Democracy: Can Russia Catch Up With Brazil?

When will Russians attain the political maturity of Brazilians?

When will Russians, like Brazilians, be allowed to elect state governors and big city mayors, and to have free, competitive elections for congress and the presidency?

Brazil's new President Dilma Rousseff attends a ceremony to celebrate Army Day in Brasilia on April 19. As a university student, she was jailed for working with an urban guerrilla unit opposed to military rule. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

James Brooke*

These questions are faintly offensive to many Russians. 
After all, Brazil was a mere Portuguese colony of banana trees and coconut palms at the time when Ivan the Terrible was forging the nucleus of a modern state in the snowy wastes of Russia. But fast forward five centuries and Russia and Brazil have roughly the same economic clout. Each has a $2 trillion economy. Both are founding members of the BRICS group of rising nations. The political comparison is timely as Russia embarks on an election year, electing parliament in December and a new president in March.

I just returned from my first trip back to Brazil in 16 years. For a total of 10 years, from 1980 to 1995, I covered Brazil for American newspapers. These were the key years of Brazil’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the parliament at Russian State Duma in Moscow April 20, 2011. Just the way Brazil’s military presidents of the 1970s only appeared in public in business suits, the Prime Minister’s public relations office does not distribute historic photos of Putin in his KGB Colonel’s uniform. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

Russians, if they ever think seriously about Brazil’s political development, assume that democracy comes naturally to a New World society in the Americas.

In fact, 150 years ago, Russia and Brazil were pretty much in the same place: slave owning societies ruled by emperors. The czar abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to do so.

In Brazil, the abolition of slavery led to the overthrow of the emperor and started a 75 year succession of military coups, rule by oligarchic civilian parties, a fascist lite government during World War II, and, finally, the military-led “Revolution,” of 1964. For the next 21 years, a series of Army generals, dressed in business suits, led Brazil.

Russia’s political scene today is very similar to the scene in Brazil when I first visited as a college student 35 years ago, in 1976.

Russians today are ruled by what Latin Americans then called “dictablanda” – or soft dictatorship. The word “dictadura,” or hard dictatorship, would apply today to the regimes ruling Cuba or Belarus.

As in military-run Brazil, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a largely free printed press. But the electronic media — TV and radio — operate under heavy self-censorship. As in military-run Brazil, Russia’s national leadership manipulates elections and political parties to ensure its continuity in power.

In military-run Brazil, the powerless congress was at least a “caixa de resonancia” or national ‘echo chamber.’ Russia’s Duma may not even aspire to that. In 2005, Boris Gryzlov, the current Duma speaker, reprimanded another deputy, saying “parliament is not a place for political discussions.”

And just as Brazil’s military presidents never appeared in public in their Army uniforms, the office of Russia’s prime minister does not distribute historical photos of Vladimir Putin in his KGB colonel’s uniform.

On Russian streets today, the slightest “unauthorized protest” is met with billy clubs and paddy wagons. In the latest example, on Saturday, uniformed and plainclothes police broke up an attempted gay rights rally, forcibly detaining about 30 people in front of the Kremlin.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president, presides over a ceremony in which she awarded medals of merit to military officers in Planalto Palace in Brasilia April, 2011. Rousseff is backed by the Workers’ Party, a political party that emerged from grassroots groups that spread across Brazil in the 1980s, strengthening civil society in face of military rule. REUTERS/Ueslei Rousseff

So how did Brazil make the big move from an authoritarian political system in the 1970s to the civilian democracy of today?

Last Saturday, as Russian police were beating up gays and their sympathizers in Moscow, I was in Florianopolis, Brazil, lunching on shrimp stew with Roberto Schmidt, a lawyer and veteran of Brazil’s long, slow motion move to full civilian rule.

“Expansion of civil society is the key,” he said. “One year in the early 1980s, neighborhood groups just started forming across Florianopolis.”

As a reporter in Brazil in the early 1980s, I recall thinking that this proliferation of non-governmental groups, neighborhood groups, church groups, green groups, women’s groups, and independent trade unions was a boring story. For news value, how could this grass roots phenomenon compare with the pyrotechnics of civil war in El Salvador, Augusto Pinochet beating heads in Chile, and Maggie Thatcher rolling back Argentina’s occupation of the Falkland Islands?

But for Brazil, this transition to democracy was The Story.

On a political level, these non-governmental groups led to the formation of the Workers Party, Brazil’s first truly grass roots party. This is the party that overturned class expectations and put into the presidential palace Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a former shoeshine boy whose formal education stopped at the fourth grade.

This is the party that upended gender expectations by winning election last October of Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to become President of Brazil. (In a measure of ideological distance traveled, Rousseff, the daughter of Bulgarian communist immigrant, started her political career in college running guns for a Marxist guerrilla group fighting the military dictatorship.)

But beyond contributing to the political success of the Workers Party, the expansion of non-governmental groups in Brazil contributed to a growth in the sense of citizenship among average Brazilians. Brazil’s economic growth greatly contributed to this process, pulling 23 million more Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class in the last decade.

In contrast, Russia’s authoritarian rulers seem frozen in 1976, scared of civil society.

Under the guise of fighting “color revolutions,” they severely restrict non-governmental groups in Russia. They train Kremlin affiliated youth groups, Nashi, Young Guard and others, to wage street battles against dissidents and independent political movements. This is second nature to Prime Minister Putin, whose first 10 years at the KGB in Leningrad revolved around monitoring foreigners and combating local dissidents.

Under Putin, Russia’s political system seems to be increasingly distant from civil society and popular participation.

Last fall’s “election” of the mayor of Moscow is emblematic. One morning last October, the 10 million inhabitants of Moscow woke up to learn the name of their new mayor. Literally from Siberia, Sergei Sobanynin was an unknown to Muscovites. He was well known to the Kremlin: he was Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff.

Presumably to give Muscovites a feeling of political participation, state television broadcast live the Moscow City Council vote on the Kremlin’s nominee. It had slightly more suspense than a vote in the communist days. It was 32 in favor, 2 opposed.

The Kremlin’s arguments that residents of Europe’s largest city do not have the political maturity to elect their own mayor echoes the arguments made 40 years ago by the Brazilian military about Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city. Throughout the 1970s, Sao Paulo’s mayors were appointed by the generals. Free, competitive elections were restored in the 1980s.

The question remains: will Russia follow the path of Brazil, and move to full democracy?


*James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record.

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