Natylie Baldwin asks Nicolai N. Petro about the current state of Russian democracy in the context of its media, justice system, leadership and Western misperceptions.
By Natylie Baldwin
In 2018, Nicolai N. Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, wrote an eye-opening journal article, “Are We Reading Russia Right?” Here, in a series of emails, he answers my questions about the state of Russia today.
Natylie Baldwin: In your 2018 article, “Are We Reading Russia Right?” you attempt to correct some misconceptions many in the west have about the state of democracy in Russia. You point out, for example, that Russia has a much more diverse media that includes reportage and opinion that is critical of President Vladimir Putin Can you explain for readers a bit more about Russia’s media landscape and what percentage of the media that state TV actually consists of and what the demographics are who consume state TV vs. other types of media?
Nicolai N. Petro: Those interested in the current Russian media landscape can turn to the latest Levada Center survey, which compares the situation in 2009 and 2019. A decade ago, 94 percent of Russians got their news from television, today only 72 percent do. For Russians under 25 that figure is 42 percent.
More and more Russians turn to the internet for news. For Russians 35 and older it is their primary source for news. The total audience for independent media (“those that regularly publish points of view distinct from the official”) is estimated to be around 35 percent, but in major Russian cities it is closer to half the population.
The Levada Center’s list of independent media sources includes only the major commercial newspapers, Russian online news sites Lenta.ru, Gazeta.ru, Life.ru, RBK, Echo of Moscow, and foreign news sites that broadcast in Russian, like Meduza.io, BBC, Radio Liberty, and Euronews. Given the widespread, cheap access to the internet in Russia, however, this list de facto knows no bounds.
>Please Donate to Consortium News’ Fall Fund Drive<
Young people, both in Russia and abroad, ask about censorship and where to get reliable information. Here is how Vladimir Posner, the patriarch of Russian television journalists, answered this question recently. Posner, who has his own talk show on Russian television, is consistently rated among Russia’s most trusted journalists.
“. . . you say, ‘where should we get information? ” You have a million options, you can read any foreign newspaper, for a few pennies. Subscribe to The New York Timesand read what they write, read what they write in Le Monde, read what they write in “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” and compare. Be active.
. . . You say there is censorship on television? How to put this … on Soviet television there was censorship. There was an organization called Glavlit. You came into a room with your text, and some old fogey sat there and you left your text with them. If they put a stamp on, it meant you could broadcast. No stamp, no broadcast. That is censorship. Now we have [editorial] control. That is not censorship. Today they might say “that’s not quite what we had in mind.” What can you do? You can’t always get what you want.
I can compare. I know what was then and where we are today. And I’m just happy that today I can work, because then I was forced to resign.”
Baldwin: Another misconception people have about Russia is the state of the justice system. Your article, along with Professor Katherine Hendley’s book “Everyday Law in Russia,” gives a more complete — and different — picture of the state of the justice system in Russia than many Americans often hear about from our establishment media and politicians. Both you and Hendley also go into many of the significant reforms that have been implemented under Putin’s leadership. Can you give readers a few examples of reforms under Putin and what the effect has been for Russia?
Petro: Putin can rightly be called the father of the modern Russian legal system. The principles of modern criminal justice were introduced under his watch into Russia. These include habeus corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs and justices of the peace. And that was just during his first term (for details see my article “The Great Transformation.”)
During Putin’s second term courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy, and ruled that compensation must be paid to persons arrested without merit. Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created.
It is a clear sign of growing public confidence in the judicial system that the number of persons turning to courts for redress of civil grievances has gone from 1 million in 1998, to 6 million in 2004, to 10 million in 2012, to more than 17 million in 2016. Conventional wisdom in the West questions the independence of the Russian judiciary, but if one measures independence by the number of times that courts rule against the government and in favor of private plaintiffs in civil cases, then over the past ten years, Russian courts have been independent more than 70 percent of the time.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these legal reforms is that, in the face of terrorism and secession, not only has Russia created a modern European legal system, it has systematically and deliberately enhanced its more humane components.
