CEU Democracy Institute Hosts "Grasping Russian Democracy With Mind: Can We Still Believe in It?"

An online roundtable of the CEU Democracy Institute brought together distinguished experts on March 1 for the second edition of Hotspots of Democracy roundtable discussion series to seek an answer to the question: Can we still believe in Russian democracy? 

The event, "Grasping Russian Democracy With Mind: Can We Still Believe in It?" was moderated by CEU’s President and Rector, Michael Ignatieff and Professor Dimitry Kochenov, Senior Research Fellow at CEU Democracy Institute. The discussion brought together BBC-journalist Elizaveta Fokht, political analyst Ivan Krastev (Centre for Liberal Strategies) and Sergey Lagodinsky, Member of the European Parliament, who addressed the question whether we can still believe in the rise of a liberal type of democratic system in Russia, as well as issues of public opinion and propaganda, Navalny’s role and achievements, and the internal and external power on Russia and Putin’s regime.

Michael Ignatieff delivered an opening quote by Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev: “You cannot grasp Russia with your mind…You can only believe in her,” and raised the question with a historical reference and a comparison between the Decembrist movement and Navalny: Can we wait another 40 years for democracy in Russia?

“Only time will show, and it is true for Russia,” declared Elizaveta Fokht on the prospects of the preliminary election, coming this September. According to the journalist, the opposition has faced a major crackdown after the protests following the poisoning of Navalny who was just sent to penal colony. “The government has so many options, and the opposition has not. The people do not have trust in the institutions of the election and even Putin supporters do not believe that elections are fair."

Then Sergey Lagodinsky turned the light on the issue that liberal democracy is not just a question of the EU versus Russia, pointing out the differences between Western and Eastern Europe as well: “There are different shadings, degrees and varieties in the definition of liberal democracy, it is about embracing or not embracing the values of we think are universal,” he said, adding that people in power create alternative proposals and models – referring to Hungary. On one hand, Lagodinsky is optimistic that we could witness a rise of a new political opposition in Russia - one that is is decentralized, digitalized and does not just think but also does oppositional politics in a new, innovative way. On the other hand, new ways of oppression and pollution of information are emerging.

“It is as difficult to imagine the post-Putin era in the Russian Federation as life on Mars,” said Ivan Krastev, adding that “the paradox of the Russian political system is that the strengths and the weaknesses are the same: it is anchored to one figure.” According to him, the elections are not important. The populist support of the government is what matters. He also thinks that the Navalny-effect is about trying to break out from the current system, and that the Biden-effect is that we have to take the reaction of the international public opinion into account.

Is there room for optimism?

Ignatieff and Fokht then shared a common pessimism. “Democracy always has a future, that comes after election, it always has a succession plan, but Russia has no succession plan. Maybe the system has a short future but has the weapons to roll power and oppression,” Ignatieff said. Fokht added: “We also don’t know how will Navalny address total isolation in prison. There hasn’t come sanctions against Russian businesses and it is even a bigger risk to support him.”

Addressing external influence and power, Lagodinsky emphasized that the European Union has proved that it is incapable of resolute and effective foreign policy. He even suggested the total reconsideration of the nature of sanctions. “We have hoped, we have constructed resolutions, negotiated resolutions, made proposals but we do not have leadership in foreign policy. People don’t understand this. According to sanctions, politicians are afraid of that the EU Court of Justice will declare that it will not work.”

“Nobody can force Russia how to do domestic policy,” declared Ivan Krastev. External pressure and support are also counterproductive as Navalny is framed as someone who is working for Western interests. Krastev also said that there is no real discussion between Russia and the West. Both sides are living old dreams and waiting for the other to be weaker: “Russia is not seen as a rising power and Russia sees the West as declining.”

Fokht highlighted the experienced apolitical attitude of Russian people. The majority is still supporting Putin. They don’t care about sanctions and there are not many who are willing to take risk as they struggle economically. “The next election will be a good indicator, how much oppression you need to get the numbers, “ she added.

According to Lagodinsky, the problem with Putin is that his charisma has carried him for 20 years, but he has a problem adjusting to aging, and he is not able to find the role of an elder statesman. He is also struggling to legitimatize alternatives and turned the regime from authoritarian to totalitarian. Still, he has no good prospects on the future of Russian democracy and thinks that the system can survive longer than people maybe hope for. 

Is there social support?

But what are the prospects of the decomposition of social support to Putin’s regime? According to Krastev, it is important to note that many Russians think that the West wants to destroy and disintegrate their country: “The majority of the people who govern Russia think that what happened with Navalny was an operation done by Western intelligence.”

Krastev also added that many Russians believe that Covid-19 is a biological weapon and was created in a lab. Staying with the current pandemic situation, he also emphasized the importance of the Sputnik V vaccine: “Russians are sensitive to technology issues and there is an insisting that, with developing a vaccine, Russia is a tech power and an indicator of sovereignty - a sovereign state in the 21st century.”

However, according to the analyst who referred to competitive decadence, Putin is governing his own generation and there will be a generational change. “It is a problem not just in Russia, but politically, it is a bigger problem there than elsewhere.”

Fokht was on the same page and emphasized that Navalny’s nationalist past is now a problem for him. Even if he changed massively, it means a red flag in the eye of many people in the West, noting that it is important not to underestimate propaganda in Russia. She quoted a result of a survey from December 2020: “30 percent of the people thought that Navalny’s poisoning was just a stage.”

Krastev then added that not only Russians believe in ridiculous things. He emphasized that Navalny’s achievement is that he is on the stage. “He is a behavioral alternative, if not a political one. Situations can change quickly, and so do the polls’ results.” According to him, Navalny and his supporters are betting that they will provoke the regime to overreact and people will say enough is enough. “You can’t defeat regimes this way. Regimes defeat themselves,” he said. Turning back to reference the pandemic, he also compared the situation to Covid-19: it did not disrupt the system, but showed its weaknesses.

Furthermore, it is impossible to see Putin’s goals. Krastev disagrees with the belief that somebody can stay in power in 20 years only for money. “It is more that if you won’t be there, your vision of Russia will not be there.”

“The whole bunch of his amendments has created an appearance, a ceiling and a certifying of the formal transition of Russia from the rails of a liberal, Western-oriented democracy to the rails of an illiberal and not international-oriented democracy," Lagodinsky continued.

According to Fokht, 2024 will be a real test for Putin, but the main question is whether Russian people will remain neutral, apolitical, and what their definition of “good for Russia” is. “It is important for regimes that people stay out of politics. But it will happen sooner or later,” she noted.

On the possible threat of Russian propaganda on the West, and the highlighted importance of defending universal values, Lagodinsky said that everyone has their homework in showing and proving the value of the liberal democracy, in Eastern Europe as well, adding that “even if there is an ideological offer from Russia that is exported and signaled, no offer will be popular if there is no demand on our side.”

Article by Emese Dobos.

Watch the full discussion here:

The CEU Democracy Institute strives to enable the renewal and strengthening of democratic and open societies through world-class research, collaboration across academic and professional disciplines, the free exchange of ideas, and public engagement on a local, regional, and global scale. The Institute is based at Central European University’s campus in Budapest, Hungary.

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