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What happened to democracy in 2020 – and what comes next? What local dynamics are worth paying attention to? And what is the bigger picture in the fight for a socially and economically inclusive democracy around the world?
The past year has seen a series of shocks – from the horrendous toll of COVID-19 to a tragic war in the South Caucasus – and to try and understand what has happened, we asked analysts, journalists and researchers one question: “What happened to democracy in 2020?”
These contributions discuss a range of topics relating to Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, the US and UK – from the fate of revolutions and war to the impact of the US elections on the global democracy project and fallout from Brexit.
What follows is not a comprehensive overview of democracy globally, but reflections, impressions and directions of travel from contributors to oDR, openDemocracy’s post-Soviet space project. Please share your own in the comment space.
“We need to decolonise the democracy project”
Anna Ohanyan, Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, Nonresident Senior Scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
One question I’ve been worried about worldwide is this: how will the process of democratic decline, particularly in Eurasia and parts of Africa, fare in the context of a post-American world order and growing multipolarity?. To what extent can relatively new, post-communist states navigate this growing global multipolarity, which is associated with armed conflicts, if they’re unable to protect the modest democratic gains achieved in the post Soviet period? How will the combination of great power rivalry in the context of regions with weak states and poorly consolidated democracies translate into prospects of security and stability in Eurasia?
There are some positive dimensions to the current situation. While we see democratic declines, including inside the EU, we also see very high levels of protests globally. These are motivated by all kinds of issues, but corruption remains an important factor.
For me, what’s important here is that people are recognising and acquiring ownership of their power and are becoming important political players – reclaiming democratic processes of contestation, political conflict resolution. This parallel trend of protests, whether beautifully expressed in Belarus right now, or Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution is important. Both of these cases demonstrate that there is significant grassroots capacity and willingness of people to demand participation.
The challenge is how to translate this mass-scale political activity through institutions. Essentially, what we’re learning, once again, is that the ability of institutions to manage this democratic breakthrough, or people power, is key. We saw in the Arab Spring that you can remove a dictator, but the morning after is much, much harder. This only raises the significance of civil society actors to lock in those gains. I’m going to cite my father here in the context of Armenia’s democratic processes: “People have already learned the power of their voice.” Regardless what transpires, I think that’s a really important argument to keep in mind: you cannot put the genie back into the bottle.
Two years ago, the specific signature of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution was a non-violent civil disobedience campaign. And in this respect Armenia falls very much within similar cases of nonviolent disobedience campaigns as forms of political change, throughout the 20th century. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have established that non violent protests are twice as likely to succeed as political strategies rather than violent ones. So when we think about peace, it’s very tempting for people to kind of explain it away – oh, it’s soft, it’d be nice to have, but it’s just not possible. But peace and nonviolence are actually very powerful as a political resource, and that’s what the Velvet Revolution has established. And that’s why I’m optimistic that Armenia will succeed in keeping the management of the current political crisis within institutional bounds. Studies show that democratic breakthroughs that come about through nonviolent disobedience are significantly more likely to consolidate in the long-term.
At the same time, the stress of the post-war situation on Armenia’s political system is significant. What you see at the moment is an attempt by political parties left out from the parliamentary politics, to get through the political system through the backdoor – to short circuit Armenia’s democracy. The challenge for Armenia is to learn to work through institutions, while resisting the familiar urge to look for a “Superman” figure who is going to come and save us. After all, whoever comes to power after Pashinyan is not going to be able to last more than two years. Politics around the world has become increasingly contentious.
In the US, the expectations from the Biden administration are sky high. And that’s not good. But what is critical to highlight is that returning to business as usual, trying to recreate how things were before, is not very likely. Even before the Trump administration came in, the United States was not quite as assertive in promoting and supporting democratic transitions. With the Biden administration, it’s still unclear as to what type of foreign policy will transpire for a post-communist Eurasia.
