Saturday, March 05, 2005

# Posted 3:38 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: In case you missed it on Thursday, read this great column from the WaPo about how to reverse the Russian trend toward authoritarianism. Author Stephen Sestanovich argues that democratic openings in the post-Communist are sudden, not gradual affairs. Thus, our approach to Russia must focus on ensuring a clean presidential election there in 2008.

Sestanovich's argument touches on something I've been thinking about as a result of my research. Consistent pro-democracy messages from Washington help lay the groundwork for reform, but their most important role is to increase the odds of a democratic outcome when an unexpected crisis erupts.

Lebanon is the obvious example of such a process at the moment. I wouldn't say we did much ground work in advance, but the election in Iraq achieved the same objective indirectly.

Compelling examples of similar events from the 1980s include the democratic revolutions in the Philippines and in South Korea in 1986 and 1987, respectively. The Salvadoran elections of 1984 and Nicaraguan elections of 1990 also fit into this pattern, but not as neatly.

However, if you consider Putin to be more of an adversary than an ally, the Nicaraguan example may be quite instructive. Isolated by its neighbors and reeling from the disintegration of the Communist bloc, Nicaragua's Marxist-Leninist government [Yes, Bill, Marxist-Leninist --ed.] gambled that it could win an election without stuffing the ballot boxes.

Instead, the Nicaraguan junta hoped that its control of the media and unlimited use of government and military resources on the campaign trail could overcome a divided and disorganized opposition. To its credit, the junta pretty much avoided using force against the opposition, although it resorted to lesser dirty tricks such as showing extremely popular American films, e.g. Batman, and shutting down the public bus system whenever the opposition held its rallies.

I wouldn't be surprised if Putin tries almost exactly the same thing. As was the case in Nicaragua, there will be a temptation to write off the whole process as inherently so unfair and biased in the government's favor, so much so that the US should do nothing to legitimize the process.

Yet when the voters went to the polls in Nicaragua they said overwhelmingly said 'no' to Communism and dictatorship and 'yes' to democracy and freedom. We may just have to cross our fingers and hope that the Russians are as brave as their Nicaraguan counteparts.
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