Russia reacts

One question I’ve been asked a lot these part couple of days is ‘How have the Russian people reacted to Putin’s proposals to change the country’s constitution?’ If we’re talking about the ordinary Ivan or Elena on the street, it’s hard to say, but according to the polling company VTsIOM, Putin’s popularity rose slightly in the aftermath of his speech, with his approval rating going up from 64 to 67% –  not a huge leap, to be sure, but a sign that people weren’t too unhappy with what he had said. That may, however, have more to do with the other parts of his speech which touched on bread and butter issues. One imagines that these are rather closer to ordinary people’s concerns that issues of constitutional procedure.

The Russian political class, on the other hand, are much exercised by such issues, and so have been making their views well known. The main opposition parties (the Communist (KPFR) and Liberal Democratic (LDPR) parties) were fairly supportive of the constitutional changes. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared that, ‘We have long demanded this [amendments to the constitution], and we are pleased that the president has asked the legislative institutions, above all the parliament, to confirm them.’ Zhirinovsky then proposed an additional, typically eccentric, amendment of his own: ‘We should establish a limit: in the outcome of elections, no single party should receive more than 40 percent of the seats in parliament’, he declared, adding that parliament should always be governed by a coalition.

Meanwhile, deputies from the ruling United Russia party, which can be expected to loyally follow Vladimir Putin’s lead, have undertaken an initiative of their own, putting forward a proposal in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that would ban political parties who receive funding from abroad or who insult Russian statehood. As the newspaper Kommersant reports, ‘The authors explain that the document was conceived “to limit the activity of oppositional parties” carrying out “anti-Russian propaganda abroad”, citing as an example the Yabloko party. Oppositionists consider the legislative proposal repressive”. As well they might. It’s the kind of stuff which makes you wonder whether giving more power to the State Duma is a good idea.  As I’ve said before, it would be foolish to imagine that a more democratic Russia would be a more liberal one.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that while the ‘systemic opposition’ has given its support to Putin’s proposals, members of Russia’s ‘non-systemic opposition’ have been lining up to denounce them. Fairly typical was the response of the handshakeably liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta:

In reality, we’re talking in the best case about a change of decoration (Russia will remain a presidential republic, even if not probably a superpresidential one), and in the worst case about a revolution from above which will only strengthen the vertical of power. ‘The most important and significant thing one can extract from [Putin’s] speech is the destruction of the federation; a fatal diminution of the authority of regional organs of power, the rout of local self-government, the destruction of the principle of the power of the people, the defeat of rights, and the destruction of the principle of the equality of citizen,’ lists Elena Lukianova, professor of constitutional and municipal law at the Higher School of Economics.

Likewise, Andrei Nechaev of the Civic Initiative party (associated with the likes of Ksenia Sobchak and Dmitry Gudkov) declared that, ‘The president has decided to concentrate all power in his own hands, appointing a technocratic prime minister with no political ambitions.’ Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of another liberal party – RPR PARNAS – latched onto Putin’s statement that, ‘Russia must remain a strong presidential republic’ to claim that, ‘there will be no real transfer of authority to parliament.’ Instead the proposed reforms would ‘strengthen the vertical [of power] and existing practices, for instance “the president’s direct leadership of the armed forces and all the legal and security system”.’ And Yabloko’s Grigory Yavlinsky complained: ‘The proposed constitutional amendments have nothing in common with Russia’s main problem and won’t in any way improve life in the country … the re-division of powers between president and parliament is a means of resolving a different task – guaranteeing a formal transition of power without real changes. These “checks and balances”  won’t really create a division of powers, but create the possibility for manipulations from on high.’

