by Nathan Hamm on 9/14/2004 · 2 comments

I am glad to see other people talking about Putin’s proposed reforms amidst all the typeface and kerning and whatnot. Check out jb’s post as well. It’s quite good. This, well, you would probably guess that I think Ted’s concern is over the top.

At some point today though, I realized that one of the biggest issues in the debate over Russian reforms is an argument over democracy itself.

The Gandelman post linked below appears to come from the “it’s voting” school of thought on what makes a democracy. I know that’s oversimplifying quite a bit, but the simplification helps clarify to dual elements of what we consider to make our country a democracy, voting and liberalism.

I vote about once every year. The meat of what makes the US a democracy by my definition has a lot more to do with the other 364 days of the year. What all these characteristics are is a potentially enormous theoretical debate, but I think you would easily come up with your own list of characteristics that I might say make a country democratic.

In fact, scratch that. “Democratic” is kind of a dumb and imprecise word. “Liberal democracy” is better is more of a precise definition of what we consider ourselves, Europe, etc. to be. Almost every country on earth is an electoral democracy, but liberal democracies are rarer flowers.

In this case and others, there is a fudging of definitions where the focus is on the form and not so much the substance. The concern here is that Putin wants to rewrite the laws, but my counterpoint is that the realities will not change much and that giving up some democracy has the potential to strengthen liberalism.

To illustrate, the complaints about Putin’s proposed reforms would be downright absurd if made about, say, Uzbekistan. Think about it. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Islam Karimov abolished elections in Uzbekistan tomorrow. Would it strike you as odd if a pundit wrote a breathless editorial decrying the drying up of Uzbekistan’s democratic gains? If you’re a regular reader, I’m sure your reaction would be “Ya? And what’s that change?” The most significant change would be on paper, but the song would remain the same.

It’s perfectly possible for a country to be liberal without being democratic. In fact, if I could only pick one, I’d choose liberalism.

I’m sure that you can guess what comes next. That’s right, I’m going to say that Russia is still more or less liberal and committed to manageably expanding some of its liberalism. The Kremlin takes the economy very seriously. TV journalism may have suffered, but there are apparently certain people not afraid to attack the Kremlin in Russia. Reports of the death of Russian democracy are greatly exaggerated. In fact, it has yet to even be born.

The key here is that Putin’s authoritarianism need not necessarily be seen as a drive for personal power. The lack of control under Yeltsin drastically damaged Russia, and Putin has taken steps to reverse the downward spiral. I think that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the proposed changes are not as sinister as people might think. I am convinced that, as unpalatable as it may seem, Russia needs a strong government that protects liberalism from the private forces that denied it from flourishing under Yeltsin. Without liberalism, we’ll never truly see democracy.

Disagree with me if you like, but debates over democracy need to recognize that liberalism is the more important and often forgotten part of the discussion.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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praktike September 15, 2004 at 9:52 am

Okay, I think the regional reforms are probably defensible (although not necessarily the way in which it is being done) on the grounds that Moscow isn’t able to implement its agenda otherwise, but you have to take the Yukos situation into account when talking about liberalization. The prospect of arbitrary state crackdowns scares the bejeesus out of investors, and they will be less likely to put money in what they see as a risky situation.

Nathan September 15, 2004 at 10:32 am

Actions like the one against Yukos certainly do make Russia look risky to investors.

I think that the tension the Russian government faces is similar to that mentioned in the ruble article I linked in this post. The difficulty is striking the balance between making the economy work for business or the people.

I don’t doubt for a second that Yukos was breaking laws and that going after them was fairly arbitrary (because, after all, almost everyone is breaking laws). There is a pretty big debate to be had about these enormously wealthy companies that sprung up in the years after communism. They didn’t form on the up and up, so should they be busted down? Should the state declare at a certain point that the slate is clean and allow these companies to keep operating in their present form if they stay above the law?

I lean towards the latter, but I can understand why Russians resent these companies and seem to be happy with the former strategy. Just to throw it in there, one of the advantages of Uzbekistan’s very slow and controlled reforms is that there were far fewer opportunities for such astronomical wealth accumulation (and they now have positive economic growth, so they might have been on to something).

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