4th April 2012,
In a previous article, I described the argument that Russia’s elections are “more or less” democratic as one of the “legitimating myths” of Putinism [designed to bolster the regime and keep the population in check]. Unsurprisingly, this claim upset some readers, and they made a number of counter-arguments.
Their main points were;
- The current Russian government is, despite the fraud that took place in both parliamentary and presidential polls, broadly a reflection of the preferences and political goals of most Russians.
- “Western” democracy is not a universal value; there are many different styles of democracy and the current system in Russia represents an “acceptable” variation on the democratic theme, in line with Russian history and cultural norms.
- The “western” democratic model is not without its weaknesses and inefficiencies and does not solve problems such as corruption.
- The “non-systemic” opposition is weak and divided, especially the “pro-western” liberals. Some of these parties may be dependent on American money (witness the $200 million dollars spent by the American government on supporting Russian NGOs since 2009, with $50 million more apparently on the way). Liberalization would only benefit hard-core leftists, nationalists and liberal “traitors”.
These are interesting arguments, but not without some elements which characterize the “mythologising” to which I was referring. I will deal with each in turn:
The first point is essentially true. Vladimir Putin is popular, and would presumably have won the presidential election without falsification (although the fact that falsification did occur makes it hard to be 100% sure; the assurances of opinion polls will never be good as the “real thing,” i.e. a fair vote). However, the position of the party of “crooks and thieves” is far less secure, and it would not have won the (reduced) representation it now has in the Duma without considerable fraud in December. The current government may also broadly reflect the preferences and goals of a majority of Russians but, as is the nature of politics, there is no guarantee that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely, and as Russian society evolves it seems likely that there will ultimately come a point when the majority of Russians find themselves actively opposed to government policy.
More fundamental is the question of whether ”western” democracy is a universal value. From Democratist’s perspective, one of the main lessons to be learned from a (non-conspiratorial) analysis of the Arab Spring is that democracy, while “western” in origin, is increasingly coming to be seen as having universal applicability, and that “democracy” need not necessarily mean “Americanization” or “neo-liberalism.” Recent events in the middle East have shown that the populations of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria have risen up despite American hypocrisy on the issue of democratization. These people are demanding respect and representation for themselves in their own countries regardless of any “Freedom Agenda” or other rhetoric. Democratization is not simply an American plot (although the Americans, just like other major powers will doubtless seek to influence these processes), but is rather reflective of historical-social developments taking place in many countries, and so it is to be hoped that the polities which emerge from these revolutions will reflect the sovereignty, national character and priorities of their people.
Furthermore, the idea that the world is divided into incomparable moral blocs or civilizations has taken a huge blow over the last 18 months. While the cynics have sought to paint the Arab Spring as harbinger of anti-western Islamist autocracy, there have been significant historical-social trends in the region over the last 40 years which suggest that this will not be the case: The large majority of arab Islamists are not calling for the establishment of revolutionary islamic states, but rather the creation of a “civil state” [i.e one which, while not secular, has many democratic elements, including free and fair elections].
So, while the last fifteen years may have been witness to democratic stagnation or reversal in the CIS, on the global scale, the last two centuries (and especially the last seventy years) demonstrate the growing potency of democratic ideals, and the erosion of autocracy as a legitimate form of governance, even in “unexpected” places, and (more recently) regardless of American rhetoric: Democratist contends that a set of shared values is slowly emerging throughout the world, including democracy, human rights, the defence of national sovereignty and a belief in the benefits of economic development, even though this has taken place during a period in which some of these values have come under pressure in the United States: They may have originated in the West, but in responding to basic human aspirations and social change within the context of the spread of capitalism, their potential applicability is growing ever wider.
This brings us to the question of whether the current political system in Russia is just a variation on the democratic theme; one, moreover, which is in line with Russian history and cultural norms. This is, of course ultimately a question for the Russian people to answer, rather than any outsider, and (again) American lecturing on this issue has proved remarkably counter-productive over recent years. Nonetheless, it has to be said that there are strong arguments which suggest that the current system, while popular with a majority of Russians, does not meet the basic criteria of democracy. As an example, the OSCE ODIHR (an organization of which the Russian government is both a member and occasional participant) reports the following problems with recent parliamentary and presidential elections; technical restrictions on who was able to stand, a biased electoral administration dominated by the ruling party at all levels, the partiality of most media, and ballot stuffing on election day. It is up to Russians themselves to decide whether they feel that these problems match existing Russian “cultural norms,” and if they do, the extent to which such “norms” are worth preserving, or should be changed.
As for corruption, it is certainly true to say that no political system can eliminate it completely. However, it must also be admitted that institutionalized democracy, with a firmly established rule of law and independent legal system has proved a more effective guard against corruption than the current Russian system. By many accounts Russia is the most corrupt industrialized country in the world; Vladimir Putin’s friends from his Saint Petersburg youth and the Ozero dacha collective are worth billions. Indeed the current system is so entrenched that it may prove unreformable until a change in the political or economic situation provokes a collapse.
Finally, the question of the non-systemic opposition. Yes. The opposition is weak and divided, sometimes extreme, and possibly reliant on American money (although I still require some convincing on this point). Additionally, American calls for increased funding for NGOs are helping to stoke growing government paranoia. But on the other hand, the current system (deliberately) stifles debate and does little to encourage the development of Russian NGOs. It seems unlikely that President Medvedev’s recent changes to the law on registration of parties will make much difference to this situation. And while it might be possible, with institutional safeguards in place such as an independent legal system, “fair and balanced” requirements for the media etc, to create the basis for wider debate and eventual genuine elections, on the basis of recent history we are unlikely to see these wider structures in place anytime soon.