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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Democracy for the Chosen
In Russia, One Has to Choose Between Being a Liberal and Being a Democrat

Crowd of Arab Street Protesters With Some Atop a TankLittle by little, the Russian authorities are letting their opinions of the events in the Middle East be known. They perceive these "revolutions" as negative events that won't lead to any democratization, and should be viewed similarly to how the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to 1920 is perceived by the majority of Russia's elite ­ as a "warning to humanity." Interestingly, the critics of the events in the Middle East rarely sympathize with the impoverished Arab masses, preferring to focus on the plight of the elites. With regard to the recent revolutions, the "pro-business," liberal part of the Russian government is taking the same stance as the "siloviki."

While condemning the "revolutions" in Tunisia and Egypt, the Russian leaders, however, try to remain within the bounds of international norms of behavior, so as not to alienate the new governments of these countries, which are still emerging. Thus criticism is reduced to some vague ruminations about "dangerous developments" on behalf of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, or to off-the-cuff remarks from their subordinates in the government or in the expert community.

"Do you think these events are good for those countries?" Igor Shuvalov, one of the six vice-premiers of Vladimir Putin's cabinet, asked sourly at a conference devoted to the memory of Yegor Gaidar, the engineer of Russia's economic reform in the 1990s. "These countries will go through misery, huge turbulence and personal tragedies. We saw this all happen 20 years ago."

Inside the government Shuvalov has a reputation as a liberal and a supporter of pro-market economic reforms. He upheld this reputation by describing democracy primarily as a good environment for private business. "If we talk about democracy as first and foremost the protection of property rights and the very institution of property," he began his speech before an audience of several hundred leading state and business figures, including the architect of Poland's 1990s "shock therapy" Leszek Balcerowicz and his Russian colleague Anatoly Chubais. "If we talk about the court system, the infrastructure for business and other similar issues, politicians should suggest instruments which will allow us to protect those institutions. Right now I don't see anything of the sort."

Shuvalov's remarks, lauded in business circles and Russia's liberal press, were met with some criticism by the left side of Russia's political spectrum. "Please note that Shuvalov does not speak about democracy for the bulk of Russia's population, namely the employees," said Boris Kagarlitsky, the head of an anti-globalist think tank in Moscow and a leading intellectual voice of Russia's non-communist left. "He only talks about the interests of big business ­ strong arbitration courts, inviolability of property. Unfortunately, the West will support this definition of democracy for a narrow circle of people, much in the same way as the West supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia."

Shuvalov's message seemed to address to the authors of a liberal reform project drafted for president Medvedev by his pet think tank, INSOR (the Institute for Modern Development). The paper is called "Attaining the Future." It calls for restoring gubernatorial elections and abolishing the army draft by 2018. Shuvalov was obviously acknowledging some faults in the existing system, but also cautioning the reform's authors against dismantling the old system before the new one is designed in detail. "We only hear criticism against certain restrictions of political nature, but what is behind this criticism? Which political instruments and institutions will replace the old ones?" Shuvalov asked rhetorically.

"The problem is, you have to choose between being a liberal and being a democrat in Russia," Kagarlitsky commented. "Big business, whose interests are served by the government and liberal think tanks alike, does not need elections. Especially elections it cannot control. And it certainly does not need the courts to protect the rights of the employees. It may be interested in courts preventing conflicts between various big business groups, for example doing arbitration in case of a dispute between Gazprom and Rosneft. But big business is not interested in a fair court for everybody. So, we won't get it any time soon."

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