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#32 - JRL 9313 - JRL Home
Date: Mon, 5 Dec 2005
From: Vlad Ivanenko <ivanenko60@yahoo.com>
Subject: Debate on Russian democracy: Missing issues

The JRL sponsored debate on the quality of exposition of Russian democratic failures in Western media has revealed one obvious deficiency – unclear definition of the reference point. Media professionals are not at fault. They face tight deadlines, editorial preferences, and, on the top of that, are not trained in defining scholarly concepts. It is more troubling to observe that, by all appearances, the characterization of what democracy is about is neglected by academic observers. The quality of debate – and, correspondingly, the quality of Russia-related policy advice – deteriorates if a clear definition of what democracy means is not in place. The latter task is not trivial as the disc! ussion below shows.

In its minimalist, or procedural, form democracy is the system of public governance “in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Schumpeter, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy”, 1942). This definition implies that a country is democratic if it holds regular elections for the top executive authority with at least two candidates ostanding and one of whom being elected by eligible voters. By this minimalist definition, Russia easily qualifies as 'democratic' together with many other CIS countries; Kazakhstan being the most recent example.

The above classification stands in stark contrast with maximalist, or prescriptive, definition of what democracy should be. The list of desired qualities that complement procedural characteristics of democracy may vary depending on individual preferences but, frequently, they consist of cer! tain rights and responsibilities – such as freedoms of information and association for voters, the right of winners to attain leadership and the obligation of incumbents to accept defeat – that the electorate possess and authorities observe in the Western countries. Most observers agree that Russia does not qualify to be ‘democratic’ by this definition as well as the host of other former socialist countries.

Judging by the Russian position vis-à-vis extremes, this country stands somewhere in between. To describe her position and suggest an appropriate sequence of policy reform that bring her closer to the standards of Western countries – if this objective is agreed on – it is important to define stages in democratic development and determine potential causality links among various institutions.

This task is challenging because there is no unified body of knowledge to help. Yet, public choice theory illustrates prob! lems that a democratizing country may encounter and the history of Western democratic development suggests potential solutions. Let discuss, in brief, a few dilemmas that Russia faces and consider this country’s policy options.

Problem 1: a fully democratic choice is beneficial in the long run; however, it may bring about socially catastrophic consequences in the short run. Democracy is a system of governance where the issue of incumbency is decided by electoral results and nothing else. This critical condition distinguishes democracy from authoritarian systems where the top executive authority is chosen by centers of powers that voters do not control. Democracy is designed to stop possible power abuses by such centers but it poses a different dilemma – the problem of keeping voters’ choices within the limits acceptable to all major groups. For example, a society where 80 percent of population is poor is likely to favor voting for ‘democratic’ measur! es aimed at nationalizing the wealth of the remaining 20 percent. Unsurprisingly, the rich forestall such an outcome by imposing limits on the power of popular vote or, in other words, by supporting a non-democratic form of governance.

Historically, Western societies dealt with the problem of unconditional acceptance of catastrophic electoral result either by limiting the number of eligible voters (white propertied male being the dominant benefactor), by uniting the electorate around a ‘national idea’ (often against an external enemy) or by enticing potentially problematic groups of voters to stay ‘mainstream’ with welfare benefits.

The first solution is politically infeasible for most democratizing countries – ‘non-citizenship’ clauses being an exemption – as numerous suffrage movements have succeeded establishing the universal principle of right to vote for all adults. The second approach proves effective in fo! rmer socialist countries that emphasize ‘freedom from external enemy’ as a means of keeping the nation together.

Being a nationally heterogeneous country Russia cannot develop a national idea around the concept of ‘external enemy’ because it inevitably leads to internal ethnical strife. This possibility appears to be recognized by the Putin Administration that keeps an eye on political parties with nationalistic rhetoric. The recent ban of “Motherland” in the Moscow election is a case in point. It is a definite violation of the democratic principle of the primacy of voters’ choice because, in this instance, legal authorities has restricted voters’ choice of ‘ethnic cleansing’ policy. It should be noted that such public inclination does not square well with another Western democratic principle – tolerance – and highlights a different problem – illiberal nature of Russian society – that we discuss later. So far, it suffices to ! say that Russia has a problem of keeping electoral preferences within the limits acceptable to major groups.