Since Putin introduced the new code of criminal procedures, acquittal rates by judges have more than doubled, and are now comparable to those of the United States. Acquittal rates in jury trials are three times higher which, since their expansion nationwide, has resulted in roughly a quarter of those indicted being acquitted. As a result of the liberalization of the penal code, the number of inmates in penal institutions has fallen to less than half a million.Alas, we see the opposite trend in some other countries. Two decades ago per capita incarceration rates for the United States and Russia were nearly identical; today America’s rate is more than twice that of Russia.
Baldwin: Some critics of Putin state that he was more of a reformer during his first two terms as president and has moved away from that since his return to the presidency in 2012. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, what do you think may explain the change?
Petro: I think Russian society has changed, and Putin along with it. In his 1999 pre-inaugural manifesto, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium,” Putin said that Russians are accustomed to paternalism, and presumably needed a firmer hand than Yeltsin could provide. But with many of his reforms having now taken root, much less direct intervention is needed; fine tuning suffices. Over time, therefore, we have seen a dramatic extension of local self-government, with the creation of 27,000 administratively independent municipalities, and the restoration of direct gubernatorial elections. There has also been a notable shift in the response of officials to public protests. While not perfect, the law now affords considerable civil protections to those detained.
In just the past few months the convictions of Ivan Golunov and Yuri Dmitriev have been overturned, Pavel Ustinov’s sentence has been reduced on appeal, and Alexei Menyailo and the other suspects detained in the recent unsanctioned Moscow marches have all been released. The major take-away from all this should be that the system of checks and balances works!
Baldwin: Earlier this year, a few laws were passed that limit media freedom. One involves the distribution of foreign print media. Two others involve the punishment of the deliberate dissemination of untrue information and the public expression of disrespect of the state or society. Can you explain how these laws would actually work and the reasoning behind them? Does this represent a regression by the Putin government?
Petro: Both of these laws, Federal Law 28-03 and Federal Law 30-03, are Russian versions of laws that, in other countries, prohibit, in the first case, disinformation; and, in the second case, lese majeste.
In the case of fake news (Law No. 28), a site can be blocked if it “threatens to endanger the life and health of citizens, if it disturbs the peace, or creates impediments to the work of strategically important infrastructure.” This determination is made by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications oversight agency, at the request of the state procurator. The wording of the law suggests that the intent is to prevent panic and false information being spread in the event of a disaster. Like all laws, it can be abused, but I suspect that Russian courts will uphold its main thrust, on national security grounds.
In the case of lese majeste, a site can be blocked for “obvious” reference to society, the state, state symbols, the constitution, or state authorities “in an indecent manner.” Again, at the request of the state procurator, Roskomnadzor must preliminarily block the site, pending a review by a court.
There has been considerable public criticism of these laws. The head of the Russian president’s Human Rights Commission has vowed to seek a legal review. Fortunately, the procedure for this has been in place for more than a decade, ever since the controversies that surrounded the potential designation of certain NGOS as foreign agents, and seems to work well. The number of NGOs required to register as foreign agents has fallen each year, and currently constitutes just 0.39 percent of all registered NGOs.
Given that it is going to be well-nigh impossible to implement the lese majestelaw without also violating a large number of other Russian laws, I expect the matter will be reviewed sooner, rather than later. I do not favor such laws, but I have faith that the Russian legal system will ultimately find the proper balance in this matter, as it has in others.
Baldwin: This past summer there were protests in Moscow resulting from some candidates who weren’t allowed to run for the Moscow City Council. These protests received a lot of attention in Western media. What were these protests actually about and are they representative of a larger trend of serious dissatisfaction among Russians with the political system? Why did the Kremlin choose to crack down on these protests? Wouldn’t it have been wiser to just let these candidates run and then fade into oblivion as many of them often do?
