Political Rights and Democracy in Russia: The Challenge of Putting Ideals into Practice
In a recent discussion at the Kennan Institute, William Smirnov discussed the progress of human rights and democracy in Russia. Smirnov examined the basic relationship between political rights and democracy and assessed the progress of human rights in Russia during the transition period. He described several setbacks that have led to the restriction of democracy and suggested several ways to improve the human rights situation in Russia.
Smirnov began by examining the dynamic relationship between democracy and human rights, and stated that many scholars and human rights activists recognize the gap between the definition and application of human rights. For example, it is a common consensus in Europe that political and civil rights are more important than social or economic rights. Political rights are specifically related to democracy because they significantly impact the distribution of power within a nation. In Russia's case, political rights are important because they serve as an indicator of progress for other human rights. Democracy in Russia should not be considered an end in itself, but rather the means to creating a just society that values human rights.
Russian political leaders are faced with the challenge of effectively combining human rights, democracy and a stable order. Post-communist transitions illustrate that liberal democracy cannot emerge without the establishment of political rights, a receptive government and public participation. Although Russia's constitution contains numerous provisions regarding human rights, the reluctance of the Russian Parliament to accept international norms and standards has limited their implementation.
Smirnov explained that with 30 percent of Russians living below the poverty line, the most severe setbacks to the human rights movement are in the social and economic sphere. Nearly 70 percent believe that they have lost social or economic standing since the fall of communism. Russian women, traditionally more educated than men, compose over 60 percent of the unemployed. Illegal detentions and use of violence by federal authorities in Chechnya undermine the values and practices of human rights throughout the entire country. The type of legal and political culture and the concentration of power in the presidential office severely confine political rights in Russia. Other factors such as the attitudes and behavior of the ruling elite combined with institutional restrictions also limit Russians' civil rights.
Smirnov argued that a strong civil society and political parties that represent the interests of the general population are important to improving human rights in Russia. Administrative and electoral reforms that require the government to be more accountable and transparent are also required. Finally, President Putin and others must continue to build dialogue with leaders of non-government organizations to alleviate public mistrust of the government.