From Potemkin Village to Potemkin Democracy

We have all heard of Potemkin village and its application in the economic and political context.  But have you heard of Potemkin democracy?  That’s how the Russian political system – called sovereign democracy by head of Mr. Putin’s administration recently and managed democracy by Mr. Putin himself in the past – is being described today by some.  MSNBC provides just one look at Russia’s current state of affairs. 

Behind the Potemkin façades of spruced-up St. Petersburg, the view is unsettling. A once vibrant political culture has been replaced by a government of loyal yes men. Opposition activists are frequently followed, threatened and beaten. Racially motivated hate crimes are on the rise, along with a culture of radical nationalism. And in the place where Russia’s free market was born, private entrepreneurs must forge business alliances with the local authorities or face being swallowed by powerful clans ultimately controlled by senior government and law-enforcement figures. In this sense, St. Petersburg is indeed a window on the new Russia. “Once, St. Petersburg was a real island of democracy, an example of liberalism for the rest of Russia,” says rights activist and journalist Daniil Kotsubinsky. “Now it’s one of the most corrupt, criminal and fascist cities in Europe.” 

Particularly interesting is the description of the costs associated with the recent G8 Summit held in St. Petersburg:

Homeless people have been relocated. Shopkeepers along the routes of official motorcades have been ordered to buy pots full of flowers (from approved sellers, natch) and 1,500 unsightly drink-and-cigarette kiosks have been bulldozed, without compensation for the owners.

Yes, the city has been ‘cleaned up’ before and was pretty much ‘shut down’ during the G8 summit and many of the small businesses are still counting up their losses.  $397 million, therefore, is not the full cost of the summit – its the direct spending to which the opportunity cost of businesses not operating and the city not fully functioning should be added up. 

All this is not new – Russia went through the same exercise several years ago when celebrating St. Petersburg’s 300 year anniversary.  Poor people have been hidden from the public view, buildings got a face lift along the major routes (in some cases covered up by billboards), and many of the local people being told to stay out of town. 

I can think of a number of other countries where the term Potemkin democracy or Potemkin market economy could be used to describe the local conditions.  The lesson: look beyond the headlines, roll up the sleeves, get in the trenches, and get dirty if you really want to understand how things work and how they can be improved.  Things are not always the way they appear – they could be a lot worse, but, consequently, they also could be a lot better.

Published Date: July 18, 2006