Immigration Blues

Immigrant hopefuls would be deemed eligible and competitive based on the points they accrue through a set of criteria, including educational specialty or degree, age, English proficiency, and a high-salaried job offer. They would need to show that they “like our way of life,” a senior official said, and that they are capable of “patriotic assimilation.” They could demonstrate that quality by passing a civics test much like the kind someone might encounter at a U.S. college.

I never had to take a civics test at a US college. The only civics test I have taken was the highly politicized test on Russian history and Russian laws I took last summer, along with a Russian language test, as part of the application to extend my Russian residence permit another five years.

It was a bloody joke, explicitly designed to show I “liked [their] way of life,” which they do not like themselves.

So, for example, I had to choose from among four possible answers when asked whether the “RF” (“Russian Federation”) was: 1) a totalitarian country, 2) an authoritarian country, 3) a hybrid country or a 4) a democratic country.

russian state

The right answer, obviously, was No. 4. I had enough Russian Bizarro world street smarts to choose it, although it was right only on the exam. In real life outside the exam, meaning on the ground, the RF is a No. 2 that badly wants to go No. 1.

If you imagine the test’s authors laughed their heads off when they drafted questions like this, you would probably be right.

When I was getting my other papers ready at Petersburg’s shiny new Amalgamated Documents Center (where Russians themselves can apply for foreign travel passports and lots of other precious papers, seals, stamps, permissions, visas, etc.), an employee suggested to me that, if I paid twice as much for the test, I would not have to take it for real. The fee would be considered a fee for an exam prep course I would not really take, either. On the appointed day, I would report at a certain time to a certain room to pick up a certificate showing I had passed the test with flying colors, although I would have done no such thing in reality.

I decided to take the test for real. I studied for it by taking sample tests I found on the web.

In the event, I passed the Russian civics exam with flying colors the hard way: by studying for it for most of a day and then taking it the next day.

A few months later, the FSB raided the language text and civics exam prep center at the Amalgamated Documents Center, claiming, probably on good grounds, the test center was helping applicants scam the government, which was footing the bill.

But the Russian government generated the problem in the first place by insisting immigrants take a hokey exam that, I am sure, most government officials would not be able to pass, much less rank-and-file Russians.

How odd the US government, currently headed by an avowed Putinist, would suddenly propose setting up the same hurdles to legal immigration to the US (“United States”). {TRR}

NB. The illustration, above, is a screenshot of the question on a sample test found on the internet. But I had to answer the same multiple-choice question, with the same set of four possible answers on the exam itself.

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If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

RUS-2016-Aerial-SPB-Field_of_Mars
The Field of Mars is in the center of Petersburg, but it is conveniently isolated from well-populated residential neighborhoods and high streets. Unless they are extremely well attended, most political rallies held on the famous former parade grounds and revolutioanry mass burial site go unnoticed by the vast majority of Petersburgers. Photo courtesy of Andrew Shiva and Wikipedia

Up the River: The Smolny Will Expand List of Venues for Political Rallies
Mikhail Shevchuk
Delovoi Peterburg
December 4, 2018

As soon as he took up his duties as acting governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov announced plans to amend the law on political rallies.

“We need to make changes and introduce order, so there were will be no violations on either side,” he said at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in October.

The Smolny has now drafted amendments to the law. The principle of “Hyde Parks,” that is, of specially designated places where Petersburgers can vent their indignation without prior notification of the authorites, remains in force. However, the Smolny has proposed establishing a minimum number of such places, eight in all.

