to keep in mind that its own record of understanding and promoting democracy in Russia is mixed at best. Further, in its response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Washington has tended to give the state the benefit of the doubt at the expense of civil liberties - even with America's internalized commitment to liberty.

The worst thing Washington can do is to begin treating Russia as another Soviet Union. It is not. It is a country adrift, in search of its own direction, struggling with its legacy, seeking - unsuccessfully so far - its own ideology and identity. It is a country with which the United States shares many interests - from combating terrorism to managing the changing geopolitics of Eurasia to energy security.

Washington needs to engage the Russian public and elites in a candid dialogue on these and other matters, not confront them with ultimatums.

Eugene B. Rumer is a senior fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are his own. © The Washington Post.

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