That said, Biden has talked about how he will convene a “Summit of democracies”. To me that sounds, on the one hand, exciting. He will be a lot more vocal in supporting democratisation movements, at least normatively. But on the other, it sounds very much like Cold War-era politics. It introduces too much ideology than is needed. What I mean is that it disregards the new politics of states that are in so-called fractured regions, or in-between states – e.g. Belarus or Armenia, where people would like to have a democratic state where they can determine who governs them without necessarily breaking away from its security arrangements with Russia.
“Minorities in imperial peripheries had enough practice with self governance on their own terms”
Biden’s approach could actually put these countries in a very tough bind. This kind of US foreign policy continues to make states choose between geopolitical actors, which was devastating for Ukraine, and has not been very helpful for Georgia. And even countries like Hungary and Poland that are inside the European Union, are showing strong democratic declines. It remains to be seen as to whether Biden’s foreign policy will kind of shape up to be more granular, revising and changing the way democracy promotion is done, if at all.
Finally, I cannot stress this point enough: we need to decolonise the democracy project. Engagement of local people and their capacities are critical, as opposed to more Euro-centric approaches which assume western superiority in building and sustaining democracy. Minorities in imperial peripheries had enough practice with self governance on their own terms: there’s enough political muscle memory of local drivers for democracy in this region. We’ll see what Biden comes up with
“We have to admit that the energy is on the right, not on the left”
Georgy Mamedov, leftist and LGBT activist, curator, cultural and political writer
Everything that happened after Kyrgyzstan’s elections in early October was simultaneously unexpected – it was a big surprise for many – and something that now seems very logical.
What we’re witnessing now is actually a very revolutionary moment. Japarov’s launch of radical constitutional reform is an attempt to totally rewrite the existing social contract, and he’s doing it with wide popular support. The only difference from the previous revolutions is that in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan seemed to be moving towards a more progressive agenda. And 2020 is an obvious and alarming retreat from our very weak but still distinct democratic achievements of parliamentary democracy and political pluralism.
The most important part of Kyrgyzstan’s “conservative revolution” concerns the move back from parliamentary or semi-parliamentary republic to presidential form of rule, with very minimal legitimacy and capacity given to government. The executive branch will be concentrated in the hands of the president. This will be followed by the introduction of a quasi-parliamentary, quasi-democratic institution, the Kurultai, whose role is unclear, but it’s something of a populist nationalist bent – “Let’s make our democracy look more Kyrgyz”.
But this is something on the surface, and actually, it seems that these moves have all been supported by the general public in Kyrgyzstan. Japarov’s popularity might come as a surprise, let’s say, to people living in central Bishkek and associated with civil society, but strangely, it also came as a surprise to established political parties, to people who have been in politics for years. All these opposition politicians who like to label themselves as “progressive” seem to be completely lost. They are either irrelevant now or quickly secured themselves posts under Japarov’s rule.
Of course, this is a conservative revolution, but it is still a revolution, and this is something that people in opposition parties or who like to label themselves as progressive completely misunderstood. Or they didn’t understand fully, because when the situation was volatile in October, all they claimed was that “we need to get back to some form of legitimacy”. That’s the most irrelevant thing you could hear during a revolutionary moment. What kind of legitimacy? Revolutions are made to subvert the existing legitimacy.
“What is happening in Kyrgyzstan is a reflection of what’s going on elsewhere in the world. I would urge everyone to look closely at what happened here as a lesson for what will come next”
Why does October’s overthrow of the Jeenbekov regime and everything that followed it seem logical now, even if it appeared as a shock at first? July was a nightmare in Kyrgyzstan in terms of the epidemic situation. It didn’t get so much attention in the world news, partly because there was already fatigue over what’s going on. But basically the situation here was very close to Italy, Spain, the United States. It demonstrated the complete incompetence of the government in terms of managing the critical situation. The pandemic was so bluntly mismanaged, and has become a peak in the decades of neoliberal assault on the healthcare system and wider society, which has created a situation when basically there is no social solidarity in the form of institutions that provide for everyone. No universal health care, no universal pension system, no universal educational system. Basically, everyone is on their own, even though in July, we saw kind of a civic mobilisation, with volunteers helping people. We have to welcome this. But this spontaneous form of community solidarity cannot replace competent doctors. What’s the point of the state when it cannot even provide basic necessities, cannot organise a basic emergency response?