The current law on political rallies does not specify the number of venues. City hall publishes the list of political rally sites in an ordinance. Originally, in 2012, the Field of Mars (or, rather, a small part of it) was designated the city’s “Hyde Park.” Two years later, four more venues were added: Udelny Park, Polyustrovsky Park, Yuzhno-Primorsky Park, and 30th Anniversary of October Gardens. The Field of Mars was struck from the list last year.

uppYuzhno-Primorsky Park is located in the far southwest of Petersburg. It is four kilometers from the nearest subway station, and three kilometers from the nearest suburban railroad station. Map courtesy of Yandex

Theoretically, it is possible to organize demonstrations in other places, but city hall usually refuses to sanction the rallies under various pretexts, suggesting to organizers they use one of the designated “Hyde Parks.” As a matter of principle, however, the opposition avoids the “Hyde Parks,” which are all situated in the city’s outskirts. Instead, they prefer to assemble at such traditional sites for political rallies as Lenin Square, Pioneer Square and, sometimes, even Palace Square, although they risk fines and forcible dispersal by police.

The maximum number of people who can attend a political rally held without prior notification of the authorities would range from 200 to 500 people under the amended law. As under the old law, State Duma MPs, members of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and members of the city’s municipal district councils would be able to hold meetings with constituents on the streets.

Officials would now calculate how many people can attend a political rally at a particular venue according to the norm of one person per square meter. Lenin Square and Pioneer Square would thus be able to accommodate rallies attended by as many as 10,000 people. Organizers would also be obliged to inform officials of canceled rallies under the threat of a fine of 5,000 rubles for individuals and 100,000 rubles for legal entities.

“It’s not the number of sites that matters,” said Andrei Pivovarov, leader of the local office of Open Russia. “And no one has ever been fined for going over the maximum number of attendees. One venue would be enough for us, but as long as it is in downtown Petersburg. If the venues are going to be in the outskirts, city hall could give us a dozen such places, but we would try to protest downtown anyway.”

However, Pivovarov said that if the new list included the Field of Mars, Lenin Square, and Pioneer Square, the opposition would be quite satisfied and make use of these venues.

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Maxim Reznik also named the two squares. He said the number of people attending a rally and the convenience of Petersburgers were more important than a particular place. The opposition was always ready for dialogue, he said. However, if the regime made a point of tightening the screws, dissenters, Reznik said, would choose the paddy wagon, that is, they would choose to attend an unauthorized rally rather than cancel it.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yana Teplitskaya: Wonderland

welcome to russia

Yana Teplitskaya
Facebook
September 4, 2018

Emotions are weird. I write “hogtie,” “taser,” and “Liteiny 4” [FSB headquarters in Petersburg] without feeling anything.

I wrote “interrogation in the middle of the night” and the tips of my fingers went numb.

I don’t understand what remains when you’ve run out of hatred and fear has faded.

Navigating your way through fear gives you a lot of strength, but it doesn’t last long.

Love and solidarity.

However, their supply is probably limited, too, since I feel so little strength.

***

“I have the sense we live so well that we should [help others].”

“But I know now this sense doesn’t get you far. My human rights work started from an overabundance of well-being, but I think it has been spent, that it has bottomed out.”

“Oh! So, no matter how much I do for the kids, I’m giving them a finite, rather than an indefinite, supply?”

***

As for basic trust in the world, I have the general sense that if you really have to do it, you will do anything. The deaths of other people and one’s own ailments take away that feeling. Just like the torture of Igor.

***

“Officials who are directly accused of torture: […] born 1993.”

:(

***

Excerpts from a funny [and seemingly really lousy] interview about “why you do what you do.”

*

“Would you like to be written up in the history books?”

“Uh, well, I’d like these cases to be written up in the history books. That would mean this nightmare had ended [and a new one had begun].”

*

“I have generally always been interested in the human rights movement and the struggle for the rule of law in Russia. I read a good number of autobiographies [of human rights activists and dissidents] while I was at school.”

“And your interests didn’t look odd to the people at school?”

“No, I think everyone else was also into something ‘odd.'”

*

“But why this way? After all, you could save people by being a surgeon.”

“Because it’s simple, while being a surgeon is really complicated. What we do is really simple. You simply show up somewhere and write down everything as it happened. Anyone could do it.”

***

I remember thinking while I was at school that it was fortunate I was finishing school during a period of authoritarianism. Under democracy and totalitarianism, I would have found it too messy to advocate human rights. I wouldn’t have even given it a thought, for different reasons: it’s too messy in a democracy, while it’s too dangerous under totalitarianism. So, if I had finished school in 2018, I would have hardly taken up human rights advocacy.

