“Today we are successful in politics, economics, the arts, sciences, sports. We have reasons for pride. We enjoy respect and difference. We are citizens of a great country and we have great victories ahead. Putin’s plan is a victory for Russia.”
“Why are we certain in the stable development of Russia? Because Russia today has a growing economy and new technologies. Russia’s high global standing and order at home, priority national projects and an up to date military-industrial complex, are because today our leader is bringing us new victories. We are working for one common cause. United Russia. We believe in Russia, we believe in ourselves!”
Such is the text of the two United Russia campaign commercials above. They are slick, exciting, and most importantly positive and optimistic. No political opponent is mentioned. There are no campaign smears. Nor is there any indication of what United Russia specifically stands for, except for Russia itself.
United Russia’s message to voters is a simple one. The future is bright and tomorrow will be brighter. Russia has one task–progress, and United Russia, under Putin’s plan, is the only political force to ensure it.
It’s all quite genius, really. Where the Communists and liberals preach a language of decay, corruption, and negativity, United Russia’s commercials’ tap into the emotional centers of pride; the music makes you want to leap up in celebration; and by their end, the viewer, if not already totally ensconced in cynicism, can’t help mobilize the self for what tomorrow will bring. Those looking for objectivity need apply elsewhere. For, United Russia’s proactive imagery seeks to be more than an ad, more than mere propaganda. It seeks to be a dose of Ecstacy for the dejected and depressed voter.
The commercials’ message is a throwback to the progressive rhetorics of the Soviet times. “Life has become more joyous comrades,” Stalin was famous for saying. And why not? Life actually has, discovers the Washington Post. The Post’s subject, one Vadim Ignatiyev from Nizhny Novgorod, is an archetype of the United Russia supporter–middle-aged provincial Russian family man, a full fledged member of Russia petite-bourgeoisie. Decent wages (they’ve doubled in the past two years), a new car, new TV, CD player, and furniture. A package vacation to Turkey. His family’s first abroad. All attributed to Putin. “I believe the president has given people the possibility to work and to make money,” Ignatiyev told the Post. “If five years ago I might have had some doubts about him, now I have none. I don’t see any alternative.”
At that is exactly what United Russia’s campaign commercials hope to say to Ignatiyev: the reason he sees no alternative is because there is none.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Russian Election Day has come and gone. Finally. Nevertheless, the mandarins of the American media are dutifully filling column inches with reports about Russia. Sadly, like most reporting on the Slavic nation, one you read one, you’ve pretty much read them all. The Washington Post is a typical example of how little American newspapers editors understand about Russia. Here are a few examples:
The Kremlin has rounded up a collection of three losers for Mr. Medvedev to run against, including the head of the Communist Party and a buffoonish ultranationalist, while disqualifying the most serious opposition candidate, a liberal former prime minister.
By “liberal former prime minister,” they mean Mikhail Kasyanov, or as they call him in Russia “Misha 2%.” The editors from the Washington Post can’t get it through their thick skulls that the “head of the Communist Party” and the “buffoonish ultranationalist” are the only serious opposition simply because they actually have political constituencies. To suggest otherwise would be like saying Ralph Nader is the only serious opposition in the American election. The real sad part is that instead of allowing Kasyanov to run openly and uninhibited to show the world that Russians don’t care about him, the Kremlin’s minion in the Central Election Commission disqualified him for allegedly faking signatures. I believe this claim. But the election is all bullshit anyway so the way I see it you might as well let all bullshitters play. At least that way the whole process won’t be so goddamn boring.
So the benighted slag and drag is piling up highthis Russian Presidential election day. It’s no wonder that when Tim Russert asked Hillary Clinton “Who the next Russian President will be?”, she garbled her answer with “Med . . . um . . . Medeveda . . . Mededevda . . . whatever.” No matter Bush didn’t know who Pervez Musharaf was when he was running the first time. Hopefully for her, if she wins, which looks unlikely, she won’t discover Medvedev’s name in a similar context in which Bush had to learn Musharaf’s. You can see a clip of of Hillary’s verbal stumbling on Siberian Light. (Btw, Andy has also be doing some live blogging on the election.)
