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Democracy wins in Venezuela, loses in Russia

By John C. Bersia

Two ballot-box disappointments had loomed in recent days: a vote in support of proposed constitutional changes in Venezuela and Russian parliamentary elections in favor of President Vladimir Putin. Fortunately, only one of them turned out badly — Moscow’s. Venezuelans won, for now.

Against significant odds, the people of Venezuela managed to muster enough support to beat back President Hugo Chavez’s incremental coup that he had poorly disguised as constitutional reform. Under Chavez’s plan, he would have been allowed to run for re-election indefinitely, crack down on civil liberties in emergencies, gag the news media and engage in other excesses.

Venezuelans — including a fair number of former Chavez followers — saw through his ploy, however, and set a sterling example of democracy. But they should not let their guard down for one second. Chavez will be at it again; indeed, he has promised to do precisely that, as he continues his Terminator-like search to acquire additional power.

He is not invincible, though. The weekend’s vote offered stunning evidence of Chavez’s vulnerability. He suffered a significant electoral defeat for the first time during his presidency, despite his ability to manipulate the system. Although a tough battle lies ahead, it is realistic to begin thinking of Venezuela after Chavez. The key will be for Venezuelans to keep up the pressure and respond to any new signs of attempted power grabs with immediate, loud, public protests.

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Meanwhile, Russians have moved in the opposite direction. Their leader, Putin, harbors ambitions similar to those of Chavez. Relishing the might that flows through his fingers, Putin cannot bear to lose it. There is just one problem — a restriction on his ability to seek a third consecutive term as president. To circumvent that obstacle, he had urged voters to support his party in large numbers in the weekend’s parliamentary elections, believing that victory would grant him an ongoing "moral right" to exert influence.

Well, they did, handing Putin’s party and its allies a sweeping victory, albeit amid charges of widespread and unprecedented vote-rigging. Indications of irregularities were not simply the sore-loser opinions of opposition parties. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, for example, canceled its plans to observe the vote because of excessive restrictions.

That sorry outcome is far from the experience that most Russians had begun to dream about after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early days, Moscow’s democracy was vibrant and inspiring. But it quickly entered into a dangerous slide that Putin has accelerated.

The future of Russia will be ill-served by a system that continues to take on characteristics similar to the one that it replaced. Sadly, most Russians appear content with their diminishing say. Many eagerly echoed Putin before the election, as he stirred up fears of foreigners he called "jackals" meddling in Russian politics.

The "jackals" to which Putin made reference are surely around. Pity that so many of them skulk inside and receive their orders from the Kremlin, while another variety behaves similarly at the heels of Chavez and his cohorts.

John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. Respond at news@postbulletin.com.

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