There was still a chance for a progressive agenda to be voiced in October. The agenda could have been very simple, if not simplistic, and could have had three messages. The first: no conflict, because people were really scared of a potential civil war or inter-regional conflict. The second: how to provide adequate healthcare for everyone. This could have been an uniting element for everyone in the country. And third: provide everyone with adequate conditions to go into what is a quite severe winter here.
This programme, or something similar, would have been the smartest political move ever. It didn’t happen, and the momentum was lost. And it seems now that what is considered progressive can only be expressed in a very reactionary way – people go every Sunday to protest against the constitutional reform.
What can be done? This is the question that has a global dimension. I can imagine that observers from outside of Kyrgyzstan would say, well, this is something crazy, everything is decided on the squares and the streets in this country. But this perception is mostly misleading, because what is happening in Kyrgyzstan is a reflection of what’s going on elsewhere in the world. I would urge everyone to look closely at what happened here as a lesson for what will come next. Rather than treating Kyrgyzstan as some sort of savage, destabilised failed state, this is how the neoliberal consensus with a conservative shift will look like everywhere.
We see that the conservative political agenda – the conservative populist appeal to ethnicity, tradition, preservation against western or foreign influence – is gaining momentum. We have to admit here that the energy is on the right, not on the left. The right has appeal. It’s energetic. It’s confrontational. It’s challenging. It’s radical and it’s calling for renewal – even if this renewal is nothing but a retreat to authoritarianism and nationalism.
“Belarusians are re-establishing local self-government”
Vadim Mozheiko, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS)
In 2020, Belarusian society demonstrated an incredibly high demand for democracy – in all its forms.
Even before the start of the electoral campaign, Belarusian people took the initiative in the fight against coronavirus. Volunteer initiative #ByCovid19 managed, against severe shortages, to arrange supplies of everything needed for hospitals – from respirators and ventilators to washing machines and powder for PPE that doctors previously had to wash at home. Belarusians broke the national crowdfunding record by raising $335,000 and found that grassroots self-organisation coped better with the crisis than the state. Meanwhile, the authorities concentrated on hushing up problems, and Alyaksandr Lukashenka entertained the whole world with memes about treating coronavirus with vodka, a bathhouse, hockey and even little white goats.
With the announcement of elections in Belarus, an electoral revolution began. Representatives of the country’s business elite (Viktar Babaryka) and the nomenklatura (Valery Tsepkala), as well as a popular blogger (Siarhei Tsikhanouski), announced their ambitions to participate in the democratic process. People willingly responded to the call to be volunteers, and more than 9,000 people signed up for Babaryka’s support group in a week – a record for an alternative candidate in Belarus. If collecting 100,000 signatures was a difficult barrier for potential opposition candidates before 2020, this time people themselves lined up for pickets across the country. The largest queue in the centre of Minsk stretched for one kilometre. The independent Vote platform, which conducted an alternative vote count, had one million voters (out of six million) register on it. All these record-breaking moments are a clear demonstration that Belarusians do not just want a change of power – they want to personally participate in this at every stage.
“The images of huge demonstrations in Minsk are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind it lies a huge experience of self-organisation”
The basis of the peaceful protests, which have had hundreds of thousands of people take part since August, has become a network of local Telegram chats throughout the country. These are horizontal associations of people who live in the same building or neighbourhood, and they operate without any hierarchy and coordination, building connections between people at the grassroots level. In fact, Belarusians are re-establishing local self-government, building a new system of communication and local leadership from the ground up.