***

I see the circumstances in both Russia and Petersburg completely differently from the way I saw them ten years ago. Roughly speaking, ten years ago, the prisons were a topsy-turvy world, a “wonderland,” while the outside world was almost normal. In these circumstances, it made sense to rupture the impervious world of prisons, because doing so would in itself improve conditions in prisons. Rupturing this impervious world was simple. It was enough to hang around, both inside and outside, and flap your gums. In the outside world, you would jabber about  what was happening on the inside, and vice versa.

I no longer see things this way. With its aggressive propaganda, wars, and insane laws, the outside world is about the same as the topsy-turvy world, as “wonderland.” Therefore, my goals and methods have changed a bit.

Nowadays, perhaps, the role of the outside world is played by hypothetical readers of our reports “from the normal world,” meaning decent people on the internet and on the street, future readers, the UN Committee against Torture. Due to the need to navigate temporal and geographical borders, everything has become a little stricter. It has become vital to accurately record what is happening.

Yana Teplitskaya is a member of the Petersburg Public Commission for Monitoring Conditions in Places of Incarceration (“Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission” or “PMC”). Ms. Teplitskaya and her fellow PMC member Yekaterina Kosarevskaya were instrumental in uncovering and publicizing the torture by the FSB of the suspects the security agency abducted as part of its alleged investigation of the so-called Network Case aka the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. My thanks to Ms. Teplitskaya for her permission to publish her remarks in translation on this website. 

How to Be a Useful Idiot

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1.  Jump on the “Putin is genuinely popular” bandwagon.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.”

Putin is not genuinely popular. As in other pseudo-populist dictatorships and autocracies, the alleged popularity of Russia’s president for life is the product of a thoroughgoing war against all dissenters, dissidents, and free thinkers, and an ever-evolving personality cult, produced by carpet bombing the populace with TV, radio, social media, and print propaganda twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

The mental carpet bombing is periodically punctuated by two rituals, designed to confer “popular legitimacy” on the rampantly undemocratic regime: massively rigged, unfair “elections,” and plainly hokey and methodologically unreliable “public opinion polls.”

Neither is there any empirical evidence that “young educated Russians” are more critical of Putin than cranky old ladies in Petrozavodsk and Perm. My educated guess would be that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Finally, it is sheer insanity to argue that Putin’s departure is not an “inherently desirable outcome.” Every day Putin is in power is a decisive step backwards in the country’s political and social progress.

Not even the most milquetoast progressive reforms have been possible while Putin and his clique have been in power (i.e., the last eighteen years), and there is every sign that, during his next term, things will go from very bad to incomparably worse.

By the way, why is the writer so certain “Putin will eventually leave power”? If he means Putin is a mere mortal, like the rest of us, and will die sooner or later, this is a factually correct but politically vacuous claim. If the writer means Putin is planning to leave office in the foreseeable future, he must have psychic gifts that most of us do not have. There is no evidence whatsoever Putin is planning to go anywhere in the next twenty years.

But it is easy to engage in free verse exercises like this one when you live and work in Brooklyn. You just make up the facts as you go along, because you will never have to face the consequences of your irresponsible, shambolic analysis.

2. Blame the US government for everything that has gone sour or wrong in Russia, the world’s largest country, a land blessed with natural resources and human resources beyond measure, and thus certainly capable of making its own fortunes and forging its own destiny, which nothing whatsoever prevents from being democratic and progressive except the current regime and its mostly pliable satraps and timeservers. “Genuine popular support” for Putin would vanish in a second if his regime were ever challenged by a strong, broad-based, grassroots democratic movement determined to remove him from office and steer the country towards a different path.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.

“The United States should not ignore human-rights abuses in Russia. But principled criticism is only undermined by the perception that civil-society groups in Russia serve as fronts for US intelligence, and Russia has become increasingly hostile to such groups. The next administration should make clear that the United States is not trying to bring Putin down, and that its support for human rights is genuine. It should be wary of directly supporting opposition figures, who are easily tarred as American puppets. And it should lead by example and hold its allies accountable for their human-rights abuses and elite corruption as well.

