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27 March 2013

As Russia proves, democracy isn’t just about elections

In a hugely insightful post for openDemocracy, Ivan Krastev has an interesting question for us:

  • “...who is more democratic, Russia or China?”

He admits that this is bit like asking “who is more feminine, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger?” Nevertheless, the question is a useful one.

The obvious answer has to begin with the fact that Russia is, on paper, a multi-party democracy with universal suffrage. Not so China.

As Krastev goes on to explain, both countries started in the same place, i.e. Communist dictatorship, but then chose different paths: 

  • “At the juncture 1989-1991, both Communist leaderships… came to realise that Communism had become a dysfunctional type of system. But they had different understandings of what was wrong with it. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev decided that what was worth preserving were the socialist ideas, and what was bad was the Communist party and its inability to bring to mobilise the energy of the society… The Chinese communist party took a totally different view. They believed what was bad about communism were the Communist, socialist ideas, especially in an economic sense, and what was good about socialism was the Communist party and its capacity to keep control of society.”

Describing where the two countries are now, Krastev sums it up beautifully:

  • “Broadly speaking, the Russians are faking democracy while the Chinese are faking Communism.”

Indeed, in many respects, the Chinese system is more democratic  – or more ‘open’ – than its Russian counterpart:

  • “...while the Kremlin broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it. It does not allow for dissent on policy matters and Government officials are careful not to advocate policies favoured by the opposition.
  • “In the case of Chinese collective leadership, having different views is actually seen as legitimate. The loyalty test in China starts only once the Communist party has taken a decision. The loyalty test in Russia starts as soon as the president makes a proposal.”

So, while questioning the system itself is still a dangerous thing to do in China, there is significant scope for questioning decisions taken within the system – which is one reason why the “quality” of the decision-making process is better than in Russia.

Also though the Chinese system is cemented in place, there is at least a regular change of personnel:

  • “Chinese leaders do not stay in power for any more than ten years, after which a new party leader and president are automatically elected… The Chinese system, based on the principle of collective leadership, prevents the emergence of personalised authoritarianism and provides much more checks and balances.”

In Russia, it is the other way round. In theory, its leaders can be voted out of office at every election. In practice, however, the same people retain an iron grip on power – “elections are used as the way to legitimise the lack of rotation.”

This doesn’t exactly make for the most inclusive of governing classes:

  • “...the great majority of the Russian elites went to one of just two Universities… the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known Mr Putin before he became president… This is not a meritocratic system in any sense: most of these people have not had proper careers, but have simply ended in this ruling group.”

In short, Russia is ruled by a small clique of old friends from the same educational background and with little experience of the real world.

Thank goodness nothing like that could happen here...


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