Petro: The protests were about the failure of opposition candidates to be registered. Not having been able to obtain the minimum number of local signatures (3 percent), some candidates deemed the signature requirement unfair and demanded that they be registered anyway. Election Commission head, Ella Pamfilova, expressed her sympathy for their plight, but pointed out that the law cannot be altered post facto. The proper procedure, she said, is to appeal for changes before the election process begins.
As for the detentions that took place, I am sympathetic to the view that law enforcement agencies should not selectively choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore. The old Roman dictum, “dura lex, sed lex” applies. Temperance and mercy are the appropriate function of the courts which, as I have already suggested, seem to be applying it liberally.
One cannot expect government in a democracy not to commit mistakes; merely, that it take steps to correct these mistakes quickly, so that they do not create even more problems. Comparing Russia’s handling of its public protests to France and Hong Kong suggests to me that Russian authorities understand this, and that Russian society can now accommodate such manifestations without any serious threat to the regime.
Baldwin: In the early years of his presidency, Putin had the regional governors removed. This was heavily criticized in the West. I’ve been told by some who are very knowledgeable about Russia that this was because those regional governors were extremely corrupt and an obstacle to constructive reform in the country. What is your opinion of how Putin dealt with that situation? Has the result been overall positive or negative? What do you think the prospects are for local or regional self-governance in Russia in the near to medium term?
Petro: The system has evolved. From 2005 to 2011, governors were appointed by local legislative (representative) bodies, subject to the veto of the president’s office. In 2012, the direct election of governors in regions was restored.
There is no perfect model for local government. In many European countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland) governors are considered extensions of the national government, and simply appointed. There are advantages and disadvantages to both direct election and direct appointment, which is why I feel that the choice should be left to each country.
Baldwin: In his book “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” Professor Stephen F. Cohen provides the following definition of reform: “change that betters people’s lives, usually by expanding their political freedom, economic freedom, or both. Nor is it revolution or total transformation of an existing order but normally piecemeal, gradualist improvements within a system’s broad historical, institutional, and cultural dimensions.” He also specifies that reform does not have to be rapid or complete to qualify as genuine reform. By this definition, do you think that Putin will likely be seen as a reformer by future historians of Russia?
Petro: Reform can be a good thing or a bad thing. The best reformers, the ones praised by history, seem to know instinctively when to slow down reforms, and when to speed them up.
The reforms that Putin implemented in his first two terms caused enormous upheaval in Russian society, but also resulted in nine straight years of booming economic growth and budget surpluses. Even positive results, however, come with a social cost — intragenerational tensions, inflation and corruption, to name a few.
It is important to always bear in mind that reforms are for the well-being of people, not people for the well-being of reforms. Every sustainable economic and social transition recognizes this, and therefore pauses periodically to allow people to adapt to and accept social changes. Only many years hence will it be apparent whether a given administration was able to achieve the proper balance between the two, since “by their fruits will they be known.” (Matthew 7:16).
Baldwin: You suggest in your article that we in the West have trouble conceptualizing that democracy could exist in Russia — that we seem to think Russia is uniquely incapable of democracy. We seem to not know how to talk about the possibility of democracy in Russia, even when it exists to some degree. Can you expound on that idea?
Petro: What we say about Russia, and other countries, is a reflection of what we already know to be true. Since Western cultural assumptions about Russia cannot envision it as a democracy, evidence of democratic behavior becomes invisible. For Western observers, this has the added benefit of reinforcing the familiar cultural assumptions about Russia that they grew up with.
I have a different perspective because I was raised within the culture of the Russian emigration, and came to this country as an adult. My efforts to expose my professors to a wider variety of interpretations of Russian political culture began in college, and eventually led to my first book “The Rebirth of Russian Democracy“ (Harvard, 1995).
But passive acceptance of the mainstream narrative is only part of the reason for the West’s persistent hostility toward Russia. Another is the unstated assumption that a truly democratic Russia (if one could imagine such a thing) would have to abandon its distinctive cultural characteristics. To the extent that it retains such distinctions, in religion, social norms, and historical interpretation, it must ipso facto not be a democracy.
