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September 25, 2004
Putin Talks A Good Game

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to critics who claim that electoral changes he has forced through herald a return to totalitarian political life in the former Soviet Union. Putin replied that there is no going back to the old days:

President Vladimir Putin vowed yesterday that Russia would remain on the path to democracy.

"There will be no turnabout in the country's life," said Mr Putin, who has come under intense international criticism for strengthening his political control after a wave of terrorist attacks. "Russia made its choice 10 years ago for a democratic, free market, socially oriented state."

Putin may say all the right things about democracy, but his actions are troubling. Russia's 89 regional governors had prevously been elected directly by the people, but under Putin's changes, now are appointed by the Kremlin. It reduces the governors from real leaders to apparatchiks for the executive, a move which hardly strengthens democracy. Even in the lower house of the Duma, where Putin took steps to reduce the ability of small political parties to gain seats, the process of casting ballots still exists.

George Bush, Putin's friend and grateful for the new enthusiasm Putin shows for fighting terrorism, warned Putin against damaging the institutions of democracy as collateral damage to the war. Putin insists, however, that Russia needs to build both "democracy and stability" in the face of terrorism.

In Russia, stability has historically been achieved by strongman rule, even before the Communists took over, and it appears Putin wants to follow in this tradition. Perhaps a majority of the Russian people would follow. Democratic traditions do not run deep, having only been used for less than 15 years, and watching hundreds of your children being slaughtered by domestic and foreign terrorists has to make the Russians yearn for a leader who will really take charge.

It's not just a Russian impulse, either. During the Civil War, Unionists looked to Lincoln to take command in a way never before done in America, and Lincoln responded by suspending habeus corpus and invoking martial law where needed. During the worst economic catastrophe and later our most dangerous war, Americans elected Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented four times to the Presidency, creating an imperial executive by choice (and, in the process, grinding him to death).

It's a human reaction to want someone who can drive off the dangers and evils that surround us. That's why democratic processes must be defended -- not because of what one man like Vladimir Putin can do to damage them, but to protect us from our own worst impulses. Electing strong leaders is a good thing. Allowing them to take away the vote in the name of safety and stability is another thing entirely, and Putin would be well advised to reconsider the precedent he's setting in Russia.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 25, 2004 7:32 AM

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