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Analysis & Opinion
17.09.10 What Kind Of Democracy Is Russia?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan S. Burger, Vlad Ivanenko, Alexandre Strokanov

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev rebuffed accusations of democratic backsliding last Friday and dismissed concerns that the Russian government was becoming more oppressive, ITAR-TASS reported. "Those who say that we live under a totalitarian system are either being insincere or have a lousy memory," he said at a meeting with political scientists at the Yaroslavl World Political Forum, titled “The Modern State: Standards of Democracy and Criteria of Efficiency.” Medvedev said much of the criticism failed to take Russia's authoritarian past into account. What is the nature of democracy in Russia? Could there be a democracy without direct elections?

"There has practically never been democracy in Russia. There was no democracy when we were ruled by tsars and emperors, and there was no democracy in the Soviet period, so we are a country with 1,000 years of authoritarian history. I would really like those who are going to assess Russian democracy to pay attention to our history and the path we have taken over the recent years, and for them not to judge us too harshly," Medvedev said. "We have a very young democracy, an imperfect democracy, an inexperienced democracy, but it is a democracy nonetheless." He added that mass poverty is a threat to democracy, and that a poor society cannot be fully democratic.

Commenting on Russia's political development path, Medvedev said the Chinese system or any other alternative path would not fit Russia. Medvedev also thinks that parliamentary democracy would be a disaster for Russia.

Vladislav Surkov, the first deputy head of the presidential administration, said on the sidelines of the same forum in Yaroslavl that Russia’s democracy today corresponds to the level of the Russian society’s development. He added that "Russia has its own democracy, and it is of the quality it is." "One man has a good car, another man's car falters, but they are both cars," Surkov said, adding that he personally feels he is “a free man” in Russia. Asked about "sovereign democracy," Surkov, who has authored the term, said: "Under our constitution, we are a sovereign state. This is just what sovereign democracy is.”

One disturbing feature of the current state of Russian democracy, analysts say, is that there are ever fewer direct elections at the local and regional level in the country, and political competition between parties and public interest groups is not free.

Direct elections of Russian regional governors were abolished in 2004, and regional leaders are basically appointed by the president, whose decision is only formally ratified by the regional legislatures (there has been no case of a regional legislature not endorsing the presidential candidate for governor). The new trend, however, is for governors to push for abolishing the direct elections of mayors in major Russian regional centers.

Since 2005, direct mayoral elections have been abolished in 15 major Russian metropolitan areas and regional capitals, half of them in 2010 alone. A fierce political battle is on between the governors appointed by Moscow and the regional elites over the governors’ desire to abolish direct mayoral elections in Yekaterinburg and Surgut. Mayors of the two Russian capitals – Moscow and St. Petersburg – are no longer directly elected by the people either. These two large metropolitan areas are listed in the Russian Constitution as “subjects of the federation,” and their mayors are thus considered to be governors subject to presidential appointment.

What does this new trend say about the nature of democracy in Russia? Could there be a democracy without direct elections? Could there be a democracy without a strong municipal and local government directly accountable to the people living in a community?

Medvedev talks about the time when participatory democracy through elections will be replaced by direct democracy through the Internet. Is he dreaming? Is there a direct correlation between the level of democracy in a society and the level of material well-being of its citizens? Citizens of Saudi Arabia are not exactly poor, but is Saudi Arabia a democracy? Surkov argues in his latest book that there is a direct connection between the level of technological innovation and the state of democracy in a given society. He thus implies that Russia’s technological modernization will almost automatically lead to greater political freedom and a more sophisticated democracy in Russia. Does this argument hold water?

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D. in economics, Ottawa, Canada:

In January 2007 I asked myself the question of what a workable reform program for the next Russian president should look like. At that time, I sensed that the then-President Vladimir Putin wanted to endorse two candidates who would compete on the platforms of two “pro-government parties,” United Russia and Just Russia. Preparing for this clash, I did some groundwork on the issue of reform and democracy in this country, the results of which remain relevant today. However, following a period of indecisiveness in September of 2007, Putin shifted to “plan B” and gave his backing to a single candidate, Dmitry Medvedev. As a result, the new president received a much weaker popular mandate but, simultaneously he did not need to search for, and more importantly, expose ideas for his future program, which could go over badly with the elite and voters alike.

