Russia In Search of Democracy

It’s been a long time since I last heard Vladimir Putin described as ‘a liberal’, yet that was the label Vsevolod A Marinov put on him during his inaugural lecture in Calvin’s January Series: “Russia In Search of Democracy”.

Marinov set out to make a case for democracy and then to map the state of democracy’s development in Russia. He was an engaging speaker who’s clearly thought in detail about his subject. Unfortunately, his talk left me feeling rather uncomfortable more than once.

Perhaps the most incendiary ommission in the talk was the neglect of the Chechen question. His answer to a question on the state of human rights in Russia was a little hazy: he noted that the Russian constitution guarantees many rights, then pointed out that extra legislation is often needed to enforce those rights, but then said that all human rights are currently available in Russia. Certainly the Chechen population would disagree with that statement; to omit mention of that situation in the context of Russian democracy is at best negligent.

Some discussion of the recent changes Putin has made to the selection of governors was engendered. (Governors were formerly elected but apparently often corrupt. Now the President selects candidates who are subject to provincial government approval, though if the provincial government rejects a candidate three times the President can dissolve their parliament.) Marinov argued that democracy is in effect a feedback mechanism, self-adjusting to find the most efficient manner of operating, and said that Putin’s changes were such an adjustment.

If someone is as committed to democracy as Marinov argues Putin is, would they not put such drastic changes to the people in the form of a referendum? Marinov referred regularly to the problems that top-down imposition of ‘democracy’ can bring about, and this would seem to be just such an imposition. Feedback mechanisms work well when there is little interpretation to be done and the goals are clear, such as in a heating system. But democracy is about the people and people don’t operate along such strict regimens or always share the same interpretations of the same information.

Russia is an extremely complex country and in a representative democracy, some power is delegated to those representatives, but some of the changes Putin has made make me seriously doubt the contention that he is solely thinking of the establishment of democracy. Marinov’s comments were thought-provoking, but despite his claims that as a pollster “I speak for the people”, the bias should not be ignored.

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