Moscow Democracy does not march very long or very far. It lunges forward into vacuums created by the collapse of colonial, communist or imperial systems. Democratic reforms must then often creep, or ooze, or simply abide until the next turn of the political wheel makes new progress possible.
That frustrating zigzag pattern is at work today in Russia as President Vladimir Putin deepens an authoritarian transformation underwritten by surging oil and gas revenues that buy him public calm. But the political and economic centralization he manages may carry the seeds of its own demise over time.
This transformation of Russia - as dispiriting as it has seemed recently to many in the West and here - is not carved in stone. The deep concern that the Kremlin's rulers show for the opinion of their relatively well-educated public is one sign that not even they believe that democracy is totally dead here.
"They have created a political theater in which they write the script and set the stage," says a Western diplomat. "But the interesting thing is that they still care what the spectators think of the show."
That reflex surfaces in the already visible efforts being tested by the Kremlin to stage-manage the 2008 presidential elections. "Reformers" inside the Kremlin are said to be grouping around Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, while "conservatives" cluster with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Who says the voters won't have a choice?
Issues for the campaign are also being pre-shaped. The Kremlin team is building up the image of a Communist Party resurgence that must be turned back at the polls, even though most independent analysts fail to detect signs of any such comeback.
Meanwhile, Western governments are being subtly advised that they should do nothing to undermine Putin's ability to choose his successor. That would play into the hands of a newly threatening left. Dead as a tactic in the West, the Red Scare is being resurrected in a land where communism was decisively rejected 15 years ago.
Not even Putin pretends that the managed democracy he has imposed on Russia is true democracy. He is too smart for that. He acknowledged last week while meeting with foreign visitors that Russia "lacks a real multiparty system." While declaring a hope to create such a system at an undetermined future moment, Putin offered no clues as to how he would do this.
His vagueness on the political future contrasted sharply with the detailed specifics he offered on Russia's economic outlook, where he expects growth to reach 7 percent again this year. Windfall profits from the energy industry will be used to establish "high-technology zones" for new industry and increase social welfare spending, he claimed.
Putin's confidence and his competence in the art of control are impressive seen at close range. But will his highly centralized system be responsive when Russia has to face up to the pervasive "disease" of energy exporting countries, which invariably fail to develop their own financial infrastructure, labor-intensive industries and the skills to run them?
"This is the Russian disease, which is even worse: We export our resources, our capital and our best people," senior economist Leonid Grigoriev said.
He is actually understating. The Russian population is shrinking not only because of emigration but also because of a staggering mortality rate (double that of the United States) and a sharply declining birthrate. The population has fallen from 150 million to 142 million over the past decade and the public health system is widely acknowledged to be a continuing disaster.
Putin is a successful manager of a Russia benefiting from good times. But it is far from clear that he, or the stand-in he hopes to name to succeed him, could muster the public support that would be needed to lead the country through crises that may lie ahead. It may take leaders with real democratic legitimacy.
An ambitious American effort to spread democracy into Russia under President Clinton in the 1990s faltered and was stalemated when Putin came to power. But seen from today, it did help create a reference point and toehold for future advances. This should offer some solace to Clinton, and perhaps for President Bush's beleaguered push for democracy in the Greater Middle East as well.