The Cold War's Return
Putin and Chavez promise voters a great leap backward
On December 2 voters in Russia and Venezuela will go to the polls, choosing to either accelerate the Sovietization and Sandinistaization of their respective societies or—an eventuality that seems less likely—to curtail the centralization of power in the hands of increasingly villainous chief executives. In Russia, parliamentary elections will doubtless further demonstrate the plenary power of Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third term in office though is being advised, Kremlin sources recently told Reuters, to exploit a legal loophole that would allow him to run for another four-year term. In Venezuela, voters will decide on 69 separate changes to the country's "Bolivarian" constitution—previously rewritten by President Hugo Chavez in 1999—including the right of the president to be re-elected indefinitely and a state-mandated six-hour workday. The apparent popularity of Chavez's constitutional tinkering has prompted Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuela's closest South American ally, to push a similar preliminary bill through parliament that will unburden the executive from constitutional limits on re-election.
Though they both reportedly enjoy widespread popularity, neither Chavez nor Putin are taking any chances (and independent polling data from both countries suggest that such unease might be justified). In the run-up to the election in Russia, Mr. Putin has launched a fresh wave of crackdowns on opposition leaders and media outlets. Last weekend police descended upon protesters in St. Petersburg, arresting 200 opposition politicians and activists, including Boris Nemtsov, leader of Union of Rightist Forces, and Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who heads the opposition coalition The Other Russia, as they marched, with barely concealed symbolism, toward the Winter Palace. For his participation in the "illegal" demonstration, Kasparov was sentenced to five days in jail.
Attacks on the independent press are also increasingly common, with murdered Kremlin critics Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya only the most prominent examples. Last week the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta—which is, says the Washington Post's Moscow correspondent, "one of the last outposts of critical journalism in Russia"—was forced to suspend publication of a regional edition after its offices were raided and authorities declared the paper in violation of copyright laws for supposedly possessing "pirated software." According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, two of the paper's other outposts were also raided in 2007, with the authorities again using the possession of counterfeit software as a pretext.
Such public assaults on political opponents could account for the findings of a recent VTsIOM poll demonstrating a startling drop in support for Putin's party: 57 percent said they will cast their ballot for United Russia, a 10 percent drop from the company's previous survey. But in an increasingly Sovietized Russia, where the government controls a disconcerting number of media outlets (the last independent television station was commandeered by the government in 2002), an electoral rejection of Putin is still extremely unlikely. According to the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times, the lead-up to this election has "seen a powerful media campaign boosting Putin and his subordinate United Russia party…Putin has commanded blanket news coverage."
But most distressing are reports that United Russia party officials recently "called in thousands of staff on their day off in an attempt to engineer a massive and inflated victory for President Vladimir Putin," according to a story in Britain's Guardian newspaper. If they choose not to heed the bullying "recommendations" of party heavies, state employees "risk losing their jobs, their accommodation or bonuses"; university students are being threatened with failing grades and expulsion. (Hugo Chavez has employed a similar system of intimidation, using the "Tascon List," which identified 2 million-plus citizens who voted to recall the president, to push people out of state jobs and refuse state benefits and services to political enemies.)
But Putin's increasingly long reach isn't limited to control of the news media and public sector workers; his influence, like that of his Soviet forbearers, naturally extends to classroom curricula. A Russian text book judged insufficiently obsequious to the regime was recalled on orders from the Kremlin, to be replaced by a new text featuring a gushing paean to Putin ( "We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin"), a Pravda-like section on the crimes of America, and a mealy-mouthed apologia for Comrade Stalin ("The most successful leader of the U.S.S.R.").
