Russia's Commitment to Democracy & a Market Economy

By Halonen, Tarja | Presidents & Prime Ministers, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Russia's Commitment to Democracy & a Market Economy


Halonen, Tarja, Presidents & Prime Ministers


The Soviet Union has disintegrated, but Russia remains a country with a vast area and a large and diverse population. Throughout her history, Mother Russia has been contemplating herself and pondering her place among the peoples of the world. In this respect, there is nothing exceptional about today's discourse. Likewise traditional is the great question of Russia and Europe. The country's political leaders are now in relatively good agreement that Russia is part of Europe. That is good, because a Russia that feels part of Europe, and not isolated by it, lies in the interests of all Europeans.

Russia's decision in 1992 to apply for membership of the Council of Europe and her acceptance four years later of conditions that included having to carry through a whole series of difficult reforms were historic. The road to democracy, respect for human rights, including those of minorities, and the rule of law is a challenging one for everybody. Add to that the creation of a market economy, and the agenda for many years ahead is full.

I believe Russia's political leadership has grasped this enormous challenge that must be taken if the country is to become stable, prosperous and competitive not only in Europe, but also globally. But is there enough patience and skill to enable reforms to be carried through at the same time in all of these sectors--democracy including human rights, the rule of law, and the economy. Or to plait them so that no sector lags behind the others. If it is allowed to fall behind, it will very soon ruin the results achieved in the other sectors.

Russia knows the direction and the goal, but trends of development in Russian society are going at different speeds, often in a variety of directions, and sometimes they contradict each other. On the one hand, a genuine civil society seems to be developing apace, but on the other, attempts are being made to curb the freedom of the press. The country is more stable than it has been for ages, but at the same time there is a desire to centralize power even more. Elections are almost everyday routine, but yet officials are being appointed to oversee elected regional leaders. Economic growth is rapid, but there are few signs of poverty abating. Russia wants a role in positive cooperation to resolve international crises, but is striving at the same time to maintain her own spheres of interest.

Divergent trends of development and mixed signals are not surprising in a phase of change such as that in which Russia now finds herself. Russia is looking at different subsectors in her effort to find a course. Responsibility for the development of Russia resides with the Russians, but the rest of us can support development that we consider correct.

Russia's democratic system has been operating within a constitutional framework. Elections on both the federal and lower levels have been and are being arranged. They have not gone off entirely without irregularities, but there has been no evidence of large-scale abuses.

The development of civil society in Russia took big strides forward in the 1990s. This activity on the grassroots level often goes unnoticed by the media, which concentrate on more spectacular political events. Small steps forward by democracy do not sell as well as high-level political speculation and intrigues. Even on the scale that they have already achieved, freedom of expression and freedom to obtain information are historic achievements.

The collection this autumn of over two million signatures calling for a referendum indicates the budding strength of civil society. The objective is to restore independent forestry and environmental authorities and ban the importation of nuclear waste. What is new about all this is that citizens are taking an interest in administrative and legislative changes and that they believe they can influence decisions. What is gratifying about it is that people are also prepared to act according to their convictions. …

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