Some people have gone beyond wondering if Vladimir Putin will manage to hang on to power for an entire third term as president and have started to envision Russia when the strongman leaves, which they say will be sooner than expected.

That exercise brings up many difficult, and some tired, questions about Russians and their politics, and whether something fundamental has changed. It’s well nigh impossible to find a truly democratic model that would fit Russia’s circumstances right now – former empire, former superpower, hydrocarbon giant, security state, demographic basket case, statist oligopoly, regional kingpin, etc.

Not that Russia needs a new system: it already has one that could work, if allowed to, with some tweaks, like reinstating direct elections of governors and establishing an independent election regulator. Rather, something like real democratic competition needs to be injected into that system. But even when democracy works well, it can be ugly in a way that repulses even those who embrace it, so what might we expect then, from the many Russians who associate democracy either with the collapse of the 1990s in their own country or the campaign-finance-fuelled corruption of the American system, which the Kremlin is happy to emphasize?

In other words, what would democracy actually look like in Russia and who would truly welcome it?

Though Putin calls for an advance of democracy, he has made it clear that the cut and thrust of a campaign is beneath him. He has refused to appear in presidential debates – sending proxies instead – and indirectly ridiculed the conduct of the American presidential race. The good news is that polls show that most Russians disapprove of Putin’s decision to stay away from the debates. So maybe they want a chance to hear different viewpoints and to have candidates challenge one another. But if that’s the case, you might say the bad news is that they don’t feel strongly enough about Putin’s refusal for it to color their view of him, as his ratings have edged upward lately.

Putin’s challengers don’t offer much hope for true democracy, either, and even if they did, two of them – nationalist Vladimir Zhrinovsky and Communist Gennady Zyuganov, both sexagenarian – are hardly the faces of tomorrow. The other two, Mikhail Prokhorov and Sergei Mironov, could surprise us, but their backgrounds as leaders of parties that started out as Kremlin tools make them suspect.

And of those not running?

Alexei Navalny’s past as a former member of Yabloko, probably Russia’s only truly liberal party, burnishes his democratic credentials. Even his brand of nationalism, which is inward-looking and eschews demagogic hints at recapturing a lost empire, suggests that he would be less likely to play the expansionist and paranoid “enemies abroad” card in order to distract attention from domestic problems or to justify authoritarian overreach. Unlike some people.

In a striking conversation with novelist Boris Akunin, Navalny laid out a reformist vision for Russia that included a healthier balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, devolution of some powers to municipalities, a reconstituted judiciary, and a tamed bureaucracy. There was nothing in it to make a democrat worry, although whether it is realistic is another question. What does cause worry is Navalny’s willingness to associate with proponents of a much uglier brand of nationalism.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Yabloko, was barred from the race after elections officials said they found irregularities in the signatures he handed in to get on the ballot. Yavlinsky was a credible player in the 1990s, when reformist parties (loosely defined) could claim between 30 and 50 percent support among them. He is often referred to as the only liberal to have attempted a run against Putin, but he has not been able to capture the imagination the way Navalny has. A January poll put his support at 1 percent. It’s difficult to imagine him being swept into office as a popular reformer, but he could be a good choice as a top aide to some more electable democrat.

But what of Russian people? (Don’t worry – I’m not about to try to look into the Russian soul, whatever that is.) We know from the rallies that there are plenty of people in Russia who want honest and fair elections, but it’s not clear how much beyond that such a disparate group of people wants. Say they got their wish and the coming presidential election was unassailable. Let’s even suppose Putin lost. What then? How do you make a system based on cronyism, kickbacks, and malleable judges responsive to the demands of the new man, when it isn’t even really responsive to Putin?

I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying that democracy can be as much about disappointment as about triumph; as much about putting up with less-effective leaders whose power is curtailed by a vibrant political opposition or constitutional checks and balances as about rooting for a straight-shooting champion of the people.

I fear that the mood of protest is sparked at least as much by Putin fatigue and disgust with corruption as by a thirst for pluralism and representative democracy. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that most respondents wouldn’t want to annul the December election results, but a huge majority want to see corruption investigations “in the higher echelons of power.” And significantly more respondents want the threshold that parties must receive in order to enter parliament to stay at the current 7 percent – or even to be higher – than those who would like the threshold to be lowered at least to its pre-2003 level of 5 percent.

I hope I’m wrong. What democrats have going for them is that Putin’s warnings of instability seem to have less power to scare than they used to. Maybe that’s because stability starts to look a lot like stagnation after 12 years, or maybe it’s because a younger generation typically doesn’t share the fears of its elders.

Photo by Cea./flickr. Placard reads, “I love Russia. I am for honest elections.”

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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