Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chaotic ideology

If I say that yet again it has been proved to me that Russia is in chaos, readers of this blog will not be surprised. It is in chaos economically as its infrastructure disintegrates and the money earned from high oil and gas prices disappears; above all, it is in chaos politically with no parties worth their name emerging and the only two important politicians (Putin and his teddy bear) losing popularity.

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.


  1. As you say, the ECHR has gone well beyond its original purpose and, in my opinion, like NATO and the EU, well beyond its sell-by date. Whilst it's all dressed up with a great deal of ponderous, Germanic flim flam, the Russians appear to be saying much the same about sovereignty as is in our Bill of Rights or the earlier Tudor form "The King's Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England and other his Dominions...and is not nor ought to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction.". I'd say Amen to that. It took some time before Macaulay and other Whig historians retrospectively polished this deliverance from foreign interference by an authoritarian domestic regime into the first stage of liberal constitutional development.

    In his February paper Bowring identifies some Russian discontents with their form of "devolution" which (they seem to think) gives a special status to various minorities in the Federation but does not extend to "Russianness". This is almost exactly what the English nationalists say here! I hold no brief for them but I can well understand Russia turning to its own traditions and ordinary Russians feeling considerable discontent.

    The West has done them no favours, encouraging and facilitating the plundering corporatist rape of public property which brought forth the oligarchs and pushing its forward diplomatic policies into the "near abroad" to rub the country's nose in its degradation. Domestically the results of this destroyed those parts of the former Soviet state, like pensions and public health services- poor though they were- which gave some safety net to ordinary people.

    Forty years of the supranational dispensation have increasingly shown us what bastards our politicians are. No doubt many Russians feel much the same about theirs but, unlike us, they can say "at least, they're our bastards". I hope they become better behaved. I cannot see any external jurisdiction imposing such behaviour on them..

  2. "Professor Bowring is committed to the idea of transnational organizations imposing their views on legality and human rights on sovereign states".

    And it is a great idea, as long as the organisation looks after individual freedoms, as is the idea of a benign dictator.

    Sadly, doesn't history show, without exception, that anyone with total power and without strong checks and balances, always degenerates into some sort of totalitarianism? Has Prof Bowring not read much history?

  3. Don't know how much history Professor Bowring has read but I don't get the impression that he dislikes the idea of a dictatorship as long as it is run along the lines he agrees with.

  4. Helen has discovered time travel! The Pushkin House event will be on 3 July, with Vladimir Pastukhov as discussant - you can register on the Pushkin House website - all welcome