The long road to democracy

December 14 marked the 20th anniversary of the premature death of one of the worthiest men of our time – academician Andrei Sakharov. In two decades the world has changed beyond recognition, but Russia, whose fate was of such heartfelt concern to Andrei Dmitrievich, has not taken the road that he would have liked. Democratic reforms have not created a stable civil society, and the “liberation of initiative” that led to the collapse of the Soviet-era economic system has not so far given rise to a civilised market economy. Today, democratic norms are disregarded even more cynically than in the USSR, while the economy that existed here in the late Eighties seems like a model of technical perfection. Why haven’t the hopes of those who believed in “socialism with a human face” been realised? Is it worth hoping that Russia will come to better future?

In my view, the hopes of 1989 were, alas, illusory. It was assumed that we could build a democratic system in a society that had long since forgotten the traditions of private property, and that was mired in a deepening economic crisis. The democracy of that time had too many features of populism not to turn into some form of authoritarianism. Among the democrats, there were people who stood up for the democratic idea, but did not use that idea in their own interests. Small wonder that they “democratically” got rid of their legally elected parliament in 1993, “democratically” ensured the victory of their candidate in the 1996 presidential elections and, to a large degree, “democratically” selected a suitable successor for him in 1999.

Genuine democracies are formed over decades. Accidental democracies rarely prove viable. It is a paradox, but a movement toward democracy either begins with the elite, or is prepared by the actions of the elite. In both cases, they turn out to be stable when society proceeds confidently along the path of economic progress, and there arises a large class of people with a vital interest in sensible and predictable rules of the game, rules created by the responsible choices of a significant number of citizens rather than by the whims of certain leaders. A class of people to whom the rest of society can turn for support. This means the following: democracy has a firm foundation only in a society which has developed with confidence over a certain period of time and whose elite is not parasitical. In other words, democracy takes shape with the greatest probability in a successfully modernising society.

Modernisation is the most important instrument of democratisation. It is precisely the absence of modernisation that determined the failure of the late-Soviet democratic project. In recent decades, many successful democracies have grown up in places where, for the sake of economic success, semi-authoritarian regimes allowed, or even initiated, modernising transformations. These modernisations did not immediately bring about democracy, but then a populist democracy has never brought about modernisation. As many Western observers remark, a non-liberal democracy is worse than authoritarian liberalism. Strictly speaking, the latter was the main political form for most of the successful modernisations in Asia and Latin America at the end of the 20th century.

In Russia, proponents of democratic changes must of necessity be adherents of modernisation. In the last 20 years, Russia has continued to lag behind the West, and not less but more. That is why a new wave of populism – if one were to arise because of disappointment in the actions of the powers that be – would lead to a still more unenlightened regime than the one established in 2000. An authoritarian regime willing to modernise is signing its own death warrant, sacrificing – albeit unconsciously – its own interests to the future prosperity of the nation.

Now, too, all those who wish Russia a democratic and successful future must become engineers of modernisation. True, opinion polls show that, at this point, only a small percentage of the population is ready take slogans of modernisation seriously. But the modernisations of South Korea in the Sixties and of Brazil in the Seventies did not begin with plebiscites; they ended with them – when the citizens realised that they no longer needed those regimes that had been forced to begin modernisation. This will happen in Russia, too, one day. But for now, we mustn’t let the elite wear everyone out with talk of the modernisation agenda, the only agenda that can turn Russia into a stable liberal democracy.

Of course, it won’t happen tomorrow. Twenty years have flown by, and today we can only regret that Andrei Sakharov’s dreams are still dreams. But we must try to make the next 20 years more productive.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is director of the Centre for Studies of Post-industrial Societies and editor-in-chief of Svobodnaya mysl.

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