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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Entitlements, Rights And Democracy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - A major obstacle to the building of democracy in Russia and other post-communist countries is that many people there appear to be more concerned about what their governments can give them than they are about their control of those governments via democratic procedures.

As a result, many of them may be inclined to support political figures and movements which promise to guarantee what they see as their substantive rights even if these individuals and groups are prepared to violate the norms of democratic governance such as regular elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

That is the sobering message of the results of a poll taken by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion that were published this week. When asked what is the most important factor defining a democratic society, 75 percent of Russians said that it was a system of government that provides equal rights for all.

Seventy-one percent said that democracy meant having the opportunity to influence the government in the interests of the people, 62 percent said that it involves the chance to choose leaders in free elections, and 58 percent said that democracy was a system that provides opportunities for expressing one's own opinion and criticizing the authorities.

But when the same sample of Russians was asked which human rights were most important to them, 68 percent said that these included the right to free education, medical care, and financial support in old age. Fifty-seven percent said it was the right to life; 53 percent said it was the right to a well-paid job, and 46 percent said it was the right to privacy.

Only 23 percent said it was the right to own property; 14 percent, freedom of speech; 9 percent, right to information; 8 percent, freedom of worship; 8 percent, the right to travel abroad; and 8 percent the right to elect one's leaders.

This combination of answers about democracy and human rights suggests that many people in post-communist Russia define democracy less as a system of government than as a system that will protect what they see as entitlements, less a question of procedures than one of substantive outcomes.

On the one hand, such attitudes reflect the influence of Soviet-sponsored values, of the communist-sponsored notion that a government should be judged not by the procedures it follows -- as Western democracies maintain -- but rather by the outcomes that system provides for the mass of the population.

And on the other, these views reflect the very real and severe problems that many people in Russia and elsewhere are experiencing during the transition. Even in long-established democratic countries, people tend to focus on procedures only when times are relatively good. When times are bad, people tend to worry far more about outcomes.

This poll and others like it do not provide sufficient evidence as to which of these factors is the more important. But such samplings of opinion in Russia point to a more general problem that many, if not all post-communist societies now face: namely, an understanding of democracy which may allow some to subvert democracy as it is understood in the West.

To the extent that leaders can deliver the substantive rights that many people in these countries want, they may be able to violate democratic norms such as freedom of speech and religion with impunity, as long as they cover what they are doing with invocations of their commitment to democracy as a general principle.

But this combination of violations of democratic norms with invocations of democracy as a guiding principle may have three consequences that could undercut the possibility of institutionalizing democracy in these countries.

First, such a combination of actions by post-communist leaders is likely to reduce the attractiveness of democracy for many of their citizens precisely because it will undermine the fundamental meaning of democracy itself.

Second, actions of this kind may open the door to ever less scrupulous leaders who are likely to be able to argue that they can guarantee the supply of entitlements if only the people will allow them to ignore some procedural rights that are clearly less highly-valued by the population.

And third, such actions by post-communist governments may lead Western governments to decide that it is more important to support leaders who claim to be democrats than to criticize the ways in which these leaders fail to live up to democratic norms.

Such decisions in turn will make it ever more likely that these post-communist leaders will decide they can violate procedural rights with impunity not only at home but abroad as well.

And that conclusion in turn could further erode not only the possibilities for establishing democratic systems in these countries but even the attractiveness of democracy as an idea, at least in the eyes of populations undergoing the difficult transition from communism. ss