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Against the people
Vondra was explaining the fact that the Czech govenment is determined to allow the use of its territory by the USA for a military radar site, a forward-based element of America's Post-Star Wars 'National Missile Defense' system, despite the opposition of almost 70% of the Czech population.
The proposed radar base is to be connected to a new US missile installation, which is to be constructed in neighbouring Poland. According to opinion polls, over 55% of the Polish people do not want the missile base. Nevertheless, the Polish government insists that the base will be built.
Of course, leaders have more expertise on political matters than the average person: that, presumably, is one of the reasons why it is they who became the leaders. And any system of political representation must allow the representatives sufficient flexibility to use this expertise in order to perform their duties effectively; it cannot reasonably be demanded that they must have majority support for every detail of policy. But it is notable how often these 'moments in history' - in which the government makes a stand against the majority of the people on an issue of huge strategic or economic importance- occur, in the countries which have competitive, multi-party elections and in which the bulk of the mass media is in private ownership- that is, in countries with a liberal, pluralist, capitalist political system. It is usual to hear these states described as democracies, and the states which do not adopt this system as being authoritarian, or even as dictatorships: counties in which the right of choice is denied to the people.
One country which is supposedly on its way from democracy to authoritarianism is Russia; which, after a period of subserviency to the West, has re-emerged under the presidency of Vladimir Putin as a strong and independent power. The principal factor which has enabled this resurgence is the rise in oil and gas prices; if politicians can be credited with any role in the huge increase in energy prices in recent years, it would not be Putin who deserves the most credit, but rather Hu Jintao, Hugo Chavez, George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
But Russia under Putin has seized its opportunities, and may seize more. In a press conference on 14th February 2008, Vladimir Putin had this to say about the the Arctic shelf:
"As to our research, it is certainly aimed at proving that the Russian Federation has the right to a part of the shelf, but we are conducting it in line with international laws, under the auspices of the UN."
Referring to complaints by other countries about the planting by Russian submariners in August 2007 of the Russian flag on the sea bed beneath the North Pole, Putin quipped:
"Americans once planted their national flag on the Moon. Why should we be worrying about this? The Moon did not become the property of the U.S."
But as we all know, there is no oil or gas in the moon; and whatever economic resources the moon may eventually supply, their development is a matter for the distant future. The Arctic Lomonosov Ridge, on the other hand, contains enormous hydrocarbon reserves. Advancing technology and melting ice are likely to make the ownership of these resources a practical question of the near future.
Although without doubt it is a great political asset, the outgoing president's sense of humour was not among the main reasons for the consolidation of power by the supporters of Vladimir Putin in Russia's two recent general elections. The results of the March 3rd presidential contest, on a turnout of 69.81%, showed a vote of 70.28% for Dmitry Medvedev, the candidate of the United Russia party. In the Western press, Medvedev is usually described as if his only claim to prominence is that he was endorsed as a candidate by the encumbent president. But Dmitry Medvedev is not exactly a nobody. When he takes up his new job on 7th May 2008, he will leave his two current posts: First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and Chairman of Gazprom, Russia's most important economic enterprise.
In second place on March 3rd was the communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who polled 17.72%. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is referred to in the Western media as an 'ultranationalist' got 9.35%. Andrei Bogdanov, who describes himself as a conservative and proposes that Russia should join the European Union, came last with 1.3%.
The communists complained of the lack of debate during the election campaign, and claimed that, had it not been for the many irregularities in the electoral process, their candidate would have got a much higher proportion of the vote. Reports of these irregularities are very convincing. But the final result was the one predicted by all the opinion polls.
In the country which is proceeding to emplace its new radars and missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, despite the wishes of most of the people in those countries, another presidential hopeful also complained. As AFP reported:
Hillary Clinton said the "presidential election in Russia ... marks a milestone in that country's retreat from democracy".
The American government's foreign broadcasting station Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has its headquarters in Prague, 90km from the site where the American government's military radar base will be built. The RFE/RL video briefing on the result of the Russian presidential election, by the station's Russia analyst Robert Coalson, included a critique of the claims by Russia's leaders that their country is building its own kind of democracy. "Deeds speak more convincingly", countered Coulson, who asserted that Putin and Medvedev have promoted "an unaccountable political system". The evidence he cited for this was that the NTV television network, which is owned by Gazprom, gave Medvedev very much more prominence in its reporting than it gave to all the other presidential candidates.
