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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Toward Totalitarian Democracy?

Washington, 21 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion last week that only his office can "guarantee" the rights and freedoms of all Russian citizens betrays a serious lack of understanding on his part both of what freedom is and of how it can be defended in a democratic society.

More ominously, Putin's remarks suggest that the Russian leader hopes to use populist rhetoric to re-establish in Moscow a powerful state unconstrained by the Russian Constitution or by Russian laws and one ultimately beyond the control of the Russian people in whose name he claims to be acting.

Such an approach, whatever superficial and immediate attractions it may have for Russians tired of the current chaos in their country or for Western leaders interested in promoting free market reforms there, has very little in common with the principles and arrangements of liberal democracy.

Instead, it recalls the ways in which authoritarian leaders in Europe and elsewhere have used the language of democracy in order to subvert democratic arrangements and democratic ideals, efforts Israeli political scientist J.L. Talmon described so cogently in his classic study "Totalitarian Democracy."

That work has reminded a generation of Western readers that leaders in a variety of countries have cloaked their authoritarian or even totalitarian pretensions in democratic language. And it thus has warned against taking their professions of loyalty to democratic ideals at face value.

Putin's remarks in Irkutsk last Friday clearly invite such scrutiny. Speaking to university students there, the acting Russian president said that "you have to create a society and forms of leadership which will not strangle the most important thing, which is democracy, because without democratic processes, the real development of a government and society is impossible."

"But," Putin quickly added, "there should be a clear institution which would guarantee the rights and freedoms of citizens independently of their social situation, economic situation, and so on and so forth." And he concluded that "this institution can only be the institution of the presidency."

Putin's remarks are troubling on three grounds.

First, they suggest that he understands far better than his predecessor the combined appeal both inside Russia and abroad of a political platform that combines populist rhetoric and calls for a new strong hand at the helm in Moscow.

Many Russians want a respite from the dislocations of the past decade, but most also remain committed to democracy, however imperfectly understood. And Putin promises them both, a revived state with a powerful leader and democratic principles guaranteed by himself.

And many Western leaders too welcome Putin's commitment to a stronger state, viewing it as the only way for Moscow to take the steps the West has urged it to. Indeed, one leading American newspaper yesterday without apparent irony entitled its analysis of where Russia is headed "Putin Steering to Reform, But With Soviet Discipline."

Second, Putin's words in Siberia imply that he has little or no genuine understanding of what democracy is about and is counting on others, again in both Russia and the West, to accept at face value his professions of commitment to that form of governance.

In liberal democracies, the rights and freedoms of individuals are protected not by one man however powerful but by an elaborate system of checks and balances between parliaments and governments, by the existence of an independent judiciary, and by constitutional and legal arrangements which enjoy widespread respect.

Such arrangements generally take generations to evolve; in no country have they ever been introduced by executive order. But like other Russian leaders before him, Putin is clearly appealing to those of his countrymen who would like to short circuit this process as well as to many in the West who are reluctant to commit to such a long-term and open ended struggle.

And third, the words of the acting Russian president and former KGB officer suggest that he views democracy less as a system of government capable of defending individual rights and ensuring that its citizens have a genuine and continuing voice in its operations than as a means of building state power.

Putin is hardly the only world leader to have adopted this approach: he is simply the latest. But those who find his words encouraging may soon discover what more than one political philosopher has observed: any state powerful enough to give people everything they say they want will likely be powerful enough to take away everything they have.