Russia’s civil society is key

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

The future of democracy in Russia will depend on the correct relationship between “people” and “power” — the two major elements constituting any society.

In a normal democratic society, political parties serve as focal points of public opinion, crystallizing different approaches and policies in their programs and actions.

In Russia, which is devoid of the necessary set of political parties — as a result of “thimblerigging” judicial principles and practices — any public discussion concerning vital social and political issues becomes hopelessly lopsided.

Critics of President-re-elect Vladimir Putin cite, among major “achievements” of the last dozen years, his crackdown on the mass media, which robbed the opposition of any legal opportunity to make itself heard (except over the Internet).

The social base of Putin’s hardcore regime is extremely narrow. It represents only a fraction of kleptocracy (his pals among oligarchs and the highest appointees in the state apparatus) in a tight alliance with siloviki (the upper echelon of multiple services guarding security and special interests of the regime).

All in all, the relationship between “people” and “power” in Russia today is considerably different from what it was, say, in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Then, Stalin and his totalitarian machinery split the “Soviet people” into two opposite camps and arranged a genuine civil war based on the irreconcilable discord of interests between them, focusing on collectivization-industrialization issues.

At that time, prodotryady — “food-detachments” that looked for hidden grain, also confiscated cattle and sent kulaks (prosperous peasants) to jail and Siberia — served as the militant vanguard of the mushrooming industrial class.

This urban, mostly atheist, class was urgently cultivated at the price of the mass-destruction of the peasantry — the traditional foundation of Russian society — together with its whole way of life, including its religious and cultural values. In all these tragic proceedings, state terror played a paramount role.

Thank God, the situation today is quite different. There is no cutthroat confrontation within society — though the future president does not stop calling his political opponents “enemies of Russia” who are allegedly plotting to destroy it. He also repeatedly refers to “influences from abroad” and denounces the “fifth column.”

In fact, since the stormy political winter, the narrow ruling group interested in keeping the ugly political and social status quo intact suddenly finds itself facing the necessity to deal with the, as yet, not very active but unmistakably dissatisfied “masses” and their numerous noisy “leaders,” who — unfortunately — remain divided, quarreling among themselves.

It is high time to activate the constitutional reform movement.

The newly invented practice of large-scale “counter-meetings” — ingeniously arranged by “Putinists” and financed from God knows what purse — has undermined the whole idea of mass demonstrations as a means for citizens to press their will on government and the quasi-legitimate new Duma. What is necessary now is a widespread social infrastructure at the grass-roots level and new permanent nongovernmental institutions (NGOs) capable of formulating the people’s demands and delivering them “upstairs” — to the organs of power. It is not quite clear yet what shape such central public institutions will take.

In the process of designing and practically establishing grass-roots organizations in Russia, the model of the czarist zemstvo can be instrumental — such as regular local assemblies (uezdnoye sobraniye) and their permanent executive organs (uezdnaya zemskaya uprava) representing all the main strata of the population (nobility, landowners, traders and industrial entrepreneurs as well as peasants’ communities and clergy).

From 1864 and until its dissolution after the October 1917 upheaval, zemstvo provided a positive experience in more than half of the guberniya (highest administrative-territorial units of the Russian Empire). It was a workable grass-roots system capable of communicating public opinion and public needs to the center and resolving many economic and social problems on the municipal level. These assemblies also served as centers around which the intelligentsia in the provinces could gather and become a serious opposition force.

Zemstvo strongly resembled modern NGOs that have become important elements of social and political landscapes in many countries.

Civil society, preferably one that’s nationally specific in nature, needs to rapidly take shape in Russia. During the course of constitutional reform, “power” should radically change its whole image and machinery — from the rigid quasi-authoritarian presidential model into a more flexible and democratic parliamentarian one.

The institution of the hereditary monarchy perhaps should be included. Such a state mechanism functions quite well in many democratic and rich countries of the modern world.

Administrative-territorial division resembling that of the Russian Empire may be introduced — to prevent eventual ethnic and religious strife and to undermine the objective base of separatist aspirations.

In 2012, the Russian people are celebrating the 200-year anniversary of the nation’s glorious victory over Napoleon.

Next year, another important landmark — 400 years since our country overcame the Time of Trouble and invited the first Romanov to the throne — offers a good pretext to recall our rich and tragic history and try to draw some lessons.

The first quarter of the 21st century looks like the right time for Russia to begin dealing with its many acute problems and doing away with the historical mistakes and injustices that have accumulated over the last hundred years.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka from 1994 to 2007.