Luckily, there is one diamond amid the pundit zirconia, and even more surprisingly it’s from the chief mandarin of them all, the New York Times. Rather than turning to their editorial board to make yet another dull comment, the Times has enlisted Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin to give his assessment of Russia via a book review of Anders Aslund’s Russia’s Capitalist Revolution. More important than what Kotkin thinks of Aslund’s book is what he says about the election. “Dmitri A. Medvedev will be anointed president of Russia today thanks to the political handiwork of Vladimir V. Putin. But maybe the real winner is economic globalization.” Agreed. And this is what many Russopundits should understand. Putin may not be a liberal in the political sense, but he’s certainly one in the economic sense. This is the secret of the success of Putin’s Plan. Russia’s increasing integration into the global economy has produced enough trickle to enough Russians to build a middle class. Once you have that class as your political back pocket, how the poor live doesn’t matter. Especially since the uppity middle class despises them anyway. As Kotkin writes,
Most Russians do not love Mr. Putin per se, but they love Mr. Putin’s Russia. They love being middle class. They love planning for the future. It is no comfort to the politically persecuted, but average wages in Russia are leaping 10 percent a year, in real terms.
The growing millions of Russian homeowners, vacationers and investors may seem inclined to authoritarianism or just apolitical. But they certainly value a strong ruble, moderate inflation, affordable mortgages, access to higher education, satellite television, Internet connections, passports, foreign visas and — above all else — no economic shocks.
So as much as people like Aslund want to argue that Putin had nothing to do with Russia’s economic resurgence, the truth is that he and his circle are reaping the political benefits. Enough Russians see that things are good now and the man in office is Putin. This makes Medvedev’s win a no brainer even if the election was a shining example of the democratic process. Given this, perhaps the real farce would be holding an actual democratic election. That would certainly be the worst thing for Russia’s “liberals” because it would expose them for the politically bankrupt “opposition” that they are. Putin has unwittingly done the liberals a great favor. His Plan has all but buttressed their their self deluded right to exist.
Plus why pretend there is a contest when there actually isn’t one in real political terms? Dima is Putin’s man, so by that simple fact he’s also most Russians’ man. So instead of harping again and again on the obvious–Russia is not the democratic, liberal nation we all pray for–we need concentrate on why Russians may not love Putin, but they love Putin’s Russia. As Kotkin rightly says, quoting Dmitri Trenin, “There is a Russia beyond Putin’s.” True enough, though Mr. Trenin does not detail that Russia. Almost no one does.” True that.
By Sean — 10 years ago
Nato declares that relations with Russia can’t go on “business as usual.” Washington keeps demanding that the Russians leave Georgia “now.” Russia rethinks its cooperation with NATO. It is even unmasking a few Georgian spies for good measure. All of this coincides with three Cold War anniversaries: Russia’s 1998 financial default, the coup against Gorbachev, and Prague Spring. The Cold War is suddenly back in vogue. The glory days of the past are back!
“Cold War II,” as it’s being called, already has critics’ panties in a bunch as to what to do about Russia. Containment? Nato enlargement? Missle “defense” against Russia, err, Iran in Eastern Europe? The desperation has resulted in some grasping for some real straws. A good example, is Chrystia Freeland’s comment, “The oligarchs could be Russia’s best bet,” in today’s Financial Times. She writes,
Russian capitalism – and, more crucially, Russian capitalists – may be our best bet if we hope to limit Russia’s malign actions abroad. Crazy though it may sound to contemplate right now, they could even be critical to Russia’s eventual return to a more democratic path.
Well, it sounds crazy because it is. The incorrect assumption Freeland makes is that she sees a division between Russia’s “oligarchs” (the fact that she doesn’t name a single one proves that she might not have a clue) and the Russian state. One wonders which “oligarchs” does she mean. Could it be Deputy Prime Minister and Rosneft magnate Igor Sechin? Or Deputy Prime Minister and Gazprom chairman Viktor Zubkov? Millhouse LLC owner and former Chukota governor, Roman Abramovich? Or any one of the other of Russia’s oligarch statesmen? Unlikely, since these people are the state and have benefited tremendously from its consolidation. Oh, and there’s fact that these people are, well, economic nationalists.
