Russia had what may be generously described as an "election" recently, where the voters selected Dmitri Medvedev to succeed Vladmir Putin as president. Most observers and commentators agree, however, that the election was far from democratic and did little more than rubber stamp Putin's chosen successor. Many have also argued that Putin's aggressive style of governing is necessary in order to maintain stability in this country. However, the choice between full democracy and stability is a false one.
Medvedev, a Kremlin insider and friend of Putin, has held a number of high-level positions, including deputy prime minister. He was elected president with over 70% of the vote against three officially sanctioned, yet nonviable, candidates.
Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister and leader of the People's Democratic Union, was Medvedev's only real competition, and he was barred from the election due to claims that many of his signatures were fraudulent. Other opponents, such as former world chess champion and liberal opposition leader Gary Kasparov, were not allowed to participate because of the government's dubious claims that they had not met strict requirements for candidacy.
In addition, there were heavy restrictions placed on international election observers, resulting in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's refusal to monitor the election. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who did monitor the election, confirmed the international community's concerns that the election would be neither free nor fair. In other words, the process had little to no legitimacy. But what does this mean for Russia moving forward?
Most believe that as president, Medvedev will continue Putin's policies and style of governing. Putin himself will remain the most powerful leader in Russia, as Medvedev will appoint Putin to the position of prime minister when Medvedev officially assumes the presidency in May. Putin is expected to expand the role of prime minister and remain the central figure in Russian politics.
Many Putin and Medvedev supporters acknowledge the problematic nature of the current brand of governance, but argue that it's necessary in order to maintain Russian stability. They argue that under Putin, Russia has benefited from steady economic growth, the doubling of workers salaries, and the ability to pay off foreign debt.
While it is true that Russia has seen some economic gains under Putin, due largely to high oil and gas prices, progress has been stifled on many other fronts. History tells us that without strong democratic institutions and a means to voice political opposition, unrest and instability often follow.
The recent flawed elections are just latest in a long series of undemocratic moves during Putin's term. He intentionally weakened the autonomy of parliament, eliminated regional elections, and appointed governors. Critical journalists have been murdered, media outlets have been silenced, liberal academics and activists have been prosecuted under false charges, and international human rights groups have been expelled because of tax violations.
Putin's iron grip has not only been undemocratic, it's also been inefficient. During Putin term in office, terrorist attacks and murders have gone up, life expectancy has gone done, corruption has increased, and public health has worsened.
While Russia has progressed on some fronts during Putin's term, it is not because of his authoritarian rule; it's in spite of it. The demonstrations after the elections also show the growing discontent many Russians feel with the lack of political freedom in the country. In the end, without a more open political process, the successes will not last and the instability will grow.
Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.