Conspiracy theorists who imagine that the world is run by Freemasons, Zionists, or the Illuminati have it all wrong. The people really pulling the strings are graduates of St Antony’s College, Oxford, many of whom have infiltrated the foreign ministries of countries around the world. Being a member of this global conspiracy, I received this week the college’s annual newsletter, ‘The Antonian’. An article by Dan Healy, the Director of St Antony’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, entitled ‘Irreconcilable Foes? LGBT Russians and their government?’, looks at ‘the roots of the 2013 law banning “propaganda among minors for non-traditional sexual relations”.’ It contains an interesting lesson about Russian democracy.
Healy explains that the roots of the legislation ‘might be found in the early 2000s, when conservative-nationalists and religious lobbyists in the Duma began calling for such a law. … The Russian MPs’ crude early versions of their ban on “propaganda for homosexualism” were rejected.’ Rebuffed nationally, conservatives moved their campaign to the local level. According to Healy, by 2012, ‘Local authorities around the country had enacted their own versions of “gay propaganda” bans and from Novosibirsk the Duma received a formal request for a national ban.’ At this point the Kremlin finally abandoned its opposition, perhaps because President Vladimir Putin had himself become more conservative and/or perhaps because the government recognized the public mood and wanted to score popularity points.
Normally, the Western press casts the blame for the 2013 law on Putin personally. What I find interesting about Healy’s description is that it shows something rather different. The Kremlin initially resisted the policy, but in the end succumbed to perceived public demand. This reveals: first, that Russia is perhaps more democratic than people make it out to be; and second, that democracy in Russia does not necessarily equate with liberalism.
Nowadays, people in the West assume that more democracy equals more liberty. I think that in the longer term that does tend to be true. But not always. Often, the elites who govern Western democracies are more liberal than many or most of the people they represent, as seen for instance with opposition to the death penalty and support for immigration. Also, some of the more important advances in human rights have come not from legislatures, but from the courts – in other words, from the non-elected part of constitutional systems. If governments in Western countries accurately reflected the desires of their peoples, they might well be much less liberal than they are.
Americans often forget that their founding fathers were actually rather suspicious of democracy, which they felt would lead to mob rule and was thus injurious to liberty. They therefore devised a semi-democratic, semi-monarchical, constitution. Similarly, 19th century Russian liberal conservative thinkers believed that only an autocratic government could bring about liberal reform – democratic governments would in practice prove to be reactionary. I don’t think that they were entirely right about that, but as the example above shows, they weren’t entirely wrong either.
In a 2004 letter, imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that, ‘Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of our country’s population’. If Putin is now less liberal, that means that he has become closer to the people he represents, not the opposite. A recent article by the University of Copenhagen’s Matthew Del Santo highlights this:
Mikhail Remizov, director of Russia’s Institute of National Strategy, shares this view, saying in a recent interview: ‘Russian democracy must by definition be conservative, populist, nationalist and protectionist’. Until 2012, he said, the conservatives ‘who really enjoy the sympathies of the majority of the nation occupied the place of an opposition. Real power remained in the hands of the neo-liberal elite that had run the country since the 1990s’. This has now changed. ‘Putin is falsely presented as a nationalist’, said Remizov. ‘In a Russian context, he’s a sovereigntist. But in general, the agenda of the Kremlin today is formed by the opposition of the 2000s: the conservative, patriotic majority.’
None of this is meant to say that democracy is a bad thing; it has many advantages above and beyond its capacity to deliver liberal reform. Not least of these advantages is improved accountability. Rather, the point is that Russia’s government consists of a curious mix of democratic and non-democratic elements, and Healy’s article draws our attention to the uncomfortable fact that some of the aspects of Russian behaviour that we in the West don’t like are due more to the former than to the latter.