The images of huge demonstrations in Minsk are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind it lies a huge experience of self-organisation, a demand for personal participation in democratic changes – and a readiness to build a new Belarus from scratch.
“Shiyes and Khabarovsk – today, Russia as a whole – tomorrow”
Oleg Zhuravlev, Public Sociology Laboratory
This year has seen new and unexpected circumstances – measures against the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis – influence both Russia’s protest politics and society as a whole. Still, for me, the main results of 2020 aren’t about that, but the fact that Russia’s protest movements, faced with growing pains, found themselves up against the challenge of “politics”.
On the one hand, protest has started becoming part of representative politics. On the other, protest movements have found themselves in the centre of “programmatic” discussions about how to change Russian society. This was the context for the influence of the pandemic and economic downturn. We can assume that this context will continue to further define the dynamics of protest politics.
This has been a year of uncertainty. The protest at the Shiyes landfill site in Arkhangelsk region, a major civic confrontation in Russia in recent years, won – landfill construction at the site has stopped. At the same time, the Shiyes campaign’s plan to nominate their own candidate for the regional governor elections failed – not only due to obvious opposition from the authorities, but also the difficulties of “translating” activism into politics. The city of Khabarovsk in Russia’s far east rebelled, surprising everyone with its resilience. But at some point, the protest there nevertheless began to fade. Yet there is still a feeling that this story will not be forgotten and will play a future role in politics.
Russia’s municipal elections in September were accompanied by massive falsifications, but they did not lead to noticeable protests. Labour and economic protests provoked by COVID-19 and Russia’s response to it – whether rallies by self-employed people in Vladikavkaz or the uprising of gas workers at a remote deposit in Yakutia – appear to be either a new tendency or a response to the excesses of COVID.
The main result for Russia’s protest movement and opposition in 2020 can be formulated as follows: growing pains. Our Public Sociology Lab initiative has long been writing about the politicisation of activism in Russia, which began after Bolotnaya Square protests. This year it finally became clear that politicisation is one of the main trends in social movements in the country. Local activism in Russia used to position itself in opposition to politics, but today the “local” agenda is rapidly becoming “political”.
Russian activists are increasingly running for office, and in general, they are beginning to speak louder and louder about their right to influence the state and central government. Civil society in Russia’s towns and cities, which often develops around single-issue campaigns, is perceived as a prototype of the future national-level civil society: Shiyes and Khabarovsk – today, Russia as a whole – tomorrow. The specifics of localised problems and troubles are becoming a catalyst for political conflict between “the people” and “the authorities”. And thanks to politicisation, activism is expanding, protest is institutionalising, and the opposition has an opportunity to “take root” in civil society. In a seemingly paradoxical way, despite the strengthening of repressions and restrictions on political participation, grassroots democratic politics in Russia is developing – and is becoming more inclusive, decisive and mature. This is why Russia’s protest movement is facing growing pains.
The events of this year and the cumulative effect of recent years as a whole are not only “consolidating” the tendency for protests and social movements to become politicised, they have problematised it. Democratic protest politics is being born before our very eyes in Russia, but what will it actually look like once consolidated? What will the fight really be about? And who will become its collective subject?
The politicisation of local activism and civic protest has led to their kind of “opening”. If the meaning of local problems and conflicts used to be very concrete (“A park is being cut down or a building is being demolished, this must be stopped”), then today these conflicts are taking on a more general and metaphoric meaning as they become part of a system of representation. For example, a pile of garbage lying in a building’s courtyard, a garbage dump in the district or a landfill in the region indicate not only the need to remove this garbage, but rather represent the incompetence or anti-democratic nature of the Russian authorities. And this means that it’s only a solutio that’s needed, but political representation – the participation of protesters in power.
