Democracy in Russia: No End of History in Sight

Today, it is clear that political battles no longer arouse genuine public interest, while political party leaders no longer serve as role models to millions of people. Individual "privacy" - once recognized as a value in its own right - allowed citizens to choose freely between political involvement and non-involvement. Today, many use their freedom to funnel much of their vital energy into professional activity, education, family, friends, creativity, entertainment, etc.

Thus, attitudes to democratic values and institutions have also changed considerably. Ever since the perestroika era, Russians have preserved their commitment to such values as freedom of expression and freedom of the press (83 percent of respondents in a 2006 VTsIOM poll), freedom of choice (78 percent), freedom of enterprise (68 percent), freedom of movement (63 percent), etc. They have also preserved a positive attitude toward democracy as an optimal model of social organization - despite the fact that it evolved amid the disintegration of the Soviet Union, terrorist attacks, economic crisis, etc. This debunks the myth about Russia's rejection of democratic values and institutions, as well as the purported "value gap" between Russia and the West.

Nevertheless, the political and social experience of the Russian people has taught them to see the difference between democracy as a model, and in the present Russian reality. This has resulted in the "pragmatic selection" of democratic values, depending on a person's social status.

This refers primarily to an array of socio-economic rights and freedoms; the equality of all citizens before the law; the independence of the judiciary; political freedoms, and freedom of expression. As a result, public opinion came to view democracy as an organization of social life that is designed to ensure, most importantly, law and order, followed by the socio-economic rights of the people.

The general view today is that democracy ensures neither goal. Only 15 percent of respondents say that Russia has already become a democratic country; 37 percent believe that the "transition period" is not over yet; 33 percent are convinced that Russia is as far away from democracy as it was during the Soviet era.

In assessing the outcome of democratic development in the past few years, the respondents, unsurprisingly, tend to base their judgments on their own experiences, that is, on how they have personally benefited from democracy - if at all. Only 19 percent of respondents say they have gained from democratic reform, 38 percent believe they have neither gained nor lost, with about as many (36 percent) feeling they have lost. It is noteworthy that even among respondents in the high-income brackets, approximately one-half say they have gained from the reforms that started 15 years ago, while the other half are convinced that they have either gained nothing or even lost. In the middle- and low-income brackets, the share of those who think they have gained is 21 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Second-Rate Values

A stable democracy is impossible to maintain without a level of socio-economic development that ensures decent living standards for the majority of a country's population. Not surprisingly, many Russians increasingly regard democratic values as second- or even third-rate priorities - important and desirable, but not paramount, while the "crack-down on democracy" in Russia (tightening state control of the media, reform of the electoral system, pressure on the political opposition, etc.), which caused panic in the West, does not seem to have much of an impact on Russian public opinion. This is usually attributed to a purported rise in an "authoritarian mood" both within the ruling establishment, as well as the public. In reality, Russian society, which succumbed to the temptation of authoritarianism in the late 1990s, is immune to it now, while the euphoria over democracy has largely disappeared, transforming into cold pragmatism. Thus, in the past two years, the proportion of those who think that democracy today is jeopardized, above all, by poverty and the gap between rich and poor, has increased from 30 percent to 45 percent. The share of those who believe that democracy is threatened by the merging of power and capital has grown from 15 percent to 24 percent. Third on the list of threats to democracy is, now as before, citizens' inequality before the law.

The Courchevel Syndrome

Is there a new conflict brewing between the classes - a precursor to the class battles of the 1905-17 type? No, there are neither classes nor class consciousness among representatives of different social strata in modern society. But the problem of poverty and riches, as well as the merging of power and capital, is perceived as a new line of social confrontation - a socio-cultural division between the upper reaches and the rest of society.

The "Courchevel case" sheds some light on this subject. The reference is to a sensational incident in January when French authorities detained Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov for questioning as part of a crackdown on a suspected prostitution ring at an upmarket ski resort, Courchevel, a favored playground of Russia's super-rich. Prokhorov, 41, is ranked No. 89 on Forbes magazine's 2006 list of the world's richest people. Russian tycoons stream to the resort over the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays. Even among Russia's big-spending business elite, Prokhorov has a reputation for organizing lavish parties.

According to AP, the French operation followed an investigation into a suspected high-class prostitution ring that is believed to have operated in the Alps. Investigators suspect that the women involved worked as prostitutes only occasionally, and that they were recruited to come to the Alps from Russia over the holidays. Investigators believe their pay came mainly in the form of expensive presents from luxury boutiques in the ski resort, the sources said. This practice is also used by some prostitutes in the chic beach resorts of the French Riviera.

Russians, especially those of the middle class, are stunned by the lavish lifestyles of the new Russian elite. In any democratic society, consensus on civic morality is key to its normal functioning, while observance of the law and generally accepted moral values is crucial for social (upward) mobility and success.

In Russia, the reverse seems to be true, which some regard as both immoral and unfair. Hence, the growing distrust that is affecting various areas and sphere of life - from financial institutions to state bodies, from public organizations to personal relationships. 'Live-for-today' attitudes, when people lose sight of these values, is one manifestation of this distrust. People are taking less interest in the country's public or political life. One highly disturbing sign is the declining interest in electoral mechanisms. Meanwhile, there is a growing ideological vacuum, which sets the stage for the rapid spread of radical ideas.

This level of political involvement should not be dramatized. With the "abandonment" of formal institutions and practices, this involvement is gradually transforming into elements of collective integration, self-defense and self-organization - for example, in the form of "single-issue" movements (defrauded share buyers, motorists, real estate scams, etc.), which, on the one hand, are spontaneous, and on the other, quite effective.

The ongoing reconstitution, regrouping of "active" and "inert" strata and groups is encouraging. Whereas in the 1990s, interest in politics was generally demonstrated by less affluent sections of society, today we are seeing a reversal of this trend with wealthy Russians becoming involved in political and public affairs. Therefore, the history of democracy in Russia is not over yet, promising us many new exciting developments.

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