Russia's parliamentary election, held three months earlier, was also severely criticised in the Western media. On 2nd December 2007, the parties preferred by the West, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, polled only 1.6% and 1.0% respectively in the election, thus failing to win any seats in the national Duma. Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations nevertheless describes these parties as the "real opposition" in Russia. Vladimir Putin's United Russia party won 315 seats in the Duma; the Communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrat party and the Just Russia party won a combined total of 135 seats. However, Western liberal opinion as voiced by Andrew Wilson does not regard these latter as real opposition parties, but rather as "client parties". The reason for this dismissive appellation is because- on the issues that are considered important by Western commentators- Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and the Communist Party are regarded as having policies which are too close to those of Putin and United Russia. Thus Russia is said to fail as a democracy, because it does not have a significant real opposition presence in its parliament.
Before the final results of the Duma election were announced, a US spokesman called for an enquiry into alleged vote-rigging.
Can it really be possible that less than 3% of voters in Russia support the pro-Western political parties? Consider what being pro-Western means in Russia. It carries not merely the association with the catastrophic experiences of the 1990s; it implies also that you are allying yourself with NATO and the USA which, as the Russians have good reasons to believe, are engaged in a hostile military build-up against their country. In such circumstances, how many Russians are expected to vote for pro-Western parties?
Twelve years ago, before Russia had reliably completed its process of transition from socialism to capitalism, a much closer election took place. In the first round of voting on June 16th 1996, the communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov finished second with 32%, trailing the West's preferred candidate, the encumbent Boris Yeltsin, who captured 35% of the votes. Zyuganov filed a series of legal actions against alleged ballot-rigging, all of which failed in the courts.
Yeltsin died in 2007, by which time the 1996 results had become a matter of purely historical interest. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty carried an appreciative obituary of Boris Yeltsin, remarking on his "truly democratic initiatives" and regretting that his "noble experiment" failed, in the end, to succeed in important respects. Nevertheless, Yeltsin played an invaluable role in defeating communism.
The RFE/RL obituary, written by Robert Coalson, was sympathetic with Yeltsin's dilemma as he faced the prospect of the 1996 elections:
In 1996, he [Yeltsin] had only two options: either he could participate in a rigged, undemocratic, dishonest, and corrupt election -- selling his political soul to the devil -- or he could stand aside and allow Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to win, sending Russia on a completely different historical course. Even that choice might not have been available to Yeltsin, since the political machine that stole the election for him could easily have been marshaled in the service of some other candidate.
This is a rather cute take on the events. Coalson writes as if Yeltsin had no influence on the nature of the electoral process; as if, although he was the incumbent president of the country, his choice was merely whether to stand or not to stand in an election which was inevitably going to be fixed. The implication is that although it supported this politician who held on to his presidency by means of a rigged election, the USA's hands were clean.
In any case, there appeared to be a danger that Russia might take "a completely different historical course", and Yeltsin was the man supported by the West. So Western politicians made no complaints of authoritarianism, and there were no US demands for an enquiry. Hillary Clinton's husband, who was at that time the President of the USA, declared the result to be a triumph for democracy.
According to the RFE/RL obituary, one of Boris Yeltsin's problems was that he was supposedly unable to entrench, within Russian society, the institutions which are held to be necessary for a Western-type liberal democracy:
He [Yeltsin] had not been able to create any foundation of democratic institutions -- strong independent media, autonomous political parties, governmental and nongovernmental oversight bodies, etc. -- that could have continued the course for which he had such a powerful mandate in 1991.
Putting aside for one moment the question of whether the words 'independent' and 'autonomous' accurately describe the political and media institutions under liberal democracy; Coalson is raising a pertinent point here. In fact, Yeltsin did attempt to set up political parties, but they failed to get mass support. Robert Coalson suggests that the failure of these parties is evidence of Yeltsin's truly democratic intentions:
Perhaps the most telling indicator of Yeltsin's democratic intentions was his failure to build a strong, pro-presidential political party. Observers in the 1990s laughed at the seemingly pathetic efforts of parties like Russia's Choice and Our Home Is Russia, which were barely able to get representation in the legislature despite strong government backing.