We can interpret the protests in Khabarovsk according to the same logic: the connection between the local and general through the mechanism of representation, merely here it works in the opposite direction. Vladimir Putin becomes a symbol of anti-democratic power that deprives citizens of their right to vote – after all, according to one protest slogan, it was Putin who “stole Sergey Furgal”, the Khabarovsk regional governor who was arrested on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. And Furgal, known for his popular image and beating United Russia two years ago in a surprise victory, becomes even an more “local” symbol of struggle for people to decide for themselves in opposition to central authorities.
That said, it’s not worth exaggerating the “anti-colonial” or “anti-Moscow” sentiment of the protests in Shiyes and Khabarovsk, where local patriotism is a model of civic, national patriotism in general.
“Democratic protest politics is being born before our very eyes in Russia, but what will it actually look like once consolidated? What will the fight really be about? Who will become its collective subject?”
Local activism and civil protest are becoming part of representative politics in Russia. And this is undoubtedly a great achievement. The question is: what exactly is being represented? This is where we run into implicit silences. The specificity of local problems grows into a populist politics of “people against power”, as it were, bypassing ideological and social self-determination. And this, in my opinion, is what will hinder the further development of democratic politics in Russia.
The failure to nominate a candidate from Shiyes for Arkhangelsk regional governor is a clear example of this. Here, the principle of avoiding ideology – which is characteristic of activism in Russia – clashed with the principle of ideological competition between political parties. People who like to say that “social classes have been gone for a long time” and “the division into left and right has long been outdated” can continue to do so. The global experience of populist protests and revolutions suggests the opposite – that the hollowing out of class from protest agendas leads to the failure of democracy. Activists are no longer afraid of politics in Russia, but they still fear the articulation of class, ideological and programmatic differences – and this undermines the logic of representation, the representation of different voices, interests, values. And this kind of representation is necessary to further expand mobilisation.
In 2020 we have seen another important tendency in the politicisation of protest – protests are now at the centre of emerging political discussions about how to change Russian society. We can take the situation with the pandemic. On the one hand, the pandemic is more a natural disaster than a political problem. On the other, the sharp economic downturn and the overload of Russia’s healthcare system forces protesters and activists to formulate their own programmes of change. We see this in the trade unions. The independent Action healthcare trade union, gaining strength and numbers, is providing expert criticism of social policy in the healthcare system; Oleg Shein, the representative of independent trade unions in the Duma, is bringing out general economic policy suggestions. And at the same time, Alexey Navalny’s team is releasing its own vision of economic reforms, provoking discussion in response.
But if they want to win over people who used to either tacitly or loudly support the Russian authorities, they will have to overcome their growing pains and answer the question that the system repeatedly asks the opposition: what, in fact, do you propose?
“We now live in a rent-driven world”
Yakov Feygin, Director of Future of Capitalism project, Berggruen Institute
Right now, I’m working on an article about how Cold War convergence theorists were more right than they believed, but not in the way they thought.
In the 1970s, sociologists and political scientists thought that the Soviet world and the capitalist world would, over the long run, become much more similar. The American corporation was becoming a more technical and planned entity, and convergence theory suggested that capitalist societies would be run by managers – and that capitalism would become more rationalised. Many people in the US thought that the country needed more state planning to deal with supply-side shocks, which were what was causing inflation. At the same time, the theory suggested, communist societies would become more decentralised and have more market elements within them. And slowly, but surely, you would come towards “industrial society”.
Convergence didn’t happen, partially because the corporation, as we know it, essentially blew up, and obviously communism collapsed. Post-communism saw the rise of what people call oligarchy – people who live off the rent share – and in some way we got the same thing in the old capitalist system. We now live in what is a rent-driven world. In responding to the crisis of the 1970s, all of the societies of the long 20th century began to privilege the rent share. And now we’re living with the consequences.