“Ultimately, the best way the United States can help civil society in Russia is by normalizing relations enough that private civil-society groups from the United States and other countries can more effectively work in tandem with Russian counterparts. It is hard to argue that the US-Russia tensions following the failure of Obama’s reset have done Russian civil society any favors.”

What real evidence is there that civil society groups in Russia serve as “fronts for US intelligence”?

None.

Who has actually been working day and night to generate this “perception”?

The Putin regime and its media propaganda outlets.

Why has “Russia” become “increasingly hostile to such groups”?

Because the Kremlin perceives them as direct threats to its authoritarian rule. It has thus declared them “enemies,” “national traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “undesirables,” and gone to war against them. This blog has published numerous articles detailing this “cold civil war” between Moscow and Russian civil society.

What evidence is there that any US administration has “[tried] to bring Putin down”?

There is no such evidence.

What Russian opposition figures have US administrations “directly supported”?

None.

Aren’t civil society groups “private” by definition?

Yes.

Was Obama’s so-called reset the only or even the primary reason that tensions between the US and Russia increased?

No. Even before Putin went ballistic, invading Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, shooting down passenger planes (e.g., Flight MH17) and gunning down opposition leaders right outside the Kremlin (i.e., Boris Nemtsov), his minions were harassing the then-US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, the co-author of the miserable “reset,” whose purpose was to decrease tensions with Russia, not stoke them. There was no chance of this happening, however, when the Kremlin had long ago made rabid anti-Americanism the centerpiece of its public foreign policy.

Why do I call it “public” foreign policy? Because nearly everyone in the Russian ruling elite has made numerous junkets and trips to the US and other western countries over the years and has lots of personal and business connections to their boon enemies. They have extensive real estate holdings in the west. They educate their children in the west. They park their ill-gotten lucre in the west. In some cases, their families live in the west permanently, while they shuttle between the west and Moscow like some less fortunately people commute between Gary, Indiana, and Chicago.

The Russian elite’s anti-Americanism and anti-westernism, therefore, is a put-on, a hypocritical pose mostly meant for public consumption.

Has the Putin regime done Russian civil society “any favors”?

No, it has done its utmost best to destroy independent Russian civil society and coopt the remnants it has not killed off. If you want some of the particulars, read what I’ve been posting on this blog for the last six years and, before that, on Chtodelat News, for five years.

Why did the guy who wrote the passage quoted above write what he did?

It is hard to say. The article is a very clever whitewash job for the Putin regime, all of whose high crimes and misdemeanors against the Russian Constitution and the Russian people are passed off as understandable reactions to the alleged predations of the US government against the Putin regime.

Where was this article published?

In The Nation, of course. Who else would print such crypto-Putininst tripe with a straight face?

Why all the needless hyphens, e.g. “civil-society groups,” “human-rights abuse”?

Sheer snobbery, meant to intimate to the magazine’s hapless readers they are dealing with real smart cookies, not tiresome neo-Stalinist windbags.

3. Publish wholly misleading articles about Russia, like the one quoted above. If you cannot manage that (because your readership would notice), publish wholly misleading headlines. They are even more effective than longwinded articles in The Nation, a pro-Putin magazine no one in their right mind has read in the last ten years or so.

People scan headlines, however. It is much easier than reading the fine print.

“US Drastically Reduces Visa Services in Russia after St. Petersburg Consulate’s Closure”

This is exactly the headline Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would want to appear in the Moscow Times, because it places the onus for his government action’s and his own actions on the US government.

How could visa services not be drastically reduced if the Russian Foreign Ministry closed the US consulate in Petersburg and gutted the staff at the US embassy in Moscow once again?

But let us by all means imply, because this IS the message the Putinist tyranny wants its own people to hear, that the US did everything on its own as a way of punishing ordinary Russians. Sadly, a fair number of Russians will believe this.

