No Democratic Tradition

The Russian example demonstrates that we can probably expect as much democracy in Cairo as we can expect from Moscow.

Now this was really the surprise of the season: Vladimir Putin announced to the congress of his United Russia party that he had agreed to the proposal that he run for the Russian presidency in the election scheduled for March 2012. Here's another surprise: His confidant, current President Dmitry Medvedev, announced that he will support Putin's candidacy.

And we've got another surprise in store: Putin is going to win the election. And when he does, he will be able to stay in his post for two terms, until 2024.

For the past several months, Russian affairs experts had been arguing over who would be the next Russian president, Putin or Medvedev. The very question demonstrates naivete and a lack of understanding of how Russian society ticks. It's obvious that Putin will be elected, since he's been the real ruler of Russian since Boris Yeltsin was forced to resign in 1999.

Putin is a neo-autocratic ruler, who extinguished the sparks of democracy that had started to emerge in Russia: The media was restricted, rivals were suppressed, and opposition parties were dismantled through sophisticated strong-armed tactics of intimidation and destruction. Thieving oligarchs who didn't kowtow to the Kremlin found themselves either in jail or in exile (some of them here in Israel ).

But one cannot ignore the fact that Putin also saved Russia from totally crumbling as a state. When the Soviet regime disintegrated, Russia itself was at risk of collapsing. It's no wonder, then, that the majority of Russians support Putin and his policies; he reformulated the Russian state, halted the continual robbery of its treasures by gangs of oligarchs and restored its international status.

It's not nice to say, but Putin was the perfect answer to the utopian dreams of creating a democratic society in Russia, which had no tradition of liberalism, democracy, self-rule, tolerance or pluralism. In contrast to other former communist countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which had some history of civil society and some experience, albeit limited, with a multiparty, parliamentary regime, post-communist Russia was lacking these crucial elements needed to make the transition to democracy and liberalism.

In the West, too, the move toward stable democracy takes decades. But if Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic could at least dredge up memories of representative governments, old as those memories might be, all Russia had in its pre-communist past was Peter the Great, a dictator who imposed his reforms on a submissive society. The only experience Russia had had with democracy was the short-lived government of Alexander Kerensky in 1917, which collapsed due to the weakness of the civil society.

So while Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic emerged in 1990 from the same starting point as Russia - a single-party regime whose government controlled the economy, the media and education - these countries are now functioning democracies: not without problems, but these crop up in all democracies. The fact that in Russia this didn't happen stems from its different history.

Does this mean that Russian is doomed to remain an autocracy, even if it has a human face? There's no way to know for sure, but the road to true democracy there is long.

We can draw conclusions from this that are relevant to our region: The world's enthusiasm for the democratic fervor of Tahrir Square is rather similar to its excitement regarding Russia, after Yeltsin stood on the tank in Moscow in defiance of the last-gasp communist attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev. Then, as now, it seemed that the fall of a dictatorial regime would perforce lead to the rise of democracy.

But the Russian example demonstrates that we can probably expect as much democracy in Cairo as we can expect from Moscow.