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By Grigory Yavlinsky

Liberalism for Everybody

Obshaya Gazeta, June 28, 2001, p. 7

Union of Unions

One of the main results of the past Russian reforms is disillusionment of the people over democratic principles and liberal values. Russia has covered a lot of ground over the past ten years. The totalitarian political system and command-and-distribution economy have been left in the past.

However, the people have not received what they expected from voting for democracy in 1990-91. On gaining power, Russia's nomenclature “democrats” stopped paying attention to the views of the majority, and imposed their own concept of freedom and liberal reforms. Consequently, Russia developed a regime of unstable democracy that is not supported by its citizens.

An unstable system can exist for quite a long time in the form of a defective democracy. However, sooner or later, in Russian conditions, it will eventually be transformed into an imitation cloaking an authoritarian-bureaucratic system.

Today there are enough signs to indicate that Russia is moving in that direction. After the formation of the pro-presidential "coalition of four" (Ed. the four pro-presidential factions in the Duma), parliament has finally been transformed into a puppet of the executive branch. Selective use of law as an instrument in the fight with political opponents has become common practice, as has the disqualification of candidates who are not favoured by the federal centre right before the elections.

Now the constructed vertical axis of power will be supplied with a horizontal axis, and the civil structures will be included into the corporate state system. On June 12, the President held a meeting in the Kremlin with representatives of public organisations, including sportsmen, philatelists, political scientists, women, divers, etc., specially chosen by the Kremlin administration [for the occasion]. The representatives of the “Coming Together” movement (Iduschiye Vmestiye) – that the presidential structures have recently denied supporting - were also present there. During the meeting, it was proposed to create a"Union of Public Unions".

All this represents a direct way of transforming non-government and non-profit organisations into an integral part of the corporate state and replacing civil society by the Soviet version of community.

The "Union of Unions" will claim a monopoly in the third sector (civil society); it will become an imitation of the creative unions of the Soviet times - if you were not a member of the Union of Writers, then you were not a writer, but a sponger like Brodsky; if you are not a member of the “Union of Unions”, you are not related to civil society. Obviously, loyalty will be the criterion for selecting people and granting membership between the “chosen ones”. This has now become the price for privileges, benefits and financial aid.

Moreover, there is also a very threat of replacing classical democratic procedures with various forms of "direct democracy", such as public meetings and "national debate". It is no accident that the idea of replacing representative authorities by annual meetings of the "most respected representatives of the society" has recently been launched for public discussion.

This idea has already been implemented in neighbouring Belarus. Nation-wide public assemblies organised by the authorities have already become traditional. The participating “progressive public” is directly opposed to the “non-constructive” forces, i.e. everybody who disagrees with the president. One of the chapters of Lukashenko’s report at the Second Assembly, which was held in May, is entitled “Formation of a Civil Society”. However, most of it is devoted to different issues entierly: the need to use “direct forms of democracy”, “consolidation of ideology based on the time-tested universal moral and spiritual values of our nation rather than some party’s platform”.

Will we adjust to this way of life?

In my view, it is especially dangerous that the moves to curb democracy in Russia have begun receiving some support, if not justification, even from people whose views are quite democratic.

They think that all these developments may in the end be for the best for Russia. Certain authoritarian elements are perceived as uniquely Russian, even part of its mystery.

Others have concluded that there is nothing to be done in the present developments, and that one consequently has to adjust. Some absolutely non-communist media and journalists analyse the prospects of life under a controlled democracy and the rules governing the functioning of a one and a half party system. At the same time, unlike the ideologues of the controlled democracy, they are not delighted by this prospect at all, but simply don’t perceive any alternative to such developments.

In our opinion, this is a pseudo-intelligent attempt to justify the actions of the authorities with the help of a myth about Russia's uniqueness, its difference from all other countries, some kind of "third way", which if implemented will cost our country a great deal.

We are rapidly returning to an era of doublethink, where people's real views had nothing to do with what their public statements, when komsomol leaders delivered “correct” speeches at daylight, and would at night scold the Soviet authorities. Living in accordance with one's personal opinion in those days implied a willingness to fight, something that not everybody is capable of doing.

One of the most important benefits of democracy concerns the fact that living in accordance with one’s views and conscience does not require daily heroism and victims, this is a norm. Today we are still far from this norm.

Unlike the dissidents of Soviet times, today democratic politicians require not only personal courage, but also an ability to stand up and be counted, despite the number of participants in the opposition.

All these qualities are important now. However, most importantly democratic politicians must today win over the citizens to their side. First and foremost they should turn their face to the people.

The attitude of politicians in power to the people has hardly changed over the past decade. A vivid example here is provided by the examination by the Duma of the package of draft laws on imports of spent nuclear fuel into Russia.

