Staunton, November 2 – Online petitions, which many see as a way of overcoming the deficit in democracy in Russia, may do that if they are part of a larger movement but if they involve no more than pushing a button, they can reinforce the current authoritarian regime by conferring legitimacy on it as managed elections do, Grigory Yudin says.
The professor at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences says that the problem of civic participation is an increasing focus of Russian political science because real participation is falling and the atomization and alienation of the Russian population is increasing (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/11/02/82602-podpisnaya-demokratiya).
There is a growing consensus that voting by itself does not solve the problem. Indeed, it may make it worse because elections convey legitimacy even if they are reduced to a ritual. According to Yudin, any shift to electronic voting would make the situation even worse by reducing still further the importance of democracy and making is “a purely administrative task.”
Voting alone, he suggests, “creates a passive citizen.” It only creates a truly active one if it leads more than marking a ballot in ways the authorities prefer. The situation with regard to the increasing use of online petitions in Russia is similar. By itself, this procedure reinforces the legitimacy of the powers such petitions appeal to but alternatively can lead to social movements.
Is signing a petition an activity or a reflection of passivity? Yudin asks rhetorically. “On the one hand, under conditions of universal atomization and fragmentation, this is a certain collective action especially as it comes from below and because people have to give their names rather than act anonymously.
“On the other,” petitions themselves have several problems. They typically are addressed to some official, often the president, and thus confer legitimacy on them or him by acting as if the officials rather than the people are the only one who can solve problems and that those signing do not have any role except to ask.
A second problem is that petitions do not set up a feed back loop. They are simply appeals to which the authorities can choose to respond or choose not to. They thus are like voting in suggesting civic activity but in most cases being a simulacrum rather than the real thing, Yudin argues.
That is not to say that petitions can’t be useful either as a means of raising public awareness to a specific problem or suggesting to the powers that be that large numbers of people are concerned or as part of a broader movement. Rather, Yudin concludes, it means that they must be embedded in something larger or they will not play the role many hope for them.