This evening I went to a talk at the Pushkin House, a sort of a Russian cultural centre, given by Bill Bowring, professor of law, practising barrister and a man much involved with human rights and Russia. The talk was entitled Is 'Sovereign Democracy' Compatible with the Rule of Law in Russia? but was not really about that at all. Why, I ask in parenthesis, is it impossible for lawyers to stick to the subject they are supposed to be discussing or even to finish a sentence without darting off in another direction?
Professor Bowring, though extremely knowledgeable about the Russian legal system, its main players and the more recent important cases, spent the time attempting to define "sovereign democracy", the Putinist ideology. He was not very successful, largely because it is such a chaotic ideology, with bits and pieces from Russian Messianism of the Third Rome kind, old-fashioned autocratic nationalism and Soviet bullying. Nevertheless, he gave a reasonable summary of some of the most important writers who are often connected in various ways to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev. A good many of the same points are made in this lecture Bowring gave in February.
Much to the good professor's horror some of the Russian theoreticians of "sovereign democracy" show themselves to have been influenced and to admire the legal theoreticians of fascism and Nazism, Carl Schmitt. It makes sense, given their obsession with strong national identity and the importance of the state. There seems to be no interest in the early nineteenth century ideas of rechtsstaat, that is an autocracy but regulated by law.
One relatively interesting writer of this group is Mikhail Vitalyevich Remizov, now President of the Institute of National Strategy founded by Stanislas Belkovskiy. Remizov is a self-described conservative and differentiates between three important ideologies: conservatism, Marxism and liberalism (in the English sense of the word). He acknowledges that there is little in common between fascism and conservatism and may, even, be smart enough to realize that fascism and Nazism are left-wing ideologies. As far as Russia is concerned, Remizov concludes, neither Marxism nor liberalism are viable ideologies; only conservatism can work and it must defeat both the others. In fact the main enemy for him and other Schmittians is parliamentary democracy.
None of this is particularly surprising but there is an extra ironic twist to it. Professor Bowring is committed to the idea of transnational organizations imposing their views on legality and human rights on sovereign states whether they be parliamentary democracies like Britain or autocracies like Russia. Several times he compared Russia's potential defiance of the European Court of Human Rights with Britain's apparently immediate withdrawal from the European Charter of Human Rights, the probability of which does not exist outside the excited imagination of international lawyers. It took a member of the audience, Alexander Goldfarb to be precise, to point out that even if Britain did withdraw from the ECHR law and legality would not collapse in this country. In Russia the situation is somewhat different. Reluctantly Professor Bowring agreed.
Given that British objection to the ECHR is judiciary activism that goes well beyond the intentions of the original charter and given that it is a vote in the House of Commons on the subject of prisoners' rights to vote which may lead to a clash between this country and the ECHR as well as the EU (Professor Bowring also labours under the misapprehension that the Conservative Party wants to pull out of the EU) the question has to be asked: does Professor Bowring not consider parliamentary democracy to be something of an enemy as well.