But with hindsight, those fledgling efforts look like truly democratic initiatives, compared to the juggernaut of Unified Russia that was built so quickly and so powerfully in the immediate post-Yeltsin period. In today's Russia, it is hard to imagine a pro-presidential party garnering just 10 percent of the vote like Our Home Is Russia did in 1995.
There are more straightforward explanations for the contrasting fortunes of the failed parties set up by Yeltsin in the 1990s and the successful United Russia party which was founded in 2001. Under Yeltsin, while a small minority became extremely rich, the mass of the population was plunged into desperate poverty and insecurity, and the country was on its knees not only economically but in its international relations. Under Putin, the small rich minority has become even richer; but the majority has also been able to benefit from Russia's rising fortunes. From the very low level to which they sank under President Yeltsin, workers' wages in Russia have been increasing steeply, a process endorsed by the United Russia party. The Russian state has also been using the proceeds of the boom in energy prices to make desperately needed investments in education and healthcare. And unlike Yeltsin, Putin has felt able to respond assertively to the military encroachments of the USA and NATO.
It would be most surprising if these factors did not significantly influence the way people chose to vote.
While the notion of choice is prominent in the liberal concept of democracy, there is no stipulation that the democratic nature of the system should be judged on whether it delivers what most people want in terms of the outcome of the process- the economic, social and foreign policies of the country. The fact that the Polish and Czech governments are proceeding on the most important strategic issue, against the wishes of their people, does not cause politicians and media outlets in Britain, for instance, to question whether these countries are truly democratic. In the UK in the 1980s, when the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher allowed the USA to install nuclear cruise missiles in Britain, it did so against the wishes of the majority of the people.
At least during the 1980s, Britain had a real opposition party with significant representation in Parliament. That is, however well or badly it did so, the Labour Party during that period represented in its policies that large proportion of people in Britain who were against the main policy directions of the Thatcher government; not only on the issue of the American cruise missiles but also on the economic issues: marketisation and privatisation. But to gain a majority in the UK Parliament, Labour needed to change the Party's overwhelmingly negative portrayal in the privately owned newspapers. It achieved this by changing its constitution to delete socialism and by shifting its policies to the right. The party was duly elected in 1997.
Despite drawing much closer together on the issues, the intensity of the debate between the Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives has not reduced. It assumes the form of a regular punch and judy show, a cacophony of mutual accusations of incompetence, lack of 'vision', and demands that one minister or another should resign for financial irregularities. During this time, the experience of privatisation and marketisation has reinforced the negative opinion of the majority of people in Britain on that question. On the key foreign policy issues also: on Britain's subservient relationship to the USA, its uncritical support for Israel and on its participation in the invasion of Iraq, most British people were and are opposed to UK government policy.
Not only does the government proceed regardless of this; on these main issues, the government and opposition have been united, against the people.
That such is the product of liberal democracy does not, by itself, invalidate the concepts of liberal democracy, in themselves. But the formal freedoms and equalities of pluralist political systems exist in the context of the extremes of wealth of liberal capitalism. Wealth buys newspapers and journalists, donates to political parties and civil society groups, pays the costs of organisation and campaigning. The children of the wealthy are better educated and therefore, on average, better able to argue their case than the children of the poor. On the global level also- the rich countries, though containing less than a quarter of the world's population, exert a disproportionate economic, political and military power; the fact of the USA, unelected as the world's most powerful nation, is a matter to which political leaders in weaker nations must give at least as much consideration as they give to the interests and opinions of the people who elected them.
Thus the formal freedoms and equalities of democratic pluralism interact with and in the end express, in most cases, the real underlying relationships, the enormous inequalities of wealth and power, within countries and between countries.
In those other cases, when the likelihood arises that a pluralist democratic system might allow a government to emerge which would take a nation onto "a completely different historical course", in a direction which the USA and the local ruling class cannot countennance, then liberal values are discarded at the drop of a few million ballot papers. If a rigged election cannot be arranged, then military rule, secessionist movements and mass executions may offer solutions.
