What to Do About Fake Democracy?

(Appeared first in Newsweek)

Democracy actually did win the Cold War, but not in quite the way a lot of people think. The “victory” is that almost all countries now — with notable exceptions like China — seem to feel they must pretend to be democratic.

It used to be that fake democracies were identifiable from the 99 percent tallies claimed by despots from Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad to Raúl Castro and various central Asians. This was not so much a pretense as a message that they can do whatever they want.

In North Korea under Kim Jong Il, only the ruling party could field candidates, yielding unanimous victories in every district. In Iran, only presidential candidates approved by the mullahs may run for the presidency that also has little power. Not much pretending here either.

But the fake democracies are more clever now. You find them all over, from Poland and Hungary to Turkey and Venezuela. But the gold standard is Russia, as we saw this again in its “election” of Sept. 17–19.

The “results,” announced this week, show Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party winning half the vote, well ahead of the next party with 19 percent. That’s good enough for just over two-thirds of deputies in the 450-seat State Duma — which, as if by magic, is the threshold needed to enact systemic changes.

The procedure was a sham not only because of credible charges of ballot box stuffing and rigged counts, which make it hard to find a single person on the planet who believes the numbers published. The system as a whole is designed to perpetuate Putin and thus the rule of the state security apparatus which spawned him.

The regime has banned, dismantled or co-opted most credible opposition parties. Its nemesis Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015 not far from the Kremlin. His new leading rival Alexei Navalny was the victim of a botched poisoning effort and is now in jail on nonsense charges validated by courts no one thinks are anything but a tool for the Kremlin.

The media is almost totally controlled or owned by the government or its cronies, feeding the people a steady diet of propaganda and denying coverage to real rivals. Social media is both manipulated by methods such as we saw in Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections and by direct coercion to remove critical content.

Not that many would dare post such content. The list of regime critics who were taught a lesson is too compelling for that. Some merely ended up in jail on trumped-up charges. But many met their maker after being shot on a bridge, poisoned via radioactive tea, found dead from hanging in their fancy U.K. bathroom or turned up mysteriously dead in an elevator. Either the Kremlin is a very bad sport, or it is the unwitting victim of history’s most shocking frame-up.

And as for Putin, he is similarly either obsessed with staying in power or history’s luckiest beneficiary of random constitutional amendments. First, the presidency is handed to him by Boris Yeltsin at the turn of the millennium; then he switches jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just as his term limit expires precisely as the prime ministry becomes the more powerful of the two positions; then he switches again, as the power again moves to the presidency; and then a “referendum” approves constitutional changes enabling him to remain in office until 2036, when Putin will be 84.

Under these circumstances it would be credulous to speak of a Russian election or a Putin victory and even gauge what its impact would be, as if the outcome were ever in doubt. On the other hand, though, it is reasonable to wonder what it means for the world that the regime in Russia seems able to get away with this for now.

There is no sign of protests gathering of the kind that rattled the regime in 2011. And there’s not much sign that the democratic world is willing to do much. We are living in a time when the U.S. saw no alternative to packing up and leaving Afghanistan to be taken over by the Taliban, a development that will visit unspeakable misfortune upon the Afghan people. It is not a time for worrying too much about what is going on in other countries. Not only will no one step in, but neither does anyone seem willing to pay any financial price for boycotting Russia.

Germany, whose otherwise ethical outgoing leader Angela Merkel was all about pragmatism when it came to Moscow, is about to boost its dependence on Russian natural gas with the impending completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. If the center-left Social Democratic Party wins the coming German election there may be some bristling, but the pipeline seems to be a done deal that will increase the European Union’s overall reliance on Russian natural gas, already at around 40 percent.

Sanctions by the EU and the United States, imposed after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, are basically a slap on the wrist and do not appear likely to be increased. The Biden administration wants to clear the decks for dealing with China, not court conflict with Russia.

And it is instructive that Google and Apple meekly complied with Russia’s request to remove an app run by Navalny’s outfit which would have helped voters cast ballots strategically against United Russia last week. Don’t be evil doesn’t mean leaving rubles on the table.

But at the very least, the media should start calling a spade a spade. Stop enabling the pretense by calling the recent days’ operation an “election,” saying that United Russia “won,” or calling Putin anything other than a despotic authoritarian.

That is important because as Putin will be the first to tell you, words have power. Fake democracy, if allowed to go about its merry pretense, can spread. People all over the world, in our confounding era, are vulnerable to propaganda on social media. There are those with power in the U.S. who admire this way of doing business (as we saw in Tucker Carlson’s fawning visit to the fake democrats in Hungary). The same applies in Israel, Brazil and in pockets of Western Europe.

Fake democracy is a virus. Clarity is the vaccine.

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Dan Perry

Dan Perry

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