Staunton, August 25 – Both supporters and opponents of the current Russian regime routinely argue that Russian cultural traditions explain why the country has not become a democracy with the rule of law, “an ‘iron’ argument” that is not nearly as compelling as those on either side of the political divide who invoke it believe.
In a posting on the Slon.ru portal, Vladimir Gelman, a Russian professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says that many of those who rely on cultural determinism to explain why in Russia political and legal institutions are so ineffective and weak are not only failing to consider other factors but justifying their own passivity (slon.ru/blogs/gelman/post/442402/).
Still worse, he suggests that this view, if it remains unchallenged, could lead to a situation where Russia would be confronted with a choice between “the destruction of this country” in order to achieve decent administration or “the introduction on its territory of external administration by those countries where institutions are more effective.”
“The most popular answer” to the question “’why in Russia are political and legal institutions so ineffective and the state of democracy and rule of law so depressing’” is that the country’s inherited “cultural tradition” represents an insurmountable barrier to “successful institutional development.”
It is used by both “apologists of the current Russian political regime” like Vladislav Surkov and its most thoroughgoing critics like Valeriya Novodvorskaya, Gelman writes, and it is invoked by scholars in the Russian Federation and those outside, who routinely cite polling data in support of this idea.
One of the implications of this approach, he continues, is that “it is possible to assert that the citizens of Russia in the sphere of politics and law have exactly the situation they deserve – namely an authoritarian state not based on law.” And another is that because that is so, “the preservation of the current status quo in our country is justified.”
But Gelman argues that those who assert that in all the political and legal misfortunes of Russia, its culture is ‘guilty’” are at the most only partially correct, as a closer examination of the situation demonstrates.
First of all, the Russian scholars points out, “many comparative investigations show that from the point of view of attachment to the ideals of democracy and rule of law, Russians are not so different from a variety of other post-communist countries which have been more successful in the sphere of institution building.”
The World Values Survey, for example, found that Russia was among a group of Orthodox post-communist countries like Bulgaria and Romania. And other more recent research showed that Russians are “not much more than their East European neighbors” inclined to a revision of the results of privatization.”
Second, Gelman insists, “it is far from obvious that cultural barriers on the road to the establishment of democracy and the rule of law are completely impassable even in the short-term.” Over the last decade, such institutions have taken root in countries like Mongolia and Benin.
“And even if one were suddenly to suggest that Russians are more anti-democratic than the residents of Benin and suffer from a deeper legal nihilism than the residents of Saudi Arabia,” Gelman continues, “this does not mean that our country is not in a position to follow their models.”
And third, he says, constant invocation of the cultural determinist model with regard to Russian institutions of democracy and rule of law can involve “far-reaching political consequences” because if one says that “it is impossible in principle to improve [such] institutions in one or another country,” there are only two ways out.
Either the resolution of these problems will require, the Russian historian says, “the destruction of this country (just like the fate of the Soviet Union),” or there will be a need for “the introduction on its territory of external administration by those countries where [such] institutions are more effective.
It is therefore “completely possible that sometime or other Russia will proceed along one of these paths or even both together, but so far our country, of course, is not prepared to discuss these outcomes in a serious fashion” or to consider the ways in which Russians themselves could take things into their own hands and change the outcomes.
Gelman says that when he hears about “the cultural incompatibility of Russia with democracy and the rule of law,” he recalls two visits he made to a major regional center in the middle of the 1990s and then somewhat more recently, a visit that highlighted not the dead hand of culture but the powerful impact of political choices.
When he visited this city the first time, there was trash everywhere, something that local officials said reflected “the local culture.” But when he returned, the trash was gone, not because the culture had changed, but because there was a new mayor who organized communal services more effectively.
“Perhaps,” Gelman writes by way of conclusion, “it is time for [Russians] to stop referring to the impassible barrier created by the cultural ‘inheritance of the past,’ and simply learn how to choose worthy rulers and to create effectively working institutions.”