Putin's Pretend Democracy

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Now that the pretend results from the pretend elections to the nation's pretend parliament have been certified, the next order of political business will be the pretend presidential election in March. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer Muscovites pretend to believe in the democratic process. Go figure.

The country's current campaign zeitgeist is seriously deflating traditional romantic perceptions of Russia's inscrutability (riddle! mystery! enigma!). In today's campaigning, we see "sovereign inscrutability" (repetition! intimidation! crooks!). After the reigning party's leader indicates who the winner will be, a nice, competitive presidential campaign can begin. And once it does, we're off to the pretend races again, with intensive pretend politicking flooding Russian airwaves, mailboxes and brainpans. You get pretend goose bumps just thinking about it.

The make-believe here has been all-pervasive. Perhaps the only authentic political noise allowed in the media just before and after the State Duma elections was the official Russian criticism of official U.S. criticism of unofficial Russian campaign practices. Whatever Russia's (myriad) procedural blasphemies, here they had a point. The current U.S. administration traces its legitimacy to some extremely creative vote counting in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004, respectively. A few hundred dedicated international observers in those locales would have had a field day.

But if mutual electoral finger-pointing is now a rhetorical staple of "Cold War II," that's still no reason for Russian and U.S. citizens to abandon the political process. When my students next profess their fervent indifference to all things civic, I will say, "Wait: You can participate in elections -- even the upcoming no-contest presidential contest -- with both dignity and hope. And maybe even get some satisfaction." I'll add, "I know this from experience," my eyes misting over, unfazed by a muffled chorus of "Uh-oh, he's having another flashback."

The 1972 U.S. presidential election was a mismatch of biblical proportions, with an idealistic but slingshotless David bravely running against an incumbent Republican Goliath so assured of his sovereignty that he could wiretap his opponents with impunity. He thought.

Democrat George McGovern was uncompromised, underfunded and not named Kennedy. End of story. President Richard Nixon, whose political career ran the gamut from contemptible to illegal, was cravenly wooing "silent majority" voters who distrusted unshaven, un-white and un-old Americans and supported the continued air-to-surface democratization of Southeast Asia.

This was the first election for five concerned young male voters sharing a co-op in Menlo Park, California. Setting aside the house basketball, we collected some campaign literature and a sample ballot, then dutifully sat down to figure out how democracy actually worked. Which was not as easy as we had thought: Not only were there several complicated state propositions to unscramble, there were some wholly mysterious elected offices to fill. We had not known that Redwood City had a harbor commissioner. In fact, we had not known that Redwood City had a harbor. Democracy was working already.

On the first Tuesday in November, we went off to vote for various people and against Nixon. Winning was not the point. We simply wanted to cast votes for peace and against crooked government -- and make somebody official count them. We knew that someday we could tell our grandchildren (or our students) that we had done the right thing when the country hadn't -- and would take two more years to do it, in fact.

I genuinely enjoyed voting that day. As we left the neighborhood garage that served as our polling station, a housemate said I was beaming.

Indeed, as the world soon saw, the United States' disheartening 1972 election was followed by a reheartening 1974 vindication, with the scoundrel in chief escaping Washington only two steps ahead of a constitution-crazed citizenry brandishing pitchforks and a bill of impeachment. And while the process is seldom that productive that fast, this was a hopeful lesson for young voters. Somehow, we sensed, the new president and the garage in Menlo Park were connected. Our protest had been registered -- and unarguably, it had spread.

Now get out there in March, I'll conclude, and vote for whomever you think is best, kids. No American should lecture you on electoral democracy. But remember the Menlo Park Five! Not only did we help dropkick the sovereignly undemocratic Nixon onto the compost heap of history, we almost got housemate Warren Dillon elected harbor commissioner. Imagine the possibilities.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.