“Political systems can be in stagnation for a very long period of time as long as there’s a baseline of stability”
For the last, say, 40 years, we have been dealing with the consequences of the 1970s – essentially, overinvestment in the military-industrial complex and heavy industry on both sides of what was then the Iron Curtain, and the inflation that it caused. We’ve since slayed the dragon of inflation, but we’ve done it at the cost of making it almost impossible to have wage-led growth in the developed world.
In response, what’s happened, particularly in the US, is that we’ve built a political constituency for deflation. The real core of this is that we’ve been essentially controlling the inflation-deflation cycle by pressing down wages, and ensuring kind of certain capital assets – most infamously housing.
If you are middle class and socially included – so often white and male (but this is also expanding around the edges to include other communities), your wages have been buying a smaller and smaller basket of goods relative to your productivity since roughly 1975 or so. If you’ve been able to acquire a house in the right area and a 401(k), you’re actually doing okay – you have all these other appreciating assets that you theoretically can draw on to assure your retirement and smooth consumption. And this gives you some feeling of inclusion within the neoliberal order.
Both in the United States and around the world, that’s the social contract which has been breaking down since 2008. And I think a lot of the backlash from the right is in defence of this social contract. From the left, it’s because the contract has basically run its course for anyone who is under 45. Everyone else is saddled with debt – education, healthcare and so on.
This makes economic growth extremely hard to achieve – and it makes it impossible to include anyone else in the neoliberal order. But the political problem of neoliberalism is that in order to break the model, you also need to break the social expectations of a much broader base of people.
It’s a very vulgar Marxism, but if you are a small petty bourgeois property owner, and you intend to vote, you tend to go right. If you’re not – and even if you’re pretty high income – you probably have a lot of debt and live in an area where you’re never going to be able to afford a home, then you tend to vote democrat. You’re on the other side of the ledger versus the plumber who has a house that might be in a poor area, but the house is appreciating in value. And you’re probably never going to be able to buy into it. For a lot of people, this scrambles their brain because they associate things class with profession or cultural aesthetics. We really need to have a balance sheet view of class.
The outcome in Georgia’s senate race will obviously be key for whether a Biden administration can push through an industrial policy and large scale government investment into infrastructure and new technologies. But some of the signals provided by the incoming administration have been fairly pro-public investment, and quite a bit more ambitious than expected on some level. That said, political systems can be in stagnation for a very long period of time as long as there’s a baseline of stability – and people aren’t dying in the streets. In the US, I think it’s going to be very difficult in the coming years to organise against that, unless there’s a big shock.
“The map of Russian feminism has changed a lot”
Ella Rossmann, gender historian and co-founder of Antiuniversity, Moscow
June 2020: the Voznesensky Centre holds a nine-hour poetry marathon in support of Yulia Tsvetkova.
Nothing special has happened to Russian feminism in 2020. Despite all the turmoil of this year, the movement continues to develop in the same direction as the 2010s.
The public sphere in Russia – and the sphere of feminist activism as well – is arranged such that you can be interested in feminism for many years, participate in projects and at the same time be unaware of the existence of an activist group in your own city. The most visible women in the public arena are feminists from big cities with a strong media presence, mainly from capitals, who are active online. It’s hard to learn about the activities of local groups from other cities, they are not visible. At some point, I realised that I did not know what was happening with feminism outside Moscow and St Petersburg. I had no idea how things were going, for example, in Khabarovsk or Krasnodar, and I decided to look into this issue.
To do this – and to increase the visibility of local groups – I began to do an annual digest of feminist events tied to 8 March, International Women’s Day. This is an important holiday for Russian feminism. Contemporary Russian feminists are trying to retake this holiday, to return it to its original meaning. In March, feminist groups in Russia become more active. Even groups that work the whole year behind closed doors or are not very active become visible.
