Let me be blunt. Russians, on the whole, don’t understand democracy. I’m not being unfair to Russians; most ordinary people around the world don’t understand it. American political scientists don’t fully understand it. The problem in Russia however is that nobody has a clue what it means, including the so-called “liberals” who advocate it.
Most Westerners are sick of hearing people use the word democracy without qualifying it or putting it in concrete terms. In Russia however, democracy is talked about as though it were some sort of product. Liberals and oppositionists think Russia should definitely get democracy, AKA the thing Europe and America have. Supporters of the status quo remember how “democrats” appeared in the late 80’s and 90’s and then really horrible things happened throughout the former Soviet Union, ergo these things must certainly be linked. To them, “democracy” equates to chaos. In any case, neither side actually understands democracy.
Functioning liberal democracy does not remove problems like poverty or corruption. All it does is open the way to finding solutions to those problems. The ability to hold politicians and leaders accountable, to whatever small extent, has a profound impact on society. Even the more radical form of democracy I personally advocate does not make problems disappear; I simply believe that it would grant the majority of people far more ability to find solutions to their problems than even the most progressive capitalist democracies currently in existence. Russian oppositionists who want to be taken seriously and accepted by their fellow citizens need to learn this point very quickly. Nowadays it’s common for some regime supporter to find a story about some injustice in Europe or the US and say, “Look! There’s your democracy! Do you still think it’s better in America?” Most of the time these injustices, when they are real, have nothing to do with democracy of lack thereof. The existence of homeless people in America doesn’t mean democracy doesn’t exist or function. It just means there is a limit to what liberal democracy can accomplish. As hard as it seems these days, America’s limited, but otherwise functioning democratic system means that people can organize to do something about homelessness, at least on a local level, and they won’t have to overthrow the government to do it.
These days it is common to hear people complain about the role of money in politics. Indeed, this is a serious issue and we should at no time ignore it. At the same time, we’d do well to remember that in the late 19th century and in some cases into the 20th, the American and British political systems were far more corrupt. America had its political “machines” like Tammany Hall, and in Britain seats in parliament could be bought literally as opposed to figuratively like in modern times. As Americans are choices are extremely limited, but we know politicians actually care about our concerns to some extent if only because they spend so much money on campaigning, polling, and other activities aimed at attracting voters. The very fact that they need to raise so much money and so carefully tailor their campaign, coupled with the constant fear of making a fatal “gaffe” on the campaign trail, demonstrates that on some level there is a measure of accountability.
I realize that might not console many Americans these days, but in Russia little details make a huge difference. Putin does not have to worry about polls or campaign funds. His opponents can be jailed if not intimidated and threatened. Wheres we can predict exactly when and how Barack Obama will leave office in 2017, we have no idea when Putin will leave power and under what conditions. Most likely he has indeed ensured that nobody can replace him, which means the country will face a dire crisis when he does inevitably leave no matter the manner in which he does so. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was one of the most egregious examples of horrible American foreign policies in recent history, yet this invasion was preceded by months of deliberation and discussion. As bad as things got, Americans threw the Republicans out of congress in 2006 and out of the White House in 2008. Imagine if Bush could give himself a third term!
By contrast Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and poorly veiled proxy war in the Donbass were both conducted without any warning and on a whim. Opponents of this policy have faced intimidation, and even politicians and individuals investigating the mysterious deaths of Russian soldiers have been labeled “foreign agents,” arrested, and in the case of the former, assaulted by unknown attackers. The Russian government made it a criminal offense for Russian citizens to publish anything advocating those same things which the pro-Russian citizens of the Crimea and Donbass demanded- greater federalization or autonomy. There is no party that Russians can vote for to reverse these policies; many of these measures had near unanimous support save for one member of parliament who is now under threat of arrest or possibly worse due to following his conscience.
Getting back to the point, Russians don’t need “democracy” so much as they need concrete concepts like rule of law and separation of powers. Democracy is far too abstract and the situation in Russia demands concrete solutions. The phony democracy Russia has today, once called ‘sovereign democracy’ by Putin, only proves that anyone can ape the typical liberal democratic system by having multiple parties and elections. Hell, on paper Russia’s electoral politics may appear more democratic and progressive than those of the United States. What Russia doesn’t have is a strong constitution, impartial, independent courts, consistent application of the law, limitations on executive power, and so on.
The beauty of such concrete concepts in contrast to the more ambiguous and problematic term “democracy” is that these things can be quantified. Separation and limitations on power can be readily observed. Just look at Obama’s near-constant struggle against the Republicans in congress. Even before they managed to gain their current majority they were still able to force a shutdown of the federal government. Obama’s proposed “public option” for healthcare reform was jettisoned due to Republican opposition. The last time we saw that kind of opposition to a Russian president was in 1993, and the spat was decided with tanks and bullets. The fact that Democrats and Republicans both serve the same class in America doesn’t change the fact that this opposition exists, and as bad as it is now, imagine what would happen if the US had a president for life who never had to worry about any opposition from congress.
Independent courts and rule of law can be measured as well. When people are consistently prosecuted for violating the law, as opposed to just opponents and critics of the regime, you have some measure of rule of law. Another side of that coin is that it should be physically possible to live within the bounds of the law. In Russia not only small business owners but even individual workers are forced to skirt the law just to get by. This means everyone has some dirt on them and thus they can be smacked down should they become a problem. In countries where rule of law functions, following the law is actually economically viable and achievable for most people.
Accountability can be measured as well. State-owned industries can be made transparent, and it is possible to verify if someone is siphoning state funds into their personal accounts. HINT: Look for state employees with massive houses, yachts, etc. If state funds are earmarked for schools, roads, hospitals, etc., we can actually get in a car and see if these things are being built. If they are not, the money can be tracked down and somebody can be put in prison for a long time. There is absolutely no reason why state owned enterprises must inevitably lead to corruption. That is certainly not the case in Norway, a country which Russia could easily imitate, or at least could have imitated, based on its wealth in natural resources.
In conclusion, as long as Russian oppositionists speak about “democracy” without fully understanding it or without being able to articulate concrete solutions to Russia’s political problems, they will remain unpopular and ineffective. Just as Russia’s jingoistic “geopolitical experts” love pontificating on America without having spent any time there and in some cases without even being able to speak English, Russia’s “democrats” rarely display a firm grasp of the concepts they supposedly support. In this way, they present “democracy” as a mirror image of the Putin supporters’ revived Russian empire. This is to say that the abstract idea is offered up as a sort of panacea which, when somehow achieved, will solve Russia’s problems. Russia doesn’t need abstract ideas but concrete ones. These concrete ideas form the foundations of a functioning democracy. Without that foundation, any attempt to transform Russia into a functioning democracy will most likely fail as they did in the 1990’s.