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As Russia Claims Democracy, Is It Redefining The Word?

  • Charles Recknagel

Does Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's talk of aspirations to "universal democracy" change anything on the ground?

Does Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's talk of aspirations to "universal democracy" change anything on the ground?

As a new decade begins, is Russia ready to go beyond being a hyphenated democracy to becoming a real one?

One might think so, listening to President Dmitry Medvedev's keynote democracy speech this year. The occasion was the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum in September, where he argued forcefully that Russia fully subscribed to the universal standards of democracy. He said that if Russia fell short of those standards, it was only because democracy is still new in the country.

"I strongly oppose those who think that there is no democracy in Russia and that authoritarian tendencies prevail here. It is not so," Medvedev said. "Russia is undoubtedly a democracy. It is young, it is immature, it is imperfect, not experienced, but it is a democracy nonetheless."

Medvedev's rhetoric was attention-getting because it suggested the Kremlin is abandoning its long-standing argument that Russia is a "special case" democracy justifying many authoritarian practices. That exceptional form of democracy -- branded "sovereign democracy" by Kremlin political strategist Vladislav Surkov -- set Russia's goal as becoming a stable "democratic" state by concentrating power in the hands of a strong leader supported by a dominant party. The leader, of course, was then president Vladimir Putin and the dominant party the ruling United Russia which was formed to support him.

Now, if Russia is truly a young democracy in the universal sense of the word, it would not represent a major break from the Putin mind-set but also a major break with the political standards of most of Russia's neighborhood.

Managing The People

Throughout Asia, sovereign democracy remains a growth business. Whether it's called managed democracy, nationalist democracy, or given no name at all, it is the top-down system seen from Central Asia to Singapore, where governments give citizens increasing economic and social liberties but monopolize political power.

The argument is always that full democracy is not suited to local conditions and that loosening the government's monopoly on power and key sectors of the economy would invite chaos, set back economic progress, and not be in the "national interest." China equally fits the bill, although Beijing's leaders make no pretense of striving for any type of democracy, modified or otherwise.

Given the dominance of that thought-stream throughout the region, one can't help but applaud Medvedev's homage to universal democracy. Particularly, when he notes, "I not only have faith in democracy as a form of government and as a political regime, I also believe that applied democracy is capable of saving from poverty and humiliation millions of people in our country and billions of people globally."

But one also can't be unaware of the vast distance that separates such talk of future democracy from Russia's current reality. And this year provides ample signs that the distance is not shrinking over time but growing greater.

Just two examples are this month's expected sentencing of opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky to a lengthy new prison term and the decision to go ahead with construction of a much-protested road through the protected Khimki Forest near Moscow. Both cases are widely regarded by the public as a lesson that those who stand up to the ruling elite will be squashed.

Death Of Democracy

No wonder, then, that the leaked diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow offer such a frank and bleak assessment of affairs in Russia. While Medvedev speaks of his belief in five universal standards of democracy, including giving "legal implementation to humanistic values and ideals," the WikiLeaks cables allege that Russia has become a virtual mafia state.

In one cable, U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle reports that "the Moscow city government's direct links to criminality have led some to call it 'dysfunctional' and to assert that the government operates more as a kleptocracy than a government." Another leaked cable quotes U.K. Foreign Office Russia director Michael Davenport as saying Russia is a "corrupt autocracy." And in yet another leaked cable, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that "Russian democracy has disappeared."

Those assessments are so far in spirit from Medvedev's Yaroslavl speech that they make many observers think that if Russia is indeed building a democracy, it is an unrecognizable interpretation of the concept.

"It is important to recognize that what they are suggesting is really a twisted definition of democracy. These are authoritarian regimes that don't permit meaningful discussion of political issues, they don't permit meaningful political competition, they don't permit judicial independence, they routinely abuse civil society," says Christopher Walker, director of studies for the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House. "So, any kind of meaningful discussion of liberal democracy is a nonstarter in this context."

Rise Of The 'Free Riders'

So why does Medvedev claim Russia is a young democracy in speeches both to domestic and international audiences?

Walker suggests one reason may be that in today's world it is hard for any government -- even authoritarian ones - to speak in nondemocratic terms. The triumph of democracy in the Cold War dealt severe blows to totalitarianism and ideologies associated with it. So much so, that it is almost impossible to go against democracy as the global brand.

"The leadership doesn't feel comfortable simply saying that they are developing a new form of authoritarianism," Walker says. "They are very careful both for their domestic and international audiences to arrogate the term democracy for their own purposes. So, the battle is really over how the term democracy is interpreted."

If the issue how to interpret democracy, one of the most interesting aspects of Medvedev's speech this year would be how much it signals that Moscow has decided to present Russia's flawed vision of democracy as an example of universal democratic values, pure and simple.

That strikes many democracy advocates as more dangerous than Russia's past attempts to claim it was developing its own "national" species of the ideal. Then, at least, there was the need for Russia to make a case that the exception was as good as the rule -- a case that was hard to make.

"What the free world is facing today is not the challenge of any ideology but the challenge of the 'free riders.' Both Russia and China are much more trying to play a parasitical role with regards to Western institutions and Western ideas than to come up with a clear alternative," says Ivan Krastev of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies. "Because coming with a clear alternative also means being accountable for what you are doing."

Little Change Under The Surface

Krastev adds that the Kremlin leaders are too opportunistic to develop new ideologies of their own. He says they tried that and found it both burdensome for themselves and unappealing to a domestic audience already exhausted by the ideological contortions of the communist era.

"The only serious attempt was after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution when the Russian leadership invested quite a lot of energy and resources in the idea of 'sovereign democracy,'" Krastev says. "But in the last two or three years it is much more interesting to see that Russia is trying to portray itself much more as a variant of Western democracy while talking of Russian specifics, than it is claiming they have an alternative model, especially any model they want to export anywhere."

Instead, Russian leaders have found it is far easier and more expedient to talk about already being a democracy while running a state that -- beneath the rhetoric -- remains as authoritarian as ever. The talk helps to insulate Moscow from the harsh criticism that is leveled upon states that reject democratic values. And it helps to disarm critics by holding out the possibility that tomorrow -- if not today -- the promises of democracy may yet become reality.

But the same polished talk should not be allowed to mask those telling moments when Russian leaders speak of their feelings about democracy in more spontaneous and less complimentary terms. Medvedev had one of those moments in 2010 and it was memorable.

In June, the Russian president criticized Kyrgyzstan's efforts to become the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia by saying, "Taking into account the fact that even now the authorities are unable to impose order...I do not really understand how a parliamentary republic would look and work" there.

Speaking on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Toronto, he added, "Will this not lead to a chain of eternal problems -- to reshuffles in parliament, to the rise to power of this or that political group, to authority being passed constantly from one hand to another, and, finally, will this not help those with extremist views to power?"

Those are the kinds of worries authoritarians can't help but voice when confronted with efforts to build democracy at their front door. And they show how little the thinking in Moscow may really have changed, despite what Medvedev's visionary speech in Yaroslavl suggests.

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