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Why Russia Finds Democracy so Hard - Putin and the Legacy of the 1917 Revolution

 October 27, 2017  - by Derek Fraser, Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria

 This paper was presented during the  conference "1917 and Today - Putin Russia and the Legacy of Revolution"

Those of us who live in well-established democracies tend to forget how difficult it is, and how long it takes, to achieve relatively stable democratic institutions and practices. It took the French over eighty years after their Revolution to reach this state of affairs. Of the European countries that emerged from the First World War with democratic systems, a large number in Central and Southern Europe succumbed, in the course of the next twenty years, to dictatorship, often precipitated by political or economic crises.

Russia has little democratic experience to fall back on. Instead, what is remarkable about Russian history is the strength of the tradition that the Russians had inherited from 250 years of Mongol rule, - that of a strong state ruled by an all-powerful sovereign as a means of mustering the resources of the country for war.[i]

By the time of Peter the Great at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Russia had none of the limits to the powers of the monarch that existed at that time in Western Europe even in absolutist monarchies: the Church was nothing more than a government department, the nobles were reduced to functionaries, national and regional assemblies had atrophied, cities were not autonomous.[ii] Peter also increased the repression and strengthened the secret police. Peter’s Russia has been described as a police state.

The basic elements of Peter’s absolutist monarchy lasted until the Revolution in 1917. The two major reforms of 1861: the emancipation of the serfs and the supervised local assemblies, did not diminish the Tsar’s powers.  Neither did the parliamentary assembly, the Duma, conceded after the defeat by Japan in 1905.

The repressive Tsarist regime following the defeat of Napoleon spawned the Russian revolutionary movement. The revolutionaries wanted to destroy the aristocratic, slave-holding Russia and establish a new and more just society. The repression that followed the defeat of the Decembrist revolt of 1825 produced in due course further revolutionaries.

The radical intelligentsia that emerged were not democrats. Indeed, they were not influenced to any significant extent by Western ideas. Instead, they were, like Tsarist officials, hostile to pluralism, liberalism, or common law. They had no concept of human rights and a constitutional government.  They shared the traditional Russian idea that the rights of the individual had to be subordinated, to one degree or another, to those of society[iii] [iv]

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The Austrian elections mirroring the failed European migration policy

October 2oth- by Arnold Kammel, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES)

The outcome of the Austrian parliamentary elections on 15 October 2017 confirmed the anti-immigration sentiment as an emerging trend which will certainly be reflected in other parliamentary elections in Western Europe. Following the count of all votes, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), considered far-right, anti-immigration and anti-Islamic, finished third after the former coalition partners, the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ). The dominating topic of the elections centred on the question of how to best address the challenge posed by migration to both, Austria and Europe. One of the main arguments of the leader of ÖVP, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, was to close the main migrant routes into the European Union (EU), via the Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea. This proposal was strongly supported by the FPÖ in whose view all refugees should be deprived of access to the social security system and the Austrian welfare state. In the view of the FPÖ, securing and closing off the Austrian border was a necessary step in order to achieve their party political goal of zero immigration. In contrast, the SPÖ relatively late changed its attitude towards migration and as a consequence of polls moved from a very friendly migration policy towards a more restrictive one.

The high impact of migration issue on the outcome of elections came for many foreign observers as a surprise as Austria has always been considered as a country with an open society supporting refugees as past experiences especially in the 1990s with the Balkan Wars had shown. At the beginning of the crisis, Austria was together with Germany among the more welcoming nations in Europe for refugees. However, many voters stated that they felt that Austria was overrun in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of people entered the territory without any proper controls and security mechanisms in place. In 2015, almost 90.000 people applied for asylum in Austria, making it the third highest country for such applications within the EU, and Austria registered more than 40.000 asylum applicants in 2016.

Kurz, who most probably will become the world’s youngest head of government, frequently referred to the fact that as foreign minister he had closed the Balkan route for asylum seekers in the spring of 2016 by shutting Austrian borders to new arrivals in close cooperation with the countries on the route. He has promised to pressure the European Union to do the same now with the central Mediterranean route, the main path for migrants and refugees seeking to enter the continent. At the European Council meeting of 19 October, Council President Donald Tusk has supported this idea.

What will be the consequences of the election outcome? As it stands, a coalition between the ÖVP and FPÖ seems to be the most likely option for forming a new government. The other two options, ÖVP with SPÖ or even SPÖ with FPÖ, are quite unrealistic in terms of political feasibility. Aside of closing the central Mediterranean route and cutting access to the Austrian social system, it seems that the new Austrian government – also in the view of the upcoming Council Presidency in the second half of 2018 – will try to shape the European agenda on migration which will aim at securing the external borders of the EU and promote the establishment of hotspots in North Africa and the fight of illegal migration.

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