I am focusing on this decision by Putin (reasons for which, I hope, he will explain after having retired from political life) because in my opinion it was a critical juncture in the development of Russia’s democracy. After such an exercise in “managed democracy” I expected Russian political life to stagnate, but fortunately the alert siren of the financial crisis frightened the Kremlin in 2008, and prompted it to move away from this dangerous trend.

The “path-dependency” premise is generally acceptable, if it means the need to respect local circumstances when introducing reforms. In my opinion, Medvedev’s reference to Russia’s “unique” history does not imply that this country is predetermined to lean toward authoritarianism. Looking at how tactical considerations influence the Russian decision-making process – including the above-mentioned decision by Putin that contradicted the strategy he painstakingly pursued in the months before – I conclude that Russia is a highly antagonistic society, where achieving consensus on practically any issue is all but impossible. In this situation an election becomes a messy event, consisting of multiple topics that most voters would not understand. Thus structured negotiations involving narrower circles of powerbrokers should be conducted before their internal agreement is offered, in a PR-acceptable form, to the general population. Obviously, this arrangement does not allow the meaningful participation of “non-systemic” opposition in any election, as this stalls the process.

The argument that poverty is a threat to democracy is less convincing. What matters is not the amount of national wealth as such, but its distribution. A highly unequal society like Russia exposes a stark contrast between two groups of the population. Gross inequality is a hot issue, popular with numerous poor voters who would enthusiastically support redistributive policies at the voting booth. By reducing the argument to “a poor society cannot be fully democratic,” Medvedev finds a way to avoid the politically sensitive question of how to deal with the income and wealth inequality in this country.

Regarding direct elections versus appointed governors, my opinion is that the appointment does not necessarily clash with democratic principles in Russia’s case. As I have mentioned before, the Russians excel in the art of confrontation more than they do in negotiating. In this situation, the governor’s appointment is more of a mediation service provided by the Kremlin than a despotic device. When in 2007 I researched the factors that influenced the Kremlin’s choice of governors, I concluded that Moscow sought a convenient way to find local leaders who would not stir up trouble in the regions. I continue to believe that the federal center was opportunistic in this respect then, and that it is open to the idea of re-establishing direct elections as soon as public demand for such a move is strong enough.

In general, I find that what Medvedev and Surkov say about democracy is reasonable. I believe that Russian society is not yet ready to get the democratic style of governance right. However, its time is slowly coming. To see this, it suffices to note the importance that the use of Internet as a popular mobilizing device has acquired in this country. Certain groups have learned to employ this tool successfully, as we see authorities yielding to demands to correct particular power abuses. It is exactly from this milieu where I expect the true opposition leaders to come from in the future.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

I agree with Dmitry Medvedev that Russia has a “very young democracy, an imperfect democracy, an inexperienced democracy, but it is a democracy nonetheless.” If we look at the history of American democracy we will find many non-democratic or not perfectly democratic practices. Some of them were abandoned just a few decades ago, and some still exist even today. The fact that only land-owning white males could vote, or the selection of senators by state houses, or indirect elections of American presidents may be used as examples.

It is absolutely correct that democracy in Russia reflects the level of its political maturity. The wealth of the people in the country is an important aspect that certainly contributes to the success of democracy (I can’t recall any really liberal democratic, but very poor country), but the wealth itself is not enough to have it. History, traditions, cultural norms, mentality and economic system are also important factors. Western liberal democracy is a product of the Western economic system, culture and historical experience. That is why it does not and it will not work in Saudi Arabia, or, for instance, in China.

