It’s fair to ask, why bother with the pretense of democracy? Dictatorships are obsessed with the superficial trappings of legitimacy and democracy, both as distraction and to sully the meaning of these terms. And after decades of liquidating the opposition and crushing all dissent, a despot might even enjoy thinking that he’s as popular as the worthless polls, elections and state media say he is.
These sham votes aren’t only to provide Putin with cover in Russia, where civil society barely exists, but to give foreign leaders the pretext of treating Putin like an equal instead of confronting him like the autocrat he is. It also allows foreign media to continue calling him “president,” putting him on par with the leaders of free countries. As with every tyrant before him, Putin thrives partly due to the cowardice of those who could deter him but choose not to.
These aren’t just semantics. It would be awkward, even outrageous, to make deals with dictator Putin, to trust him, or to speak fondly of him the way President Donald Trump does. The title feeds the hypocrisy, and so the myth of Putin the elected, Putin the popular, must be perpetuated.
This is a choice to be made by every foreign official and every media organization. They could make sure to mention in their coverage that Russian elections are neither free nor fair. They could strip Putin of the democratic title of “president,” of which he is unworthy — and they should.
Along with the fear-mongering and violence, Putin exploited the legitimate grievances of the Russian people for his own gain. His themes were familiar ones: security, cultural preservation, ethnic tension. Twitter didn’t exist then, but if it had, Putin would have been tweeting “Law & order!” in Russian. Those of us in the Russian pro-democracy movement had the dual challenge of protesting Putin’s crackdowns while acknowledging the other problems the country faced.
I watched as Putin destroyed our fragile democracy by focusing only on his own power and wealth while mouthing nationalist rhetoric and attacking the free press. Now I’m watching Trump use many of the same techniques to chip away at democracy in my new home, although I cannot complain of exile when some of my Russian colleagues have been jailed or killed.
But Trump has yet to do his worst, a prediction I make with confidence not because I know what he will do, but because I know what such people are capable of.
An ounce of deterrence is worth a pound of retaliation. US lawmakers, and candidate Biden, must make it clear that any attack on the integrity of the 2020 election will be met with the harshest penalties — regardless of whether those attacks come from the Kremlin or from the Oval Office.