4. Join a so-called leftist group in the west. Most of them behave as if the Comintern still existed and they were taking their orders from the Kremlin.

Most western so-called leftists these days are boring, uneducated morons. The most boring thing about them is their unshakeable reverence for the Soviet Union, a country about which they donot have the slightest clue, and for its woebegone “successor,” the Russian Federation, which has literally nothing in common with the long-dead Soviet Union.

So, they are just as defensive of Putin’s shambolic hypercapitalist despotism as they are of the country that killed off socialism once and for all by going on a murderous rampage in the 1930s.

The really hilarious thing is that most of them manage to maintain these cultish attitudes without ever having set foot in either country and without speaking a word of Russian. Star Wars fans have a more down-to-earth and coherent ideology than the post-Stalinists who pop up to crush you with their Anand Sheela-like rhetorical flourishes (i.e., truckloads of vehement slander and furious personal insults) if you so much as mention as their imaginary Motherland in a slightly untoward light.

I want to live long enough to see the influence of these dead-enders on progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics die off altogether. That would make me really happy, if not genuinely popular, like Vladimir Putin. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Lev Schlosberg: The Veil of Public Opinion

 

Lev Schlosberg is a member of the Pskov Regional Assembly and the Yabloko Democratic Party’s national political committee. Photo courtesy of Pskovskaya Guberniya Online

The Veil of Public Opinion: Russian Opinion Polling Has Become Part and Parcel of State Propaganda 
Lev Schlosberg
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
1 March 2018

Public opinion polls are constant companions of politics and national election campaigns. In democratic countries, polls are reflections of the public discourse surrounding politicians, ideas, political platforms, and conflicts. They echo public opinion in all its fullness and thus facilitate the public discourse itself regardless of who is involved in it: the authorities, the opposition or society at large. In twenty-first century Russia, political pollsters have a different job. They are tasked with persuading society the regime is terrific and everything (or nearly everything) is going great. During elections, they are supposed to generate the illusion of nationwide support for the authorities.

Polling is a tool of political manipulation in the hands of bureaucrats. Polling data is meant not merely to testify to broad support for the authorities but also to persuade dissidents they are few and far between, to discourage them and sap them of their will.

There is a whole set of techniques behind manipulating public opinion. The findings of public opinion polls, allegedly obtained scientifically, by means of formal research methods, are supposed to convince people of their objectivity and impartiality.

Honest political polling and sociological research is something that goes on in free, democratic societies. When answering questions on a questionnaire or taking part in a group or individual focused interview, a person should be sure she can speak openly and safely, even when she criticizes the authorities.

Fear is the enemy of honest polling. In authoritarian and, especially, totalitarian societies, people are afraid of making critical statements with their names attached to them, whether that entails filling out a standardized questionnaire or answering a question openly and at length. The classic set-up is when the interviewer knocks on someone’s door or comes up to someone on the street and asks, “How would you rate Vladimir Putin’s performance? Do you support him completely, partially or not at all? To ensure the quality of our poll you may get a follow-up telephone call. Please give me your name and telephone number.”

How do you think approximtely 86% of respondents would behave? Well, that is, in fact, how they behave: by giving the “right” answer.” There are many examples of this.

Now put yourself in the shoes of rank-and-file Russians, who are regaled round the clock with tales of Putin’s 86% popularity rating by all manner of mass media: TV, radio, newspaper, the internet.  People who do not agree with the authorities but are not experienced in the nitty-gritty of politics will imagine they belong to an obvious, hopeless political minority. They are social outcasts, virtually bereft of kindred spirits.

This is the impression the people behind such political pressure polling want to achieve. A picture of absolute political domination stifles a person’s will and reduces his willingness to voice his stance and take action. This extends to getting involved in politics and voting in elections.

When a person feels insignificantly small, she is made tired and exhausted by the very feeling of her smallness and insignificance. Thoughts of emigrating often occur to people who feel they are in the minority, trapped in a political ghetto.

Political pressure polling is a new means of combating dissent, of attacking the opposition.

