Russia shows us: Don’t be complacent about democracy

What do the new Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, Benjamin Netanyahu, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump have in common? All are popular leaders in democratic countries whose supporters are unafraid. These blasé backers of illiberalism might want to talk to a few Russians.

They might learn how hundreds of thousands are currently scrambling to flee Russia in order to escape economic devastation and conscription into a failing war of choice. Tickets to countries that might receive them because of convenient post-Soviet procedural arrangements — from Kazakhstan to Armenia — have run out or cost a black-market-level fortune.

These would-be escapees doubtless include many who have voted for Vladimir Putin. They did so knowing who Putin was — a KGB operative masquerading as a political leader.

Such choices, in Russia as elsewhere, are driven by the myriad ills of modern political discourse and behavior: indifference, inattention, and complacency, infantile desire for strong leadership, weakness for nationalist tropes, and jealousy of snooty “elites” (who mostly can see what’s coming but are outnumbered, always).

Overarching all of this is the human tendency — unbecoming in both its indecency and naivete — to assume that while others may be vulnerable, the proverbial “they” will never come for you.

The 21st century’s democratic authoritarians are the “they”, and they’re defined and united by disdain for the principles of liberal democracy. These aim to prevent a dictatorship of the majority through enshrined freedoms protecting speech, assembly, religion and political activity. These majorities are rarely keen to be constrained; ask people anywhere what democracy means and you’ll hear “free elections” and “majority rule” more often than liberal philosophy.

That’s the lesson Putinism offers the clueless potential Putinist: illiberal regimes that care nothing for the protection of the minority will eventually turn on the majority as well. And then it will be too late.

The elections Putin won in 2000, 2004 and 2008 were imperfect, because state media always supported him and candidates’ access was not equal. But they were not overtly falsified, and important international watchdogs judged them to be essentially free.

Yet the signs were always there, even in the early and mid-2000s: fake charges and even faker trials for Putin rivals like the disobedient oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (2003); astounding brutality in dealing with security challenges like the school hostage crisis in Beslan (2004); Ukrainian rival Viktor Yushchenko finding himself mysteriously disfigured (2004); the fatal poisoning of turncoat spy Alexander Litvinenko in London (2006); dispatching of pesky journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, found dead in a Moscow elevator (2006).

Gradually, the stamping out of the free press and the NGO ecosystem, the defanging of the parliemantary system, the intimidation of the opposition, the coopting of the business elite, the domestication of the judiciary, and the transformation of the police and security apparatus into agents of the Kremlin.

The people of Russia were as the metaphorical frog in water brought slowly to a boil. No one can say exactly when democracy died — but no one can deny that now it is dead. Russia is a totalitarian state where criticizing Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine — which has brought ruinous economic sanctions and pariah status for Russia, and mass death on both sides — will land a person in jail, or worse.

After battlefield failures that exposed the incompetence that often accompanies moral decay and systemic corruption, Putin is trying to mobilize 300,000 untrained men, and probably more.

It is impossible to gauge the current true domestic popularity of Putin and his actions. Criticism cannot be expressed, and information is not available to most, especially in the provinces, where people anyway are more conservative. The country, a nuclear power, festers under a cloud of nonsense.

Does Italy face such a danger, after the Brothers of Italy, with roots in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party, won a plurality in the election last Sunday and were swiftly installed in power?

The new prime minister is the country’s first female leader and the first to come from the far-right. Her success results from the failure of others, mainly in fixing the economy: a decades-long recession, high unemployment that affects more than a third of under-25s, the second highest ratio of sovereign debt to GDP in the EU. The mainstream politicians also buckled before crime, corruption, a politicized judiciary, and Covid. Many people, judging incorrectly that things cannot be worse, either supported her or did not vote.

Meloni rails against gay rights, secularism, Islam and immigration, and was in the past an apologist for Putin. But Italy cannot afford to upset the European Union, on which its depends for funding, and Italian governments are notoriously unstable. Italy may survive with its shambolic democracy more or less intact.

Something similar can be hoped for in Sweden, with its own surging far-right party called the Sweden Democrats.

But in France, 40% of the voters now regularly support Marine Le Pen. If she eventually tips the scales — which seems one economic crisis away — that would genuinely threaten to tear the place asunder.

The danger is both greater and more imminent in Israel, where Netanyahu is now running as head of the opposition while facing trial on bribery and other charges, plainly intending to machinate cancellation of the trial.

Netanyahu’s allies have made clear that the plan is to introduce legislation that allow the overturning of Supreme Court decisions with a simple parliamentary majority — which amounts to a cancellation of judicial oversight on the executive. They also intend to politicize the courts and the state prosecution, and more.

That would take Israel many steps in the direction of fake democracies that have already been established, roughly in the same ways, in Turkey, Poland and Hungary.

Is America immune?

The United States has a strong constitution, but one whose extreme distribution of power creates many holes for an authoritarian to exploit. Donald Trump tested it to the limit in his first term in office.

Should the Republicans in their new incarnation as an authoritarian party return to power, in the midterms and then in 2024, the world may be in for a big surprise.

Copycat mini-Putins all over the world are rooting for just this. The main weapon in their arsenal is the indifference of the masses — until their rude awakening at the knock upon the door.

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(A version of this article originally appeared in Newsweek)

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Dan Perry

Dan Perry

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Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.