Debate Debrief: Does Russia Better Guard Individual Liberties than the Countries to Its West?

The Review at NYU's Editorial Board discusses the motion for this Tuesday's debate regarding whether Russia or the countries to its west better guard individual liberties.

The debate will be held on Tuesday, November 24 at 6:00 pm in the NYU Kimmel Center, Room 914. Professor Yanni Kotsonis joins the Debate Series as the guest speaker for the event. Food will be provided, courtesy of the NYU Russian Club.


Krishna Kulkarni, Chief Editor of Politics & Philosophy: 

As usual, it is prudent to first consider the language of the motion, before we dive into the actual issues being debated. Firstly, “individual liberties,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, are “the liberty of those persons who are free from external restraint in the exercise of those rights which are considered to be outside the province of a government to control.” Thus, we are evaluating rights or liberties considered inherent to one’s status as a human being, such as the right to life or freedom from torture. However, not everyone necessarily agrees about which rights are inherent, or whether they can be limited or not (for example, does one have the right to express racist views, or divulge government secrets?). These are questions that must be examined prior to any discussion of the motion as a whole. Secondly, “the countries to [Russia’s] west.” A narrow view of this statement would limit the discussion to Russia and its Eastern European neighbors, namely Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and others. A wider view would encompass the rest of Europe, notably Western Europe. I expect the debate to focus primarily on the latter definition, since I believe that comparing Russia and the U.S. (also technically to Russia’s west) on the topic of defending human rights is a debate in itself, and should have been defined as such if that was the intended comparison. Now, in my opinion, while the Russian government has committed egregious human rights violations by clamping down on activism, on free expression in media and the Internet, and on the LGBTQ members of its society, European countries by no means have their hands clean with regard to individual liberties. I would appreciate it if the supporting bench brought up the horrific treatment of refugees in Europe, an issue that long precedes the massive influx of Syrians fleeing the devastating civil war in their home country, but has been brought into sharper focus by this mass migration. Additionally, the Roma (or Romani) have historically suffered discrimination by European governments, and this under-the-radar issue must warrant attention in the discussion. Both Russia and the countries to its west have committed a raft of human rights violations, yet the E.U.’s self-professed mission to protect these rights is surely one of the great hypocrisies of our time.

Ankit Patel, Editor of Economics & Finance

What immediately strikes me here is the ambiguous nature of the motion. The terminology fails to sufficiently define which countries are surpassed by Russia. This leaves an incredible amount of leeway to both the affirmative and opposition benches. In what I presume is an effort to embellish the language, the developer of the motion has pitted an infinite domain of regions against Russia. Depending on your perspective, any country can be considered ‘west’ of Russia, including the U.S. Perhaps, as Krishna notes, the intention of the motion is to compare Russian liberties with their European counterparts. For the purposes of this preview, I am going to operate under this assumption.

Russia’s relationship with individual liberties is tumultuous—the past century has been a canvas for numerous Russian revolutions. The status of liberties has evolved significantly with each turn of leadership, as there is a specific culture of liberties is yet to be accepted and expected. Consequently, it is difficult to broadly adjudicate Russia’s cumulative treatment of liberties. The motion, however, posits that Russia’s current treatment of liberties transcends that of countries to its west. Without a unique, or even distorted, perspective on this issue, it is tough to justify this assertion.

President Vladimir Putin’s administration has altered the role and prominence of liberties in Russia significantly. Putin has curtailed freedoms in numerous generic liberties categories, including, but not limited to free speech and assembly. Many of these basic liberties are protected legally—the Constitutions of Russia, for example, provides for freedom of speech. In efforts to stifle dissenting opinion, the government (under the heavy influence of Putin) has controlled the national television networks. Furthermore, it has substantially regulated the radio space to where nonconformist views simply cannot be sustainably broadcasted nationally. The suffocation of legitimate opinion has only strengthened Putin’s grasp on Russia, leading to an increasingly concerning infiltration of individual liberties.

Perhaps the only way to defend Russia’s liberties paradigm is to refocus the lens of ‘liberties’. Traditionally, the term ‘liberties’ has referred to basic things like free speech, press, etc., yet this is an inherently Western interpretation. Russia’s culture is vastly distinct, and a different characterization of ‘liberties’ is something that the supporting bench could very well utilize to underpin their argument. Furthermore, we must be cautious not to immediately reject the motion by considering some of the sensationalistic violations of liberties in Russia. Legally, many Western liberties are in fact protected. The supporting bench could legitimately cite the official stance of the Russian government in matters of individual liberties—few of the shady practices functioning in the background are official. Deniability is a crucial step in proving that Russia officially guards individual liberties. Where this debate goes will ultimately depend on how much both the supporting bench cites formal legislation (and the Constitution) and by how the negative goes about arguing the Kremlin’s role in unendorsed projects to infringe upon the individual’s liberties.

Jared Tishelman, Chief Editor of Science & Health

As Krishna and Ankit have stated before, the wording of the motion boils the debate down to primarily proving Russia as the most egregious violator of civil rights, while simultaneously proving that the countries to its west protect individual liberties more effectively. This may prove difficult for the opposition bench on Tuesday night, as the phrase “countries to its west” is ambiguous, and many nations have different understandings of individual liberties. It is important to recognize in this discussion that Russia has fundamentally oppressed its citizens with restrictive legislation, directly violating the meaning of individual liberties as defined above by Krishna.

The government has made use of the law against “foreign agents” since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in an attempt to curb dissent among the Russian citizens. This law enables inspections by government agencies on non-governmental bodies—either people or organizations—that had spoke out in opposition to the government. In practice, this leads to the government harassing, discrediting and/or prosecuting anyone who speaks out against the government. This is a direct limit on freedom of speech and expression, and promotes in-thinking in the Russian government. Not only does the Russian government allow harassment and curb different thinking within their nation, but it directly discriminates against the LBGTQ community within its country. This discrimination arose in the form of a ban on “propaganda” intended for minors that featured “non-traditional sexual relations”. Essentially, what this does is limit the LBGTQ community in their advocacy for equal rights, and make it impossible for them to spread their message—another grievous injury to individual liberties in Russia. This reminds me of the protests by the punk, feminist band Pussy Riot. These young women staged pop-up concerts in public places and featured songs pertaining to LBGTQ oppression, corruption within the Russian government, and outward distaste for Vladimir Putin. Two of the members of the group were imprisoned for 2 years under the charge of “Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” This attracted lots of attention from advocacy groups of the west, which considered this an egregious human rights violation. The attitude in Russia was less sympathetic; people believed that the girls had got what they asked for and undermined the moral foundations of Russia (see: article by Mark Adomanis on Russians’ opinions towards Pussy Riot: It seems that Russia does not in fact protect the rights of its citizens, but instead it takes decisive action against any citizens that feel they should exercise their rights.

With these ideas in mind, I look forward to spirited debate on Tuesday night, and hope to see both sides focus on the issues and lay out succinct, yet comprehensive arguments. Due to the infractions against the civil rights of the Russian citizenry, my prediction for the outcome on Tuesday night is a victory for the opposition.