Finally, one time Kremlin PR-man turned regime critic Gleb Pavlovsky (a favourite rent-a-quote among foreign correspondents) declared:

The real structure of power in the Russian Federation (for simplicity’s sake I call it the ‘system’ even though there’s very little systematic about it) doesn’t work in the manner written down in the Constitution but, as everyone knows, informally. And for now, nobody wants to change that. Thus, the nomination of a candidate for the post of Prime Minister will be preceded, crudely speaking, by a phone call from ‘waiting room no. 1’ … The only change is where the waiting room will be located, in the Kremlin or in the State council – that is to say, in the Kremlin either way.

Much happier than the liberals were representatives of what one might call the ‘democratic’ conservative wing of Russian intellectuals (admittedly a fairly small group). Conservative thinkers Boris Mezhuev and Liubov’ UIianova, for instance, celebrated Putin’s proposals and directed readers to  a recent article by Mezhuev entitled ‘Russian conservatism and popular representation’, joking that perhaps Putin had read it before making his announcement.  The liberals’ despair over the constitutional proposals, Mezhuev suggested on Facebook, derived from the fact that these fighters for ‘freedom’ had assumed that ‘the superpresidential regime would pass into the hands of a liberal successor without much change’ but had now discovered to their dismay that ‘(KPRF leader Gennady) Ziuganov and (LDPR leader Vladimir) Zhirinovsky would be able to put their own people into the chairs of the ministers of education and culture’!

Mezhuev has said before that the key political battle in Russia is between conservative democrats and liberal authoritarians. In line with my last post, the liberals may be right to doubt that much will change because of this. Still, it’s interesting to see the conservatives supporting what purports to be a democratic move, and the liberals opposing it. Interesting, but perhaps not entirely surprising.

10 thoughts on “Russia reacts”

  1. “Putin’s popularity rose slightly in the aftermath of his speech, with his approval rating going up from 64 to 67% – not a huge leap, to be sure, but a sign that people weren’t too unhappy with what he had said.”

    […]

    I’m going to be extremely polite here (despite what you wrote here and a clearly discernible pattern), Professor, but, what possessed you to resort to such a phrase (double negative), instead of the plain and simple “were happy”?

    “Kommersant reports, ‘The authors explain that the document was conceived “to limit the activity of oppositional parties” carrying out “anti-Russian propaganda abroad”, citing as an example the Yabloko party. Oppositionists consider the legislative proposal repressive”. As well they might. It’s the kind of stuff which makes you wonder whether giving more power to the State Duma is a good idea. As I’ve said before, it would be foolish to imagine that a more democratic Russia would be a more liberal one.”

    Ah. Two questions then, given your self-professed belief in the tenets of the liberalism:

    1) Do you approve of the oppositional parties anywhere in the world of receiving funding from the foreign powers?

    2) Do you support liberal dictatorship?

    That’s not some idle or rhetorical questions, Professor. I think a lot of people would really like to know your opinions on that.

    “Likewise, Andrei Nechaev of the Civic Initiative party (associated with the likes of Ksenia Sobchak and Dmitry Gudkov)”

    Bah! He’s just salty, because his excuse of a political party got suspended for 6 months (“banned” in liberast parlance) till they get their paperwork in order.

    “Mezhuev suggested on Facebook, derived from the fact that these fighters for ‘freedom’ had assumed that ‘the superpresidential regime would pass into the hands of a liberal successor without much change’”

    That’s what you, as a liberal, been hoping for as well, Professor? A fabled Latynina-style “Russian liberal Pinochet”?

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    1. I support whatever system will best enable Russians to live happy, fulfilled, dignified, and moral lives, insofar as that is possible. Not being a citizen of the Russian Federation it’s not my job to say what system best suits that criterion. That’s for Russians to decide.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Splendid non-answer, Professor. But I didn’t ask about *Russia* specifically. You can easily notice the lack of word “Russia” in my two topmost questions. I was asking about your general (“universal”) principles.

        Can you stomach giving a direct answer to that? If yes, then, please – try again.

