After Putin, Democracy Not a Guarantee

Today’s news is packed with all sorts of opinion articles speculating on what sort of brave new world we are looking at after the December 10th protests.  Naturally, much of this stargazing is wildly premature, but still irresistible nonetheless.  Writing on The New Republic, Paul Starobin becomes the first guy to reach what we can assume will be a very popular conclusion in the coming months before the 2012 presidential election:  that Russia could become even worse off without Putin.

ANY POST-PUTIN FUTURE, then, is likely to be less than democratic. The yearning on the streets seems to be for a leader more responsive to nationalistic grievances than Putin has been—and committed (at least in word) to cleaning out the fouled stables of the Putin era. (It may sound like an ideal scenario for an army dictator but Russia, unlike, say, a Turkey or a Chile, generally doesn’t take its autocrats from the military.)

Of course, Putin is far from gone—much now depends on the turn of events in the streets and his own tactical efforts to deflect attacks on his rule. He has tried, desperately, to shift blame to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for inciting unrest with her call for an investigation of fraud in the parliamentary elections. And don’t be surprised if he dumps his plan to make the current president, the hapless Dmitri Medvedev, the new prime minister, after the March election.

But if Putin does fall, there may well be a period of chaos, as foreign investors pull their money out of the country (some are already considering that step, I’m told by a reliable source in the Moscow financial community) and the economic and political power decks get reshuffled. The political winner could turn out to be someone as unknown now to the public as Putin was when tapped by the Yeltsin circle to take the reins of power. Indeed, it could be almost anyone—except a liberal.

Yes, sure, much of this makes sense, and Starobin is right to point out that Western observers of the protest movement against Putin are prone to put on their rose-tinted glasses and imagine that there are more reformists than conservatives among the angry crowds.  However, there is something in the reasoning as to why liberalism is weak in Russia is troubling and even insulting – this constant portrayal of everyday Russians not having the “democracy gene” and preferring to subjugate before authoritarian models of governance.  It seems like a false choice to suggest that the unpopularity of liberalism is the product of alienation between common citizens and the ruling elite, whereas there is already a tremendous disconnect between most Russians and the current illiberal leadership.