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Why Russia Holds Elections

Extremely few people, even Moscow’s strongest supporters and defenders in the West, would attempt to argue that yesterday’s elections were remotely legitimate. Even the leadership seems satisfied to absorb the criticism of the deeply flawed contest – so long as we continue to describe the proceedings yesterday as something resembling democracy. But why? Why does the Russian government even bother to go through the motions? Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post puts forward the following theory:

Only one question remains unanswered: Why did anyone bother holding an election at all? Given that the inner circle of ex-KGB officers that controls the Kremlin also controls the country’s media, its legal system, its parliament, and its major companies, why do they need elections? Why didn’t Vladimir Putin just appoint Medvedev, or keep the presidency himself? The answer, I think, can lie only in the ruling clique’s fundamental insecurity, odd as that sounds. Though the denizens of the Kremlin do not, cannot, seriously fear Western military attack, they do still seem to fear Western-inspired popular discontent: public questioning of their personal wealth, public opposition to their power, political demonstrations of the sort that created the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. To stave off these things, they maintain the democratic rituals that give them a semblance of legitimacy.

The need for legitimacy also helps explain the string of vitriolic, aggressive attacks on Western democracies that presaged yesterday’s election. In the past couple of years, Putin has also openly compared America to Nazi Germany, set up an institution designed to monitor America’s supposedly dubious democracy, and frequently accused both Americans and Western Europeans, especially the British, of hypocrisy and human-rights violations. This rhetoric serves several purposes, but above all it is designed to inoculate the Russian public against the example of more open societies. The message is simple: Russia is not merely a democracy, it is a better democracy than Western democracies. Indeed, much of Putin’s rhetoric in recent years makes sense in this light. Take his hostility toward neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, countries where post-Soviet regimes dramatically lost their legitimacy in recent years and are evolving in a different direction. Though Putin cannot possibly be militarily intimidated by any potential NATO relationship with Georgia or Ukraine, he may well be afraid of the example set by those countries’ Western orientation, since their geopolitical choices challenge his own.