Q: You’ve written that “Russia has appropriated ideas of democracy and human rights from the West but stretched their meanings to fit its own political realities.” How elastic are these ideas? Allowing for some cultural relativism, is the Russian “stretching” of these ideas drastic enough that their adulterated formations would constitute entirely new concepts, virtually unrecognizable to the West and international community?
A: There is a widespread conviction in the Western societies that some ideas and values, such as democracy and human rights, are “absolute.” I view these ideas as human constructs, which reflect historical contexts and images held by representatives of various societies and states. Neither “democracy” nor “human rights” have physical reality outside of the normative and empirical content that we ascribe to them. Ideas that originate in some contexts may be borrowed by others, but in this process the original meanings may be altered by stretching their content or ascribing additional meanings to them. This is what happened to the idea of democracy, of which understandings vary even across liberal democratic states. Engagements with the notion of democracy have produced a variety of interpretations regarding its essence. The resulting situation is that of a contestation between the idea of “universal” democracy, defined by a set of fixed characteristics, and alternative perspectives stressing its socio-political and cultural character. In this sense, abstract ideas are “elastic” but the extent of this elasticity is determined by the breadth of consensus on preexisting understandings, new interests and experiences, and whether those support or call for alternations in the original meanings.
Certainly, some conceptual stretching may be pragmatic in nature. References to human rights and democracy in Russia are partly politically motivated to maintain engagement with the international community and legitimize the ruling regime. I will not, however, dismiss or trivialize the new meanings. Even if the Western community does not recognize them, it does not mean that the rest of the world will reject them as well. Ideas and values espoused by the US and other Western states and institutions often lack cultural compatibility, salience, consistency, and credibility for states and societies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Western policy-makers and academics developed sophisticated conceptualizations of democratization and human rights. Yet, my own field research shows that these conceptualizations are largely divorced from how democracy and human rights are perceived and understood in Central Asia. Political influence in international relations encompasses not only strategic, but also ideological dimension. It is best to think of contemporary international relations as the “market of ideas”, where target states can shop around, pick-and-choose, and internalize some principles and models of governance, but not others. There are plenty of states, which are interested in emulating Russian and Chinese models of development, for example. Therefore, unless the West attempts to understand the unique ways in which other states and societies perceive the taken-for-granted notions of democracy and human rights, its ability to influence these states and societies will be limited at best.
—Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva specializes in international and Eurasian security, counterterrorism and human rights, democracy promotion in the post-Soviet territory, and Russia’s foreign and security policy. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Kansas. Her most recent book is Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia.