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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Separate but Unequal: The Duality of Free Speech in Russia

N. S. Rubashov, publisher of the excellent new Russia blog Darkness at Noon, has submitted to La Russophobe the following interesting and insightful analysis of the recent report by an international media organization that Russia is the most dangerous nation in the world not at war for a journalist to work in:

Separate but Unequal: The Duality of Free Speech in Russia

The recent release of INSI's report entitled "Killing the Messenger" quickly gained the attention of Russia watchers owing to the sensational revelation that Russia ranks among the most dangerous places on earth for reporters. At least one Russia forum, the blog Siberian Light, was intrigued by the contrast between these statistics and those suggesting that for ordinary people, Moscow is a safer city than, for example, Washington DC. While La Russophobe has disputed the validity of these statistics, the fact remains that in Russia, there is a wide gap between the threats posed to journalists and other critics of the Kremlin and the threats posed to ordinary citizens. While we are becoming all too familiar with mysterious deaths and arrests of prominent critics, there does not appear to be a simultaneous effort to eliminate criticism of the state throughout all strata of society.

There is a very straightforward conclusion to be drawn from this contrast: If you are a critic of the state and possess enough power (whether measured as money, influence, actual political power, readership, or sensitive information) to make the state feel threatened, you are not safe in Russia. Even more disturbingly, you are not safe abroad either. If, however, you are an ordinary citizen, you are more or less safe from the state.

Thus, what matters is not whether you are a critic of the Kremlin and its policies. What really matters is whether your criticism is backed by the power to influence the political process in Russia. Influence of the political process originating outside the Kremlin is viewed as threatening, resulting in well-known recent tragic events. An additional distinction must be made between actual power to influence politics and the perceived power to do so. It is a distinction that analysts must make, but one that the Kremlin is inclined to ignore.

This situation whereby the state is threatened not by what people say but by how much power they have to spread their message suggests that there are two separate strata of free speech in contemporary Russia. Among ordinary people, they are free to criticize the state as much as they like. After all, this is not 1930s Moscow where the only safe conversation took place under the covers in the dead of night. Of course, there are limits to the state's toleration of grassroots criticism, as evidenced by the recent oppositional rally in St. Petersburg. But I would argue that such mass protest events aggregate and multiply the influence of individuals, creating a collectivity that does in fact have the power (or at least the perception of power) to threaten the state. Thus, such mass-mobilization events tend to be viewed with the same hostility as critics of the state that take the form of influential individuals. For good reason, too. As Mark Beissinger's convincing account of the mass mobilizations which brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State demonstrates, such mobilizations have the potential to spread and expand in waves and cascades. But, as Beissinger's analysis shows, a variety of structural and institutional factors must be present in a society in order for these waves of protest to spread. These factors appear to be largely absent in Russia today, as there is little popular support for a new round of democratization.

In contrast, the upper stratum, consisting of those with both perceived and actual power to influence the political process, is characterized by a greatly restricted sphere of free speech, for their actions not only make the state feel threatened but also have the potential to constitute a real threat to the state. Many former and potential critics have understood this situation and voluntarily refrained from outspoken criticism or activism, preferring their physical freedom to free speech. Others have refused to make this tradeoff and have taken one of several routes: into exile, into prison, or into the grave. I won't speculate whether all the individuals in the latter group understood the consequences of their toxic combination of power and opposition, but these events have no doubt "assisted" in educating others about the consequences of taking this path, to put it mildly. As such, they have been a powerful signaling device, one whose message is being heard loud and clear.

Those who are familiar with Robert Dahl's 1971 classic on democratic regimes, Polyarchy, will note that this is the complete inverse of the traditional liberal democratic model as it developed in Western Europe. It was the elites who were first granted liberal rights, usually having wrenched them from unwilling monarchs. Only over the course of centuries were those rights and the rights of political participation gradually extended to the masses. Thus, while for centuries in Europe the elites had liberal rights while the people did not, Russia today is characterized by the opposite: the people have the right to free speech while the elites do not.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this situation, other than the fact that it seems like another case of Russia being upside-down. However, there are some important conclusions to be drawn nonetheless.

First, the separate spheres of free speech in Russia distinguish it from more severe authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. Once again, this is not the Stalinist era. Under totalitarianism, where the ultimate goal of an ideological regime is the fundamental
transformation of humanity, it matters – desperately so – not only what the masses say but also what they think. Nonbelievers cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian system, resulting in their necessary liquidation according to the regime's internal logic.

This contrasts with softer forms of authoritarianism, where the bar for disbelief and opposition is set higher. It must be recognized that even among authoritarian regimes there is a graded scale of severity, and that the bar for opposition is not the same for all authoritarian states. Thus, Russia is not Belarus, which recently passed a measure to eliminate the last realm of anonymous Internet usage by requiring Internet cafes to maintain records of their clients and the websites they visit.

As such, Russia is on the much softer end of this scale, owing to the fact that a great deal of freedom is still possible for most of its citizens. This does not condone the state's recent progress toward authoritarianism, it simply is stated as a fact that in the big picture of nondemocratic regimes, Russia is in a better place than, say, Uzbekistan. Nor is this to say that things will stay where they are, as current events suggest that Russia's slide downward is likely to continue.

More interesting, and frankly more important conclusions, however, are those that can be drawn regarding the possibility for future democratization in Russia. It seems apparent that the elites have been hemmed in, either through their voluntary submission or involuntary silencing. Thus, the only viable realm through which true democratic opposition can emerge is the masses, for unlike a single journalist or businessman, it is not possible to shoot thousands of citizens en masse today. Of course, they will be led by their own elites, but these elites will be nothing without the power of the people behind them.

Unfortunately, those who desire a more democratic Russia should not get their hopes up, as there seems to be little support among the masses for a new era of chaos and instability, factors which characterized Russia's "democratic" transition for most of the 1990s. Most ordinary Russians, it seems, desire a bit of peace, stability, and order, even if it comes at the cost of political liberties. Until this perception changes, there is little reason to believe that popular mobilization will exist on a scale that can truly effect change.

Nevertheless, as analysts and scholars of Russia, this implies that in addition to studying the motivations of the state and its guardians, we must study and understand the motivations of th ordinary citizens. Why were they in the streets in August 1991 but not today? Understanding both sides of the equation – the elites and the masses – will no doubt lead to a more accurate assessment of the possibility for future change, and hopefully someday a Russia where all can be free to express their beliefs.

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