Normally commentators use the following terms to describe these actions: this represents another demonstration that the legislative authority is aligned with the executive authorities. However, the problem runs much deeper. It means that the way of thinking of our politicians and the style of politics have not changed since the Soviet era. The advocates of the draft law proposed that Duma deputies ignore the opinion of 90% of the citizens of the country and simply try to persuade them that the correct decision had been taken. The deputies should explain their decision by referring to “political information” (Ed. allusion to Soviet times when the citizens were presented with political news and the directives of the party at “political information hours” at schools, universities, enterprises, etc.), rather than an open discussion. In fact, deputies of the Unity, the Fatherland and other factions demonstrated that they regard their election to the Duma ! not as a choice [made by the citizens], but as an appointment by the Presidential Administration, governor or mayor. Otherwise, they would certainly have paid some attention to the opinion polls, which stated that only 3.4% of the electorate would re-elect a deputy who supported this law.

The essence of democratic politics concerns the need to consider the opinion and interests of the people, focus on them, and if some position needs to be explained, to engage in open debate. The arguments and explanations should be provided before and not after decision-making. If the people are not convinced, this is a problem of the authorities which should not be shifted to the citizens.

However, before trying to obtain this development from the present authorities, democrats should recollect that it is not the communists, traditionally regarded as our main opponents, who have for the past ten years been trying “to lead the people back to happiness with an iron hand”.

Back to the past

Despite easily-made associations with the recent past, it would be a mistake to link imitation democracy, that has been emerging more and more at present, too closely with a real recoil to the past.

Such a concept would considerably distort the crux of the issue, and would enable supporters of the present regime (especially those on the right) to transfer the flow of criticism to a more or less safe channel: the authoritarian elements are described as dangerous, but only remnants of the past - their restoration is considered absolutely impossible, as the president “positions himself [in the political spectrum] as a "liberal".

Meanwhile, the real threat concerns the formation of a new authoritarian or totalitarian system, which would be quite compatible with a banal market economy (the efficiency of such an economy and its ability to respond to the challenges of the 21st century should be discussed separately). While most criticism is targeted at communists, a nationalist right-wing political spectrum is being formed, which is much more viable and dangerous from the viewpoint of both the "freshness" of its ideas and contacts with the present authorities. Over the past decade, Pinochet's ideas have not lost their popularity with representatives of the Russian elite and seem extremely popular today. Any attempt to neglect the interests of the majority and further separate the state from its social obligations, a prospect that can be seen in reforms of the housing and communal services sector, will inevitably divide society even mo! re. Further preservation of economically inefficient, opaque large-scale property in the hands of its present “voucher” and “mortgage” owners (Ed. an allusion to the way privatisation was conducted in Russia, as the present proprietors obtained their property through unfair auctions and sheer fraud) is supposed to be the price to pay for freedom.

Unfortunately, the democrats termed “pragmatics” are ready to make this deal. We have seen in practice how this position can be realised during the take-over of the NTV television channel. I would like to remind the supporters of this point of view that sometimes democrats gather under the slogan "For your and our freedom", but never "For your and our property". In terms of pragmatism, in 1999, some of the Russian democrats gathered under the flag of restoring the Russian army in Chechnya, as they also thought that this was a temporary measure, to achieve electoral success.

Such "pragmatism" - principles in exchange for percentage of the votes – gave rise to many of the present political problems.

Speaking about the "danger from the right", we should also touch upon the issue of liberalism as an economic policy, as devotion to the Russian authorities is the main argument of its right-wing supporters. For some reason, the economic policies that have been implemented in our country over the past ten years are supposed to be viewed as liberal. Judging by the platform documents adopted at the first congress of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, the ideologists of the right-wing are still faithful to these policies. They advocate as their main goal “protection of the achievements of Russia's fledgling capitalist system" and think that this goal is threatened primarily by "social dependency incompatible with freedom". In their opinion only those on the “exhaustive list” should receive aid – the aged, orphans, handicapped, the victims of wars, natural and technogenic disasters.

Such liberalism has long since ceased to exist in neighbouring Europe. European liberals have adopted a principally new system of views, after realising that only part of society is able to provide for themselves due their positions in a free market. They understood that the existence of privileged groups in society, which achieve progress mostly at the cost of the losses and suffering of others and through mass-scale pauperisation, are totally unrelated to real freedom. They acknowledged that liberalism is impossible without equal starting conditions.

The concept of a social state is now a priority in the programmes of liberal parties. The European liberals see their ideal as a market economy with effective social results and target high rates of social progress, especially in health care, education and science.

In our country, where the share of the people who have adjusted to market conditions is considerably lower than in the Western countries, these ideas are especially relevant. Today, Russian politicians simply must realise that there can be no real political freedoms in a country with such a huge population living below the poverty line, an almost total absence of small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurship and a deteriorating education system.

In our conditions a stable and real democracy can only be achieved through one way - reforms that improve the daily life of the majority, and, consequently, reforms based on modern liberal-democratic ideals.

Obshaya Gazeta, No. 26, June 28, 2001, p. 7

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