Democracy: Can Russia Catch Up With Brazil?

Posted June 3rd, 2011 at 8:19 am (UTC+0)

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

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 doing clandestine work with 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 echo 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
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

15 responses to “Democracy: Can Russia Catch Up With Brazil?”

  1. J Roberto says:

    Very interesting this comparison between the two countries.Really here in Brazil today we live in a total personal freedom, although some demonstrations of intolerance against some minorities, especially gays, but I can ensure your words, the democracy makes miracles. Saudações.

  2. Gennady says:

    Very refreshing and unexpected analogy. But the notion of democracy is differing for various cultures. What isn’t differing is the notion of professionalism.
    I would wish to see an article “Professionalism: Can Russia catch up with …?”

    Once, being brainwashed I was an ardent follower of the Kremlin’s marxism-leninism and I knew that the science of Marxism was the most scientific, the Soviet Union’s economy was the most economical, genetics was the most genetical, cybernetics was the most cybernetical etc. I was reassured that Chinese communists were unprofessional and revisionistic.
    1. Could I have wished the Soviet Union’s leadership had been as unprofessional and revisionistic as China’s leaders once had been to become the 2-nd largest economy in the world?
    2. Once Premier promised Russia promptly to double its GDP. Now he doesn’t see the sense in doubling. Any economic miscalculations?
    3. With a stroke of a pen Chief medical Officer bans multimillion-worth import from the EU being threatened by innocent E. coli from somebody’s gut. It is just a guess. And imposing conditions that will be remembered many years to come. Even real cholera outbreak couldn’t have caused such reaction. I wonder in what a book the Officer has read such an advice?
    4. In a FSB-controlled hospital after surgery dies President of a friendly country. Could he have lived until the end of his term in office if he hadn’t had the operation? Is the diagnosis of cancer a sort of emergency and a reason for postoperative death? I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened in any NHS hospital.
    5. A blaze at weaponry depot caused deaths and dozens injured not having mentioned the cost of the disaster. How it could have happened? Was it a thunderstorm or tornado? I’ m sure the reason was negligence and mishandling.
    One may continue the list of unprofessionalism in nowadays Russia to his heart exhaustion.

  3. Branco says:

    Was it deliberately, but author in its analysis completely foregoes ‘the influence’ of american politics, CIA secret actions and Mr. H. Kissinger’s clique in developing and maintaining of dictatorial regimes in South America during ’70’s and ’80’s, as a counterbalance of perceived spreding of Communism to South America. Once Americans gave up on enforcing such policies, the seed of South American democracies could be planted.
    Therefore, it is beyond somparison, Soviet Russia and Brasil under the military junta’s, since the later was in a significant degree – a product of the US foreign politics.
    At the end, not to be forgoten, Mr. Ignacio Lula da Silva – in the begining of his first presidential term, was ‘saluted’ by american free media and its foreign policy pundits, as just yet another ‘Hugo Chavez derivative’ that will mean nothing but trouble for the US interests in the South America and probable economic disaster to his own people.
    Now however, mentioning that Mrs. President was a gun runner for an urban Marxist Guerilla – sounds like a joke? It is us – Brasilians who could laugh last at the spinned analysis above!

  4. Sergey says:

    Several months ago I placed this anti-Medvedev clip in Internet.
    If everything is so bad with democracy in Russia, then why nobody has arrested me up to now?:-)

  5. Gennady says:

    Sergey failed to prove his point and acts antiproductive for supporters of the Medvedev-Putin regime.

    He gave one more proof of the state of freedom of speech in a certain country.

    Sergey tries to cheat people not knowing Russian languages with the irrelevant link he gave.

    With innocent pictures of President Medvedev’s pastime the video with the voice of President of a neighboring country ridicules an angler.

    Sergey, you may sleep undisturbed. FSB will not harm you for your video.

  6. J Roberto says:

    I support Branco’s words, the past was terrible here in Brazil and USA put their hands to maintain that deadly situation. Unhappily.

  7. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Rather than trying to score points on the issue of the level of US involvement in the 1964 coup, I suggest we focus on the main point: the tremendous strides that Brazil has taken in the last two decades toward full democracy. Meanwhile Russia, since the 1991 collapse of communism, has moved in the opposite direction of Brazil. away from democracy toward authoritarianism.

    The actions of the US are not terribly relevant to the political evolutions of both countries in the last two decades. The US is not responsible for Brazilian democracy. The US is not responsible for Russian authoritarianism. Nor is China, now the largest trading partner for both Russia and Brazil.

