It is Harder to be an Optimist
On November 12th the results of the ‘Baltic Practice 2009’ summer school were presented at the HSE together with a debate on ‘Does Russian Democracy fit the European Standards?’
The 9th Baltic Practice took place far from Baltic shores, but close to the heart of the European Union - in Bruges, and this emphasizes the new status and format of the Practice:starting from this year, the project is not only a summer school, but also a Russian-European centre for interdisciplinary research, dealing with the problems of Russia-EU relations.
Figures also demonstrate that the project is expanding. It was the first time that representatives of 11 HSE faculties and schools took part in the Practice, as well as participants from other Russian universities, who formed five research groups on:Entrepreneurship Theory:Current Problems of Entrepreneurship Research in Russia;Human Rights:National and International Institutions and Mechanisms;The Bologna Process:Double Diplomas;Corporate Governance, Corporate Culture &Corporate Social Responsibility;and Democracy/ Democratic development:Civil culture, Global civil society, global institutions
Plenary sessions and debates were held in Bruges over five days, and the quality of every participant's work was evaluated by the project experts. The week resulted in about 40 reports,, with the best of them being included in the third edition of a special book about this project.
Academic Director of the Baltic Practice, Nina Belyayeva, Head of the HSE School of Public Policy, reminded the audience that the book was the reason for the creation of the Editorial Board which includes Alexander Chepurenko, Dean of the HSE Faculty of Sociology, Rustem Nureev, Head of the HSE Faculty of Economy Department of Economic Analysis of Organizations an Markets, Stanislav Tkachenko, Professor of the Saint Petersburg State University, Vladimir Bryushinkin, Professor of the Immanuel Kant Russian State University, Stefano Bianchini, Professor of the Bologna University, Leonidas Donskis, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy at Vytautas Magnus University (Latvia) and a Member of the European Parliament, Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, Professor of the Frankfurt School of Business and Management, and Neil Jarman, Director of the Institute for Conflict Research (Belfast).
The work of the research groups continued after the seminar in Bruges was over, and the participants formed two teams which had to convince the audience and the specially created jury whether Russian democracy was compatible with the European standards, or not. Although the skeptics had a considerable numerical advantage (6 people vs. 3), both teams had 10 minutes to present and argue their theses. This tough format aimed to give the audience an overview of how the discussions at the summer Baltic Practice are held.
The judges of the debates included Sergey Obyedkov, associate professor of the HSE School of Applied Mathematics and Informatics Department of Data Analysis and Artificial Intelligence, Oksana Chernenko, Executive Director of the HSE Foundation for Education Innovations and Alexey Titkov, associate professor of the HSE Faculty of Applied Political Science School of Public Policy.
The ‘skeptic'team leaded by Galina Petrenko, presented a list of specific features of the Russian political and social systems which prevent it from being called a European democracy. Executive power in Russia undoubtedly dominates the other branches and it is debateable whether or not a real (not declared) separation of powers exists in this country. Russia is a federation only nominally, since the heads of regions are appointed from Moscow, elections are losing their legitimacy, as proved in the October 2009 elections in Moscow. Most Russian media is not free, and journalists are not able to express their own opinions, instead having to reflect the government's point of view. Opposition and protesting meetings and rallies are banned or suppressed. Finally, state power is becoming more and more closely linked to the church.
Another fundamental difference from Europe is the outstanding level of corruption, often tolerated at all levels, while in Europe even some insignificant abuses of power by state officers lead to scandal - for example the recent series of resignations in the British government. And it is almost impossible for ordinary Russian citizens to protect their rights.
The team of ‘optimists'headed by Denis Kurakin admitted that it was difficult to defend their position, ‘especially within the walls of the Higher School of Economics', but expressed their arguments for the European standards of Russian democracy.
The whole set of rights specific for traditional democracies is present in Russia. The opposition represented by communists has the opportunity to protest and criticize the government and the president. There are enough independent media, electronic (‘Ekho Moskvy, Ren-TV and ‘Pyatiy Kanal'newscasts), as well as printed (‘Vedomosti', ‘Novaya Gazeta', 'The New Times'). And the most important thing is that, according to Levada Center polls, more than 70% of Russians want to live in a democratic country.
Furthermore, we shouldn't forget that Russia itself has only recently become a democracy and time is needed to set all the necessary institutions to work. The European Union also has some countries where views of democracy are still uncertain, if not to say questionable - for example, Latvia, where almost half of the population are not citizens.
Denis Kurakin's team also tried to play the Latvia card when it was time to question their opponents. If the Latvian democracy is suitable for EU membership, then in what way is Russia worse? The response was not reassuring:while Latvia admits its existing problems and is ready to address them, the Russian government rejects the assertion that there are any problems in the human rights area.
Olga Melitonyan, Deputy Director of the HSE Center for Corporate Governance, used the example of Latvia to ask her opponents to express their view on what motives could be used by countries choosing the democratic way of development. Denis Kurakin's team suggested that Latvia's interests have been primarily economic: it could rely on the financial help from rich European countries. Galina Petrenko's team responded that in this case, development of democracy is not to the advantage of the Russian elite, since economic wealth has been in recent years based on ‘vertical power'.
The common ground of both teams was the idea of which democratic standards are fundamental. Apart from separation of powers, transparency and openness of the political process, common civil freedoms and freedom of press, they particularly emphasized the ability to appeal to the higher European court. So, it looks like no government, even the most democratic one, can be trusted absolutely.
In the end of the debates the opponents answered two questions posed by the members of the Baltic Practice Editorial Board.
Carsten Herrmann-Pillath asked how cultural and historical circumstances influence the development of a federalist system in large countries. The ‘Optimists'quoted Charles de Montesquieu who thought that the larger the country is, the harder it is to establish a democracy on its territory. The ‘Pessimists'reminded us that Russia was not a federation either under the Tsar neither in soviet times, and even the contemporary constitution assumes the inequality of regions'rights:republics have far more rights and responsibilities than other subjects of the federation.
In his question, Stanislav Tkachenko touched upon the subject of agriculture and protectionism,widespread in some EU countries (e.g. France). The opponents agreed that it was necessary to protect national farmers, but their views on the methods of this protection differed. The ‘optimists'thought that instead of subsidies, the farmers should be given access to cheap credits, and the ‘pessimists'argued that the main task was to build an effective logistical system of sales and to focus on the internal market.
The voting of the jury marked the end of the debates, and Galina Petrenko's team won by a small margin. However, the losing side was consoled by the fact that voting among the wider audience favoured their arguments.
Now the Baltic Practice participants will have to decide where the 10th anniversary summer school will take place. There are two options - Oslo or Brighton, and the final decision will be taken at the Practice winter seminar in January 2010. All HSE students are invited to take part in the work of the research groups!
E-mail address of the Department of Public Policy:firstname.lastname@example.org
Full report on the presentation and debates
Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service