WORLD AFFAIRS:  Here are a few trick questions. Who was elected democratically—Viktor Yanukovych or Vladimir Putin? Who violated his country’s Constitution? Who enjoyed popular legitimacy? Whose rule was unstable?

The answer to the first question—Who was elected democratically?—is obvious. That was Yanukovych, back on February 7, 2010, in elections that were roundly considered to be fair and free. Putin, in contrast, was elected democratically in 2000, semi-democratically in 2004, and non-democratically in 2012.

Here are excerpts from three Final Reports of the Election Observation Missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR):

Russian election of March 26, 2000:

In general, and in spite of episodic events that sometimes tested the system’s capacity to uphold principles of fairness and a level playing field, the presidential election was conducted under a constitutional and legislative framework that is consistent with internationally recognized democratic standards, including those formulated in the OSCE Copenhagen Document of 1990.

Russian election of March 14, 2004:

While on a technical level the election was organized with professionalism, particularly on the part of the Central Election Commission (CEC), the process overall did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election. The election process failed to meet important commitments concerning treatment of candidates by the State-controlled media on a non-discriminatory basis, equal opportunities for all candidates and secrecy of the ballot. Essential elements of the OSCE commitments for democratic elections, such as a vibrant political discourse and meaningful pluralism, were lacking.

Russian election of March 4, 2012:

Although all contestants were able to campaign unhindered, the conditions for the campaign were found to be skewed in favor of one candidate. While all candidates had access to media, one candidate, the then Prime Minister [Putin], was given clear advantage in the coverage. State resources were also mobilized in his support. On election day, observers assessed voting positively, overall; however, the process deteriorated during the count due to procedural irregularities….

There was … a general lack of confidence among many interlocutors in the independence of election officials at all levels, mostly due to their perceived affiliation with local administration and the governing party.

There was an evident mobilization of individuals and administrative resources in support of Mr. Putin’s campaign, which was observed by the OSCE/ODIHR. In several regions, participants in campaign events reported that they had been ordered to take part by their superiors. Various levels of public institutions instructed their subordinate structures to organize and facilitate Mr. Putin’s campaign events. Local authorities also used official communication, such as their institutional websites or newspapers, to facilitate Mr. Putin’s campaign.

Contrary to the legal requirements, the broadcast media did not provide balanced coverage of all candidates. Mr. Putin dominated the campaign in the media with frequent appearances. While newscasts on television channels monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR covered the daily activities of each contestant, they were outweighed by lengthy items about him, both as Prime Minister and as candidate, and by a series of documentaries praising his achievements. This created unequal conditions for the candidates, giving Mr. Putin a clear advantage….

[P]rocedural irregularities were observed. The process deteriorated clearly during the count, which was assessed negatively in nearly one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities.

Who violated his country’s Constitution? That’s easy: both Yanukovych and Putin, repeatedly and brazenly, in systematic efforts to dismantle democratic institutions, constrict civil liberties and human rights, and structure the rules of the game in their favor. Naturally, each violated his Constitution “constitutionally”—by manipulating legislative elections, creating legislative majorities, and then shamelessly using those majorities to rewrite the rules.

Who enjoyed legitimacy? Not Yanukovych—precisely because he was elected democratically and precisely because he promised to be a democrat and promote the people’s interests. When Yanukovych shifted gears almost immediately after becoming president and then proceeded to amass wealth, stifle democracy, and humiliate the people, his legitimacy plunged—thereby setting him up for the democratic Euro Revolution that led to his flight and abandonment of the presidency.

In contrast, Putin promised to restore Russia’s power and greatness, and he delivered, at least outwardly—by flexing his muscles in Transnistria, Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea. Small wonder that the hyper-nationalist Russian masses have consistently supported and conferred legitimacy upon him. Yanukovych tripped up because he could not deliver on democratic legitimacy. Putin has succeeded because he delivered on neo-imperialist legitimacy.

Whose rule was, or is, unstable? Yanukovych’s, obviously: the sultanistic regime he built was hyper-centralized, inefficient, and corrupt. It survived only as long as the people acquiesced in its existence. Once the mass demonstrations of November 2013 turned into a popular revolution, the regime quickly dissolved and Yanukovych was left on his own, without the support of either the masses or the elites. His systematic violations of the Constitution and his illegitimacy automatically conferred legitimacy on the people power from which he fled.

But here’s a surprise perhaps: Putin’s rule is equally unstable. His regime is also hyper-centralized, inefficient, and corrupt. It—and Putin with it—can survive and enjoy neo-imperialist legitimacy only because it’s been the beneficiary of loads of free money derived from higher energy prices. Thanks to a vast increase in state wealth, Putin was able to buy popular legitimacy and still have enough to accommodate regime inefficiency and corruption. That’s about to change. Energy revenues are declining and will almost certainly continue to decline, as the West develops energy alternatives (shale gas, liquefied natural gas, and energy from other suppliers). With declining revenues, Putin will soon be exposed as a corrupt dictator unable to deliver neo-imperialism to the masses and embezzlement to the elites. Add to that the growing costs of his Crimean misadventure, and, sooner rather than later, Putin could become Russia’s Yanukovych.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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