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A little more about democracy

Yaroslavl Global ForumBy Nikolay Zlobin, director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington. The Global Policy Forum, which ended last week, vividly demonstrated the limit of the global ruling elite's ability to understand the ongoing processes in the international arena, put them into a manageable framework, and guide them in a positive direction.

There is certain symbolism in the fact that the forum in Yaroslavl coincided with the 1,000-year anniversary of this great Russian city. On the one hand, the conversation about the fundamental political issues of the new world order was held in a place where, to a great extent, the country's statehood was formed ­ which greatly influenced world history. On the other hand, the attempt to create democracy in Russia, which has been ongoing for a quarter of a century, had simply drowned in the background of the many years of the country's existence on undemocratic principles and gave grounds to talk about the weakness of the Russian democracy.

Few circumstances should be mentioned. First, the forum was well prepared, both in terms of organization and content. Holding such a massive event, involving many experts, high-ranking politicians and state officials from various countries, is an extremely difficult task, but it was accomplished with great success. Considering that Yaroslavl was at the same time celebrating its anniversary, the organizers were under that much more pressure. Special mention should be made of the hundreds of volunteers, who from morning until late evening provided assistance to the participants in the international debate.

Second is the content portion of the Yaroslavl meetings. Most conferences and roundtable discussions gather people with close interests and world views, who usually disagree on smaller issues and agree with one another on the major issues, criticize absent opponents and, pleased with themselves, leave and go home. The productivity rate of such meetings is usually close to zero. The Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl proved to be an exception. Credit should be given to its organizers; they managed to bring together people with some of the most diverse views and positions on the discussed issues. As a result, a real debate was held in Yaroslavl.

Third, real representatives of the world's intellectual elite took part in the forum, including some of the leading political experts and educators, current and former heads of state, and thinkers of the highest level and authority. This provided a very high intellectual level of reports and discussions, making it possible to abstain from banalities and populism, and the mulling over of obvious truths and outdated ideas. The forum's agenda stimulated discussion, and gave the opportunity to look at the most fundamental questions of the modern political life from a new angle.

Fourth, the forum was particularly interesting because experts, political theorists and politicians from various states actively participated in it on an equal footing. This format, which is popular in many countries, has been rarely seen in Russia. Meanwhile, it is precisely these types of discussions that, as shown by the global experience, are most productive. The global political elite is like a system of unique communicating vessels, where political scientists, experts and analysts are in close and constant contact with politicians and political institutions, and often change positions after elections, enriching one another and helping each other choose the most effective ways to resolve problems. Clearly, this type of an exchange between politicians and intellectuals has not yet become the norm in Russia. It is inevitable, however, and it's a good thing that the political forum in Yaroslavl has made a decisive step in this direction.

Fifth, I think that the forum's critics, who say that there was very little discussion on economic issues, are not quite correct. On the one hand, it is of course impossible to discuss issues concerning the country's modernization without talking about economics. On the other hand, the world already has several major economic forums, from Davos to Krasnoyarsk, where the world's economic and business elite discuss global economic development problems. In Yaroslavl, it was possible to avoid the domination of the unnatural economic determinism. I think that there is special meaning in the fact that Russia became the initiator of the open Global Policy Forum, which is today one of a kind. A conversation about international politics, global security, standards of democracy, efficiency of the modern state, and the emerging new world order is a conversation that is no less, if not more, important than the debates about the global economy. I believe that this format of dialogue and the explicitly political agenda, which Russia has offered for the second year in Yaroslavl, has great potential and opportunities.

Sixth, due to the comprehensive representation at the forum, the authority level and qualifications of its participants, a truly creative discussion atmosphere was created. No one's opinion was accepted as absolute. To the contrary, the Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl became a kind of a symbol of democracy, of freedom of speech and thought. The discussion was objective, open and direct, without any verbal curtseys and mutual compliments. Dmitry Medvedev presented his vision of the problem. In his speech, he formulated five universal criteria for democracy, thus opening the discussion on the subject. I'm not sure if all the participants fully agreed with all the presidential theses, but President Medvedev laid a solid ground for a fruitful discussion.

To me, personally, it seems that the conversation about the standards of democracy should not only consider the diversity of its political forms and national characteristics, but also the fact that democracy is inherently not a still process of political life, but an always-developing, living and evolving phenomenon. The search for universal standards of democracy should not lead to attempts to fit it into a Procrustean bed of some short-term political theories, thus limiting the diversity of its manifestations. After all, it was not too long ago that we accepted the narrow, Western definition of democracy, while ignoring the experiences of many countries and the harm to its development.

The same could be said for the state's role in modernization, which was also eagerly discussed at the forum in Yaroslavl. While tossing aside all the extreme points of view on this subject, we will inevitably come to face the problem of the quality of a state which has set the objective of rapid modernization. It will become apparent that one cannot talk about the state's role in modernization without an objective analysis and consideration of this state.

In Russia, for example, modernization is, in my opinion, impossible without seriously reforming the current government and changing its role in the country's economy and politics. Russian modernization cannot be simply reduced to an attempt at a purely technological breakthrough, and calls for a change in the style and methods of state governance. In any event, the discussion in Yaroslavl should be continued and developed.

At least, this is what it seems like to me from Washington.


Russia, Politics, Government, Russia, Foreign Policy, Security, Russian Issues, Russia, Johnson's Russia List, Russia News

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