Russia and Democracy

As President Putin chips away at Russian democracy, it is worth being reminded why, in the words of Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst system possible, except for every other.

Everyone in theory believes in democracy. Even the communist states called themselves ‘people’s democracies’. But people are less clear why it is such a good thing. It plainly does not guarantee the rule of the wisest or best which Plato wanted – an honest politician, it has been said, is as rare as an honest burglar. Nor is democracy ‘government by the people’ as Abraham Lincoln wanted. Outside very small communites, like the famed village mir of Russian history, the people do not govern: they are lucky if they get to choose their governors.

However, Lincoln was getting to the heart of the matter when he talked of democracy as ‘government for the people’. Democracy is, above all, a system designed to hold rulers accountable for the exercise of their power; to prevent them from treating ordinary people as instruments of their will. This is the crucial argument in its favour. The most powerful sanction it gives the people is to vote their rulers out of office. On 2 November, the American people may well turn out President Bush for making such a mess of Iraq.

The right to choose is meaningless if there is only one brand to choose from. Democracy includes the right to organise opposition parties, and guaranteed facilities for getting their message to potential electors. Freedom of information, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from intimidation and arbitrary arrest, as well as an independent judiciary to uphold these freedoms, are part of the arsenal of democracy. So is the accurate counting of votes and honest reporting of the results. Repression of opposition parties, denial of access to the media, incorporation of the judiciary into the state apparatus, arbitrary seizure of property, manipulation of election results –these are part of the armoury of dictatorship.

But by liberal democracy we mean something else: not just a system which holds rulers to account, but which also seeks to limit the power they are allowed to exercise. This is the well-known principle of the division of powers. At the centre power is split between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. In the economy, it is divided between the state sector and private business. And it is further divided –particularly in federal systems –between the centre and the regions. The different organs and levels of state power and economy, that is, are so arranged, that they check and balance each other. This gives freedom the space to breathe.

This is very roughtly the way the Russian constitution was set up, and broadly maintained, under President Yeltsin. This is the system which is slowly, but surely being strangled by his successor as he seeks to restore the Soviet era’s vertical chain of command, ostensibly to fight the ‘war on terrorism’.

Under the President’s latest proposals, citizens’ right to elect their own governors will be replaced by a system of Presidential nomination, and election of Duma deputies from local constituencies will be abolished. Now the tame Federation Council has proposed to give the President effective power to hire and fire judges of the Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that these changes are modelled on the constitution of Belarus. On 17 October, the people of Belarus will be asked to approve a constitutional change which will allow President Lukashenko to run for a third term. Few doubt that manipulation of the votes will give him his wish. If President Putin were to go down that road, that would be the end of Russia’s fragile experiment in democracy.