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Grigory Yavlinsky

Assessing Russian Democracy
Synopsis of Speech in the Belfer Center

February 5, 2002

Mr Yavlinsky began by thanking the Belfer Center for the invitation and said that the main topic of his talk will be to explore the progress of Russian Democratization.

According to Mr. Yavlinsky, the process of democratization involves not only creating some set of democratic procedures, like free elections or free press. It is necessary to look behind the formal democratic institutions to ask what people applying and using them have in mind. Only after analyzing such motivations is it possible to understand how essentially democratic and legitimate institutions produce results contrary to their nature.

The value of freedom of speech is nonexistent, if people have nothing to say, the freedom of action is needless if people are only willing to march in military ranks. Hence democracy can only work if the society enacting it has some basic democratic values, education, beliefs or moral principles. The democratic institutions and procedures per se are merely tools, able to transform these ideas and beliefs into reality. That is why the benefits of mere democratic procedures are so limited. It is for this reason that the economic base of any democracy is one of its crucial elements, providing for independent individuals as its basic members.

In Mr. Yavlinsky's opinion, these facts represent the main challenge for Russian democracy. Russia's small and middle business enterprises are important for its democracy. Mr. Yavlinsky called them a "conditio sine qua non" for any democratic society. Only if the economy of the country can ensure the independent economic behavior of its citizens and only if these citizens have a certain level of democratic education and democratic values, only in this case the democratic procedures can work for the common benefit.

From Yavlinsky's point of view the main challenge for the Russian reforms is that the country has to perform an acrobatic act, similar to riding a bicycle, where it must accomplish two operations simultaneously: the Russians have to engage in actions preparing democracy and at the same time practice this democracy with no reference to any previous historic democratic record.

After presenting these general thoughts Mr. Yavlinsky moved on to a deeper analysis of the present Russian situation. He assumed that the present political elite consists of people coming from the Soviet administrative system and still thinking in Soviet categories. To achieve their goals they use a democratic cover "quasi democracy," a somewhat modernized version of the famous "Potemkin villages." Just like Stalin's constitution, which was considered to be one the most progressive democratic constitutions, the present formally democratic institutions in Russia do not constitute real democracy.

Yavlinsky described the present state of political life in Russia as a controlled or managed democracy. This is a state where the democratic tools are used to achieve any result desirable for the leader of the country.

The most recent example of this type of manipulation was a recent proposal drawn up by the parties close to the Russian president. According to this proposal, elections should only be considered valid if voter participation was at least 50 percent and only if one of the candidates was able to achieve more then 50 percent of the votes. In the opinion of Mr. Yavlinsky such a regulation would easily lead to an election deadlock, which would benefit the president.

Mr. Yavlinsky underscored the difference between this type of controlled democracy and a totalitarian rule. While the latter destroys all the democratic institutions directly and openly, the main strategy of controlled democracy is not to destroy, but to adjust the institutions to serve the goals of the ruling elite. If any adjustment of institutions is impossible, the government prefers to replace the people controlling these institutions (like replacing the owners of the free TV stations) or substitute these institutions with new, more easily manageable organizations (as happened in the case of the Media Union, which was created to weaken the influence of the Union of Journalists).

Speculating on the future of the Russian democracy, Yavlinsky stressed the special and very important role of bureaucracy in implementing this new "vertical of power." However as any bureaucracy, it will lead to more corruption. In order to keep the corruption under control, the government will have to use intense enforcement mechanisms, which might go as far as creating a police state.

Of the three core democratic elements - free press, free elections, and an independent judiciary - Mr. Yavlinsky specifically spoke about the press.

Yavlinsky said that the situation with the press in today's Russia is certainly not comparable to the situation in the Soviet Union. Everyone can read anything in the press, even the most incredible and slanderous information about most prominent political figures. Restricted is any systematic explanation or critical analysis of the political events. For example, state television stations have a list of people who are not to be shown on the air. The same is true for the list of forbidden topics. Certainly there still are a some newspapers who still cover critical topics (e.g. Obschaya Gazeta and Novaya Gazeta). However, they unfold their activities in a kind of a glass box, their presence is not really essential, and is only useful for the government in order to demonstrate to foreign observers that free press exists.

As a result of such media control, the Russian population is subject to the management and manipulation of human choice. According to Mr. Yavlinsky this ability to manipulate and control is actually one of the main results of the last 10 years: it is not hard to manipulate the choice of the Russian public. Just like one could convince it to vote for Yeltsin or vote for a totally unknown newcomer Putin, you can always manipulate the public opinion.

In the question and answer section Yavlinsky addressed various issues. In speaking about the best way western countries could assist Russia on its way towards democracy, Yavlinsky rejected any form of financial credits or subsidies. He is convinced that the help must be conducted in a smart way and this means in the first place the west should give up any policy of double standards towards Russia and address Russia as an honest and valuable ally. Regarding Putin's intentions, Yavlinsky mentioned two of them: the intention to make Russia a strong state and to protect his own power. The question is not whether these goals are good or bad, but rather which instruments Putin is prepared to use to implement those goals.

See also:
Understanding Russia

February 5, 2002

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