Russia after the Elections: Potential for Common Values
Thank you, Mr. Karas. I am honored to have a place on this distinguished panel, and to contribute to such an important discussion.
Over the last few years, there has been a great deal of focus on the differences between Russia and the U.S., or Russia and the West. We have disagreed on NATO expansion, missile defense, Kosovo, and the U.S. prosecution of a struggle against terrorism, extremism and rogue states. These disagreements have often been heated. Leaders and experts on both sides have even suggested that we are moving into a second Cold War, in which our countries are once again adversaries – in which what is good for the West is bad for Russia, and vice versa.
I think we can all recognize that this is not true. And I do not think there is any doubt that the U.S. and Europe recognize the importance of Russia as a leader and a force for good in the world. The emergence of a strong, ascendant Russia from the ashes of the Soviet Union is probably one of the greatest achievements for international peace and security in recent history, and we value Russia as a partner in the promotion of mutual goals. It is in all of our interests to see Russia continue down a path of stability and prosperity.
This is why the U.S. and Europe support the continued social and political development of the Russian Federation, and why we feel obliged to voice concern over issues that threaten that development. Our intent is not to destabilize Russia or attempt to undermine its independence, but to provide what aid and assistance we can to citizens, activists and leaders who want to see a strong Russia that provides for its people, protects them and promotes their interests.
I think it is particularly unfortunate that democracy and human rights – which, in their broadest, and most apolitical sense, are maybe the closest our world has ever come to a system of universal values – have become issues that divide our nations, rather than unite us.
However, both Russia and the U.S. are in the midst of a period of political change and transition, in which both countries must reexamine priorities and determine their direction for the future. It is a time of national dialogue, certainly – but it can also be a time of international dialogue, in which our countries can emerge from the ideological standoff in which we seem to have become entrenched.
Our current disagreements on democracy and respect for human rights are significant. However, I firmly believe that much can come of open and honest discussions on these issues – especially the opportunities for sharing experiences and learning from each other. In my opinion, it is an area in which continued cooperation will reap long-term benefits for each of our countries.
With respect to democratic values and human rights, we are all works in progress. This is why we talk about democracy as a process, rather than an end result, and why we must be open to acknowledging the faults and weaknesses within our democratic structures, so we can better address them. In the U.S., we struggle with voter apathy and cynicism and with a political system that can be perceived as favoring the elite over the average citizen. I know that Europe faces many of these same problems. And we are all familiar with the concerns and criticisms that are regularly levied against Russia regarding its democratic system.
However, a well-informed and motivated citizenry is a critical component of a strong and stable democracy. It is in any government’s best interest to promote basic freedoms, transparency and the rule of law, because this encourages respect for social and political institutions and legal norms among its citizens. After all, a population that is distrustful or dismissive of its government, leaders and legal system can quickly undermine even a seemingly-stable regime. What is most important, therefore, is to make sure that governments promote a “culture of democracy” in which citizens are stakeholders in the democratic system with all the ensuing rights and obligations.
According to a poll that IRI conducted in February 2008, however, Russia’s culture of democracy – the trust that Russians place in the various institutions of democracy – remains underdeveloped. When asked to indicate their level of trust in a variety of political, civic and governmental structures, respondents gave high marks to the presidency: more than 80 percent either liked or rather liked the Russian presidency, compared to just 14 percent who did not. The numbers for Russia’s parliament, however, were considerably less encouraging: only about 43 percent indicated trust in the State Duma and the Federation Council. And trust in other democratic institutions is downright troubling: a majority of Russians distrust the media, the legal system, trade unions and political parties. Looking at this data, I think it is clear that Russia’s democratic culture is in trouble. In order to ensure the future stability of the socio-political structure, it is critical that Russians demonstrate more confidence in all aspects of government – not just the presidency. This is one issue on which, I believe, we can all agree – in fact, it is a sentiment that I have heard expressed by representatives of both the Russian government and the opposition.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) contributes to this process in Russia by providing leaders and activists with platforms for discussion and the exchange of experiences, as well as networking opportunities and consultation and advice from colleagues at the local, national and international level. We understand that we are not, nor do we wish to be, the driving force behind change and reform. This right, and responsibility, belongs to the citizens themselves. In other words, IRI’s approach has always been one of cooperation and consultation with Russian partners.
IRI is dedicated to working with parties across the political spectrum, including the ruling party, to help tailor messages, communicate with voters and promote single-issue campaigns. We conduct public opinion polling to help our partners in the government, the civil society sector, and the opposition to better understand, and respond to, constituent priorities.
I am proud of the work IRI has done in the Russian Federation, but more importantly, I think it demonstrates that democracy development and human rights promotion can be a cooperative effort. In fact, our efforts are strengthened by the support of government officials throughout Russia, and we look forward to increasing that cooperation in the future.
One specific area in which this cooperation has already had some positive results, and promises even more, is in promoting community activism. A strong civil society is critical to any functioning democracy. Well-run civil society organizations (CSOs) can serve as important conduits between citizens and elected officials, strengthen community and social ties and help local governments deliver or improve services. All of this makes for better governance, more involved citizens and more cohesive socio-political structures. In the U.S., civil society organizations such as religious institutions, political parties, labor unions, issue-focused activist networks and community organizations are the foundation of our democratic system.
