Liberal Democracy In Russia, Destined To Die On The Vine

The assassination of democratic reformer Boris Nemtsov prompts a look back over the past two decades of Russia flirting in vain with economic and political reforms.

Moscow march in memory of Boris Nemtsov on March 1
Moscow march in memory of Boris Nemtsov on March 1
Aleksandr Zotin

MOSCOW — There’s never an obvious roadmap in economics. That goes for Russia too. You could say that opening the world to a market-based economy comes with terrible consequences, but all of the other options are even worse. Everything else will end in a dreadful impasse, from the Juche in North Korea to the bankrupt USSR.

Russian liberals fought for that simple idea, but in vain. In all of Russian history, the country has never truly completed a single liberal reform. The tragic death of Boris Nemtsov is yet another step backwards, even though Nemtsov was more a symbol of liberalism than a liberal in practice. You could say the same, for example, about the recently deceased Russo-Georgian businessman and politician Kakha Bendukidze. The ranks are thinning.

Nonetheless, liberal reforms in Russia don’t fail due to the shortcomings of liberal politicians. A market economy works in tandem with a democracy. That hasn’t really worked out for our country: Since 1991, Russia has not passed the “democratic transition” test. That would simply mean an election in which the opposition won.

Reformers like Nemtsov were relatively quiet about the questionable elections in 1996. If the opposition had won then, perhaps history would have followed an entirely different course. Let’s imagine: The Communists would have totally destroyed the economy, and a liberal would have won the 2000 elections. Then Russia would have developed the tradition of a peaceful, democratic power transition. On the other hand, it’s easy to blame reformers for their lack of foresight now that we are looking back — and it’s also probably unfair. No one can predict the future.

The Singapore example

People might object to this line of thinking, noting that economic liberalism can sometimes coexist with political authoritarianism. That is true. But in those cases, the democratic controls on politicians must to be substituted by the personal control of the autocrat. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was a liberal autocrat who would put thieving politicians in jail. His advice on fighting corruption: “Start by jailing three of your friends. You know for what, and they also know for what.”

General Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979, personally met with each minister before the beginning of each year to discuss the next year’s goals, and a year later, they met again to analyze the work done. Anyone who failed to meet at least 80% of their target was fired, not to mention any bribe-takers. After Park died, Korea became a democracy anyway.

Russian officials have not been treated this way. And without democratic — or at least meritocratic — controls on government officials and a separation of government powers, economic liberalism is pure fantasy. Entrepreneurial activity is often combined with an attempt to get closer to government business. Without independence, the courts rot away. Parliament becomes a word devoid of meaning.

March 3 Memorial service for Nemtsov in Moscow — Photo: Pavel Bednyakov/Xinhua/ZUMA

Even political and economic liberalism doesn’t always lead to success. The American political scientist Adam Przeworski noted that the primary factor in the failure of many Latin American countries was a high level of inequality. The logic is simple: The larger the gap between rich and poor, the more advantageous it is for the poor to follow a strategy of redistribution (economic populism, handouts) rather than to pursue economic growth for all. At the same time, for the rich, it makes more sense to become more autonomous, to avoid taxes and to create private armies and privately controlled territory. That dynamic has often led to a serious weakening of government institutions.

That is exactly the situation that Ukraine came to. Kakha Bendukidze, when asked what to do with the utterly corrupt Ukrainian courts, said that the best option might be to take away their sovereignty, and make the court of last instance the Crown's Court in London. It is a straightforward calculation: If you want foreign investment, (without which growth is almost impossible), you have to give investors the ability to resolve disagreements in courts that they trust.

In Russia, the period of a weak central government, autonomous oligarchs and private armed forces took place in the 1990s. We managed to avoid falling into economic populism. But we also never got to true liberalism. It has become difficult to convince people of the importance of free trade and the respect of private property — especially when that private property could be taken away at any moment.

In Russia, over the past 15 years, people more or less liked the idea of the market and of freedom, in part because it was fed by the energy markets. But it looks like the party is over, and the liberals right now have very little to be hopeful about.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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