Oh, but not for Freedland. For her, the intimacy between the oligarchs and the Medvedev/Putin state is merely “kowtowing.” After all, they don’t want to be the next Khodorkovsky, who’s appeal for parole was rejected. However, when sycophancy is stripped away, she maintains, you get the cosmopolitan oligarch, who is essentially “global” and profits off of “Western capital markets, western consumers, western acquisitions and even western MBAs.” And this love for all things Western, logic dictates, is really a sign of some nascent inkling for democracy. Isn’t it? Keep dreaming.
The truth of the matter is that Russia’s political and business elite are one and the same. This is the beauty of it all. And what is a better expression of the brilliance of capitalism than when the state becomes the private property of the capitalists? One would think that the free marketeers at the Financial Times would be jealous. After all, democracy just “socializes” political power.
By Sean — 12 years ago
The deputy head of Putin’s administration, Vladislav Surkov gave a rare press conference this week. His comments touched on energy geopolitics and Russian democracy. The latter topic has generated the most press as critics have tried to ascertain the meaning of Surkov’s use of “sovereign democracy” versus “managed democracy”. For the latter he gave this definition: “By managed democracy we understand political and economic regimes imposed by centres of global influence – and I am not going to mention specific countries – by force and deception.” Of course Russia doesn’t try to install “managed democracies” on its borders. Yeah, right. In this sense, Russia does what every power currently does. It uses the rhetoric of democracy as a tool of geopolitical maneuvering.
Take Surkov’s democratic rhetoric as an example. His definition of “managed democracy” is a direct reference to America’s view that the only democracy is American democracy or at least the only viable democracy is one that conforms to American interests. Surkov made these comments in the context Dick Cheney’s hypocrisy in labeling authoritarian states “democracies.” “When [Cheney] was in Kazakhstan after criticizing our democracy, he gave the highest rating to Kazakhstan’s democracy. The Kazakh people are our brothers. But I will never agree that Kazakhstan has gone further in building democracy than we have.” I’d have to score one to Surkov here. For Cheney to suggest that Nazarbayev’s regime approaches anything close to a democracy should evoke rancorous laughter. The point however is Russia is itself playing the “democracy” game by measuring others and itself against imagined, and self-referential idealism about its own democracy.
In contrast, western critics use the term “managed democracy” to describe Russia as “backsliding” into authoritarianism. Surkov essentially turned the Western usage on its head. According to Surkov, “managed democracy” is given to states that are under the American neo-imperial umbrella. So Karzai’s Afghanistan, Musharaf’s Pakistan, Mubark’s Egypt, and Iraq are democracies, while Russia is not. “They [the West],” charged Surkov in specific reference to American attempts to dominate the globes energy resources, “talk about democracy but they’re thinking about our natural resources.”
Instead, Russia is what Surkov calls a “sovereign democracy”—a democracy which acts in its own national interest and, (this got the goat of many Western reporters) is no different than democracy in Europe. “It [sovereign democracy] means we are building an open society, that we do not forget we are a free society, and that we do not want to be directed from outside,” said Surkov. In his view, Russia is moving away from the “managed democracy” of the 1990s, when Russia was racked by American influenced “shock therapy” and rule by oligarchs. “What are we backsliding from?” he asked rhetorically. “We are moving further and further away from this non-democracy.”
This semantic game was not lost on Sergei Roy, who had this to say in a recent commentary on the “managed” versus “sovereign” democracy:
Consider the controversy concerning “managed democracy” vs. “sovereign democracy.” Certain “purists” insist that either you have democracy or you don’t, that real democracy comes without any adjectives, that any additions to the concept make it less of a democracy or no democracy at all. Well, those purists should pay attention to the frequency with which the phrase “effective democracy” is used in the US ideological environment and, still more, to the practice of imposing this “effective democracy” throughout the world — most notably in Iraq, of course. Surkov’s, and quite a few other people’s, insistence on sovereign democracy means, quite simply, that to have a democracy in Russia, there must first be a Russia, recognizable to its people as their birthplace with a thousand-year history and a certain future as a single, indivisible country. A sovereign country. No wonder this term, sovereign democracy, is so virulently attacked by the said purists, for whom there can be only one kind of democracy the world over — American democracy. We see only too clearly, however, that American democracy abroad is democracy for Americans abroad and at home, not for the peoples of that “abroad.” Countries like Georgia and Ukraine are too close to Russia for us to miss the effect of the loss of sovereignty on democracy. To the US, these lands may appear to be beacons of freedom and democracy. At closer range, they look more like what the irreverent French call bordel de Dieu, the brothel of Our Lord. They are not even managed democracies, as Surkov calls them. They are mismanaged pseudo-democracies.
And I should not be too contemptuous of Georgia, Ukraine or the like. Just a few years ago, Russia was no better, with “democrats” like Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Nevzlin, Khdorkovsky, not forgetting the Family or Mr. Chernomyrdin (aka Schwarzmordekhai), ruling the land in collusion with the IMF, tearing the country apart, snarling at each other over the more succulent chunks of its assets, and stashing away the proceeds of plunder in foreign securities. That was the type of democracy in Russia that suited the West to a T. Like Surkov said, “If cannibals came to power in Russia and gave away certain things to certain people at once, they would be recognized as a democratic government.” Recall how fervent Mr. Cheney was in praise of Kazakhstani democracy on his recent visit there. Kazakhs are no cannibals, thank God, but they have given away their oil fields to Chevron — and were elevated to the status of arch-democrats by the US vice president. One might have asked what the Kazakh opposition had to say on this score — if there was any opposition worth the name to be found, for love or money.
However, while Roy agrees that Russia needs a Putin (which he refers to as “Putin A”) to move Russia away from domination by outsiders, Russia also needs a “Putin B” to act as counterweight, “otherwise the whole structure is a bit out of kilter and prone to dangerous instability.” This dangerous instability is seen in United Russia’s one party dominance over Russian politics.
What or who does Roy wish this until now non-existent counterweight to be? “A leader of the currently totally disorganized and apathetic masses, a leader who would unite these masses around a trade unions platform somewhat along the British trades union lines of the pre-Blair era. That is what the country needs — a “labor party” and a strong labor party leader, to kick the excreta out of the rotten, currently all-powerful yet incompetent bureaucratic machine and the grasping capitalists who are now exploiting and generally manhandling the proles any damn way they please.”
Roy’s comment echoes the hopes of Boris Kagarlitsky. Kagarlistky also muses on the fact that something is missing in Russian politics. And that “something” is none other than social democracy. Though much of Europe is in the hands of social democratic parties, social democracy as it was known in the early and middle part of the 20th century has all but collapsed. Social Democrats have further reconciled themselves to the Thatcherite slogan, “There is no alternative” to neo-liberal capitalism.
For Russia, however, social democracy has been bankrupt much longer. The ineffectiveness and political stupidity of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1917 along with its branding as the ideology of “enemies of the people” in the Soviet period, has relegated any social democratic hopes thoroughly in the hands of the equally moribund Communist Party. These folks, in Kagarlitsky’s eyes, are much worse than the Third Wayers in Western Europe. At least the Blairites and Schroederites bare some resemblance to a social democracy now past. Gennady Zyuganov’s “Communists” are nothing more than conservative nationalists wrapped in the red flag of working class emancipation.
It is because of this that Kagarlitsky’s (and Roys’ for that matter) hopes for the development of a Western style social democratic alternative to United Russia are only that, hopes. A substitute will come along to challenge United Russia in the political duel for Russia’s “sovereign democracy”. It just won’t be a force with a social democratic face.
So what does this all have to do with Surkov’s concept of Russia’s “sovereign democracy”? It seems that it has strange bedfellows. Roy’s doesn’t reject the notion. I doubt Kagarlitsky would either. Russian democracy should be a contest that has Russian interests in mind. It should be a sort of nationalist democracy. (And here I use nationalist to mean that it should be conducted without outside influence.) The differences are that Surkov’s democracy looks fine without an opposition to Putin/United Russia. Democracy under the helm of these two powerful forces, though not without problems, is sailing along just fine. For Roy and Kagarlitsky, this smooth sailing is only a dream vacation cruise that is steeped in ideological smoke and political grift. The real journey will undoubtedly hit some rough and choppy waters that will inevitably veer Russia’s “sovereign democracy” into the oncoming rocks.