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The Power Vertical

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

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: John G from: T&T
September 10, 2010 17:53

It is interesting how RFERL which praises yeltsin as a democratic figure concedes how he manipulated elections in1996.In any case ,it is unfair to label russia as an undemocratic regime ;rather it is a hybrid regime of an authoritarian state with demnocratic features .Democracy is defined as the rule of the many and what the author seems to forget is that Putin and medvedev are very popular;it is true that TV is under state control but at the same time a substatial amount of the populace does have access to free information :the internet and radio.The author should also remember that people can criticize putin without getting arrested or killed .What the author should also remember is that western countries were not wholly democratic .In there was slavery and mistreatment of the indians,democracy is a process that takes place in each country and it is wrong for people like the authors to impose his version of democracy on Russia that is something that the citizens of that country should define for themselves.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
September 13, 2010 09:16
John G -- Thank you for your comment. This isn't the place to go into an assessment of Yeltsin, except to say that by the 1996 election, he was a very sick and badly manipulated person. Although he did much to improve democratic institutions in Russia (institutions that Putin spent a decade destroying), he did not build a democracy in Russia. Elections, however, were far more competitive in the 1990s and the pro-Kremlin parties that Yeltsin tried to establish never became neo-CPSUs like United Russia has become.

You say that "democracy is defined as the rule of the many," which may indeed be one of the definitions of democracy. It certainly sounds a lot closer to my understanding of democracy than any of the five standards that Medvedev cites, which is the topic of my blog post. This post is precisely about the definition of democracy and whether the current rulers of Russia can ever build a democracy if they insist on the definitions they are using.

I do not "forget" that Putin and Medvedev are popular. I deny that they are popular in any meaningful sense of the word. Politicians can only be genuinely "popular" or "unpopular" in an environment of political competition and openness. Polls showed that Stalin, Turkmenistan's Niyazov, Uzbekistan's Karimov, etc. were/are all "popular" in their countries. What does this really mean?

You say that people can "criticize Putin without getting arrested or killed." This is a low standard of governance, indeed, and one which Russia consistently fails to meet. Critics of Putin's government are regularly jailed and harassed and, yes, even killed. It doesn't happen on a Stalin-like level, to be sure. But it happens. A lot.
In Response

by: John G from: T&T
September 13, 2010 22:59
This is a place to discuss Yeltsin's legacy seeing that media outlets like RFERL criticize Putin for the supposed democratic rollback when this really started under yeltsin.It was Gorbachev not Yeltsin who bought democracy to Russia.Dont forget that he was the one who bombed his own parliament ripping up the constitution in the process ,he also wrote the authoritarian constitution that Putin and Medvedev use,introduced manipulated and rigged elections in which the state used the media and administrative resources as well as fraud to get yeltsin re-elected(in his memoirs he admits how he even considered postponing elections indefinitely and banning the Communist party).He also did much to discredit this wonderul thing in the eyes of the majority of his citizenship so any discussion of Russia's democratic rollback must start with Yeltsin.
Secondly ,a lot of russians use the internet and have access to radio so there is some level of openess .You also forget that the majority of liberal pro western parties are generally very unpopular. (explain how the Communists are a bit popular even though they do not possess the same advantages of Putin)In addition,you musgt remember that the leaders you mentioned terrorize their citizens which is something that putin does not do.In other words ,putin is genuinely popular amongst his citizens.Surely that counts as a modicum of democracy.Another thing you mention that putin's critics get killed but you do not have any proof of his involvement and you omit that under Yeltsin's rule a lot of journalists and critics were also killed .Have you ever heard of Dmitri Khokolov,Vladislav listeyev and Galina Starovoitova ?Why is it that we hear of the journalists and critics who got killed in the Putin era but never of those in the Yeltsin era? In conclusion, a modicum of democracy does exist in Russia but like Medvedev says it will take years decades and maybe even centuries before this becomes the real thing

by: meg stringer from: Washington D.C
September 10, 2010 22:12
Excellent commentary on an absurd situation. This story should be getting full court press coverage-- everywhere except Russia that is.

by: Mark
September 11, 2010 10:08
"... but we are free.” - meaning himself and Putin!

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 11, 2010 17:04
Good article and thanks for the analysis of Russia’s latest Potemkin village. Could there be a lesson for the toiling masses in the U.S? Maybe Medvedev and Putin are ahead of the information power-curve, and have discovered that if you blanket your plugged-in population with images, assurances, and promises that life is getting better, that a good percentage will actually agree. Believe it or not, there are politicians and voters in this country who suffer from a similar form of schizophrenia. They repeat all the familiar democratic mantras, but are mostly concerned with their own welfare. Regardless of labels, the rich appear to be growing ever more powerful, while the poor expand in number, despair, and ignorance.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
September 11, 2010 21:57
The promises that life is getting better was a tactic used by GWB. We all know today that Bush lied about the state of the economy just like he lied about WMD in Iraq. The rich will only get so wealthy, the wealthiest Americans are already getting nervous about their image in a country that is rapidly getting poorer. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet wanted to convince the USA's billionaires to give back more to society, but I remain highly sceptical. It is more likely the rich will use their money to escape to another part of the world while the rest of the country suffers.

by: jme0598
September 11, 2010 18:04
What I am curious about is exactly what the author regards as a "perfect" democracy? USA perhaps, where USA Government's standard policy of how they treat other countries which is one of oppressing their foreign neighbors and dictation on how those countries get to be in direct violation of the very basis for all law in USA, a statement as part of Declaration of Independence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote "all men" had only meant "all men who are citizens of USA and screw the rest", he would have specified as such but he didn't because at the heart of what all US law, including Constitution is based on, is this statement which requires US not only treat its own citizens with decency in respect, it is required to do so for everyone else in the world, and in turn, the universe. So I am presuming to mean the author is stating that USA is much better at democracy than Russia, yes?

