Towards a democratic Russia: A Long and Winding Road  – Inaugural lecture by Professor Vladimir Gel’man

Finland Distinguished Professor Vladimir Gel’man gave his inaugural lecture at the University of Helsinki on Tuesday 20th November. The lecture was entitled Regimes and Institutions in Contemporary Russian Politics, following the title of Professor Gel’man’s research project at the Aleksanteri Institute.

Gelman & Niiniluoto

FiDiPro professor Vladimir Gel'man and chancellor Ilkka Niiniluoto

Vladimir Gel’man is the most cited Russian political scientist of today. Thus it was surprising to hear that his career could have taken a very different turn in the early 1990’s: Gel’man was very close to opt for a political career himself.  However, his views of democracy and the processes leading to democratization didn’t suit the dominant trends in Russia, but lead him to a scholarly path instead.

As a scholar of Russian politics and society, Gel’man belongs to a group he himself describes as realists. He doesn’t believe that Russia’s undemocratic past inescapably defines its future, but notes that the democratization process demands not just time but also major efforts.

Russia is not a unique case: many formerly non-democratic countries have evolved or are currently evolving into democracies despite of their initial difficulties. But why hasn’t Russia reached that goal yet? Because it hasn’t actually been on the agenda for neither political elites nor masses. No politician likes to lose power, the possibility of which lies in the core of democracy. On the other hand, people often prefer social stability, even if it means relative lack of rights and freedoms.

Other factors hindering the democratization are the relative resourcefulness and large size of the country, which make it rather immune to international influences, and the fact that ideological motives haven’t played a significant part in politics after Gorbachev’s perestroika. In other words, the reasons are both structural and agency-driven.

Recently there has been a rise of mass political activity in Russia. It seems that nobody is satisfied with the current economic situation. Both the advanced, well to do young voters and the poorer, peripheral voters demand  better governance. The fear of being singled out and punished for dissenting has eased in the era of mass protests and social media while “virtual politics” i.e. lying to the people is becoming increasingly difficult.

So, what is the future of Russian politics and society? Professor Gel’man presented three different scenarios: 1) The preservation (and further decay) of the status quo regime; 2) turn to an “iron fist”- a more repressive regime or 3) a step-by-step creeping democratization. According to Gel’man, the reality may be probably an inconsistent, but definitely interesting combination of these trajectories. Russia will be free, but when, how and at what cost?

Read more about the project.


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