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A very special version of Russian democracy

When asked whether their country is a democracy, Russians struggle to find a comprehensive answer.

Russia cannot be understood with mere intellect

Or measured by a common yardstick.

Russia is so special 

That you can only believe in it.

These famous lines, written by a Russian poet Feodor Tutchev in 1866, are rightfully timeless. Last week an independent Moscow-based market research agency Levada Centre published the results of its recent survey on democracy in Russia. At the risk of asking the obvious (according to its constitution, Russia is a democratic, federal republic), the respondents were given multiple choice questions and asked to determine whether democracy existed in Russia today. 62 per cent of Russians were certain or fairly certain that demos (the people) had kratos (the power) in Russia in 2015, as compared to 36 per cent five years ago. In addition, more people thought that things were getting better or at least fewer people were worried that the democratic standards were slipping (11 per cent in 2015 vs 20 per cent in 2010). 

Does democracy exist in Russia today?

 

March 2010

November 2015

Yes, definitely

4%

16%

Yes, to some extent

32%

46%

Not yet

36%

19%

There is becoming less of it lately

20%

11%

I don’t know

8%

9%

When asked “What kind of democracy does Russia need?”, almost half of the respondents (46 per cent) replied that Russia needed its own, very special version of democracy, in line with the country’s norms and traditions. It is this answer that prompted me to investigate what Russians meant by the “special kind of democracy”, which cannot be measured by a common yardstick. I asked Russians who live in Moscow as well as Russian expats in London and Zürich, who have been exposed to western values for over a decade.  

Most people I spoke to have indeed picked the “distinct form of democracy”, arguing that “an American model is unsuitable” for Russia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one could elaborate on the specifics of the desired model. One woman volunteered that “the ideal ruler for Russia would be someone like Peter the Great.” Once we have cleared that Russia under Peter was absolute monarchy, my respondent explained her reasoning: “Russia needs a strong leader, a disciplinarian. Russians cannot be ruled with a carrot, they understand only the stick.” In her view, Russians are too emotional and if they are granted too much freedom, they turn into loose cannons. She has a point. When Yeltsin, the most liberal head of state Russia has ever known, finally fuelled economic reforms, initialised by Gorbachev, the unprecedented market freedom has resulted in chaos, which culminated with Russia’s financial default in 1998.

The idea of a “strong ruler with wider powers” than would be implied by a Western constitution was echoed by others. “Russia needs a master,” said a mother of two who lives in Britain. “Russian people need clear directions and control, otherwise they’d just sit there like Brits on benefits, watching TV and complaining all the time.” Her argument gave a nod to Goncharov’s Oblomov, a fictitious nineteenth century character who wasted his life because he was lazy and lacked purpose. This disillusion with freedom explains well why Stalin has recently re-emerged in Russia as a symbol of order and united national spirit. 

A few people I spoke to were convinced that Russia did not need any democracy at all. They too citied Russia's history and its achievements under Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin. It’s little wonder that 85 per cent of the population supports Putin, according to the December 2015 poll by the Levada Centre. The special feature of the Russian mentality is that anyone but the tsar is to blame. Corruption, lawlessness, lack of social infrastructure and inequality are evident to all, but these are the problems associated with the “local imbeciles” and oligarchs, not the person presiding on the throne. 

Russians appear to be particularly allergic to the democracy of the “American kind”. “Look at the United States and what their democracy did to the Middle East. What about Ukraine, seduced by the US and Western promises, and now suffering from economic hardship?” said one entrepreneur. “The Brits may not want to bomb Syria, but their MPs voted to do it anyway,” pointed another. 

Western values, such as protection of the human rights, freedom of speech and equal opportunities for the minorities, appear to be too remote from the day-to-day lives to be considered as priorities. Another recent survey revealed that 58 per cent of Russians “have enough money for food and clothes, but considering such purchases as a TV set or a fridge would be a problem.” 14 per cent have enough money for food but not clothes and 3 per cent struggle to buy food. Just 3 per cent “can afford to buy a car”. Some people I spoke to offered that “minority rights contradict traditions of Russian Orthodox church”. Sadly, this religious argument to support the curtailment of the LGBT rights has become the focal point, as if the disabled in Russia enjoy fair treatment or the racism does not exist. “We have too many people for today’s oil price!” said my former classmate. I can only hope he was joking.  

It is, of course, not at all surprising that no one could come up with an eloquent description of an ideal model of democracy, especially moulded for Russian mentality. Quite simply, Russia has no experience of it. From the absolute monarchy, Russia barely had a chance to get used to having a parliament (or Duma), when the Bolshevik revolution had erased all traces of it and kept it under locks for 70years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia did the best it could to draw a new constitution, draft new laws and declare individual freedoms. Inevitably, there were teething issues, but instead of nurturing the nascent democracy, Russia’s current governing elite has been busy using its power over media to feed people an old tale about Russia’s unique path. “The Western model won’t work here”, the emphasised values of integrity, orthodoxy and “the national spirit” have once again conquered the Russian minds just like these ideas had been advocated by the tsar Nikolai I in the nineteenth century. New terms, such as a “governed democracy” and “sovereign democracy” have popped up to entertain the inquisitive minds. Other minds probably don’t even care. 

So what is Russia today? A special democracy or a just failed one?

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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.