Let Russians Be Russians

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Having listened to all the speculation about what kind of president Dmitry Medvedev will become, we should look more closely at a much more contested question: Are the Russians even capable of democracy?

Many people -- both in Russia and abroad -- argue that Russians have no democratic tradition, that they prefer the iron hand of the autocrat and that the country is too big, too heterogenous and too disorderly to be ruled any other way.

President Vladimir Putin is more subtle. He believes that Russians are not yet ready for democracy, that they need to be brought to it by a managed process, lest everything collapse in chaos. He reminds one of the British, who argued that Indian independence must be postponed until the natives were capable of governing themselves.

Given the chance, the Russians -- like the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Pakistanis and others -- turn out in large numbers to express their views through the ballot box. That is not enough, of course, to establish a working democracy in any country. But the result may well be a genuine expression of the popular view.

Most ordinary Russians, thoroughly inoculated against the Western model by the chaos, humiliation, poverty and corruption of the Yeltsin years and angered by endless hectoring and ill-conceived advice from the West, are willing to pay a price in democracy for the stability and growing prosperity that have accompanied the Putin years. So in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections, they twice voted heavily for a continuation of the "Putin system." In the circumstances, that was a rational choice.

The Russian government manipulated the electoral process -- outrageously -- to get the right result. This is a curious sign of Putin's weakness, not his strength, since no one doubted that most people would vote the way the government wanted, for their own good reasons. Nevertheless, both elections had a certain legitimacy despite the obvious flaws. The voters were offered a choice on March 2, and many of them took it. One in five voted for veteran Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov -- nearly twice as many as predicted. One in 10 voted for Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. We may not like these results, but this is very different from what happened in Kazakhstan in 2006, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been in power for 17 years, was re-elected for another seven by 95 percent of the voters.

Democracy is about throwing the rascals out, and most Russians are reconciled to their current rascals. It was different in March 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev organized the first contested elections in any Warsaw Pact country, under an electoral system of mind-boggling complexity designed to preserve the Communist Party's monopoly power. But the voters recognized the rascals all right. They voted tactically and with great sophistication to throw out the bosses of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, a quarter of the regional party secretaries, a heap of generals and many other unpleasant people.

This remarkable democratic experiment then went wrong for a number of reasons: the sense of national humiliation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ensuing poverty, the inability of the liberal intelligentsia -- the self-styled "conscience of the nation" -- to agree on any effective course of action, the determination of the hard men in the army and the party to get their own back.

That does not mean that Russians are "genetically" incapable of democracy. Their history and their culture have not been propitious. The country has indeed for most of its history been a closed and imperial autocracy. But here, too, the Indian example is instructive. A country with a far larger population, an even more heterogenous culture and an unbroken history of autocratic and imperial rule has run a remarkably successful democracy for the past 60 years.

Although Russians today do not enjoy a Western kind of democracy, they do enjoy an unprecedented, if precarious, degree of personal prosperity, of access to information, of freedom to travel and even -- within limits -- to express their views. To argue that they cannot go on to construct their own version of democracy is a kind of racism. It may take decades, even generations; the construction of democracy always does. But if the Indians can do it, so can the Russians.

George Kennan, that great Russia-watcher and U.S. diplomat and historian, got it right when he wrote in 1951, at the height of the Cold War: "When Soviet power has run its course ... let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of 'democrats.' Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good."

It is the wisest advice, but it is blissfully ignored by our policymakers who, like latter-day Christian missionaries, believe that we have a duty to spread the gospel of democracy -- by military force, if necessary. Russians are not the only ones who find that proposition distinctly suspect.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia from 1988 to 1992, is author of "Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War." This comment appeared in the Financial Times.