VTsIOM recently reported that, according to the findings of an extensive telephone poll (one of the least reliable polling methods), 81% of voters plan to vote in the March 18 Russian presidential election.

Enthusiastic nationwide support is the dream of all dictators. As people who suffer from hypertrophied inferiority complexes, dictators compensate by demanding the entire nation love, adore, and admire them. This popular love must be constantly corroborated by public opinion polls and elections.

Under authoritarian regimes, all authentic democratic institutions are reduced to imitations and desecrations, and public opinion polls are very revealing instances of this.  The mirror of society is turned into a fake painted on a blank wall.

Political pressure polling performs another vital function by setting the bar for electoral fraud.  If the polls anticipate a voter turnout of 81%, officials at all levels will work to ensure an 81% turnout. If the polls say 70% of Russians support the so-called national leader, officials will encourage election commissions at all levels to ensure he takes home 70% of the popular vote.

A vicious circle is produced. One lies begets another, and the lies generate fear and violence. To top it all off, lies generate aggression. Public opinion research serves as a means of zombifying and corrupting public opinion.

Instead of a portrait of society, we see a caricature of society.

At the same time, the authorities lose society’s feedback. They do not know or understand what people think and want, sending themselves and the entire country into a dead end. In the absence of honest polling, the authorities and society are blinded. God knows where the road could lead if no one can see the road itself and no one understands where the country is headed.

Political pressure polling is a veil that conceals the truth of events from the authorities and from society. This is quite dangerous and can produce tremendous shocks.

Until the last minute, the dictator has no clue what people think about him. Then the moment of disaster dawns. On the eve of his overthow and execution, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s official popularity rating was 95%. It did not protect him, but rather hastened his terrible demise.

Currently, Russian society lacks a reliable map of public opinion, because fear has paralyzed many people, and because when the authorities pimp an honest profession, far from all of the people who practice it remain faithful to its standards. Doing so is difficult and takes great courage.

Enveloped in such darkness, we need to understand a few things.

First, it is impossible to stop the course of history. An unfree society will yield to a free society. Our responsibility is to go in the right direction.

Second, the less the authorities know the truth, the sooner the regime will come to an end. It takes time and patience.

Third, in order to know and understand the truth, it is enough to ask yourself, “What do I think? What do I believe? What are my convictions?” Under no circumstances should you give up on yourself.

The job of free people in today’s Russia is not to lose face.

Ultimately, it will change the face of the entire country.

Thanks to Comrade Preobrazhenskaya for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Locos In Loco Parentis (Perfecting the Russian Police State)

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Making as many ordinary people as possible de facto accomplices or targets of thoroughgoing injustice, an endless series of crimes great and small, daily repression, and ubiqitous surveillance smacks more of totalitarianism than it does of the run-of-the-mill authoritarianism that, if you believe the most progressive political scientists, currently rules the roost in Russia. TRR

Culture to Be Equated with Cigarettes and Alcohol
Fontanka.ru
October 17, 2017

The Culture Ministry has drafted a bill which, if adopted into law, will vest ticket sellers and ticket takers at theatrical and entertainment events with the authority to check people’s passports. In addition, the Culture Ministry wants to legally forbid persons under the age of eighteen from attending events with an 18+ rating. Currently, the rating is advisory in nature, and parents make the final decision.

The media were informed on October 17 that a document containing such provisions had been drafted by the Culture Ministry. They were referred to Natalya Romashova, head of the ministry’s legal and regulatory department. According to Romashova, the draft amendments to the law “On the Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” will shortly be submitted to the State Duma.

“The organizer of an entertainment event containing information prohibited for children is obliged to take measures eliminating the possibility that persons under 18 years of age attend the event,” the draft bill reads. “Failure by the organizer of the entertainment event to take the measures indicated shall entail liability as established by Russian federal legislation.”

At the same time, the draft law bill specifies that the documents checks will also affect foreign nationals and stateless persons. The list of admissible documents should be established by an executive body authorized by the government.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up

Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader