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Civil Society > Big Democracies at the Crossroads

Russia’s democratic potential
seen to wane

What’s the case with Russian democracy? Is modernization possible when there is a political retreat? The following roundtable is adapted from a transcript, prepared for publication by Lyubov Tsukanova, of a joint seminar of the Liberal Mission Foundation and the Gorbachev Foundation. Reprinted from New Times, a monthly digest of russian weekly Novoe Vremya.

Mikhail Zadornov, a deputy to the State Duma of the Russian Federation: The present period could be called “restoration” from the point of view of the development of democracy. Many countries have gone through this. However, the question is how profound this process will be in Russia. Unfortunately, a greater part of society, having failed to see any tangible improvement in their living conditions, look on the current situation rather calmly.

But the standard of living of society and its improvement are largely connected with the existing political system. I’d like to note specially that the situation at the federal level is repeated at the regional level with much greater cynicism. It assumes more authoritarian forms there, which are accompanied with the direct merger of the regional administration with the groups of big business….

Boris Orlov, senior research associate at the Institute for Scientific Information in Social Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences: Society supports democracy only when it needs it. If one is to assess the situation in present-day Russia from this point of view, one can state that the potential for democracy in society is not growing, but decreasing.

There is the widespread opinion that the more representatives of the middle stratum of society, the better it is for the development of democracy. This statement should be regarded very cautiously, because, on one hand, small and medium entrepreneurs are interested in free-market relations; but on the other, when they see tension in society, they look for solutions to their problems not in democracy, but in strong personalities. I’d like to remind you that Hitler came to power in 1933 with the support of the middle stratum of society….

Yevgeny Yasin, head of the Higher School of Economics and president of the Liberal Mission Foundation: There is the widespread view that Russia is an authoritarian country which loves an iron fist, and this is why it needs a president, a tsar or somebody else who could establish law and order. But I have a feeling that our country is still living in accordance with Russian tradition since it has never known freedom and democracy, except for short and chance periods, and there is the danger that it will never go beyond this. It is not desirable to revise the Constitution, but don’t democratically minded Russian citizens have a right to put this question?

Boris Orlov: There has always been a paternalistic tendency in the history of Russia. Russians today need a “master”—in the house, in town, everywhere. And the country must be headed by a man-symbol. It is very difficult to break this tradition. Can there be a compromise? Perhaps, the rights of the president should be limited and a presidential-parliamentary republic established….

Igor Klyamkin, vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation: Our state did not become a law-abiding state in the years of perestroika when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. Nor was it a law-abiding state in Yeltsin’s time. And it is not becoming such a state under Putin. Moreover, we are now going from being a weak state not abiding by the law to a stronger one not abiding by the law. True, this can ensure stability for some time, but not development. Besides, it may block modernization.

Igor Klyamkin: There are grounds to assert that a specific variant of an authoritarian regime is taking shape in Russia. This type of an authoritarian regime has nothing in common with the authoritarian-reformist or authoritarian-modernizing regimes that have existed in world history. These regimes limited political democracy and deprived certain political forces of access to power, but there was a strict system of rules fixed in laws that had to be abided by all, including the government officials. Nothing of the kind can be observed in modern Russia. It’s just the opposite—we see the process of strengthening the state, but this state does not abide by the law. Because of this, I think, its reformist-modernizing potential is rather limited.

Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the International Foundation of Socio-Economic and Politological Research, the Gorbachev Foundation: I am worried by what’s going on in the country today. I think that the gap between the powers that be and the people is too wide, and it is not getting any narrower. Those who take power in Russia receive fantastic advantages….

There is not the necessary political culture in Russia. Recently I read an article by a foreign scholar about political culture. He said that if there is no such culture, no democratic institutions will work. Political culture must be created. Nobody in Russia needed it, moreover, another’s political culture, another’s faith, just like religion was forced on the people….

If the president gives the people real hope for modernization, improvement and renovation, he may be elected for the third, fourth, even fifth term. But I am not for such a turn of events. Moreover, I think it would be a mistake that we will pay a heavy price for.

Alexei Kara-Murza, head of the Centre of Philosophical Problems of Russian Reforms at the Institute of Philosophy, The Russian Academy of Sciences: We are gradually beginning to understand that, apart from dividing society into the right and the left, there is also a cultural division. In Russian history and in our time there are two subcultures: authoritarian and democratic.… I have to admit that the democrats are now living through the process of self-destruction. Some believe that Putin is worse than Yeltsin, others—that Yeltsin is worse than Putin. These groups are mainly busy with petty squabbles, which shows once again the mechanism of self-destruction at work….

Yevgeny Yasin: The present-day Russian political stabilization is definitely drawing closer to authoritarianism. I agree with the view that it is difficult to implement the ideas of a pure democracy in Russia because our people are ready to elect anyone, be he General Shamanov (now the governor of the Ulyanovsk Region) or anybody else. And each time the authorities get the natural desire to control these processes. Recognizing the existence of all these aspects, we must organize public opposition to them and, perhaps, some unified democratic movement. A country that does not live in a real democracy and does not create the corresponding institutions and conditions for the free development of its citizens has no future.

Victor Kuvaldin, director of the Centre of Politological Studies of the Gorbachev Foundation: I think it incorrect, and even dangerous, to maintain that an authoritarian culture has existed in Russia from time immemorial, that the Russian people are not ready for democracy and that for Russia the road to freedom will be difficult and tortuous. Much is exaggerated in this statement.

What can modernization in Russia be based on? I highly assess the potential of our society; it has not lost its ability to develop. But the so-called Russian elite leaves much to be desired. From this point of view, Khodorkovsky and Yukos are not the best scapegoats. We should have begun with the corrupt people at the very top. The modernization potential of these authorities should not be excluded a priori. Of course, much depends on the president and his entourage, as well as on the circumstances. Nevertheless, a strategy has been declared, the president has assumed responsibility, and he has an opportunity to act. Will all this be used properly or not? I don’t know. And I think nobody knows….

Mikhail Zadornov: Today much is being said about the type of modernization of our society. World experience does not give a simple example for Russia to follow. A number of South-Asian countries – South Korea, Malaysia, postwar Japan – have made a big leap in modernization under authoritarian regimes. The experience of our neighbor, Kazakhstan, shows that modernization is proceeding at a much faster pace there, although with certain losses in the social sphere. But the country’s regime has remained authoritarian.

This problem was studied in the West and the conclusion was that an authoritarian model can help modernize a country at a certain stage. But it has definite limitations that depend on two factors. The first is the level of corruption, which arises in this system because it is closed, and decisions being taken at only one place makes corruption of any scope quite possible. Secondly, a very authoritarian regime works against innovations, not only in the sphere of intellectual capital, but also in the technological sphere. It places various markets and spheres of activity under the control of definite state or private bodies. One can say that an authoritarian regime has some prospects, but it is limited as far as its strategic perspective is concerned.

I am absolutely sure that the next four years will not give anything to Russia from the point of view of its modernization. During his first term in office President Putin wielded as much power as now, but those years were not used for modernization….

Yevgeny Yasin: Democracy should be our common platform. Today it is in jeopardy. In my view, we can gradually win a place in society and at the same time show the authorities that they will inevitably meet with resistance. I have sober views of historical processes, of our possibilities and of Russian political culture. And I don’t expect rapid changes. All the more so, the authorities should be made to understand that democratic freedoms and values are a direction that we are not going to retreat from….