What Happens When All the Oil Runs Out
- By Anne Applebaum
- Mar. 04 2008 00:00
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As predicted, Sunday's election was a farce -- a battle between Dmitry Medvedev and three officially sanctioned opponents. Even the head of the Central Elections Commission conceded that media coverage has been, well, biased in Medvedev's favor.
Only one question remains unanswered: Why did anyone bother holding an election at all?
The answer, I think, can lie only in the ruling clique's fundamental insecurity, odd as that sounds. Though the denizens of the Kremlin do not, cannot, seriously fear Western military attack, they do still seem to fear Western-inspired popular discontent: public questioning of their personal wealth, public opposition to their power, political demonstrations of the sort that created the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. To stave off these things, they maintain the democratic rituals that give them a semblance of legitimacy.
The need for legitimacy also helps explain the string of vitriolic, aggressive attacks on Western democracies that presaged Sunday's election. In the past couple of years, President Vladimir Putin has openly compared the United States to Nazi Germany, set up an institution designed to monitor America's supposedly dubious democracy and frequently accused both Americans and Western Europeans, especially the British, of hypocrisy and human rights violations. This rhetoric serves several purposes, but above all it is designed to inoculate the Russian public against the example of more open societies. The message is simple: Russia is not merely a democracy, it is a better democracy than Western democracies.
Even some of the shockingly Soviet interpretations of history promulgated in Russia in recent years make sense in this context. Surely a part of their purpose was to create an alternate version of post-Soviet history, one that supports the Kremlin's current rule. According to the Putinist explanation of history, the fall of the Soviet Union was not a moment of liberation but the beginning of collapse. The hardships and deprivations of the 1990s were not the result of decades of communist neglect and widespread thievery but of capitalism and democracy.
In other words, communism was stable and safe, post-communism has been a disaster and Putin's regime has set the country on the right track again. The more Russians believe this, the less likely they are to want a truly open, genuinely entrepreneurial, authentically democratic society -- at least until the oil runs out.
But everyone needs a backup plan. In case oil prices drop again, the democratic rituals must go on.
Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment appeared.