The problem here, of course, is that “democracy” then becomes merely an aspect of Western culture, rather than an objectively definable phenomenon. De facto this makes “democracy” almost inaccessible to any culture that the West labels as “non-Western,” bringing us back to the argument made earlier about what we already know to be true.
Baldwin: What do you think needs to happen for U.S.-Russia relations to improve?
Petro: As previously isolated parts of the globe become accessible, our perceptions about them change. At first, this can actually heighten fear and revulsion of the strangeness of other cultures, but over time, as larger and more diverse segments of society are exposed to each other, it tends to erode barriers.
I would therefore amend the popular social science dictum that democracies do not go to war with each other, to — countries that have extensive commercial and social contacts with each other, makes war between them unimaginable.
While I am far from believing that such contacts alone will bring about world peace, they certainly seem to have made recourse to all-out war among major powers a rare occurrence. As a result, let me conclude on this optimistic note: if we civilizations can survive long enough, then time does indeed heal all wounds.
Natylie Baldwin’s forthcoming book is “The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations.” She is co-author of “Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated.” She has traveled throughout western Russia since 2015 and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians. She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com.
This article is from natyliesbaldwin.com.
Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment Policy. Allegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive or rude language toward other commenters or our writers will be removed. If your comment does not immediately appear, please be patient as it is manually reviewed. For security reasons, please refrain from inserting links in your comments.
>Please Donate to Consortium News’ Fall Fund Drive<
Let me first say that I am not a democrat because I assess the utter failure of democracy to benefit citizens and instead makes way for unending human slaughter. Well over 200 years of “elections” has produced a monster which has slaughtered innocent people EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR OVER 75 YEARS. No system of government has caused more human suffering than “democracy.”
Using “democracy” to assess a country’s qualities is without foundation and is a flawed view considering the track record of “democracy.”
The US is the front for the one and only Western Empire which is currently engaged in hybrid warfare against the rest of the world which has yet to surrender to “democracy”
I just get sick and tired of people saying well, yes “democracy” has failed so the solution is more democracy, as long as society thinks “democracy” is the end of history and nothing better can ever be achieved are losers, devoid of ideas.
That is not an argument against democracy, but against its corruption.
That which masquerades as democracy is not democracy, including the US.
To discard democracy would leave one with the forces that corrupt it.
A close look at military, economic, and information power show the alternatives.
The people cannot achieve their goals unless they harness those powers.
But perhaps you sought to confuse rather than clarify.
There can be no one size fits all form for Democracy in an multi cultural world, but there can be a close fit between Democratic processes; a guaranteed level of respect towards public expectations of fairness and well being of society by Governed, and those who Govern.
Given access by populace to determining the principals by which they are governed, would allow nations with differing cultural roots and traditions to freely interact with neighboring or even distant nations.
The main reason US was formed as a Republic of several States was in recognition of differing cultural roots overriding any Singular Centalized Powers to mandatec a one size fits all to those individual States.
A Democracy has been described as a Tyrrany of 1, and without a Basis of Human Rights a Democracy can be, as is becoming obvious in US just as Tyrannical a government as any monarchy or Dictatorships.
Define the purpose of Government, and try to State a more dramatic definition than that which was stated in original US founding documents.
One must know not just the written laws but understand the “Spirit” they were written in.
It would seem that Russia while being late to game is refining written laws in order to fit the Spirit ofbLaw, while in US our laws are written and to be obeyed without regards to the Spirit, by those who make the laws to protect only they who write the laws.
This interview is remarkable for its evenhanded and common sense approach to matters “Russian”. Missing, of course…due to space and topic limitations…is the larger context of the continuum of Russian and USSR history, much less its interactive history with Central Europe and its Far East dominions. I can argue, for instance, that Russia / USSR has been invaded eight times since 1812. The geographic region called “Russia” has been subjected to enormous and frightful damage…agricultural, industrial, social…during those elapsed years.
