Russian democracy: a reply to Mischa Gabowitsch

Nicolai N Petro
24 February 2006

Mischa Gabowitsch's openDemocracy article "Inside the looking-glass", a response to my own article "Russia through the looking-glass, is a welcome opportunity further to dispel frequently-aired but misleading views about Russia.

As in my initial article and Gabowitsch's reply, I will address my remarks to four areas: the media, the legal system, Chechnya, and institutional reform.

The media

If most Russians watch state-owned television, it does not follow that they have no other choice. In my hometown of Novgorod the Great, a provincial capital of just over 200,000 inhabitants, I can receive six channels with rabbit-ear antennas. Since 2004, moreover, cable has come to our section of town. The basic level of service includes nineteen channels, including "Euronews," two Ukrainian channels, one Belarussian channel, and one Romanian movie channel. High-speed cable internet service is available for a modest extra fee.

I have described elsewhere the variety of political programming available on Russian television. But Russians have many other sources of information than the national television channels.

The articles in openDemocracy's discussion about democracy in Russia are:

Nicolai N Petro, "Russia through the looking-glass"
(13 February 2006)

Mischa Gabowitsch, "Inside the looking-glass"
(17 February 2006)

First, each region has several local television and radio stations. Second, there is easy access to print media (subscribing to the blatantly anti-Putin Nezavisimaya Gazeta is no more difficult than signing up for a subscription at your local post office). Third, there is widespread internet usage in Russia.

Gabowitsh's suggestion that Russians lack access to technology because "only half of Russian households have a telephone line" overlooks the far more interesting fact that two-thirds of Russians now have mobile phones.

Moreover, Russian law expressly forbids press censorship – which is why, when there is any suggestion of it, the aggrieved party can be relied on to take the matter to court. I do not dispute that self-censorship exists in Russia, just as it does throughout the world (witness the reluctance of any major American or British newspaper to reprint the Danish cartoons). It is worth underscoring, however, that no documented evidence of political censorship involving the Vladimir Putin administration has ever arisen. Until it does, I think it best to avoid baseless accusations.

In the final analysis, the media part of Gabowitsch's argument rests on his belief that the newspapers and programmes that he enjoys should get a wider circulation. Perhaps, but this is because they lack commercial viability and has nothing to do with censorship.

The legal system

Here too, Gabowitsch's argument – including the statement that "(the) problem with the Russian legal system is ... that laws are bent or ignored whenever the interests of the political elite are involved" – boils down to the fact that he does not like the constitutional court's rulings. He presents no evidence that the court was unduly influenced in its decisions, or that its legal reasoning was flawed. I believe the opposite is true.

In its 25 December 2005 ruling, the constitutional court rejected the argument that the president's proposals violated the principles of federalism and separation of powers, pointing out that the final decision on appointment still rested with local legislatures. The court, however, set aside for future consideration the issue of whether the president has the constitutional authority to fire governors and disband regional parliaments. I consider this "split decision" one reason that the presidential administration strengthened its procedures for consultation with regional parliaments, and the Duma later passed legislation giving the majority parties in regional elections the right to submit their candidates for governor directly to local legislatures.

It is true that with this ruling the court revised its 18 January 1996 decision regarding the appointment of the governor of Altai region by the local parliament, but its reasoning for doing so was clear: the statute governing the formation of the council of the federation made this a violation of the principle of separation of powers. That statute has since changed.

While more can and should be done to encourage judicial independence, only a foolhardy judiciary passes judgments without regard to the government's willingness to implement them, as Gabowitsch seems to suggest it should. Fiat iustitia et pereat mundus ("let there be justice, even should the world perish") is nothing but a recipe for civil war.

Chechnya, NGOs, and the civic chamber

The argument that progress in Chechnya is attributable to western rights groups is not tenable because these groups had withdrawn from Russia by 1999, in response to the hostage and kidnapping industry there. They returned along with the Russian military, which has made it possible for humanitarian organisations to operate there again. The overwhelming majority of the money and support, both for reconstruction and the resettlement of refugees, has come from the Russian government, though sadly this has often been accompanied by corruption scandals involving local military and government officials.

More independent reporting on Chechnya and the Caucasus would indeed be welcome. Now that the situation has begun to stabilise, I hope that the courageous local correspondents who report daily from the region for Russian news agencies are soon joined by their western colleagues.

My assessment of the original NGO amendments in the regulatory bill signed into law in January 2006 is very different from Gabowitsch's. In it I draw particular attention to the first parliamentary reading of the bill, since it clearly illustrates the liberal intent of the legislation.

It is also an unfortunate fact that the awful "cultural heritage or national interest" clause was not present in the first draft of the legislation. I assume that its appearance in the final version of the bill was a result of a quid pro quo with conservatives in parliament, who insisted on its inclusion after the removal of registration requirements that had been the focus of western media attention. In this instance the uncompromising rhetoric of western human-rights organisations so raised the hackles of Russian elected officials that it resulted in a set back for civil society.

The civic chamber created by President Putin in autumn 2005 is too new to allow a firm assessment. But as a participant in the social chamber for the Novgorod region, I believe I can explain the logic behind having such a body.

At their best they provide a venue for corporate civic representation and act as public sounding-boards for new ideas. One advantage that such chambers have over legislatures is that they give an undiluted voice to civic groups (veterans' groups, housing associations, religious communities), rather than forcing them into artificial party structures. The result is a permanent civic forum – a school for responsible civic activism and a training-ground for future politicians. In principle, the social chamber will set the agenda; the Duma act on it.

While we disagree on many things, Mischa Gabowitsch and I do not disagree that Russians want a state that better serves their interests. Determining what this interest is, is what political debate should be about. I am also glad to see that Gabowitsch acknowledges that those who work in the government believe they are working for the good of the country. Acknowledging the good faith of one's opponents is essential for political democracy.

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