“Feminists in Russia are in no hurry to register their organisations, because it can only bring them problems. Informal alliances break up due to burnout or internal conflicts”
When I was making the digest in 2019, I was really shocked by the scale of the development of the modern Russian feminist movement. I thought the digest would contain a couple dozen events, but it turned out that there are almost 40 of them in Moscow alone. There are many more events throughout Russia, and they are very diverse in content: meetings, lectures, discussions, film screenings, self-awareness groups and various therapeutic groups, workshops (for example, creating zines, posters), workshops on various art forms, get-togethers with an educational programme. Feminist activists also held entire feminist festivals, for example, FemDay in Samara, RIOT GIRL FEST in Murmansk or FemBayram in Ufa. Some events were long-distance (for example, the “It’s not my fault” music festival dedicated to the problem of violence against women, or the actions of the SotsFemAlternative group), which shows that there are feminist networks of mutual assistance and co-organisation in Russia.
Feminist activism in modern Russia is, of course, very unstable. On the one hand, it is developing with almost no monetary support. Internal funding opportunities are still minimal, while external funding is limited by the law on foreign agents. Basically, what happens in different cities relies completely on the goodwill of activists, what they do in their free time. In this context, institutional support becomes very important. Usually these are some kind of cafes, libraries, cultural venues, underground galleries, even bakeries, where activists can organise meetings and events for free. It is very difficult for a movement to develop without these kind of places.
Feminists continue to consolidate around topics that have been discussed in the movement for a long time. This is primarily domestic and sexual violence and, in general, the problem of women’s safety in our society. It has been discussed before, but it sounds especially loud today against the background of discussions on a new bill against domestic violence.
In connection with the criminal case against the artist and theatrical director Yulia Tsvetkova, this year the conversation about creative freedom and feminist art has come to the fore again. (Yulia faces up to six years in prison for publishing images of naked people and vaginas in her body-positive group on the VKontakte social media site.) But this, in fact, is not a new topic for the Russian feminist movement. Women’s interest in art, feminist art and female self-expression has been growing throughout the 2010s, since the first performances by Pussy Riot and the Feminist Pencil exhibitions. In 2014-2015 in Russia, there was a surge of feminist exhibitions, and according to my observations, these events continue to be held. For example, just before the lockdown in March, Volgograd hosted the FEMART festival of Volgograd women’s* art. I wonder why it is feminist art that has become such an important topic in the Russian context – there are probably reasons for this.
Of course, the development of feminist activism is greatly influenced by the general political atmosphere Russian – for example, legislation. Moreover, according to my observations, this isn’t about new laws, but about whether real investigations are conducted under these new criminal statutes.
In 2018, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened an extremism case against Omsk feminist activist Lyubov Kalugina for her posts and messages on social networks. (The case was dropped for lack of evidence that a crime had been committed). In 2019, the authorities began to investigate Anna Dvornichenko from Rostov-on-Don, who ran a gender studies club at the Southern Federal University and organised a LGBT meeting there. Anna was threatened by local Cossack communities and the counter-extremism police, and as a result had to leave Russia. Finally, we have the fresh case of Yulia Tsvetkova from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, who is accused of both gay propaganda and pornography. The last two cases are directly related to the fact that feminism is close to LGBT activism. I see that these investigations have influenced the tactics of feminist activists. In some cities, they begin to avoid the topic of LGBT rights and ask their supporters, for example, not to bring posters on LGBT themes to feminist rallies, so as not to put participants and organisers in a difficult position.
Of course, amid the pandemic, many activists had to curtail almost all of their offline work. But not all projects were closed – and even new ones appeared, for example, the Fortress crisis centre in Moscow. It was set up by libertarian feminists from the feminist fraction of Mikhail Svetov’s civil society project. The work of the centre has provoked a lot of discussions among people who are involved in helping victims of domestic violence (including because of the connection with Svetov), but its very appearance, it seems to me, is important.
