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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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.