Now, about idea of abolishing mayoral elections in some Russian cities. This is in reality an empty debate, since it is happening mostly in cities like Perm, for example, and where I am familiar with the situation. There, a new position was created for a city manager (head of the city administration), who is selected in an open contest and contracted to perform his duties, while the role of the mayor (head of the city) was confined to the niche of legislative authority, and was combined with the role of the City Duma chairman. It is quite logical that the person occupying this position should be elected by deputies of the City Duma and be held accountable to this body on a regular basis (not just once in five years).

In Russia the direct election of city heads or mayors does not make much sense, and in my opinion its absence does not contradict democratic norms and principles. This is exactly how my city of Saint Johnsbury in Vermont is managed, where we have a city manager who is contracted by selectmen board members. Selectmen, in their turn, were elected through direct vote by the city’s residents. We do not have a mayor at all, and so far we don’t regret it; neither are we concerned about democracy in our town.

The point is that a strong municipal and local government, accountable to the people living in a community, which is a prerequisite for a successful democracy, may be established in a variety of ways. People have known about direct democracy since it was experimented with it Ancient Greece, but as history shows, it works well only in small, homogeneous communities, and does not guarantee efficiency in larger, multiethnic, multicultural, and more complex ones, where the balance must be kept with the use of many other tools, rather than the simple arithmetic of votes.
Another critical issue here is the professionalism of those running for office. How can it be guaranteed that people will vote for a professional and not a demagogue? How can the role of money in an electoral campaign be limited? These questions can’t be resolved with the simple use of the Internet and other technological innovations. That is why I personally do not see much of a direct connection between the level of technological innovation and the state of democracy in a given society.

The major shortcoming of Russian democracy, as I see it, is the lack of competitiveness in the political process and weak political parties. It is here where the focus of improvements in Russian democracy should be.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Few individuals outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic would contend that either state is actually “democratic,” irrespective of what their rulers want to call the polity they control. Yet it is difficult to reach a consensus on a workable definition of “democratic” or “democracy.”

The mere holding of elections does not demonstrate that a state is a democracy. The observation that how votes are cast is less important than how they are counted is a quote frequently attributed to Joseph Stalin, but Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe could just as easily have made the remarked.

It is difficult to identify a single “pure” democracy in existence at the national level. Most countries commonly regarded as “democratic” are actually republics, where citizens elect representatives and other political leaders to govern them. Yet such republics share a common principle, that sovereignty and political power are “bottom-up” as opposed to “top down” – that is, individuals elected to public office are ultimately accountable to the citizenry to some degree. These persons seldom hold power in perpetuity (that is, it is not a situation of one man, one vote, one party, one election).

The principle of “one man – one vote” can only exist on paper or in very small polities. Where corporate or state entities are active in the political process, the persons who control these entities have more political power than other citizens, as money influences election outcomes.

I won’t offer a list of countries that qualify as democracies and those that do not. People will have honest disagreements. It is arrogant to think that less economically developed countries – the populations of which are not well educated – cannot have democratic systems of governments. I have in mind Benin, Botswana, El Salvador, Mongolia and others.

Indeed, Russia has a history of autocracy, with power placed in the hands of a small number of individuals, a relatively small number of elite groups, or a “ruling party” (with usually a subset of its leaders really exercising power). Arguably, all governments have “democratic elements,” in that rulers usually must respond to the needs of the inhabitants of the territories they purport to govern, or risk being overthrown.

Merely meeting material needs of the population does not make a country “democratic.” One country that is relatively successful in meeting the needs of its population but has only some characteristics of democracy is Singapore, a small, well-run country, where individual liberties are curtailed but where there is now less corruption and state officials are well-paid and technically competent. Russia is not as lucky as Singapore.

Russia does not have the equivalent of a philosopher-king ruling the country. It does not have a large number of skilled technocrats to run the country. Nor can the individuals appointed to senior governmental positions be relied upon to put the public interests ahead of their own. President Medvedev’s anti-corruption effort has not been overly successful.

