You're not in Kansas anymore, Hillary.

Photographer: Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images

In Russia, Hillary Would Already Have Lost

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

If Hillary Clinton had just announced her candidacy to run for president in Russia, rather than in the U.S., she'd already be in deep trouble -- just because of the video she made for the occasion.

To an American, her fast-paced, feel-good YouTube clip might look like a bland and insincere attempt to touch base with all the main voter groups, or a firm promise to look after the interests of the middle class, made in a hip, iPhone-ready format. 

Russian election watchdogs, however, would cry foul from the first seconds. "According to Russia's 'law' on 'elections,' Hillary would have already been disqualified," tweeted Leonid Volkov, who ran opposition activist Alexei Navalny's inspired, but unsuccessful 2013 campaign for election as mayor of Moscow.

See this? In the very first second?

And this, coming on the heels of that first terrible infringement so fast I could only get a screenshot on the fifth try:

And, as though that wasn't enough:

These are all violations of Article 48, Part 6 of Russia's Federal Law on the Basic Guarantees of the Election -- and Referendum -- Related Rights of the Citizens of the Russian Federation. According to this legislation "it is forbidden to involve in election or referendum campaigning such persons as have not attained the age of 18 on the day of the vote, and to use their images and statements in campaign materials." The only exception made is for families of the candidates themselves.

Then there's this part, which provided the headline for the story on Clinton's presidential bid in the Russian government's official newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta -- "Two Gays Filmed in Hillary Clinton's Video":

In Russia, this image would violate the 2013 Administrative Misdemeanors Code, Article 6.21, Part 2, which threatens fines of up to 1 million rubles ($19,000) for "the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors through the spread of information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual standards."

In other words, Russian regulators could have argued -- in strict accordance with several different laws -- that children need to be protected from the Clinton campaign. At the very least, the video would have been banned and access shut off by Roskomnadzor, Russia's censorship body for the Internet. Volkov is probably also right that Clinton would have been disqualified altogether, given her plan to raise $2.5 billion in donations. That would be enough to make her a potential electoral threat to President Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, a number of laws adopted in Russia in recent years are designed specifically to silence Putin's opponents and make it impossible for them to preach a liberal agenda the way Clinton does in her video.

There is another side to this story, though. If Clinton wins, she will have to deal with Putin, an endeavor in which she has failed before. In 2009, as U.S. secretary of state, she presented her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with a big red push button with the word "Reset" on it in English and in Russian. Only she got the Russian translation wrong: instead of the correct "perezagruzka," the inscription said "peregruzka," or "overload." Lavrov and Clinton were able to laugh about it then, but the mistake turned out to be prophetic. Things went downhill quickly and, last year, Clinton likened Putin to Hitler

Indeed, it's partly Clinton's fault that a video like hers is unimaginable in today's Russian politics. It was on her watch as secretary of state that Putin finally gave up on the idea of building some kind of alliance with the West: He blamed her department for fomenting the middle class protests that roiled Moscow in 2011-2012. After those fruitless demonstrations, Russia's rubber-stamp parliament passed dozens of restrictive laws such as the ones I cited above.

Perhaps there was little Clinton could have done to stop Putin from becoming paranoid about Western interference, but at the least she contributed to the U.S. failure to lead by example. And, through her candidacy, she continues to do so: Clinton personifies, along with her potential Republican rival for the White House Jeb Bush, the worrying ascendancy of presidential dynasties in the U.S. From a Russian standpoint, these don't look much better than Putin's job-switching tandem with former President (and now Prime Minister again) Dmitri Medvedev. 

Despite the exclusionary role that dynasties and money play in today's U.S. presidential elections, however, any suggestion of equivalence with Russia is false. U.S. candidates are genuinely free to tell voters what they like, and the party in opposition is protected, not sabotaged, by the law. As Winston Churchill might have said, U.S.-style democracy in 2015 is the worst form of government, except for the alternative.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net