Russians don’t have authoritarian DNA in their genes and it is a myth that democracy is somehow unsuitable for Russia, says a prominent analyst.
Russian society itself erects no insurmountable barriers to the formation of a rule-of-law state,” writes Lilia Shevtsova (right), chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Mentality, culture, historical memory, and political habits do not make a democratic transition impossible, as the experience of other civilizations has demonstrated,” she writes in a major new report on Russia’s democratic prospects:
A number of obstacles stand in the way of Russia’s path to an open society: its past, its traditions, the mindset of its elite, common stereotypes about its nature, and peculiarities of the personalized-power structure. However, as the history of other transformations over the past fifty-seventy years demonstrates, when certain preconditions for democracy are absent, the political elite (primarily its intellectual segment) can compensate for that absence with its own vision and with a readiness to offer society a consolidating strategy. This, of course, requires that the elite reject its selfish, old-regime interests. However, in the final analysis, even non-democrats can begin to build democracy, as Juan Linz and Giuseppe Di Palma have shown: “The non-democrats of yesterday can become democrats, even convinced democrats.”
But recent events demonstrate that Russia’s civil society is “trying to free itself from the stifling embrace of the Russian system and of the political regime that is its engine,” she notes.
President Vladimir Putin last week angrily lashed out at many of the non-governmental organizations engaged in that civil society resurgence and at U.S. criticism of the Kremlin’s attempt to form a post-Soviet Eurasian federation .
Addressing officials of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, Putin criticized “recent nervous statements about integration processes in the former Soviet lands.”
While he didn’t mention any names, Putin was clearly referring to a statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said in December that the US would resist what she called “a move to re-Sovietize the region” in the guise of regional integration.
“Let’s make no mistake about it,” she said. “We know what the goal is, and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”
Putin warned FSB officials of foreign efforts to undermine the proposed alliance.
“They may use various instruments of pressure, including mechanisms of the so-called ‘soft power,’” he said. “The sovereign right of Russia and its partners to build and develop its integration project must be safely protected.”
After Putin’s inauguration in May, the Kremlin-controlled parliament quickly rubber-stamped a series of repressive laws that sharply hiked fines for taking part in unauthorized protests, extended the definition of high treason and required non-government organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a term that sounds synonymous to spies in Russian. Leading Russian NGOs have vowed to ignore the bill, which also allows an unlimited number of inspections and checks that could paralyze the activities of NGOs.
“No one has the monopoly of speaking on behalf of the entire Russian society, let alone the structures directed and funded from abroad and thus inevitably serving foreign interests,” he said. “Any direct or indirect meddling in our internal affairs, any forms of pressure on Russia, on our allies and partners is inadmissible.”
Despite the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent voices, “the signs are now plain for all to see…..that the Russian system is beginning to decay,” Shevtsova writes in her must read report, Russia XXI: The Logic of Suicide and Rebirth:
It cannot sustain the crumbling status quo, nor can it be certain of finding a new incarnation for itself. The only real questions are what stage of decay the system is in, whether the agony of its demise has already started, and, if so, how long it will last. To be sure, the system still has some resources, if not to revive itself, then to draw out its death, and that survival instinct could take a nasty, even bloody, form.
Nevertheless, “the Russian system, that is, the existing institutions, informal rules of the game, entrenched interests, political traditions, and mentality and habits of the elite (and society as well), has demonstrated an exceptional ability to survive and to absorb body blows,” she notes:
It has proved that it can survive a change of the political regime, while retaining the mechanism of personal rule embodied in a leader who stands above the fray. The Russian system has even survived through two different structural, economic, and ideological incarnations: first by exchanging tsarism for communism in 1917, and later by discarding communism for imitation democracy in 1991. Throughout all of these periods of change, the essential elements of the Russian system have remained unchanged: a personalized-power regime whose fusion with property necessitates tight control of the economy; a ruling class that hungers for external spheres of interest; a claim to Russia’s global status; and militarism as the means of securing and justifying the regime’s domestic and foreign policy agenda.
Russia’s democratic opposition has been disabled by the failure of the country’s liberals which have emerged as “one of the pillars of the new post-communist autocracy,” serving as “Viagra for Russian authoritarianism,” Shevstova laments:
More than any other class of intellectuals, liberals ought to be most invested in establishing freedom and the rule of law, but the sad irony is that it was liberals who delivered the most crushing blow to the chances of liberal democratic change in Russia. I called them “system” liberals (Andrei Illarionov later coined the shorter “syslibs”). Operating within the system and serving the government in different capacities even as they tried to monopolize the mantle of liberalism, these syslibs were instrumental in restoring one-man rule in Russia. Bright and popular personalities in the service of the new Russian autocracy, they have done much to discredit liberal values and to create an atmosphere in which cynicism and double standards thrive.
Like the syslibs, many Western politicians question Russia’s democratic potential and fear its populist and nationalist forces, Shevstova adds:
Many in Western political circles do not believe that a free Russia would behave decently. They believe that under authoritarian leadership Russia is more predictable and relatively docile. Order and stability, even at the expense of freedom, is what many Western leaders prefer to see in Russia. This goes a long way toward explaining the Western policy of acquiescence toward Russian autocracy.