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      2. What you are asking cannot be answered, in that there is no system of government which is best suited for every place and every time. Imagine that you’d tried to create a liberal democracy in 13th century England. I doubt it would have fared very well. As far as nowadays and what one might call ‘advanced’ countries are concerned, having lived most of my life in constitutional monarchies, I can say that I find it a fairly decent system. Indeed, I note that 6 of the top 10 countries in the world happiness rankings (and 9 of the top 15) are constitutional monarchies. So put me down as a constitutional monarchist.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “What you are asking cannot be answered, in that there is no system of government which is best suited for every place and every time. “

        How can you say that, Professor, and still call yourself a liberal? 😉 Ain’t it an article of the (official, as per various parties and political movements) liberal faith, that there exist “universal human values” and that “liberal democracy” is the only True Way?

        Which is, of course, a misnomer – the “democracy” part. And you again dodge answering my questions, instead talking about unrelated stuff. Therefore I ask you, for the third time:

        1) Do you approve of the opposition parties anywhere in the world of receiving funding from the foreign powers?

        2) Do you support liberal dictatorship?

        [“Constitutional monarchy” is, again, a non-answer. Japan has been living uder de-facto one party rule for decades.]

        Btw, answering the first question has nothing to do with either Russia or whether it’s XIII or XXI century now. Either question could be answered by simple “Yes” or “No”

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      4. ‘Do you approve of the oppositional parties anywhere in the world of receiving funding from the foreign powers?’

        My answer would be that I’m generally not in favour of restricting political funding, but I do think it should be transparent. Voters should know from where politicians get their money. If they’re getting it from sources voters consider illegitimate, voters can punish them by withdrawing their vote – though in Russia’s case, the kind of parties which might receive funding from abroad are the kind of parties almost nobody votes for anyway, so their funding is kind of irrelevant. It strikes me as a big fuss about something of very little significance.

        ‘Do you support liberal dictatorship?’

        It’s impossible to answer this kind of question as a generalization, devoid of context. Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the circumstances. A ‘liberal dictatorship’, if such a thing exists, would involve sacrificing political liberty for other forms of liberty – e.g. civil liberty or economic liberty. In some circumstances, this might be a fair bargain; in others not. Perhaps even an illiberal dictatorship can be justified on occasion, if the alternative is worse – better Kornilov or Kolchak if the alternative is Bolshevism, IMHO (though I’m sure you’d disagree!). Fortunately, we are not in the modern Western world faced with such a choice, for which reason I do not propose dictatorship, liberal or otherwise, in the actual circumstances in which I live. Though, of course, to really discuss this properly one would first need to define both ‘liberal’ and ‘dicatorship’, which could take a lifetime!

        Liked by 2 people

      5. “My answer would be that I’m generally not in favour of restricting political funding, but I do think it should be transparent”

        So you support political parties receiving foreign funding. Does (either of) your government(s) agree with that? Where can I read your apologia about Western political parties receiving foreign funding?

        “A ‘liberal dictatorship’, if such a thing exists, would involve sacrificing political liberty for other forms of liberty – e.g. civil liberty or economic liberty. In some circumstances, this might be a fair bargain”

        Like I said – the fabled Latynina’s (you know who is Yulia Latynina, right?) “liberal Pinochet”, when in the name of “liberalism” and free market reforms about 90+% of the people are suppressed. Or the dictatorship of the so-called “people with good faces and genes” over “bydlo”, under the watchful eye of the International Community’s (read – the West’s).

        Therefore, if the goal is the enforcement of the liberal “universal values”, would you support the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the “unenlightened” population, that happens not to share your own (very tiny) socio-economic strata?

        “better Kornilov or Kolchak if the alternative is Bolshevism, IMHO”

        Fascinating. Care to explain why? In what form, shape and effect would it be “better”? For whom would it be better, Professor?

        “Fortunately, we are not in the modern Western world faced with such a choice”

        After reading Western commentariat’s never-ending “5 stages of grief” reaction first towards the Brexit, and now after the latest elections in the UK, I think you should update your views.

        Like

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