Setting the criteria for criteria setting

With its second session being held this year, the second International political forum in Russia’s Yaroslavl is becoming an established and recognized event as well as a one-of-a-kind meeting.

Politicians, political experts, researchers and reporters from different countries have gathered to discuss not some bilateral and limited issues, but rather universal categories such as global security, the role of the state in national economies and, of course, modernization and democracy.

Such an agenda looks more befitting of a university seminar or some other assembly of academics, but the presence of serving politicians makes the reports and discussions active and vivid, sometimes almost to the level that can be seen in certain parliaments.

One axis between which the discussion is held is the age-old contrast between the East and the West. While some Westerners (especially representatives of the United States, and more specifically US presidential advisor Michael McFall), insisted on the universal principals on which a democratic state must be built, participants from Eastern countries like Japan insisted on a balanced approach and suggested that each nation must choose its own path for a truly democratic state.

Though sometimes the discussion slid towards philosophical dispute (one Japanese guest suggested that a nation’s refusal to accept democracy imposed from abroad is more democratic in essence than forced democratization), the general air at the conference was productive. But even amid this productivity, reporters were more focused on criticism of the existing democratic systems. The head of the Russian electoral commission, Vladimir Churov, even presented a speech in which he claimed that no country in the world fully corresponds to any of the recognized criteria of democratic elections. Other participants agreed that any of the existing democracy models has its drawbacks or, as one of the co-organizers of the forum, US sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, pointed out, there are no countries that are better than others when held against democracy, there are only some that are worse.

Russian participants of the discussions included several opposition politicians who looked very different from the rest of the assembly as they chose to criticize the existing Russian political system, rather than discuss the general laws of political development as suggested by moderators. Some of them, like the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky, suggested ways to improve the situation. Others, like Sergey Mitrokhin of Yabloko and Leonid Gozman of the Right Cause party, used all their time to point out the wrong ways of the authorities – past and present. Still, this input was used by other participants of the forum, as the Russians clearly pointed out what should not be considered democracy.

Those of the Russian participants who represented the authorities, like the head of the Russian Institute and one of the forum organizers Gleb Pavlovsky, or the head of the Politika Foundation Vyacheslav Nikonov, concentrated on the challenges that the young Russian democracy is facing. All of them mentioned the substantial legacy of authoritarian rule, the indifference of the population and also the radicalism of those who promote democratic ideas and their inability to find compromise with the party of power and even with the people.

On the other hand, it was said that the mere existence of the Yaroslavl Political Forum testifies to the fact that the authorities in Russia recognize the problem of weak democracy as well as the challenges for the economic modernization derived from it. Several ideas were voiced on how the situation can be improved – from return to the marketplace-type direct democracy by means of modern communication technology to suggestions to build political platforms on the basis of scattered and weak informal social movements – from radical ecologists to advocates of motorists’ rights.

In general, the speakers and guests of the forum shared many ideas that, albeit quite raw, can be of interest not only for Russians, but for the whole international community, as together with the criticism of the existing state of events in the political sphere, they suggested, if not the way to overcome the drawbacks, the direction in which one must head to achieve progress.

For, as Japanese guest, president of the Japanese Association of Political Scientists Yukihiko Tanaka, put it – democracy is not a state, but a process.

Kirill Bessonov, RT