I think that the Putin years have been…with attendant trials and tribulations…very successful in righting the wrongs inflicted upon Russia after the “shock economy” years post-1989. The Putin governments could not have been successful to the extent they are without a large….very large…emergent middle class which supports a substantial movement to improves living standards for all, or most, of the region’s populace. Another arguing point: when does media interpretation of Russian history begin? In 1989 or 1975? Maybe 1953 or 1945? 1941 or 1939? The years 1917-1919? 1914? 1905? 1812? And earlier with the Tatar / Mongol invasions? Maybe CNN / MSDNC / Fox / PBS / broadcast networks can give us break with regard to Russian history so contemporary matters can be put into context.
Hi, Dave. I will be covering that context in my forthcoming book, “The View from Moscow,” which should be out in the winter. The material covered in this interview is incorporated in the chapter that covers what Russia’s current conditions are in the Putin era. Of course, those conditions are considerably different than what we are led to believe by the establishment media.
wrt (Russian) federal Law 28-03: are not the US and several (US) states implementing similar and similarly worded laws with the intent of criminalizing, restricting, or threatening with arrest, dissent and organized protest? Someone help me out here – these (US) laws coming on the heels of the Standing Rock pipeline resistance?
Also I have problem with the concept of “non-sanctioned” or “unauthorized” protests. Seems the whole concept is oxymoronic.
An excellent article. But why on earth would Vlad Posner recommend that awful lying disgrace the New York Times?
I was also taken aback by that – perhaps (I hope) he meant NYT as an example of what’s wrong with US MSM? I have a hard time thinking of any US publication (or news outlet for that matter) that I would recommend anyone read or view. I watch RT almost exclusively, along with subscribing to various internet sources, such as Consortium News. Our small local paper is filled with dreck sourced from the NYT and WaPo, so I can check out there the propaganda and mis/disinformation being circulated around the nation. The American people have no idea how they are being duped and used for the benefit of the oligarchy we call “democracy.” This article makes Russia sound like a paradise of freedom compared to what we live under here. Sad.
To know what Americans are thinking, or being led to believe? I don’t think he meant to read them uncritically.
Reading a wide variety of sources tends to make one harder to be propagandized by any one of them.
I hope his point was to read many sources but I agree that recommending the NYT to anyone that doesn’t already know about its biases is a terrible idea.
Russia is a young country presently emerging from a cold war with ambitions based on the successful model of western capitalism. To the East they share a border with China that has emerged from feudalism then communism then capitalism to emerge as the largest economy. The United States Military Industrial Complex (MIC) which rules Washington politics and has recently shown its disappointment in Trump’s withdrawal from Syria as a betrayal of Western doctrines revealing once again it cannot evolve due to the entrenched economic dependence of defense contractors on taxpayer dollars to create the largest military machine on the planet in terms of dollars. The United States is locked in a financial covenant with the MIC which was born out of the victory in WWII in which the MIC demands future enemies and creates current crises in order to justify its role in gaining contracts for munitions and increasing their corporate profits based on a single enemy the Russians who also happened to be our ally in defeating the Nazis.
It is a historical footnote often ignored fact that if not for the Russian Army we would have surely lost WWII. Anticommunist pressure created the cold war despite this fact of history. Rather than recognizing Russia as the key ally in the victory in WWII we created a permanent armaments industry the size of which the World has never seen consisting of atomic weapons, new weapons platforms and an economic reality that has locked military spending to the wealth of the nation.
To get Americans to go along with the creation of the Russian boogeyman there were witch trials and an entire effort by the military the FBI and the CIA to boost the military industries grown out of the war and also to control the mass media to portray Russia as an existential threat. Successions of presidents fell in line from Eisenhower to Obama that obeyed the Washington politics dictated by the military which created the wars from Korea to Syria base on anti Russian policy.
