Balancing Acts


As of yesterday, the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had declared emergency rule and his rival, Benazir Bhutto, had urged her followers to take to the streets. The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, had declared a state of emergency and sent out the riot police. The generals who run Burma were still taking a hard line on the freedom movement led by Buddhist monks. Now, a day later, the two presidents have called for elections and the military junta has agreed to meet with the Burmese pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This good news for democracy could, of course, be reversed dramatically in each of these countries by, say, tomorrow. If only the situation were so fluid in Russia.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the Russian biologist and human rights leader Sergei Kovalev writes that “democratic mechanisms have been liquidated” in his country. Thus the parliamentary “election” just completed was no election at all but “pure imitation” of a democratic process, a description that also applies to the presidential election coming to Russia in March. Kovalev’s sad conclusion is that “few of us will live to see the reinstatement of freedom and democracy in Russia.” The culprit is of course the man The New York Review calls “Tsar Putin,” whose ploy to retain power by becoming prime minister feels like the final step in the liquidation process. In this issue of The American Scholar, Sarah Mendelson, a human rights and Russia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, remembers her experiences in Moscow during those palmy years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when she and people like her were trying to teach Western democratic processes to the Russian people. What she noticed in 1994–95 was that Western market capitalism was catching on quickly but that there were clear signs even then that Western-style politics was not.

Like charity, of course, democracy begins at home. Lincoln Caplan, the founding editor of Legal Affairs and a writer who has often focused on the law, worries in this issue of the Scholar that our own democratic mechanisms are beginning to falter. Much of the reasoning behind the claims for presidential prerogative argued by the present administration originates in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Caplan warns that the increasingly politicized opinions coming out of this office are not subject to any sort of judicial review. Thus we have an executive branch, which through the abuse of presidential signing statements already claims the right to ignore congressional bills with which it disagrees, now ignoring the judicial branch as well. Goodbye, checks and balances. Almost as troubling, Caplan points out, none of our presidential candidates even seems to care.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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