The bright hopes that some of us indulged in the early 1990s for Russian democracy have not been fulfilled. This week’s election of a new president, Dmitry Medvedev, was at best a rough approximation to democratic process. Even if the reports of intimidation and ballot-rigging are exaggerated, the election was clearly far short of international standards.

On the other hand, our worst fears have not been realised either – not by a long way. Russia under Vladimir Putin has not lapsed back into dictatorship, and has not withdrawn from the civilised community. It is more prosperous than at any time in its history, and its foreign policy, although assertive, has a better record of respecting international law than that of George W Bush.

Moreover, few observers seem to doubt that Putin is genuinely popular, and that Medvedev, his chosen successor, would have won a fair election comfortably. (It’s true that some foreigners said the same about Stalin, but our ability to tap Russian public opinion was much more restricted in those days.)

How concerned we are by Medvedev’s flawed election, and therefore what attitude we take towards Russia in the future, will largely depend on what we think democracy is for.

Broadly speaking, there are two main views. On one, democracy is just a pragmatic device that enables us to remove bad governments without bloodshed. That can be hugely important, but its value is ultimately just instrumental.

On the other view, democracy is a positive good: it is the means by which people collectively organise to fulfil their common goals, and democratic participation is valuable above and beyond the results that it produces.

I confess to belonging to the first camp. I think that distrust of government is generally a good thing, and that danger lurks whenever we start seeing government as “us” rather than “them”. That way lies Rousseau’s “general will” and Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

So if leaders are broadly acceptable to their own populations, the mechanics of their election should not be a matter of great concern.

Much more important to focus on the results: are they promoting the goals of peace and freedom, security and prosperity?

On that basis, Putin’s record has been mixed; in particular, the state of civil liberties in Russia deserves to be closely scrutinised. But how President Medvedev emerges from that scrutiny will be more important than how he got there in the first place.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey