Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Guest Column -- Robert Bruce Ware

How Bad Is Russia's Democracy?

Robert Bruce Ware

Russian democracy has come under sharp scrutiny from American leaders in the
run-up to the G-8 summit, hosted this summer in St. Petersburg by Russian
President Vladimir Putin. In a speech that he gave in Lithuania last week,
Vice President Cheney told Eastern European leaders that Russia had
"unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people" and had set a
political course that could undermine Russia's relations with other
countries. Even harsher assessments of Russian democracy have emerged from
across the American political spectrum, in reports issued separately by John
McCain, and by John Edwards with the Council on Foreign Relations. Rhetoric
has escalated on both sides, as McCain has urged President Bush to boycott
the summit, and Russian leaders have accused Cheney of reviving the Cold

Yet recent events suggest that the state of Russian democracy is more
nuanced than these assessments have allowed. For example, in Russia's
volatile North Caucasus region, the Kremlin has appointed some leaders who
are highly principled and genuinely popular. Because of the intense
factionalism of this region, some of these leaders could not have been
elected to office. Paradoxically, some of these Kremlin appointees have
greater popular support, greater capabilities, and greater chances for
success than their corrupt and ineffective predecessors, even though their
predecessors were "elected" to office.

Last February, for example, the Kremlin installed Mukhu Aliev as President
of Russia's southernmost Republic of Dagestan. Aliev, who holds a PhD in
philosophy, resides in a three-room apartment, and owns no automobile. Yet
he is a leader of exceptional integrity and experience, who has managed to
hold himself aloof from the factionalism and corruption that have
overwhelmed Dagestan's once vibrant, young democracy. For this reason he
enjoys broad popular support, estimated plausibly by one local leader in the
vicinity of 90 per cent. The irony is that Aliev was unelectable precisely
because he had refused to join with any factions and had chosen to remain
innocently impoverished. As Dagestani politics grew increasingly corrupt,
Aliev was in danger of being marginalized. The Kremlin's appointment of
Aliev ensured the popular support and legitimacy that no election could have

At the beginning of September 2004, the nearby Republic of North Ossetia was
thrown into political crisis by the hostage atrocity that left more than 330
dead in a school in the town of Beslan. The crisis underscored the
fecklessness of Alexander Dzasokhov's regime. Under pressure from the
Ossetian public, as well as from the Kremlin, Dzasokhov resigned in 2005.
As his replacement, the Kremlin appointed ??imuraz ??msurov, the 51-
year-old speaker of the North Ossetian legislature. In contrast to
Dzasokhov, Mamsurov gained stature, during the Beslan crisis, when he
declined an opportunity for the release of his two children from the
besieged school, saying that he would never be able to look his neighbors in
the eye. Like Aliev in Dagestan, Mamsurov is a principled and popular
leader. As in Dagestan, the Kremlin served the interests of most local
people when it replaced an elected leader with an appointee.

Other Kremlin appointments in the region have been less auspicious. The
worst occurred in the Ingushetia in 2002 when the Moscow forced the
resignation of the popular and effective President Ruslan Aushev. In his
place the Kremlin installed Murat Zyazikov, who had made his career in the
federal security service. Without a local political base, Zyazikov relied
on the security services to combat Islamist extremism. The result was
escalating police brutality that only served the cause of radicalism.

In Kabardino-Balkaria in 2005 the Kremlin appointed Arsen Kanokov, a Moscow
billionaire who has never held any job in his ethnic republic, apart from
the presidency. In Chechnya, in 2004, the Kremlin allowed the fraudulent
election of Alu Alkhanov. Despite this inauspicious start, Alkhanov is a
widely-respected leader, with a reputation for integrity and courage. He
has the support of the vast majority of Chechens, who credit him with
progress toward stability and economic recovery. At the same time, Moscow
has also tolerated Chechnya's Prime Minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose private
militia operates brutally beyond Alkhanov's control. Yet in recent weeks
there have been indications that Moscow may be ready to reign in Kadyrov,
and throw stronger support to Alkhanov.

While the record of Kremlin appointments in the North Caucasus has been
mixed, it has sometimes provided genuine administrative improvements.
Moreover, there are signs that the Kremlin is learning. Moscow not only
picked the best man for the job in Dagestan, but it did so with finesse that
impressed people in the republic. If appointments like this are seen by
local populations as serving their own best interests, then they cannot be
hastily dismissed as anti-democratic. American leaders have a history of
unrealistic assessments of Russia. Political rhetoric that plays well in
America may not serve the interests of democracy in Russia.

Robert Bruce Ware is a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardville
who studies the North Caucasus.

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