The central proposal was ingenious: The Kremlin proposed to guarantee the election’s fairness by installing Webcams at all polling stations; every citizen could personally monitor the voting process. As China’s Xinhua news agency enthusiastically reported: “From Kamchatka to Kaliningrad, and from Chechnya to Chukotka, more than 2.5 million net surfers registered to view live streaming from at least 188,000 webcams installed in more than 94,000 polling stations on Russian territory.”
In the words of one Finnish observer, it was “a landmark in the history of democracy and democratic elections.”
However, in a regime like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s, where the government decides who may be a candidate, the webcams would be farcical were they not also so intimidating. Viewed from the West, they were perceived as a tool to keep the government under control by enabling people to watch what it was doing. However, from the point of view of a post-Soviet voter living in the countryside, the webcam sent a different message: The government knows how you vote.
In a way, Putin succeeded twice: he looked transparent to the West and menacing to most of his own citizens. The installation of the webcams was an act of simultaneous transparency and conspiracy.
The broader issue is transparency advocates’ insistence that open government can be reconciled with citizens’ privacy. However, might wholly transparent government imply a wholly transparent citizen? As a rule, governments monitor people. When that becomes transparent, so do those citizens who spoke with or were monitored by the government.
Contrary to the expectations of transparency advocates, greater disclosure of government information does not make public discourse more rational and less paranoid. If anything, it fuels conspiracy theories (there is nothing more suspicious than the claim of absolute transparency). Who can honestly say that public debate has become more rational and less paranoid when our governments have become more transparent?
Rather than restoring trust in democratic institutions, the transparency movement could accelerate the transformation of democratic politics into the management of mistrust. In that case, one could imagine the replacement of representative democracy with political regimes that limit citizen control to the executive.
None of this is to deny that transparency in government is a worthy goal. However, let us not fool ourselves by thinking that achieving it will restore citizens’ faith in their political institutions.
Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria.
Copyright: Project Syndicate / Institute for Human Sciences