The long succession of proxy wars that were lost has led up to the current US withdrawal by Trump from Syria not unlike the evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon. What happened in Vietnam? Nothing. Today the country is a strong economic power in the region. What will happen in Syria under the tutelage of Putin? Nothing. The real threat to nations today is the runaway freight train of the United States MIC. Unfortunately for Trump he is the obstacle in the way of the brainwashing initiative to foment further US militarism in the middle east. They will impeach him not because he strong armed the Ukrainians but because he has repeatedly attempted and recently successfully concluded a military withdrawal from Syria. We will see the MSM lament and blame Trump for this or that in regards to the Syrian withdrawal. It may become another tool for impeachment. We will feel the betrayal of the Kurds and will likely side with the MIC that the war in Syria should go on to prevent Russia and Turkey from interfering and to protect a Kurdish homeland which has not existed.
The one thing the MSM and the MIC and Washington will not do is to give Trump his due in ending the hostilities begun by Obama in Syria.
I think you have it right. But, “…the MSM and the MIC and Washington…” seems redundant. Washington is where the MIC controls the MSM. I think something like “MIC media or MICM would clarify.
Indeed “rather than recognizing Russia as the key ally … in WWII we created a permanent armaments industry … effort by the military the FBI and the CIA to boost the military industries grown out of the war and also to control the mass media … presidents fell in line from Eisenhower to Obama” and of course the MIC was allied throughout with the Zionist/WallSt/Oligarchy factions that chose its targets.
On the censorship laws, the argument cannot be simply that the statements and intent of such laws is just. The problem is that the boundaries and nature of censorship are always on a slippery slope downward to non-democratic authoritarianism. Bounds must be rigorously defined and that is not really possible, unless prosecution is limited to demonstrably injurious effects, where no censorship law is needed anyway.
More detailed analysis of democracy in Russia would be very valuable. Arguments pro and con, challenge/response debates, of what is and might be, and comparisons with other democracies. Also, comparisons with the US, which certainly no longer has a democracy. The points of comparison might be the extent of improper influences, such as bribes/donations/revolving-doors for officials and their parties and controlled mass media, abuse of secret agencies for domestic and foreign policy not approved by the people, control of public/private mass media by interest groups, judicial corruption, escape of taxes by the rich, etc.
It would also be very valuable to hear more detailed analysis of how the USSR collapsed with so little violence: what were the sympathies of enforcement agencies, etc. Is that a usable model for reform of other authoritarian governments such as the US.
Make it a series!
Hi, Sam. I tend to agree with you on censorship – most definitely within the context of more established democracies. I think perhaps in the case of Russia, this is why Petro brought up the comment about successful reformers instinctively knowing when to push ahead with reform and when to slow down or pull back a bit. Some context must be kept in mind here: Putin is trying to shepherd through democratic reform on a country that was literally on the verge of being a failed state when he took power. It is also a country that has historically very little substantive experience with democracy. He has to balance out various competing interests in the country. There exists within Russia a vocal segment of opposition (larger than the western-touted neoliberal opposition) that is right-wing and nationalist. Putin has to be careful about managing any potential significant backlash to “liberal” reforms. If it’s one thing that Russians in general don’t want it’s any more social upheaval. They’ve had nothing but that over the past 100 years. They want stability.
Hi Natalie. Your website (linked to your name) provides interesting views on current policy in Russia. I certainly hope that their constitutional commission is well advised, to protect its institutions and mass media from economic and information power, to avoid what has happened to the US. Russia of course has much more recent experience there than the US. Such protections may be presented as “conservative reforms” to avoid worrying the right wing nationalist opposition.
Balanced textual debates on the above points of comparison of the US and Russia and China would be invaluable.
If Mrs Clinton reads this, you’ll soon be added to her long list of Putin assets
Interesting. It would seem that while Russia, which has almost no history of democratic governance, is making strides in implementing democratic governance, in “The West” actual democratic governance is on the wane…
We know less than nothing about Russia because we’ve been lied to for 100 years about the tyranny of their communism. And, in the absence of their communism, Russia is still accused of being communist and our IC would have us believe that Americans inherit goodness while Russians are genetically predisposed to corruption and deceitfulness. Before the internet, I had no way of knowing, that I knew of.