Croker Sack

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." — Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Putin Follows Well-Trodden Path

Russia may be heading down what is for them a familiar path. In this article in the Sunday edition of the London Times, Mark Franchetti summarizes the steps taken by Putin. Russia will take its turn as leader of the "G8" after going so far back from being free and democratic that it might not even qualify for membership, if that were now the question:

The admission of a country once derided as the heart of the “evil empire” to the top table of international capitalism was nevertheless a potent symbol of how far Russia had come since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the Kremlin’s relations with the West have worsened since, as Putin, 53, has moved to consolidate his power by closing down independent sources of opposition and extending state control of the “commanding heights” of the Russian economy.
The Kremlin leader’s opponents point to the fact that since coming to power nearly six years ago Putin, who served 16 years in the KGB, has crushed all opposition in the media, parliament and in the regions.

He has surrounded himself with former KGB officers and cancelled regional elections, supported the tyrannical regimes of Belarus and Uzbekistan and sold weapons to Syria and nuclear technology to Iran — two states accused by Washington of sponsoring terrorism.

It has been thus for so long that there may be few people in Russia who can imagine a different way of doing things. Alexis de Tocqueville is justly famous for his observations on the American experiment in democracy, but he also had something to say about Russia:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…. The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, vol. 1, part 2, Conclusion, final paragraphs, pp. 412–13 (1969). Originally published in 1835–1840.

China's rise during the past two decades might be the one surprise for Alexis de Tocqueville, if he were able to step out of a time machine into the present and see how things look 165 years after his astute observations.


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