Think Tank
Non-Western Democracy and Its Interpretation

How do the values of democracy affect the sovereignty of states and what are the limits of sovereignty in the context of a global value policy? Can non-Western (and actively criticised by the West) countries conduct a discourse on democracy? Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Club, writes about this.

Recently, the Valdai Discussion Club organised a Russian-Chinese expert dialogue in partnership with CITIC Foundation for Reform and Development Studies of China, as well as the All-China Association for the Study of Political Science and the All-China Association for the Study of Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia; one of its sessions was devoted to democracy construction.

The issues of democracy and its interpretation are now among the most acute in international relations. They are closely related to the issue of values ​​and value policy. The key disagreement revolves around whether or not the perception of democracy should be universalist, common to all countries, and based on Western values. Various non-Western interpretations of democracy are possible, and determined by the specifics of the historical, religious, cultural and political development of individual countries. What, in this case, is meant by non-Western democracy and non-Western values; can they have a positive, independent definition, or are they characterised only by their rejection of Western models? A separate topic is the connection between the value interpretations of democracy and the right to intervene in contemporary world politics. How do the values ​​of democracy affect the sovereignty of states, and what are the limits of sovereignty in the context of a global value policy? Finally, can non-Western countries which are actively criticised by the West generally conduct a discourse about democracy?

From this point of view, indeed, a Russian-Chinese dialogue on democracy, from the standpoint of a Western observer, may look like nonsense, an oxymoron. The features of the political systems in both countries are most often perceived in the West as purely authoritarian, and by no means democratic. On the other hand, even for the purpose of geopolitical struggle, an attempt to intercept the agenda on different understandings and interpretations of democracy is an interesting example of a value discussion and, I think, has a right to exist.
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In addition, the logic of the moment pushes us to this. Joe Biden's widely announced Summit for Democracy is scheduled for the end of the year. It is not difficult to assume that China and Russia will become the main targets for criticism there. Therefore, an attempt to carry out counterplay in this field looks quite natural. It also reveals the broader context of the creation and consolidation of a kind of united front of China and Russia in the face of growing pressure from the United States. This united front can be called anti-Western or, if you will, anti-imperialist, although the terms are debatable. If such a united front is taken as a given of modern world politics (or as an expedient necessity in its context), then it is logical that China and Russia should form their own coordinated value and ideological narrative, including the issues of democracy (why not), in spite of the implicit paradox of this approach. In addition, the recent failure of the United States to promote democracy in Afghanistan provides additional evidence for this.

In modern world public opinion, especially in developing countries, an interesting phenomenon can be observed. Against the background of fatigue from Western models and the human rights and tolerant discourse promoted by them, doubts have emerged about their universal effectiveness among significant social strata in the third world states (including their elites); there is a growing demand for some alternative to the Western value narrative. On the one hand, such an alternative is seen in religious norms and postulates; this is first and foremost significant for the countries of the Islamic world. On the other hand, there is a demand for a secular, not only geopolitical, but also values-based alternative. And here the eyes turn to China and Russia. This can explain the socio-psychological phenomenon of the sufficient popularity of the leaders of Russia and China in public opinion in developing countries. This symbolic popularity arose spontaneously and is somewhat paradoxical, in that often enough it isn’t tied to specific politics. But it does exist, and now China and Russia need to transform this resource of symbolic popularity into an alternative value narrative that suits the public opinion of these countries.

It is also clear that if we approach this issue with cynical directness, then we can always say that interest in the Chinese and Russian alternatives is demonstrated primarily by the elites of those countries which are far from everything concerning electoral democracy and human rights. And that in response to Joe Biden's formation of an alliance for democracy, an opposing alliance of dictators should also be consolidated. The plus for Russia and China is that they do not ask the presidents of other countries questions about how their elections were held, how they observe freedom of speech and how they treat their domestic political opponents. This is partly true, but on the other hand, this means non-interference in internal affairs: a principle that has not yet been erased from the UN Charter and international law.

It is necessary to note the dilemma of morality and law, values ​​and intervention, which is beginning to play an ever-increasing role in world politics. The Valdai Discussion Club has already addressed this in its analysis. Indeed, if the values ​​are universal (including the values ​​of democracy), then it is absolutely logical to insist on their promotion to all countries of the world, and then interfering in their internal affairs is a moral necessity, and by no means a violation of the law. If values ​​are particular and inapplicable to everyone, then interference is an exclusively a violation of the law, without any moral tolerance. The attempt by China and Russia to question the universal nature of values ​​is precisely what they are using.
But one case is simply a symbolically eventual alternative, and another is its positive content. Can China and Russia or other protagonists of non-Western interpretations of democracy offer their significant vision of this, or will they only limit themselves to the aforementioned non-questioning of democracy with leaders of other countries?

The reports of the Chinese colleagues at the aforementioned conference made it possible to form a rather holistic idea of ​​their understanding of democracy. It is clearly based, as one might expect, on a Marxist approach. It is based on the Marxist understanding of democracy, which expresses itself through the activities of the People's Party - the Communist Party, which is the core of the political system. We will not now discuss whether this model is good or bad; the issue of the effectiveness and moral acceptability of socialism is a separate and substantial topic. For the purposes of our text, it is now more important to what extent this model can be attractive to other countries, to what extent its replication in the world is possible. If we use the already forgotten Soviet term "countries of people's democracy", then there are not so many such countries, Marxist or post-Marxist regimes in the world. However, if we add to them ideologically left-wing political regimes with a dominant party that grew out of the national liberation struggle against colonialism or neo-colonialism, then the number of such countries will increase, but in any case it is unlikely to exceed several dozen states. This gives rise to natural limits for the direct extrapolation of the Chinese model. Other countries, naturally, can use some elements of the Chinese narrative for their political purposes, but they are unlikely to do more.

The concept of "sovereign democracy" put forward more than 15 years ago in Russian semi-official discourse sets a broader framework. It is based on the denial of a universalist, common understanding of democracy and its determination by local historical, cultural and other traditions. From this point of view, it is more convenient for replication as an alternative in a number of cases; therefore, we will not deny that it can serve as a culturally determined justification for anti-democratic elements in certain countries. But again, against the backdrop of the collapse of US democracy building in Afghanistan, why not. Russia itself, however, combines this promotion of the concept of sovereign democracy with the preservation of its membership in the Council of Europe and, therefore, with legal adherence to the very Western values ​​of democracy and human rights, which are denied within the framework of sovereign democracy. When a few years ago the question arose about the advisability of preserving Russian membership in the Council of Europe in connection with the restriction of the rights of our delegation to PACE, Russia decided against withdrawal, in favour of retaining membership. If we use the Marxist semantic language that has already been repeatedly used in this text, then such an approach could be called a dialectical contradiction. But the world is a complex place.

In general, in any case, we are witnessing a new stage in the value struggle around different interpretations of democracy. Here, many questions arise from every side. Can democracy and a caste system be combined, for example? Is it a democracy where Western-style free elections are combined with the caste structure of a society dominated by implicit inequality? Can electoral democracy be effective against the background of the clan or tribal structure of society in a particular state? How much do racial issues affect democracy? All these topics are complex; there is no direct answer to them. On the eve of the Summit of democracies, a new surge of not only ideological, but also geopolitical polemics around this is obvious.

Morality and Law
Values ​​and Interests in World Politics
Oleg Barabanov
There is not only one-way traffic between values and interests. Not only values as a basic category define interests as a more applied category. On the contrary, interests also influence values; they shape and reform them. Sometimes they completely alter the values that were inherent in society before. So, the question which is primary — values or interests — here does not have such an unambiguous answer, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.