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

 

Hafsa Sabr: Geneva or Bust

Refugees in Europe demonstrate in support of France and against ISIS terrorism. Photo by Hafsa Sabr. Courtesy of Maria José Ferreiro
Refugees in Europe demonstrate in support of France and against ISIS terrorism. Photo by Hafsa Sabr. Courtesy of Maria José Ferreiro

Geneva or Bust
antidotezine.com
January 28, 2016

AntiNote: Hafsa Sabr is a vital presence at the enormous, improvised, and barely survivable camp in Dunkirk, northern France. She has been instrumental both in coordinating with independent aid and solidarity organizations operating in the camp as well as in insurgent media work, filming conditions in camp and reporting day-to-day on activities and incidents there.

The following could be a model script for the dystopian road-trip movie of the future. Its hopeful, tragic anger not only fits the Antidote vibe, but it also reveals much about revered institutions and the real effects their often arbitrary decisions have on people. We have edited it lightly for clarity, and thank Hafsa for her kind permission to print it.

Geneva or Bust
23 January 2016
by Hafsa Sabr

We need to talk. Everyone asked us what we did in Switzerland. This is our answer.

One week ago we heard that the UN would make an urgent conference in Switzerland: A journalist from New York came with her team to film the miserable conditions in the camp. She also made interviews. Her video was supposed to be shown during the UN meeting!

At this moment we all thought that the UN could change the world, and would make huge decisions about the camps of Dunkirk and Calais.

On Tuesday morning we (Sarhang, Besh and I) prepared ourselves to go to Paris. We were in a hurry and positively excited, thinking about what we were going to say.

We had an invitation from the UN, and that’s right: Sarhang and Besh are refugees and they don’t have any passport or ID card, but according to international laws on humans rights after 1948, everyone is free to travel anywhere.

Anyway, in Paris we met the journalist, Dina. She organized the way to participate in the conference (the open forum “Immigration to Integration”) and talk, mainly about the jungle in Dunkirk and the more than three thousand refugees there—men, women and children, and babies of course.

In the train station the French police surrounded Sarhang and Besh. They said they could be potential terrorists! I told the police guy that the refugees ran away from ISIS; how can they be terrorists? After ten minutes of negotiations they let us go to take the train.

While we were in the train, the journalist told us that the UN warned the police! Because Sarhang and Besh don’t have any papers! And if they enter Swiss territory, some people who invited us will be fired from the their jobs. This is the UN.

We wanted to go back home! The UN canceled our invitation!

When we crossed the border from France into Switzerland, at the first train station the border police stopped us. They were looking for us! They put us in jail for almost six hours! We were interrogated! And one guy from the police told me, “I’m sorry, what I’m going to say might hurt you, but we received the order to focus on Arab people. We don’t distinguish between Kurdish or Amazigh.”

After a few hours they asked for a lot of money from us. They wanted 170 euros. Sarhang and Besh could not afford it, so they let them off it. We even showed them the paper of invitation, but they didn’t care…After that, they told us we were all free. On our way to the last train to go back to France, a woman and a man from the police team stopped me once again and told me to stay here, and to pay 480 euros in taxes!

Sarhang and Besh told the lady they would not go back to France without me. I warned the two police that I would not give one euro to them because this money in my wallet was not mine! This money was for the refugees! And in my religion it’s called amana, which means a trust! I was upset and crying. The police man was kind. He told us, “I know that, but it’s my boss’s orders…otherwise I’m so sorry for what’s happened to you.” We were disappointed about everything, and we went back to the police office.

I will stop here and go back to history, to the 1880s when the people of southern Europe ran away because of inequality and the dictatorial law of rich people. Many people sacrificed to get to a life with rights and safety. In 1908 the same thing happened in Europe with African people.

And now in 2016, in a period of modernity and technology: in power and politics, no one cares about people who fled because of war, even Kurdish people who are fighting ISIS.

Dina was in contact with UN staff to find a way to get us free of the Swiss border police. But after another five hours they fingerprinted Sarhang and Besh. Then the police started shouting among each other. And then they let us go. We were FREE. El hamdullilah.

We thanked the one kind policeman, he had tears in his eyes.

We returned by bus to Mulhouse, and we slept there; the day after, we took a train to Paris and from Paris to Dunkirk. We were “home.”

We had spent a lot of the money that the refugees raised to help Sarhang and Besh join the conference. But it’s the UN: everyone in the jungle was waiting for great news from Sarhang and Besh. Unfortunately, they didn’t have anything to say.

They had a last hope with the UN.
Just think about it: the UN made a conference about refugees in Dunkirk and Calais, but they didn’t let one refugee come to represent them.
Shame on them.

They called the cops! The UN.
I give up on humanity.

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Sarhang, Besh and Hafsa