Russia does not have an effective system of checks and balances, where elected officials have competing and overlapping authority (executive, legislative, regulatory/policing and judicial). The Russian Federation is in many respects a federation in name only. The “authorities” have violated whatever social contract one could argue exists in Russia. They have not served as trustees of the public interest. The waves of fires and violence emanating from the Caucasus have shown that the governmental structure needs a significant overhaul. The Russian population knows this, but there are no outlets within the system allowing constructive change.

Political and economic systems that are too brittle will eventually break into pieces. Russia is not a country where repression can suppress change indefinitely, unless there is gradual reform that is responsive to the public’s needs (improvements in education, environmental protection, housing, public health, etc.).

China and Saudi Arabia are no different – economic and social change inevitably leads to pressure for political change in the form of a more responsive government (albeit not always “democracy”). A building up of such pressure will result in an explosion at some point, unless societal needs are accommodated.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

As a preamble, one must note that the Western democratic system currently in place, which Russians use as a reference, is not “centuries old” as Russians believe, but has been active for only about 40 years. Women received the right to vote in some Swiss cantons only in the 1970s (in the Grand Duchy of Finland of the Russian Empire, women had the vote in 1906 – 12 years before the United States.) So when Russians plead how “young” their democracy is when compared to other countries, they are misguided.

Regarding elections of local officials, one should first fully describe the process in Russia. The political party with the majority of votes in the region’s latest elections proposes three candidates to the president, who selects one of these candidates for approval by the regional legislature. Evidently, the process operates by consensus and the legislature probably has a majority of deputies from the party that made the nomination – therefore the selected candidate is accepted. What is relevant, however, is that the regional legislature has the constitutional right to reject the candidate proposed by the president.

It remains to be proven how the above process is “less democratic” than the direct election of a regional official in an election with 30 percent participation by the electorate – an approval of 15 percent of the electorate? (a 50 percent majority of the 30 percent who voted).

In France, whose democratic status no one questions, the first direct elections of regional councils occurred in March of 1986. Until 1982, the prefects of France’s departements were appointed centrally. To the best of our knowledge, France was fully democratic in 1981.

However, Medvedev is making a very common mistake in his assertion that Russia did not have democratic practices under the tsars. This is more remarkable in a man with a sharp mind, an advanced degree in jurisprudence and an avowed reader of Vasily Klyuchevsky, which suggests a better than passing knowledge of Russian history.

Russia’s democratic tradition extends from the veches (citizen assemblies) of Novgorod and Kiev (9th and10th centuries) to legal contracts (kinds of minor versions of the Magna Charta) between medieval Russian regions and the princes they hired to govern. Tsar Ivan the Terrible introduced a regional elected government in lieu of voyevodas (governors) appointed from Moscow and in 1550 convened an elected legislative Congress of the Realm. The famous Kuzma Minin of Nizhniy Novgorod in 1611 was an elected city official. The first Romanov Tsar, Michael Fyodorovich, was selected in 1613 by a generally elected Congress of the Realm (Zemskiy Sobor) and then ratified by a national referendum. In 1649 another generally elected legislative congress updated Russia’s Code of Laws.

Peter the Great introduced self-government to the various estates of Russian society (the sosloviya): merchants, city dwellers, the gentry, Cossacks and the roughly 50 percent of Russian peasants who were never serfs. Catherine the Great convoked elected deputies of a Council of the Realm (this Parliament failed due to its own ineptitude.) The concept of the State Duma was formulated under Alexander I. Nicholas I upgraded self-governance among the 50 percent of Russian peasants who were not serfs, and his son Alexander II introduced extensive self-government reforms in 1860 to 1870. By 1914 Russia’s State Duma had representatives from 14 political parties.

The real issue for modern Russia is that Soviet rule purposefully erased Russian democratic traditions, which had accumulated over centuries. Soviet political censorship eradicated social memory about self-rule – so the president of Russia is in one sense correct when he claims Russian democracy to be “young” – Russians are “discovering” what their grandparents were forced to forget. History can and must be reclaimed in Russia.
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