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Putin, Chavez Make Global Power Grab

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Leaders in Russia and Venezuela reached for expanded powers at the same time. A coincidence? Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government explains.

ALISON STEWART, host:

As long as we're talking about democracy, in 1975, there were 30 nations in the world with popularly elected governments. In '05, there were 119, So if you put your money on democracy back in the '70s, you've done pretty well. That is if you stick with the strict definition of democracy, which some elected leaders have not, choosing instead to massage the definition in order to retain a fair amount of power.

Over the weekend in the Russian parliamentary election, Vladimir Putin's party scored about 62 percent of the vote, which open the door for him to continue be large and in charge, even though he's supposed to hit the road after serving two consecutive four-year terms. But that didn't come without some heavy-handed tactics by authorities, as NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in Russian)

GREGORY FEIFER: When demonstrators tried to protest in Moscow last weekend, they were beaten by riot police, and opposition leader Garry Kasparov was arrested.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in Russian)

FEIFER: Outside police headquarters, soon after, activists protesting Kasparov's jailing were joined by mysterious strangers who Kasparov's supporters believed were sent by the authorities to fake provocations, enabling police to detain the real protesters.

After his release from prison, Kasparov said the Kremlin is conducting such Soviet-style tactics because it fears any sign of opposition would bring its authoritarian rule crashing down.

Mr. GARRY KASPAROV (Opposition Leader): Fear is the strongest weapon of any dictatorship. So that's why they're using such harsh measures against the leadership. Just look, we can free them in this fashion. Don't even think about joining these guys, because you'll also suffer.

STEWART: So that's what happened in Russia. And Venezuela, we all know - now know that Hugo Chavez was thwarted in his power grab to remain leader of that country indefinitely. The compromised power-grabber of late seems to be Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, gave up the general's title after he declared emergency rule. But he arrested thousands of people and did replace much of the Supreme Court with loyalists.

Joining us to talk about all of these developments is Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of "Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government."

With that title, you're a great person to talk to. Hi.

Professor MICHAEL MANDELBAUM (American Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins University): Hi.

STEWART: So were you surprised the Chavez outcome?

Prof. MANDELBAUM: I was a little surprised, but not entirely surprised because there is an important difference between Venezuela, on the one hand, and Pakistan and Russia on the other. And that is that Venezuela has much more experience with genuine democracy than those other two countries do, which means that people there are more experienced at and more committed to genuine political democracy.

So there was a bigger pushback in Venezuela than there is in Russia and than there's likely to be in Pakistan.

STEWART: So what's going on in Russia that there wasn't a bigger pushback? Putin seems to be humming right along with this plan to either end up as the prime minister or perhaps change the way they do government business so that he could stay on.

Prof. MANDELBAUM: Well, there are three things going on in Russia. One is that Russia has never had any experience with real democracy, so it doesn't have a citizenry that can mobilize to resist dictatorship on the basis of habits, customs and beliefs.

Second, Russia has a feature that is often deadly for democracy, and that is oil. Countries with large oil and other energy reserves tend not to be democracies. That's true in the Persian Gulf, for example. It's true in Iran with Mr. Ahmadinejad. It's true all over the world, because when a country has oil reserves, the temptation of the people holding power to keep power in order to keep receiving the revenues from the oil is extremely powerful.

And then there's a third feature peculiar to Russia and to Mr. Putin, and that is that - and it is related to oil. In the 1990s, the Russians had a very bad decade economically. When communism collapsed, the economy collapsed as well.

When Mr. Putin came to power, that coincided with a steady rise in oil prices, which means that Russia is much richer, which means that Putin has been able to pay off the populists by paying salaries and pensions, which means that people are rather contented with him, especially in economic terms, especially compared with the previous decade.

So Mr. Putin is genuinely popular in Russia for that reason. I don't think his popularity or the popularity of a dictatorship is destined to last forever. But for the moment, alas, autocracy is popular in Russia.

STEWART: So how does all of this affect the great United States of America championship - champion of democracy?

Prof. MANDELBAUM: Well, it's important to note the context here. You very kindly mentioned my book "Democracy's Good Name," which does note that there was a surge in democracy all around the world in the last quarter of the 20th century, and seeks the reasons for this surge from 35 to 119 democracies.

One important reason that I find is the working of a market economy. Where you have a market economy for several generations, the institutions and habits necessary to operate it tend to spill over into the political arena. And that makes for democracy, and that's what happened in East Asia and Latin America and elsewhere in the last part of the 20th century.

That means two things for American policy. First, it means that I think we can be relatively - or at least cautiously optimistic about the prospects for democracy over the long term, even in places like Russia, if and as, they established market economies and these market economies work their way.

Second, it means that - at least in my judgment - there isn't an all that much that the United States can do directly to promote democracy. We promote it indirectly by serving as an example for the rest of the world and by encouraging market economies, but directly we probably can't expect to enjoy much in the way of success.

And it's no accident, I think, that the places where the United States has intervened directly and have actually occupied and governed the country - as in Iraq or in Bosnia or Somalia or Haiti - we have not succeeded in establishing democracy. Democracy does grow, but not at our behest.

STEWART: We're speaking with Michael Mandelbaum. He's a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. And, Michael, can you stick around for about three minutes? I have one last question I want to ask you, but we need to take a quick break. Can you hang on?

Prof. MANDELBAUM: I'd be delighted to.

STEWART: All right, great. Thank you so much.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Coming up on the BPP: Holoo, Cosmo, Gizmodo, Frengo - no, they're not Klingon names. They're the names of Web sites. And we're going to talk the guy who actually comes up with these names.

STEWART: And the best grocery bagger in all of Utah. She is on her way to the national championships. She gives us some pointers, explains to us how she's in training for the big event. She may actually make it all the way to David Letterman's couch. It could happen.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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BURBANK: Welcome back to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. We are always available online: npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Luke Burbank.

STEWART: And I'm Alison Stewart.

And we're having a really fine conversation with Mandelbaum, who wrote the book "Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government." We're discussing these various power grabs that we've seen in recent months by world leaders around the globe.

And, Michael, we've talked about Chavez, Putin, Musharraf. There's also the president of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. Okay, just this may be a compound question. I said it's one question, but it's two.

One: which of these gentlemen, four leaders, do you think will be out of office first? And is there someone we're missing that we should be paying attention to who's kind of going to through these same machinations of trying to gain more power?

Prof. MANDELBAUM: Well, of those four, I suspect that Mr. Saakashvili is going to be the most short-lived for two reasons. One, Georgia is even more unstable and unpredictable than the other countries. And two, he actually came to power as a democrat, and so, if and when people get tired of him, they'd probably have a greater opportunity to vote him out of power than is the case for the other three who have really aimed at a dictatorship from the beginning.

Second, I would say that the two zones of dictatorship in the world are former Soviet Republics that are now independent countries in the Caucasus such as Georgia and in Central Asia, and, alas, the Arab Middle East, where we have expended mighty efforts to implant democracy and where, if we're fortunate, we may be on the verge of bringing some stability to Iraq. But for reasons that I outlined in "Democracy's Good Name," unfortunately, the Arab world is not fertile territory for democracy. I think we're going to have to wait a long time for the first Arab democracy, unfortunately.

STEWART: Professor Michael Mandelbaum, professor at Johns Hopkins University, thanks for spending some time with us this morning.

Prof. MANDELBAUM: It's in my pleasure.

BURBANK: Oh, all right. Let's jump over to Korva Coleman in Washington, D.C. with BPP News Update.

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