The hurdles to be considered democratic as a country are laughably low, both in academia and more public debates. Understanding democracy as something that warrants a minimal definition is dangerous and harmful to democracy as a concept.
Being called a democracy is important these days. Pretty much every country calls itself a democracy.
This is partly due to legitimacy in front of their own citizens, but also for reasons pf prestige internationally.
However, genuinely free democratic political systems are, in my opinion, still quite rare.
Calling authoritarian countries democratic just because they are making a few minor moves to clean up their international image is incredibly dumb.
I am not really sure why, but incredibly often, especially in academia, countries are lumped together with other, genuinely free societies under the rubric of democracy.
Some academic measures of democracy go as far as deeming any political system democratic, that holds significant elections periodically.
I believe that this sort of minimum standard to be deeply harmful as the true purpose and meaning of free democracies gets ignored and lost.
I get the sense that this way of thinking has crept into the general understanding that people have of other countries. Often it seems that countries that do hold general elections are given a pass for being decently democratic countries.
There have been bizarre debates concerning Russia, of all countries, and whether or not it should be considered democratic.
The German ex-Prime Minister Gerhard Schröder even called Putin a “spotless democrat”.
Similarly, the German radical left party Linke, as well as the far-right AFD are bending over backwards to avoid any criticism of Russia and constantly lobby for closer cooperation with Putin.
This is a massive error and very dangerous.
Having elections is a laughable measure of whether or not a country is democratic.
Russia is not a democracy. Period. This should not be a very hotly contested issue and anyone who argues the opposite is being dishonest and is probably following some political calculation.
Russia is not a democracy just because it periodically gives people the chance to put pieces of paper in a not-so-sealed ballot box, just to then declare that Putin will be in charge in some capacity for the next few years.
This makes no sense and mocks what democracy actually stands for.
Individual rights and liberties, as well as protection from the state, are integral parts of a democratic political system.
Minorities within societies have to be able to rely on inalienable rights that cannot be taken away from them, even if the majority should decide to do so.
Further, people must have the right to freely congregate and protest should they disagree with the politics of the government that has been elected prior.
Separation of power, to ensure that no single arm of government may accumulate an undue amount of power is absolutely essential to ensure that the people retain control over their political representation.
Finally, the political representations have to undergo a fair and open political contest, during an election. Otherwise, an election is merely a show, rather than a tool to fairly decide who will make political decisions in the name of the people.
As can easily be seen, none of these factors is determined if you merely look at whether or not a country holds elections every now and again.
So why are we still debating whether or not a country like Russia is a democracy?
Sometimes, I hear academics arguing that understanding democracy as a scale could potentially motivate countries to move up and improve their scores.
I believe this to be the equivalent of slapping a participation medal on everyone “because at least they are trying”.
Either you are ticking certain boxes as a country or you don’t. And right now, countries do not need to tick enough boxes to gain democratic esteem.
Just go through the points above, which are by no means an exhaustive list of important democratic principles and try to find them within the Russian political system.
You will have a hard time finding any of them.
So why are we constantly using these minimal definitions of what a democracy is and is not?
Selling the ideal of democracy short is shooting yourself in the foot – there is really no good reason for it.
If anything, we should be extremely strict in this context and have very high standards for the political systems that get the highly desired medal of democracy.
This is really nothing to be lenient with.
Both academics and everyone else should have much higher expectations and clearly state when countries are far from honouring the ideals of democracy – for democracies sake!
Otherwise, the ideal of democratic values will lose its shine, which will benefit only the authoritarians.