December 2011 saw a change in the social and political situation in Russia. Society has awakened and is declaring its rights. Initially, the authorities had hoped to wait out the protests, but it soon became clear that that would not work and the storm would not just “blow over.”
It was necessary to respond. There was probably a temptation to resort to the use of force, as before, but reason has prevailed. The authorities chose instead to maneuver, describing the massive protests as evidence of a mature democracy. But the authorities refuse to accept the simple and clear demands of the protesters: to cancel the rigged elections and hold new ones.
However, it’s not only about popular anger over election fraud. It’s also about something even more important: the more educated segment of the urban population’s discontent with the existing government, and with the ways, methods and means it is using. People want not just a replacement of specific individuals guilty of fraud, but a change in the political system.
Considering the nature of the demands, aimed not only against concrete individuals, but against the “vertical power structure” they have built, one can say that the country is experiencing a serious political crisis. And because the much-vaunted “vertical” originated in the current Constitution, it is also a constitutional crisis.
The authorities have determined their strategy: “to concentrate,” to preserve the status quo and ensure Putin’s election as president using the same old administrative resources and media propaganda targeting the so-called “Putin majority.”
As events unfold, those who care about the fate of the country are confronted with a stark question: what next? What tasks will civil society face after the presidential elections?
In order to move forward and outline a future, it is necessary to keep in mind the main things and be clear on the fundamental principles.
The key strategic task is to change the nature of power in such a way that no person or group of persons can monopolise power. In a democratic state, no single party or “group of like-minded people” should be able to privatise power. Power must not stand above society, above the law.
What needs to be done to turn around the situation in which once power has become ensconced “on Mount Olympus” there is “no alternative” to it? In a recent article in Novaya Gazeta Igor Klyamkin, Mikhail Krasnov and Liliya Shevtsova suggested that this problem cannot be solved within the legal boundaries of the current Constitution with its heavy bias in favour of the presidency. Their critique of some of the provisions of Russia’s constitutional law is convincing.
They are challenged by those who believe there is no reason to revise the foundations of the constitutional system. The Russian Constitution proclaims a rule-of-law social secular state in which power comes from the people; it recognises ideological and political diversity, a multi-party system and religious pluralism; and guarantees a wide range of democratic human and civil rights.
But here is the question: why are these constitutional principles and rights constantly violated and emasculated? Why are they being ignored and flouted by those who decide the fate of the country within their narrow circle? The answer is simple: power is divorced from society; it looks inward and is concerned only with self-preservation. All too often the attitude that we know from the past prevails, when it was believed that the end justifies the means…
In keeping with the letter and spirit of the foundations of the constitutional system, efforts must be concentrated on changing the existing power structure. The 1993 Constitution was adopted at a time when the executive branch, led by Yeltsin, was locked in a fierce struggle with the legislative branch, represented by the Supreme Soviet. The executive branch gained the upper hand and dictated the overall power structure, democratic in form and authoritarian in essence, vesting the president with virtually unlimited powers.
It would be naïve to believe that a country with a long tradition of autocratic and authoritarian rule (and thought) can in one stroke switch to a political system that meets all the requirements of a parliamentary democracy. But we should seek to move in that direction if we are serious about political modernisation.
One of the paradoxes of the current political situation in Russia is that right-wing liberal circles are trying to harness and use the eruption of popular anger over the rigging of the Duma elections. They perceive the groundswell of protest sentiments in society as an endorsement of 1990s policy, and as a chance to bring it back.
The right puts its faith in the magic of “the free market,” calling for continued privatisation, reducing the role of the state in the economic and social spheres, and cutting social spending. The values that they prize above all are private property, personal enrichment, the highest standards of individual consumption and justification of social inequality. They expect the state to protect a system based on these “values.”
Meanwhile the majority of Russians support principles generally described as “leftist.” There is a widespread sense that the current social order is unjust. The extreme degree of wealth inequality is deeply resented. People want to see the country adhere to the principles of equal opportunities and the equality of all before the law.