Medvedev himself admitted that Russia is far from perfect and that he envisions Russia becoming a model for democracy at some point in future, once changes have been made that need to be made to turn Russia into Russia's version of it. So as for author's criticisms of Russia's purported lack of democracy, what part of this don't we already know?
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 12, 2010 12:31
Good points. I actually listened to Medvedev’s remarks
and suggest others watch to fill out Mr. Coalson’s analysis. Just a couple of comments. As jme0598 points out, Medvedev provides some important perspective, reminding his audience repeatedly that Russia is a novice at democracy, having suffered through more authoritarian forms of government for the past thousand years (they are celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of Yaroslav). As a backdrop to describing some of Russia’s democratic weaknesses, Medvedev repeatedly (and rightly so) takes pot shots at the U.S. practice of democracy, particularly with its non-democratic neighbors. While he does not use as strong language (i.e. hungry wolf) as Putin did in 2007, he makes clear that the U.S. has often used its democratic credentials to clobber those (i.e. Iraq) who might interfere with the American way of life.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
September 13, 2010 09:07
Thanks for writing, Ray. Please read my response to jme0598. I don't think that it is relevant to spend much time discussing that fact that Medvedev "admits" Russia has an "imperfect democracy," since my argument is that Russia is not a democracy at all and, if the ruling elite is building a "democracy" based on the five standards Medvedev outlines, it will never be a democracy, because those five standards have nothing to do with democracy. As the title of my piece states, it is about the definition of democracy. I think you'd agree that if Russia's leaders say they are building a democracy, we need to take a close look at what they think a democracy is. My argument is that their definition of democracy is not democracy at all. It may be good or it may be bad, but what is the point of calling it a democracy?

As for comparisons to the U.S., I don't make any. The Power Vertical is a blog about Russia and I study Russia. I'm sure there are many people out there writing actively about the shortcomings of democracy in the U.S. and I'm glad of that.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
September 13, 2010 09:01
jme0598 -- Thanks for your comments. You seem to miss the point of the piece, however. I don't write anything about democracy in the United States. The Power Vertical is a blog about Russia. If you want to read about the U.S. and, particularly about U.S. foreign policy, I'd recommend this blog:

What this piece is about is how Russia's leadership defines the word "democracy," and whether that definition is valid. Ironically, if you look at Medvedev's five standards of democracy, you'd have to agree that the United States *is* a model democracy, since Medvedev says nothing about points that you raise such as how a country treats its neighbors or the rest of the world.

My argument is that Russia does not have a democracy by any standard definition, which is why the country's leaders spend so much effort coming up with new definitions. My argument further is that even if Medvedev succeeds in building a state that perfectly matches all five of his standards of democracy, the country would not have a democracy. I acknowledge that Russia has made progress in all but the first of Medvedev's five standards (the first one is far, far from being realized) -- but these facts do not make Russia a democracy or more democratic.

I'm simply calling on Medvedev to be honest and to say that the structure that he envisions for Russia is not a democracy at all and to admit that Russia, for all of its strengths and weaknesses, is not a democracy.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 13, 2010 11:52
Mr. Coalson, Yes. You are correct about the nature of democracy in Russia today. It is a sham, lacking the essence of genuine electoral competition. Putin has mostly dismantled any of the imperfect structures created in the 1990s, and there is simply no legitimate forum where opposing voices can be heard. That being said, what would you do if you were in Pres. Medvedev's shoes? "Dear guests, thank you for coming to our Yaroslavl conference. Yes, we are a criminal regime, holding power not by the consent of the governed, but by fear, intimidation and wealth. This system will help to not only guarantee a certain amount of stability in this country (especially compared to the 'democratic' projects in Iraq and Afghanistan), but will also deliver a healthy return on your investments." Would the U.S. and other representatives gasp in horror and depart? Would such honesty help or hinder Russia's path toward normalcy? And while I know that this is a blog about Russia's form of governance, it does feel just a tad hypocritical that it is funded by the U.S paragon of democracy. Anyway, keep up the good work.

by: rb from: usa
September 13, 2010 04:18
Interesting article.

I use to believe in Governments that I thought were democracies, but, after seeing what has happened in the USA, (what was the last free country), under Obama democracy has no meaning.

As long as there is power to be had, money to be taken, there are truly no free people, true freedom belongs to those in Government as well as their friends and special interest groups, the rest of us live in an illusion of freedom.

In some ways Russia is less restrictive than the USA now. Russia biggest problem is corruption. Not Democracy.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: T&T
September 27, 2010 01:29
Russia's best problem is not corruption by itself, Russia's problem is its corrupt government. A government which Poutine, Abramovich, Czhechin and other international criminals like them champions.

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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