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Defining Democracy Down


Medvedev offers up his own recipe for democracy at a forum in Yaroslavl on September 10.

Medvedev offers up his own recipe for democracy at a forum in Yaroslavl on September 10.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev today unveiled his “five standards of democracy,” offering an interesting glimpse into the mind-set of the so-called liberal lawyer who has been hailed as a step away from Putinist authoritarianism.


Without further ado, the official definition of democracy from the liberal wing of the Kremlin is:

(1) The legal realization of humanitarian values and ideals, giving these values the practical force of law.

(2) The ability of the state to ensure and support a high standard of technological development.

(3) The ability of the state to defend its citizens from encroachment on the part of criminal societies.

(4) A high level of culture, education, means of communication and exchange of information in the country.

(5) The conviction of the citizenry that they live in a democratic state.


Speaking at a forum in Yaroslavl today, Medvedev also said: “I know the lapses in our system, but I categorically disagree with those who assert that Russia is not a democracy. Russia is a democracy. We are at the beginning of our path and there is something for us to work on, but we are free.”


The Putin-Medvedev chief ideologue, deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, offered his own almost Confucian elaboration of this vision: “Russia has a democracy of the quality that it has. One person has a good car and another has one that breaks down – but it is still a car. Under the constitution, we are a sovereign state. And that is sovereign democracy.”


Russia’s leaders have long insisted that the country must follow “its own path” to democracy. But now they seem to be trying to craft a new definition the democracy to which this path leads, one that conspicuously misses out on terms generally associated with democracy, such as fair elections, accountability, freedom of information.


(Some Putin-sympathetic bloggers out there have ventured forth the idea that Russia is a “plebiscitary regime,” and I hope they elaborate on this notion, since I find it unconvincing so far. I imagine they don’t have in mind the shorthand definition as a state in which a president is elected but then can do pretty much whatever he or she wants.)


But let’s look more closely at Medvedev’s standards. The first thing that strikes me is that two of the five standards begin with “the ability of the state.” The penchant of Russia’s ruling elite for state-oriented political thinking seems to be in evidence here.


The inclusion of “a high standard of technological development” here, I would argue, is both a red herring (primitive societies can be democratic and nothing about having an iPhone or a nuclear reactor ensures democratic governance) and a case of putting the cart before the horse. Medvedev himself seems a little confused on this point because elsewhere in his Yaroslavl speech (as of this posting, the transcript of his speech has not appeared on the Kremlin website -- here is a link to the transcripts page itself), he acknowledged that only free people can modernize (saying immediately following that political change in Russia must come slowly).


The point about protection from criminal societies begs the crucial question (especially crucial in the context of Russian/Soviet history) of what prevents the state itself from becoming a “criminal society,” in the total absence of transparency, accountability, oversight, and popular legitimacy.


Interestingly, Medvedev’s points 2, 3, and 4 could be perfectly well used to define the Soviet Union (with the caveat above about the state becoming the criminal society). In fact, a Soviet-sympathetic analyst could easily make the case that the Soviet Union fit all five of Medvedev’s standards and thus qualifies as an ideal “Russian” democracy. It would only take a little fudging on the first point and, concerning the last, a reliance on official opinion polls and attendance at May Day parades to gauge public opinion instead of listening to kitchen conversations or counting Brezhnev jokes.


Medevedev’s first point is highly problematic in Russia, since he himself has decried the country’s systemic legal nihilism, as has Putin. In the Russian context, in the context of the absence of checks and balances and accountability mechanisms (not that they are merely absent, but that they were actively rooted out over the decade of Putin’s rule), it simply does not matter what values are enshrined in the laws. Any values enshrined in laws that are ignored or are selectively applied are overshadowed by the values enshrined in ignoring or selectively applying them.


I wrote recently about Medvedev’s proposed police-law reform, making exactly this point. The problem is not the law, and it is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to pretend that it is. For example, police brutality is rampant in Russia. The new bill has a provision against the unjustified use of force by police. But the current law on the police also has such a point. In fact, the notorious “pearl ensign” who was caught on tape “bashing a protester in the face with his baton” (to paraphrase Prime Minister Putin’s charming phrase) in St. Petersburg has been charged with exactly this crime. The point is that this law, seemingly, wasn’t in force in Petersburg last month. It has never been in force in Moscow, and who knows if it will be in force anywhere next month? (Since there are elections next month, my guess is that it won’t.)


As for Medvedev’s last point, it is also meaningless in the state-controlled information vacuum that hangs over virtually all of Russia. People who live in democracies know that they live in democracies and will say so. People who don’t live in democracies can be made (through state-controlled media, through tireless propaganda, through sophistic redefinitions of what democracy is) to think that they do. Or they can be intimidated or bribed into saying that they think they do, which is close enough. When Medvedev gives up his total control of national television (his NTV, for instance, has scheduled a much-hyped hatchet job on Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is drifting out of favor) and allows open, democratic political competition, then we will be able to assess the convictions of the citizenry.


Everyone knows how public opinion is manipulated in Russia. I have no doubt that if the ruling elite suddenly decided to make former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov the next president, he would be the most popular (or second most popular) politician in Russia within a month. We already saw that happen when the unknown Viktor Zubkov was made prime minister in 2007. When he said in September 2007 that he might run for president in 2008, many people took that as a sign that he would be Putin’s successor and he instantly became the most popular politician in the country, after Putin himself. (In the 1996 presidential election, Boris Yeltsin in the space of a few months went from having a popularity rating of about 6 percent to being reelected.)


Russia does not have a democracy. And I think President Medvedev knows this. The fact that he pretends otherwise and contorts his thinking so much in order to resist the reform the country needs and deserves should, to my mind, be enough to convince anyone of the paucity of his so-called liberal credentials.


-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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