Many feminist initiatives have moved online during the pandemic. For example, the Perm festival We-fest, which has been held for several years, took place online this year (in November). New forms of online activism and activist (self) education have also appeared, various online reading groups, platforms for gender research, mutual support groups. In general, the movement lives and develops, and I think that in the coming years it will only grow – as well as interest in the gender agenda in general.
For all these reasons, feminism in Russia remains rather volatile and situational. Comparing my feminist digests of 2019 and 2020, the map of Russian feminism has changed a lot. New groups have sprung up, previous ones have become less active, their blogs have ceased to show signs of life. Feminists in Russia are in no hurry to register their organisations, because it can only bring them problems. Informal alliances break up due to burnout or internal conflicts (of which there are a lot in this nervous environment). The movement is not developing evenly, and there is no reason to think that it will stabilise in the near future.
“The pandemic has transformed people’s experience of politics”
Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy editor
To understand what people think about democracy, I think it’s useful to ask people what they think about a synonym for it: politics. And to get a better handle on this, I spent February wandering around central Europe. The most revealing comment I heard all year was actually said by two different people. One was a young man, a truck driver, outside a bar in Mukachevo, western Ukraine, on a snowy night in February: “we need a whole new political system.” Then another person, a man I first met in 2004 in Appalachian Tennessee, used exactly the same words to describe the US when I called him up this summer. And that is the consensus view of politics across the western world.
What’s striking, though, is that this belief is most strongly held in Britain. Research company Edelman produces an annual trust barometer on 35 states. The two countries that came bottom in 2020 in terms of public trust towards institutions were the UK and Russia. That same study showed that 60% of people surveyed in the UK, and 70% of the wealthy and educated, think “democracy is losing its effectiveness as a form of government”.
In the 2019 election, Boris Johnson actively channelled this anti-political energy against democracy. His response to this lack of belief in politics, and the processes of politics, was to say: well, why don’t you just leave it up to people like me, the ruling class, to decide everything – and get politics out of your life. This sentiment is encapsulated by the slogan “Get Brexit done”, which was, I think, a work of political genius in the sense that it tapped into deep feelings of resentment and fatigue.
But then the pandemic arrives. And it has transformed people’s experience of politics – from this abstract TV show that takes place in central London, to something that directly relates to the daily reality of their lives. In its neoliberal version, politics is a sort of theatrical performance of power and a few buildings where real power is exercised – but now in the UK it’s starting to change into an actual conversation about how we live together. People began to look very closely at the systems and processes governing the UK, and found them, unsurprisingly, deeply wanting – the COVID cronyism scandal is just one of them. And this has tapped into anger against the ruling class: oh wait, you’re just running this all? In order to get Brexit done, we didn’t really mean that you could run everything, including solving the pandemic together with your mates.
“The Westminster way of ruling has never really been about the democratic process of understanding and following views across the UK”
This situation has accelerated a process that was always going on in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, where people have clear alternative options than being governed by Westminster. So we see significant numbers have shifted to supporting independence. In Scotland, in particular, we’ve seen a surge in support for independence – a poll last night put public support in Scotland at 58% for independence. Of course, this support is very mediated by generation and age. A significant majority of people of working age support independence – and the union being held together by pensioners. There are similar processes in Northern Ireland and Wales.
Ultimately, the Westminster way of ruling has never really been about the democratic process of understanding and following the views across the UK, and turning that into a negotiation of common behaviour together. It’s always been about a ruling class running a country with some consent from the people, rather than by the people. The devolved administrations, with all their failings, have created a sense that they are running the countries for the people living there. And the contrast that’s produced in the highly politicised context of the pandemic has absolutely pulled people towards supporting more power and ultimately, potentially independence in Scotland and Wales, or in the case of Northern Ireland – uniting with Ireland.
What does that mean? I think actually, that this is all quite a positive story for democracy – and not only because I’m in favour of breaking up Britain. Politics has always been a process by which we mediate ourselves in the most equal ways possible with most equal voices possible, to make decisions together as society, rather than the market or an authoritarian hierarchy.