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May 28, 2004 by AK

Be careful when you say ‘democracy’

Masha Gessen writes on Why Russians Want Democracy. I didn’t quite get why Russians wanted democracy from her article, but at least she is convincingly arguing they do want it. She doesn’t make clear what kind of democracy she is talking about, and that’s a problem. Putin, too, is a democrat: why shouldn’t he when he enjoys nationwide support? But Gessen also talks about ‘the actual democrats’ and ‘pro-democracy parties’ as opposed to Putin and his cohort. The primitive kind of democracy that brought Putin to the top is plebiscitary: it has direct elections of a chief at its core, and not much else. The most evolved and fine-tuned type of democracy is found in the US and Western Europe. Neither protects individuals completely from the tyranny of the majority and the state, but the latter [correction: the latter = that in the US and Europe] is obviously better at that. Gessen seems to mean ‘modern liberal democracy’ most of the time, but not always–and that muddles her message even beyond its original muddledness.

As long as he manages to pay lip service to democratic values while keeping the actual democrats from forming an opposition force, he will continue to enjoy the support of Russia’s increasingly pro-democracy public–even as he eviscerates Russia’s democratic gains. This is not because Russians are crazy or hypocritical; it is because the state is far stronger than any institutions of civil society. And the imbalance is only increasing, in part because the state is steadily undermining civil society.

Compare this with what I said a few months ago. A weak society means either a strong state or chaos. If Russian society could nourish, support and trust ‘actual democrats’, neither Putin nor anyone else would be able to put them down. If the people trust Putin to be a better protector of their liberties than democratic institutions, they may be expressing a preference for a strong state over chaos. They can’t do much about their collective failure as society. But–and Gessen rightly puts it–they still fear the state. Even in the most corrupt city, you still trust a cop to protect you from a mugger, but you’d rather not deal with cops either.

Russians are tired of the social and the political; now more than ever, they seek consolation in private life. The nascent middle class is steeped in family values. The irony of it all that to succeed as a nation, Russians need collective–call them social–values that they have seen discredited.


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