This week I had the opportunity to attend the first International Forum for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. It was a fairly big show, with about 500 delegates from nearly 100 countries, of whom around 400 were members of parliament and 100 were ‘experts’ (academics and the like). Clearly, the Russians don’t do a thing like this for the sheer hell of it. The forum served a political/diplomatic purpose, namely strengthening contacts with foreign countries and winning friends. In short, it was an exercise in ‘soft power’. I had been asked to make a short 2-3 minute speech, but the session I was meant to do it in ran so much over time that I never got a chance. My own role, therefore, was very much that of observer. But in that capacity, I was able to make a few judgements about how different countries view Russia, what the prospects for Russian soft power are, and how Russia is presenting itself to the world.
The primary impression I got from the forum was a stark difference in attitudes towards Russia in the West and in the rest of the world. This could be seen from who did and did not attend the forum.
In the first place, there was an obvious lack of parliamentarians from the so-called ‘Anglosphere’ (primarily USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK.) There was still quite a lot of English spoken at the forum, but it was mainly from Africans and Europeans. The latter were reasonably well represented, but by and large the Europeans consisted of the ‘usual suspects’ from the nationalist fringe. For instance, at one of the sessions I attended a French MP from the Front National delivered a diatribe complaining that racism and xenophobia had been criminalized in France as a way of silencing those who spoke out against mass immigration. A German MP from the Alternative für Deutschland declared that democracy required more nationalism. A Russian-speaking Latvian denounced the Latvian government for allegedly trying to ‘wipe out’ the country’s Russian minority and distributed a letter protesting against the arrest of Russian-Latvian Aleksandr Gaponenko. And a Serbian opposition MP denounced Kosovar independence, saying that the Kosovars already had their own homeland – ‘it’s called Albania’.
There were some more mainstream Europeans. For instance, a German professor (who on investigation turns out to be quite respectable) delivered a quite interesting talk with data showing that the rise of populism in Europe was associated with an increase in confidence in democracy and was not therefore the threat to democracy it was generally believed to be. One session was moderated by French MP and former Transport Minister, Thierry Mariani, who’s a member of the Republican Party, which is respectably centre-right. But Mariani is somewhat of an odd-ball, in that he is demonstrably pro-Russian, having visited Crimea in 2015 and having called on the French government to recognize the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. His presence shows that Russia does enjoy some support among mainstream European politicians, but such examples are fairly rare. On the whole, the European nationalist fringe was more obvious in Moscow this week.
For the most part, political elites from the mainstream West don’t want to be associated with Russia. But judging from the forum, the rest of the world doesn’t share this attitude. There were a large number of expressions of friendship from delegates from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Asia. In many cases, parliaments from those countries sent quite senior people to represent them, including a number of parliamentary Speakers. The Speaker of the Namibian parliament, for instance, gave a quite lively speech in which she included the rather startling phrase: ‘There is no AK-47 which is too heavy for a woman to carry!’ These delegates seemed to take the forum quite seriously. For instance, the representative of one organization of African parliaments handed over a copy of a report his organization had prepared, proposing future directions of dialogue. I was struck by one African MP who declared that African countries were fed up with powerful states telling them how to manage their affairs and then sanctioning them when they didn’t do as they were told. By resisting such pressure, Russia was heading in the right direction, he said, before telling the audience: ‘Russia, it is time for you to take your stand in Africa.’ In short, I detected quite a lot of goodwill towards Russia from countries who aren’t members of what is termed the ‘West’.
The tone of the discussions was also somewhat revealing. There was, for instance, a lot of talk of women’s rights and of how best to expand the number of women in parliament. (By contrast, LGBT rights didn’t get a mention.) And many speakers talked about the need for parliamentarians to broaden contacts with voters, increase the transparency of the legislative process, and the like. It is often said that Russia is trying to set itself up as an alternative to Western democracy and to exercise soft power by leading an authoritarian bloc against Western hegemony. But there wasn’t anything remotely authoritarian about anything anybody said at the forum. Quite the contrary. There was an almost universal acceptance of democratic processes (even the Chinese delegate I heard spoke about the need for more transparency and public involvement in government). By choosing to hold a conference of the topic of parliamentarianism, Russia most certainly wasn’t sending a signal that it’s opposed to parliamentary democracy and wishes to lead an authoritarian alternative to it. Rather, it seems to be trying to expand its influence through contact with legislative institutions in other countries, and by expressing its support for democratic processes. Some speakers at the forum (such as the German professor mentioned above) contrasted the apparently democratic nature of populism with the seemingly anti-democratic stances adopted by supposedly democratic institutions in the West. Seen this way, Russia isn’t opposing authoritarianism to democracy, but populist democracy to liberal democracy as currently understood in the West.
In conclusion, while the forum revealed that Russia has few friends in the Western mainstream, it also showed that Russia enjoys a good degree of sympathy in the rest of the world, and that it is able to articulate a vision which resonates with non-Western audiences. If nothing else, therefore, the forum revealed that Russia is far from ‘isolated’, and for that reason I suspect that the Russians will consider it a success.