At the same time, civic activism is changing as our societies become increasingly globalized. For instance, civil society can now include anything from a small community association to an international, multi-million dollar organization. Individuals support more causes, or different causes, than before because their access to information has grown. And unfortunately, non-profits can be used to mask criminal activity including fraud and tax evasion. The rapid changes in civic activism present new challenges for all of us.
But I think it is obvious that these challenges are especially daunting for Russia’s post-Communist civic sector, which is still in the early stages of development. Instead of adapting an existing, well-established organization to meet these challenges, Russian CSOs have to address them from their very inception. In other words, newer Russian CSOs have a much higher learning curve when it comes to concepts such as website development, fundraising over the internet, networking at the national and international level, and meeting basic accounting standards. Nonetheless, it is critical for the Russian civil society sector to address these issues if they are to survive, let alone provide the necessary support to Russia’s democratic system.
While we may differ on the efficacy of these measures, I think it is clear that recent steps taken by the Russian government demonstrate that they at least understand the influential role NGOs can play. This is, I think, an area where shared experiences, discussion and cooperation can mean the difference between a robust and independent, but also professional and well-regulated, civil society – as opposed to one that collapses under the weight of bureaucratic and political pressure.
For its part, IRI works with individual NGOs to strengthen their internal structures. This includes identifying a core mission, developing effective communication and fundraising strategies, and ensuring transparency and accountability to donors, communities and government oversight bodies. IRI has also worked closely with the Public Chamber, Russia’s federal umbrella organization for CSOs, to find ways in which the Russian government can aid, instead of hinder, the development of the civil society sector.
For example, I do not think any of us would dispute the need for legislation regulating the registration and activities of an NGO. My own organization, IRI, is subject to the regulations of the U.S. government as well as the laws of the countries in which it operates. In my view, however, Russia’s recent NGO law went too far, and created so many procedural hurdles that many Russian organizations simply were unable to meet them. Many of them disbanded. Others just ignored the rules and continue to operate under the radar. Either way, the law has created even more problems for Russia’s civil society.
Consequently, IRI has worked with the Public Chamber to develop a list of recommendations on how the law might be amended to minimize unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for NGOs while still demanding better standards for accountability and transparency. We have been encouraged by this work, and I think our Russian partners in the Public Chamber and the larger civil society sector agree that this is an area where more dialogue and cooperation could do a lot of good.
I also think we can all benefit from a discussion on how to engage our countries’ young people. It is vital to the long-term health of any democracy that children and young adults are encouraged to be good citizens, and that we invest in their education and development so that they will, in turn, invest in the good of their countries. However, it seems all too common in both Russia and the West for young people to feel alienated from the current political system. Youth often believe that the political and civic sectors are not concerned with their needs and priorities and are not interested in the ideas, support and leadership that young people can offer.
This is problematic, because the issues that concern youth, including education, economic opportunities and social justice, are important to a nation’s future stability and prosperity. Governments disregard them at their own peril. But widespread apathy among young people also contributes to a sense of isolation from the broader community.
On the other hand, when youth are engaged, they demonstrate an amazing capacity for passion and activity. In recent years, we have seen what a potent political force young people can be in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as in our own countries.
In Russia, IRI has noted both encouraging and discouraging trends among the youth population. According to our February poll, they are, in general, the most optimistic about Russia’s current path (67.5 percent of those 18-29 believe Russia is moving in the right direction, compared to a national average of 60 percent). Russian youth are also more likely to have positive attitudes towards democratic institutions in general. Compared to the general population, youth demonstrate a more sanguine attitude towards the State Duma (48.3 percent fully or rather trust the Duma, compared to a national average of 42.6 percent), political parties (38.2 percent to 31.9 percent), mass media (43 percent to 39.9 percent), the legal system (37.1 percent to 34.4 percent) and trade unions (33.7 percent to 28.4 percent).
At the same time, however, Russian youth are the least likely to vote (54.1 percent reported having voted in the 2007 Duma election, compared to an average of 68.1 percent).
It is important to remember that helping young people to develop a sense of civic activism and leadership is not synonymous with promoting a partisan agenda. In Russia, IRI has always maintained that youth leadership should not be limited to partisan political activity. Instead, our participants are active within their local NGOs, their communities, their universities and their local governments. We encourage them to draw inspiration and examples from their own peers as well as from youth leaders from Europe and the U.S., and all over the world.
IRI provides leadership training to Russia’s youth by cooperating with local and regional governments, youth parliaments, government-run programs for youth and universities. etc. We want to help make sure that Russia’s youth are prepared not only to be leaders in future, but that they are ready to take on social responsibility now. We have worked closely with participants and their organizations to create local and regional networks for emerging young leaders. IRI’s efforts, in cooperation with our Russian partners, have provided young people with the skills and the opportunities to play a part in Russia’s future.
In summary, let me repeat that democracy and human rights are important to citizens of Europe, Russia and the United States. Let us agree that these common values among us be a uniting force, not a divisive one.