Problem 2: In democracy, an incumbent has no option rather than to leave the office if his or her policy has not been supported by the electorate. However, the regularity of holding elections iprovides no guarantee that a challenger who expresses public preferences most accurately will win. First, voters may not express their true preferences if they are coerced, which makes the election to be not 'free'. Second, procedural requirements may limit the eligibility of certain candidates as is the recent case with "Motherland". Third, voters stay unfamiliar of the candidate’s platform if she is unable to publicize her policy or if they are misled by false information. Fourth, electoral counting may be conducted fraudulently or voters bribed to vote for the ‘right’ candidate. Fifth, the defeated incumbent may be able to block the challen! ger from assuming power on some pretext. Sixth, electoral victory may not give the challenger sufficient legitimacy to attain incumbency unconditionally. The last five conditions determine the status of election as being ‘fair’.

The Western history of democratic development offers many instances when some of these conditions were violated. Gradual realization of dangers associated with faulty electoral process led to the development of procedures that increased chances of popular candidates coming to power. Many of these procedures are embed in social norms characteristic of the originating countries, which makes them difficult to systematize and transplant in newly democratizing states.

Judging by the events that have taken place since 1991, Russian institutional framework proves not to be conducive to the orderly transfer of power through electoral process. While open to questioning, the main problem seems to l! ie with the nature of state administration. Russian bureaucracy demonstrates that it is a force to be reckoned with because it provides formidable ‘administrative resource’ that substantiates the incumbents’ attempts to prevent popular challengers from coming to power.

The principal difference between the Russian and Western bureaucracies is that the former depends on the incumbent’s goodwill for their well-being whereas the latter enjoys significant autonomy from its political masters. The Western administrative system emphasizes that strict observance of instructions is the ultimate measure of professional suitability for a bureaucrat. Because the public servant’s tenure depends on instructions and not on loyalty to political appointees, the Western bureaucrat is reluctant to bend to political pressure and interfere in the process of power change. As a result, the incumbent cannot fully rely on administrative apparatus to twist electoral process ! in his favor in the West. In Russia, the strict following of instructions provides no job security for public servants, which is a feature that incumbents abuse for private benefit.

Problem 3: social recognition and acceptance of the fact that some voters may have preferences that are not shared by the majority makes a democratic country to be 'liberal'. This quality is important in several respects. It ensures that significant minorities will accept electoral defeat because their core rights are preserved. Such recognition guarantees that no powerful group invests in tampering the voting process that they expect to lose. Political tolerance is conducive to public debate, which increases voters’ awareness of costs and benefits associated with alternative state projects. Finally, it encourages ‘non-traditional’ candidates to stand in elections, thus, stimulating more rigorous political competition.

Historically, Western liberalism passed through several stages of development when different groups of ‘aliens’ – for example, desegregationists, trade union members, or proponents of agricultural reform – were recognized as having legitimate concerns with consequent accommodation of their interests. Often, offering concessions to disadvantaged groups was the optimal way to prevent social conflicts from escalation. As a result, some consider that the emergence of modern liberalism is closely related to the appearance of welfare state.

Russian society does not have a history of settling social conflicts through negotiations. Nor her courts are trusted enough to have a final say in determining minorities’ rights and obligations. Moreover, Russian capitalistic experiment of 1990s was clearly illiberal (in the modern sense) as it destroyed the Soviet welfare state without compensating the losers. Struggling for sheer survival, the majority of people could not afford bein! g tolerant to minorities. The Putin Administration appears to be aware of this problem. A higher compensation for lost in-kind benefits and professed support for reconsideration of the bill on NGOs indicate its willingness to accommodate disadvantaged groups of voters. Using petrodollars, the Russian authorities attempt to re-establish some form of social safety net. If it succeeds, a greater feeling of personal security is likely to calm down the fear and hostility that the median voter has regarding ‘aliens’ be they immigrants who ‘steal our jobs’ or democrats who ‘sell our national interests’ or the like. Still, intolerance continues to be a part of Russian social culture that is detrimental to democratic development in this country.

Conclusion: This article has shown that academic community has some way to go in defining and investigating Russian democratic challenges. In its current form, the exposition of institution! al problems in this country is unsystematic. This explains why journalists have felt justified providing uncritical commentary of recent democracy-related events such as the bill on NGOs, the formation of Public Chamber or government changes. This has created an impression of deliberate anti-Russian bias in the Western media. Second, the article has highlighted difficulties associated with constructing the normative foundation of Russian democratic reform. It has shown that Western democratic institutions are tailored to public conventions, state procedures and social norms that have gradually evolved in the originating countries. The last statement implies that Russia may develop a set of democratic institutions that look differently but are not necessarily incompatible with the Western standards.

Vlad Ivanenko, PhD economics
Independent consultant, Ottawa.