The West’s democracies are also losing the battle of ideas with authoritarianism, Shevstova warns.
“Western civilization, in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population, has lost its role as the alternative to the personalized-power system,” she writes:
This is partly the result of the current Western “malaise.” Western intellectual and political gurus have been candid in acknowledging the state of the Western model. Francis Fukuyama today writes of “dysfunctional America,” Zbigniew Brzezinski warns of Western decay, and Walter Laqueur has announced “the slow death of Europe.” Naturally, this Western crisis is inspiring neither liberal hopes within Russian society nor attempts to follow the Western model, at least for the time being.
The reset in US-Russian relations and EU policy toward the Kremlin “are considered by many democracy-minded Russians as legitimizations of the personalized-power system that give it additional strength to survive. For the first time, one can hear harsh criticism of Western policy toward the Kremlin coming from pro-Western circles in Russia,” she contends:
For example, one of the leading figures of the Russian democratic opposition, Vladimir Ryzhkov, says: “Paris and Berlin are solid supporters of Putin. Obama’s Russia policy is much more advantageous to Putin and his inner circle than that of former U.S. President Bush.” ….
The president of the Levada Center [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy], Lev Gudkov, who is an independent sociologist, says:
I think that both the opposition and the public at large (there is practically no difference here) perceive the “reset” policy as a purely cynical act of trade-off between Putin and the new American administration. The agreement is based on a few assumptions. Among them are America’s promises to refrain from criticizing Putin’s authoritarian regime and accept – at least superficially – Putin’s claims to the status of a major statesman who restored Russia to its historical superpower position. ……. Essentially, the over whelming majority of Russians believed that for the sake of increasing the Russian regime’s world prestige and protecting its geopolitical interests, it is not only lawful but appropriate to treat the Americans as “useful idiots” (to resort to the phrase attributed to Lenin). They believed that to this end any means are justifiable, including deception, blackmail, etc.
From Andrei Piontkowski, an independent publicist [and former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy]:
This “reset” once all the lofty peel is removed is reduced to a simple bargain: the American military cargo transit to Afghanistan in exchange for safe havens in the West for the assets the Russian ruling elite has illegally accumulated. [...] ….
“At this point, I would expect my Western colleagues to say: ‘Come on! This is rubbish! What do you expect the West and the United States to do? Isolate Russia? End trade? Stop negotiating nuclear weapons cuts?’” Shevstova continues:
Of course not. I am not so irresponsible or naïve. The opposition and the liberal critics of the West do not expect Western governments to fight for Russian democracy and freedom; this is an agenda for Russians. But in pursuing trade or security relations, nothing is forcing Western governments to play the game “Let’s Pretend” with regard to the path the Kremlin has taken.
By masquerading as an imitation “sovereign democracy,” Putin’s regime was for a while able to maintain a degree of legitimacy, but no longer:
- the Russian people no longer have to concentrate on basic physical survival, and their memories of the 1990s have begun to fade;
- a new generation of Russians is demanding a higher standard of living;
- increased prosperity has allowed city residents to begin to pay attention to issues of freedom and dignity;
- Medvedev’s presidency created a gap between the imitation of liberalization and the reality that proved irritating to many;
- the sharp degradation and corruption of the regime became evident;
- new social means of communications appeared;
- the regime’s methods began to backfire in the 2011-12 elections, as the regime’s efforts to intimidate and discredit the opposition led to increased support for it (as well as its radicalization) and further alienation of the regime from the people.
“If the current trends continue in Russia, its economic, social, and political decay will continue, which will bring inevitable geopolitical decline, Shevstova argues:
The ability of the Russian system to adapt to the new internal and external circumstances continues to decrease. The authorities try to respond to new challenges mainly through coercion. The regime cannot change the political and social rules of the game, because that would mean new and unpredictable outcomes, and the Kremlin fears these more than it fears the results of the current rot.
Exactly how this political decay will develop and what forms it will take are still very unclear. Will it be a lengthy process of stagnation and decline that goes beyond any timeframe we can adequately measure today? Or will it be interrupted by social and political explosions, and, if so, when and with what consequences? Would these explosions (or explosion) just lead to the continuation of the authoritarian system under a new guise, or would it transform Russia into a liberal democracy?
The upcoming political agenda features some key objectives for the nascent opposition:
One of them is consolidating the opposition and formulating an agenda that is responsive to the challenges posed by a more repressive regime. Another objective is integrating political and socio-economic demands. Yet another is uniting all of the opposition factions and the moderates within the system ready for change under the banner of universal democratic demands and the peaceful transformation of the system.
“The fast-paced events of the day and the degradation of the system may call for some ad hoc changes to the agenda, but one objective remains paramount under any circumstances: the pledge by all participants in the political process to renounce personalized power and to step down from positions of power in case of electoral defeat,” Shevstova concludes.
“This has never happened in Russian history. If Russia finally manages to do it, it will have reached its ‘end of history’ and the beginning of a new one.”