  8. GERHARD says:

    What about then: Be there peace on earth, always.
    Thank you all! A big hug

  9. Pyotr says:

    Well, it takes a lot of imagination to connect such different and distant peoples. But of course we are all humans after all. And I think the article is a good reason for a white envy to Brasilians. I am afraid Russia is doomed to stay a third rate authoriterian country for long, not because of Putin or Medvedev or somebody else. We lack all those people who were killed and purged and expelled, they were the gene pool of the nation. It is a big question whether Russia is capable to restore it and when? Russians got used to be controlled, it gave us illusion of protection, we are too infantile for democracy I guess. Most of Russians simply don’t know what it means to be free, what’s the purpose of it. So while the oil prices are high and sausages are more or less available people don’t want to hear anything about human rights and freedoms and so on. Besides we’ve got the nuclear bludgeon which make us “superior” and untouchable, above any other nation’s criticism. As to internal voices of reason they are very feeble and are easy to silence.

  10. Mikhail says:

    In general, I agree with Gennady and Pyotr. Russia is largely a country of unprofessional, ignorant and often simply absurd management. And Pyotr is right, for most of us our own consumption capability is the only means to distinguish right and wrong.

    Just to add. As far as I know, socialist ideas are traditionally popular in Latin America, so they finally realized the positive and realistic part of their potential. But in Russia, I’m afraid, every thing “social” will for a long time still remind the bulk of people only of nightmares of communal life in the USSR. This is the reason of our growing into highly individualistic nation, where the word “community” means “a bunch of marginals” most of time.
    So, it’s very easy to govern this selfish crowd. Hope is that sometimes, where the actions of authorities are so remarkably delirious, and on the other side protesters have some reasonable and non-hysterical voice to express their point, the rulers give up, as it was with the Petersburg’s gazmyas scyscraper.

  11. John says:


    Very nicely done. Russia and Brazil are not quite exactly analogous, but in broad brush your long-term historical analogy between slave-holding societies ruled by autocracies makes this an interesting controlled experiment. But if Roberto Schmidt is right about the roots of Brazilian democracy in the grass-roots emergence of civil society in the early 1980s, Brazil’s trajectory bears comparing with Eastern Europe and the events of “1989”, and thus high-lights Pyotr’s dark comments about the sheer human waste of the Stalin decades.

  12. Wim says:

    While the US let Brazil largely alone after the 1980s it is hard to overestimate the harm US policies have done to Russia.

    First they came with their “free market” ideology. While China achieved prosperity by keeping the things from communism that worked and copying the things from capitalism they expected to work this crazy free market ideology seduced the Russians to dump the things that worked under communism – leaving a dysfunctional society.

    Then there are those color revolutions. They were an attempt to use what the countries involved have in civil society for the purposes of the US. The effect was that civil society itself became suspect and politicized.

    We can see the same effect now happening in the Arab world as the US is still using those color revolution tactics. Where gradual improvement – like happened in Brazil – was very well possible in the Arab world the US encouraged the protesters to go for regime change. This set them up for failure – in one country after another.

  13. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Writing from Holland, it may be tempting to oversimplify geopolitics in faraway countries.
    However, it is mildly insulting to 142 million Russians to blame all their problems on the USA.
    As for color revolutions, their citizen/street character is very similar to the process that led to the rise of the Workers Party in Brazil in the 1980s/1990s.
    Some people are afraid of change.
    Some people are afraid of citizens participating in politics.
    The Russian government right now is very conservative, very change averse.
    The motto of the Brazilian military governments was “seguranca e desenvolvimento” — security and development. Sounds very familiar to some living in modern Russia
    St. Petersburg

  14. Wim says:

    Dear Jim,
    What triggered me in the article was the sentence “In contrast, Russia’s authoritarian rulers seem frozen in 1976, scared of civil society.”. It reads as if time had stopped in Russia in that period and as if Russia is to be blamed for that. A bit strange as many Russians would rather describe this period as a roller coaster. I found this unfair to the Russians and a denial of the important role Americans played in creating this roller coaster. It is in reaction to that period that Russia is now so stability minded. Of course you are right to state that the 142 million Russians also had their own responsibility in what happened in that period.

    I am puzzled how you can confuse color revolutions with true grassroot organizations in which people take care of each other. Color revolutions are a turbo version of the Gandhian nonviolent resistance, developed by Gene Sharp and Peter Ackerman. But where in true non-violence it is tried to morally convince the government of a position color revolutions try to push a government in a position where it feels forced to use violence. By using violence against unarmed protesters a government loses moral authority. Color revolutions don’t have moral positions: they just want regime change. They are closely related to populist leaders. Instead of a magnetic personality color revolutions use modern marketing techniques – fueled by US dollars from the NED and other organizations. But just like most populist leaders it is a straw fire: when it is over virtually nothing is left – except for a government that is highly suspicious of independent organizations.

  15. Marina says:

    Very good article Jim, but as brazilian I have to say to you that the part of censure in journals in Brazil still exists, you can see like in the journal “O Estado de São Paulo”. The journal was censored for doing a reportage about complaints of corruption involving the president of the Senate, José Sarney and his family. But you’re right, in Brazil we have more voice than in Russia, I can see now that i’m living in Siberia and how the journals are censored, and the worst: people know about this and they do nothing about.



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 in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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