‘We Russians can’t be trusted with democracy’


‘We Russians can’t be trusted with democracy’

The preference among voters for authoritarian leadership like that of Vladimir Putin partly explains the outcome of the election, argues PIET CROUCAMP.


THE flight of just over four hours from Istanbul to Moscow's Vnukovo International Airport is almost empty and everyone is sleeping, luxuriously stretched out in the Airbus A330.

A photo-novel beauty in her early 30s with a PhD in theoretical physics picks me up at the airport. She talks almost non-stop but the part of her story that sticks with me is this: “We need Vladimir Putin because we Russians can't be trusted with democracy."

Is this the answer to the question of why despots like Putin are sometimes supported at the expense of freedom? Just as it remains a vexing question why the Germans would support every fascist who had been hating Jews for decades? And South Africans romanticise the liberation struggle despite the enormous damage the ANC is doing to our democracy?

Moscow's heavy traffic and the Soviet-era buildings set my mood. The impressive red-brick walls and gold-domed towers of the Kremlin are etched against the horizon. St Basil's Cathedral, the State Historical Museum, the Lenin Mausoleum and Red Square.

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The Bolshevik October Revolution and the execution of the Russian imperial family in 1918 resulted in the overthrow of a monarchy. This paved the way for the establishment of the communist dictatorship, interspersed with transitional periods such as the “Russian Provisional Government". The RPG intended to hold free and fair elections but was overthrown in 1918.

Vladimir Lenin initially favoured scheduled elections but dissolved the constituent assembly after his party won only 25% of the popular vote. Despite public ambivalence towards communism, there was no affinity with liberal democratic principles; the liberal Kadet party could only attract 4.8% support.

Russia and the Russians were suffocatingly poor and in their hardship the working class saw no hope in liberalism. (The same applies to South Africa.) The left-wing socialist revolutionaries got 37% of the vote. Ironically, the RPG's continued unpopularity stemmed in part from its support for Russian involvement in World War 1, a policy with which Lenin was not at peace. In fact, he advocated withdrawal from the war.

Profound insecurity

And now we are in March 2024. I am trying to understand the context of contemporary Russia and the most recent election result. A good starting point is the realisation that in many ways Russian politics is still very feudal. Yes, Putin's sycophantic officials have made sure that the perception of a Russian populace firmly behind the president for a fifth term remains intact.

The 87.33% Putin got at the polls last week is theoretical and no one will ever know what the ex-KGB man's real support was. But no one doubts that the 71-year-old would have won the election anyway. The question is why Putin and his officials were pushing the system to record that 87.33%?

My guess is that this was not a show of force to the outside world but  an insurance policy against opposition from inside the Kremlin. His words during the news conference after the election, “I want to thank you for the support and trust in me," probably have nothing to do with the support and trust of the mob, but of the oligarchs and the siloviki (securocrats).

The inherent characteristic of authoritarian leadership is profound uncertainty. The legitimacy of the Kremlin derives not from popular suffrage and democratic oversight but from the protection of elites and the imperative of state security. In liberal theory, we assume this form of legitimacy is systemically vulnerable because it is not connected to the stabilising mechanisms inherent in accountable political processes.

But in societies that “can't be trusted with democracy", the checks and balances of popular review are a manifestation of betrayal. The ANC leadership's tendency to stifle internal dissent as counter-revolutionary is indicative of a mistrust typically rooted in the authoritarian relationships of liberation movements. Ultimately, this bacteria of non-responsibility mutated into corrupting the checks and balances between the National Assembly and the executive.

Despite the longevity of the Putin regime, it is constantly susceptible to disruptions such as coups and revolutionary upheavals within the Kremlin. As a result, elections often serve as a mechanism to manage these threats and social pressures and maintain a semblance of stability within the authoritarian framework.

In South Africa, free and fair elections for three decades have left us with a semblance of a working democracy, but in the absence of accountability, cadres, tenderpreneurs and stalwarts used the Trojan ANC to launch a massive attack on our democratic constitution.

No true competitors

Cyril Ramaphosa is no dictator but the ANC's lack of understanding of the values of competition in a democratic regime corresponds to that of Putin. The May 29 poll is the first truly competitive election in the history of post-apartheid South Africa. And, as Gareth van Onselen argued on X last week, the ANC reacts — like the unsuspecting human — as if totally unaware of the potential consequences of a loss of popular support. But the ANC's response has a lot to do with the absence of real competition.

Had Putin had real rivals at the ballot box, he would also have had rivals among the siloviki, the oligarchs and within the Kremlin, and he does not. To prevent those in his inner circle from challenging him, he makes sure they see what happens to people like Yevgeny Prigozhin and Alexei Navalny. It is difficult to imagine executions more public than these two cases.

There were others. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent who eventually held British citizenship, was an outspoken opponent of Putin. He was wilful enough to publicly implicate Putin in politically corrupt practices. In 2006, during tea with two Russian agents, he “accidentally" ingested the radioactive isotope polonium-210.

In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, 55, a former Russian prime minister, was executed on a Moscow bridge within sight of the Kremlin. Nemtsov was an outspoken critic of Putin's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. I was at the place where his life was ended four years ago and every day there are still Russians brave enough to lay flowers in front of the police sitting on the spot where he was shot.

In April 2023, after criticising the Kremlin's military intervention in Ukraine, the politician and writer Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The Kremlin has introduced strict laws against political defamation since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. The 42-year-old Kara-Murza was charged with treason and spreading “false" information about the Russian armed forces. His legal representatives claim there had been two attempts to poison him — in 2015 and 2017. I'm not sure why, but both South Africa and Russia have a history of political executions and political poisonings.

The Georgian-Russian Boris Akunin, author of detective and historical fiction, is an outspoken Putin critic. He is known for preferring not to drink tea. His real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili and between the writing of this piece and its publication he was still living in self-imposed exile in Europe. Akunin has been placed on a list of “terrorists and extremists" by the Kremlin because of his views on the Ukraine war. According to the Russian ministry of justice, he has spread “false information" and is raising money for the military struggle waged by Kyiv against Russia.

For his criticism of Putin, former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent exactly a decade in a Russian prison. Since 2013, he has lived in London, where he remains under strict surveillance.

It is not necessarily valid to dismiss the Russians' need for authoritarian leadership as irrational; it is a yearning fed by a complex interplay of historical, cultural, political and economic factors. But Putin's tenures have also coincided with a stabilisation of the economy and a reassertion of Russia's global influence, factors often attributed to his leadership style.

One night in a bar in Moscow, a Russian told me in a tortured voice cracking in places, after enough vodka to wipe out a platoon of Wagner soldiers: “Do you understand what it means to lose your status as a superpower?” Well, I am a lapsed Afrikaner and my type experienced something like that in 1990. And I am, moreover, already quite old and my impermanence is nothing strange to me. But to maintain the momentum of his story, I led him on with a typical Tucker Carlson expression: No? His two-hour report began with: “God once called Vladimir Putin for advice…"

♦ VWB ♦

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