If, like me, you sometimes wonder how democracy could take root in Russia, and what it might look like if it did, then you’ll be interested in a recent discussion that took place on state-controlled Channel One television.

The question of what democracy means for Russia, and whether Russia even needs it, elicited some surprising responses from the guests, who included political analysts, academics, a politician, and a religious leader.

Along with the usual formulations of democracy as a system that allows “a human being to affect and change his environment,” or “people to feel that they were in charge of their country, by legitimizing the state through [the] electoral process,” or “a system for transferring authority, which helps reduce social strife and limit corruption,” came the more puzzling responses like “a tool used by the state to abridge evil” and “a tool used by national elites to prevent charismatic leaders from assuming power.” (I’m quoting from a transcript by the BBC’s media monitoring service).

The panelists said democracy was important for implementing reforms – although the transcript doesn’t say of what kind – or that it could hinder them. That it is possible only in societies with a shared set of values, or, conversely, that the act of voting is what creates a nation from a disparate group of people.

Among democracy’s shortcomings, some panelists said, was that complex issues get sidelined in favor of populist slogans thrown at uninformed electorates (forgetting, apparently, that dictators engage in their share of fear-mongering, scapegoating, and empty promises).

The host, Aleksandr Gordon, “suggested that democracy could be more efficient if decision-making by democratic procedure was limited to a pool of well-informed and competent voters constituting a portion of society.”

There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but then no one praises democracy for its efficiency.

Even if recent events were not evidence enough, the extremely theoretical nature of the discussion makes it clear that democracy is still in its amorphous ball-of-clay stage in Russia. Most public figures in an actual democracy, for instance, wouldn’t dare to suggest that voting be limited to those who actually understand the issues.

In the film Putin’s Kiss, the young reformer Ilya Yashin dismissed the specious terms “sovereign democracy” and “managed democracy” coined by the Kremlin’s spin doctors. You either have democracy or you don’t, he said. He’s right, of course, but it’s sobering to realize that some of his country’s best minds can’t even agree on a definition of the word.

Photo by Max Mayorov/flickr.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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