The civil rights that come first are the social, or “left” rights: the right to free education and healthcare, security in old age and in the event of illness, the right to work and decent pay. Left-wing views are about the development of society in the interests of the majority, improved quality of life for the general population, and prioritising moral humanitarian values over the narrow concept of “market efficiency.”
The right tends to dismiss the positions of left-wing politicians as “social populism” that thrives on “social envy,” on the desire to “take everything away and divide it up equally.” The presumptuous arrogance of the “elite” can be costly to society. The systemic crisis of global capitalism, and indeed the situation with the Russian economy, shows that the problem of choosing the socio-economic development strategy has lost none of its relevance.
Choosing a strategy means choosing a future. In this day and age of accelerating technological and social change, theideas of the kind of future we want go a long way towards determine the approach to tackling the immediate problems of the present.
What is the agenda proposed by the authorities? The draft of Putin’s electoral programme, as well as his article in Izvestia, reveal an intention to leave things as they are while introducing some “adjustments.” The main provisions of that programme raise no objections among the right-wing liberals.
The budget for 2012-2014 approved by the previous Duma envisages a massive reallocation of public spending in favour of the military and security agencies at the expense of social spending (education, healthcare, housing and utilities). These principles run counter to the requirements of the time, stemming from the emergence of a post-industrial society, “the knowledge economy,” and the need for proactive investment in human development: in education, science, healthcare and social services.
In the 20th century, Russia has “tried out” two opposing models of social development. The Soviet “state socialism” advanced the country’s industrialisation, but only at the cost of vast human and material losses. The neo-liberal model launched in the early 1990s in order to boost production efficiency led to unacceptable increases in social inequality and the polarisation of wealth and poverty.
Is a different way possible? The experience of Western Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries (while, of course, not free of contradictions and problems) warrants a positive answer to this question. The terms for the functioning of the market and private capital must be set by society and not vice versa, i.e. in accordance with the well-known, simple and succinct formula: “Market competition as much as possible, planning as much as necessary.”
For market competition in Russia to really start working, business, especially small and medium-sized business, must be freed from administrative arbitrariness. But we cannot release the state from performing its social obligations, which will increase as society becomes more complicated and new social needs arise (security, infrastructure, the environment, etc.) that the market cannot meet. There is a growing demand in society for social democratic policies, as the Duma elections have shown: for a policy that combines the market and private enterprise with an active economic and social role of the state. Some Russian political parties include this approach in their programmes. Considering the values prevailing in the public consciousness, there is no doubt that the grounds for a social-democratic consensus are there.
In short, we are talking about creating a society in which all Russian citizens feel comfortable regardless of their social status, ethnicity or faith. A policy meeting this goal could have the support not only of social-democratic politicians, but also of some other political forces.
The role of political parties today merits a separate discussion. Everyone seems to agree that the conditions for their formation and the nature of their activities need to be changed. Society needs parties that are capable of integrating and expressing the opinions of ordinary citizens, their interests and aspirations, of looking for compromise solutions wherever inevitable differences and clashes of interest arise.
As I see it, there should be no “party of bosses” that identifies itself with the state and the interests of society with those of the overblown and very corrupt Russian bureaucracy. Parties must be “separated from the state.” Whether or not a party may exist (provided it acts within the constitutional framework) should be decided not by bureaucrats, but by citizens through the mechanism of elections.
Only then, and of course with a free and independent media, including electronic media, can elections be free and fair, can competition between political parties for the right to participate in governance be real, can power be accountable and changeable, in other words, can the political system function normally.
I see the emergence in Russia of a new, strong democratic party capable of initiating the changes to the Constitution that life dictates.
A referendum is a real path towards that end. The Law on Referendum reads in part: “A referendum, along with free elections, is the supreme direct expression of the power of the people.” The referendum can contain one question: do you support political and constitutional reforms that would eliminate the ‘autocracy’ and guarantee the rule of the people?”
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So, it’s a popular referendum.