Before, during and after
There is another dimension to the concept of political choice. Should it be tolerated that a country chooses a political system which does not meet the standards as defined by the Western powers? In his article in the Financial Times on 12th March 2008, Rodric Braithwaite, Britain's former ambassador to the USSR, argued that the Russians should not be subject to Western pressure in the determination of their political affairs:
Many people - both here and there - argue that the Russians have no democratic tradition, that they prefer the iron hand of the autocrat, that the place is too big, too heterogeneous and too disorderly to be ruled any other way. Vladimir Putin is more subtle: he believes that the Russians are not yet ready for democracy, that they need to be brought to it by a managed process, lest everything collapse in chaos. He reminds one of the British, who argued that Indian independence must be postponed until the natives were capable of governing themselves.
Given the chance, the Russians - like the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Pakistanis and others - turn out in large numbers to express their views through the ballot box. That is not enough, of course, to establish a working democracy in any country. But the result may well be a genuine expression of the popular view. Most ordinary Russians, thoroughly inoculated against the western model by the chaos, humiliation, poverty and corruption of the Yeltsin years and angered by endless hectoring and ill-conceived advice from the west, are willing to pay a price in democracy for the stability and growing prosperity that have accompanied the Putin years. So in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections they twice voted heavily for a continuation of the 'Putin system'. In the circumstances, that was a rational choice.
Braithwaite's article makes some excellent points, but the analogy between Putin's role in Russia and that of the British colonialists in India is far-fetched. Under British rule, the resources of India were mobilised for Britain. Under Putin's rule, the resources of Russia have been mobilised for Russians.
And what of the ability of the people to choose their political system? Is Russia's current system one that the people have chosen? Not exactly: the structure of political systems is determined, in all countries, by the outcome of struggles between social forces and the economic interests which they represent. There is no pure, untainted way of judging what is the 'choice' of the people. Nevertheless, the current system in Russia does have support among the people in that country. Another article in the the Financial Times reported on an opinion poll conducted by the respected Levada Centre in February 2007:
When asked what political system they thought was most appropriate for Russia, 35 per cent said "the Soviet system we had before the 1990s" and 26 per cent said "The current system". Only 16 per cent opted for "democracy based on the western model".
Like election results, opinion poll results depend greatly on the way in which the questions are posed. In 1996, while President Yeltsin was in office, the Levada Centre asked the participants in one of its regular polls to rate "how well our political system works"; 38% gave the system a positive evaluation. Then in 2007, they posed the same question; 69% gave the current system a positive evaluation.
In the same surveys, the Levada pollsters also requested the participants to evaluate "The political system before perestroika?", that is, under the Soviet system. In 1996, 60% of respondents gave that previous system a positive rating. In 2007, 68% of the the participants gave the Soviet political model a positive evaluation.
Death by democracy
And how democratic are the the USA's Europe-based 'anti-missile' missiles and radars? In the countries where the bases will be built, most of the people do not want them. The US government claims that the purpose of these installations is to counter the rather unlikely proposition of a threat to the US mainland from Iran. One can presume without much doubt that, if asked, most Iranians would also not be in favour of these installations. At the very least, Vladimir Putin's vocal opposition to the proposed US Polish and Czech bases has not reduced his popularity among the Russians.
To spend so many billions of dollars, and to proceed in the face of such resistance, one must imagine that, in some possible eventuality, these radars and missiles would serve some useful purpose.
The Cold War is over, but the relationship between the USA and Russia is again becoming rather chilly. And while the Arctic ice recedes, technology is improving. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the house magazine of the USA's policy and security elite, Scott G. Borgerson argues as follows:
Thanks to global warming, the Arctic icecap is rapidly melting, opening up access to massive natural resources and creating shipping shortcuts that could save billions of dollars a year. But there are currently no clear rules governing this economically and strategically vital region. Unless Washington leads the way toward a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict.
At times, when it serves its interests, Washington favours multilateral solutions. At other times, it deploys its military superiority to engage in armed conflict. Perhaps, in the end, a use will be found for those radars and missiles. If that happens, do not expect that the confrontation will be posed in terms of the USA's need to control vital economic and strategic resources. It is more likely that we will be told that this is a war to defend or extend democracy.