Besides nourishing an expanding personality cult of his own, Putin has actively worked to rehabilitate the Soviet past, declaring in 2005 that "the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
Such Sovietophilia was detectable from the very beginning of his reign, when the newly-installed President presided over the reinstatement of a plaque at the KGB's notorious Lubyanka headquarters celebrating former Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov, architect of the brutal repression of the "Prague Spring," as an "outstanding political figure." Earlier this month, Putin, with a troupe of saturnine, medal-bedecked KGB men in tow, attended a champagne reception to posthumously award the highest state honor to George Koval, an American who passed atom bomb secrets to Stalin. Considering this ongoing reassessment of Soviet history and historiography, it's unexceptional that, according to a report from Radio Free Europe, a recent study of Russians found that "45 percent of respondents said they believed Stalin had played a largely positive role in Russia's history." In fact, Stalin was deemed "Russia's second-most successful leader since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution"—losing out only to Mr. Putin.
In Venezuela, Putin's ally Hugo Chavez seems to be mimicking not the failed Soviet project, but the failed revolution of Nicaragua's Sandinistas—though this time with the benefit of vast oil wealth. While the Venezuelan government allows the publication of opposition newspapers—in Nicaragua, this was a role filled by Jamie Chamorro and La Prensa, a newspaper that existed throughout the dictatorship but was subject to frequent harassment, censorship and closure by the junta—the press is cowed by threats of government action and the use of libel writs brought before friendly, Chavista judges.
In the case of opposition television channel RCTV, the Chavez government was more explicit, simply refusing to renew the station's license (required to operate on the public band, though it can still reach a much audience via cable and the Internet), without offering the accused an opportunity to defend itself against charges of sedition. When RCTV was ejected from the airwaves, its slot was taken over by yet another government-run propaganda channel in the mold of ViVe, a "public service" network that devoted significant airtime in the election run-up mocking opposition protestors and admonishing viewers to vote 'Si!' to the constitutional changes (ViVe can be watched live here; archived documentaries on the philosophy of Mao and Marx archived here; RCTV on government station VTV's coverage of recent student protests here).
Parallels to the Sandinista regime, unfortunately for the people of Venezuela, don't stop there. In one less-remarked upon provision, the new constitution would attempt to solidify Chavez's base by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years-old, a tactic the Nicaraguan government successfully employed during its rigged 1984 election (Cuba too has a voting age of 16, though no elections to speak of). Chavez has also echoed the revolutionary rhetoric of Daniel Ortega, smearing any and all opponents as a spies and fifth-columnists; agents of the "Empire" and enemies of the people. So when former Minister of Defense and Chavez confidant Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel publically broke with the government, saying that the proposed changes to the constitution amounted to a soft coup d'état, his former boss unleashed his full fury, threatening those who run afoul of the revolution: "He who says he supports Chavez but votes 'no' is a traitor, a true traitor. He's against me, against the revolution and against the people." Such rhetorical thuggery is, alas, the least of the oppositions concerns; protests and gatherings are often met by armed members of local "Bolivarian Circles," state sanction gangs charged with protecting the revolution and modeled on Cuba's "Committee for the Defense of the Revolution" and Ortega's "Turbas Divinas," or "divine mobs."
Despite their obvious contempt for democratic institutions, both leaders still command a disturbing, though hardly overwhelming, level of Western support; defenders who will doubtless welcome a Chavez or Putin electoral victory and retrenchment. In the American Conservative, British writer John Laughland lauds Putin's economic record and remarks that his ideology isn't much different from your average European social democrat (This was, alas, meant as a compliment). A columnist for the Huffington Post described, somewhat clumsily, Chavez's power grab as an attempt "democratize political power to the grassroots of the majority more thoroughly than anything we have seen in this hemisphere… ever." Another Huffington Post columnist lamented that Chavez's revisions to the constitution are "falsely portrayed by many in the U.S. media as anti-democratic."
But the media have this one right. Both Chavez and Putin are attempting to reset the clock on the Cold War, and neither of them is terribly interested in promoting democratic institutions or ensuring a fair, transparent electoral process. And if recent history is any judge, come Sunday morning both Russia and Venezuela might very well be further down the path to the one party state.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.