History's End

History will end only when Man does

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  • Monday, May 24, 2004

    A Step to the Sidelines

    In my recent series of posts on Russia, I have been examining the long term future of Russia, and more specifically the fate of Siberia, and of Russia as a whole in the long term. However, LJ at the blog The Urban Empire links to several articles on Russia and authoritarianism that are worth a detour to examine. The short-term future of Russia can have a huge impact on the long term situation, especially concerning government control. Two of the pieces concern Russia proper, namely an article on democracy in Russia, while the other deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The other article discusses authoritarianism in an age of terror.

    Here is the piece on Putin:
    Russians admire his youth, sobriety, steely restraint and love of order, and many find their own lives better and calmer. Foreign investors who ran away after the government default and economic crash in 1998 have flocked back. They extol the increasing stability of the economy, the growing power of consumers, the energy and imagination of entrepreneurs. They are convinced that the president and his economic reformers want to remove the distortions caused both by Soviet socialism and by the post-Soviet, crony-capitalist gold rush, and create a land in which the free market can flourish. They too will say, quietly, that the empress had a point.

    But both Russian and western political liberals look at Russia with a tightening knot of fear in their bellies. They see an authoritarian leader who has repressed the media and free speech, planted former secret agents and soldiers throughout the government, and turned both houses of parliament into dispensers of rubber stamps; who has encouraged the resurgence of nationalism and allowed the conflict-ridden republic of Chechnya to become a morass of banditry and killing on both sides; who has shown his taste for power and distaste for business by persecuting Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man; and whose “reforms” are at best ineffectual and at worst a charade.

    Putin is obviously a very complex man. He has turned out to be quite different from what was expected, and this unpredictability has no doubt helped him achieve his aims. But what are his aims? Is he a patriot, or a would be tyrant? It is too early to tell, but the time where the truth will be revealed isn't that far away. Putin is on his second term, and unless the Constitution is amended, he is prevented by term limits from running again. If he moves to amend the constitution to remove those limits, then I think it is safe to say that we have a would-be tyrant on our hands. I am sure that the world, much less the Russian people, have their eye on Putin, and don't trust him fully. Yet for Russia, at least, they have little choice. Putin
    tends to trust his fellow siloviki, men from the security services, yet he clearly understands the need for Russia to overcome the legacy of Soviet economic planning and rethink its position in the world.

    This is fascinating, on so very many levels. The first is that he appears to be trusting former members of the Secret Police, men who were feared during the days of the Soviet Union, and still are. However, I am not so sure that he trusts them as much as is indicated in this article. Rather than trust them, Putin knows them. He understands how they think, what they think about, and how the operate; and thus knows how to properly integrate them into his plans. Patriot or Tyrant? Who knows, but I suspect that Putin is in fact a Patriot, someone who wants to see Russia strong again. However, he realizes just how poor off Russia is at the moment. He recognized that unless things were turned around, Russia was doomed in the long run. In order for him to change things, he will need the full power of a unified central government. In order to get that power, he must reduce the authority of the legislative and judicial branches, and make them subordinate to the Executive. Putin realized some time ago that Russia needed a dictator, the Motherland needed a Cincinnatus. It is perhaps the height of arrogance to imagine yourself the leader who will save your country, through the force of your will, but if there is anyone in such a position today, it is Putin. Russia's troubles are many, and only a strong leader could solve them. There are two questions now: Is it true that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely? If so, then Putin might be on the path to becoming a tyrant. The second question, just as important, is this: Can Russia be saved at this point in time?

    Personally, I think that terrorism is actually a secondary problem for Russia. The Chechans are troublesome, to be sure, but they are a drop in the bucket compared to the other dangers that Russia faces at the moment. I think that even without that problem, Putin would have taken much the same steps he has taken thus far. Chechan terrorists merely add incentive to his consolidation of authority. What will be interesting is who replaces Putin, should he in fact end his term as dictated by the Constitution. Will he try and push a successor, someone that he thinks might continue what he has started? Or will he let the people truly choose their next leader? I suspect that he will push a successor, though try to cloak it with democratic language. Perhaps he will do what Yeltsin did, and resign a year early, and let his successor have some time in office to build legitimacy. The great worry of mine is that even if this cycle were to stop in the future, Russian civil society would not be in a position to fully exploit the opportunity for true democracy.

    If Russians like democracy so much, why don't they vote for pro-democracy politicians? One obvious reason is the way the Kremlin has rigged election campaigns, denying pro-democracy parties access to the broadcast media. But another, according to Levinson, is that pro-democracy parties have little to offer a public that has already bought into democratic values. Neither of Russia's pro-democracy parties have much of a platform, aside from affirming democracy itself. In fact, the people who, judging from the polls, consistently vote against Putin and pro-Putin parties are the die-hard Communists. The secret, it seems, is Putin's balancing act: As long as he manages to pay lip service to democratic values while keeping the actual democrats from forming an opposition force, he will continue to enjoy the support of Russia's increasingly pro-democracy public--even as he eviscerates Russia's democratic gains. This is not because Russians are crazy or hypocritical; it is because the state is far stronger than any institutions of civil society. And the imbalance is only increasing, in part because the state is steadily undermining civil society.

    I worry that Russia, because of a brief, or not so brief, stint with authoritarianism will not be ready for true democracy when, if, it should ever come. And therein lies a true sadness, the notion that even if strong leaders are able to "save" Russia from the threats that it now faces, it could still be done in by the decay of civil society and inexperience with democratic institutions. Hence you see now why I am so pessimistic about Russia's future. There are so many perils out there, I don't see how they can all be avoided.

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