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By Sean — 3 years ago
Svetlana Stephenson is a Reader in Sociology at London Metropolitan University. Her research has involved studying informal and criminal social networks in Russia as well as perceptions of social justice and human rights in a comparative context. She is the author of Gangs of Russia, From the Streets to the Corridors of Power published by Cornell University Press in 2015.
N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton,” Straight Outta Compton, 1988 (clean version, unfortunately).
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.
By Sean — 13 years ago
Speculation about Russia’s foreign policy motives are a cottage industry in its own right. Are Russians paranoid? Inherently expansionist? Intolerable to democracy and dissent? Such views have shaped how American and European governments have dealt with Russia for the last century. When set against other former Russian modernizers, Putin is more imagined as a nascent Stalin, rather than a Peter I, Nicholas I, or Alexander II. I think Andrei Tsygankov, professor of International Studies and Political Science at San Francisco State University and Program Chair, International Studies Association, has given a sober explanation for why Russia currently acts the way it does. According to him, Putin is likened more as a Russian leader like Prince Alexander Gorchakov, who after Russia’s defeat in the Crimea in 1856, called his country with brutal honesty, a “great, powerless country.” Such an assessment paved the way for Alexander II sweeping reforms. Tsygankov sees Putin’s reforms in a similar light.
The most common explanation for the Russia’s assertive behavior points to Moscow’s revenge against the colored revolutionaries and politically “disloyal” states in the former Soviet world. Although there is no evidence of Russia’s involvement in the recent pipeline blasts in Georgia, many have rushed to implicate the Kremlin. President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili charged that the blasts were a deliberate retaliation for Georgia’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and political influence. Russia’s new strategy is supposedly to use the “energy imperialism” for reviving the lost empire and challenging the West in a new global competition. Back in circulation are phobias of Russia’s “centuries-old” expansionism accompanied by fear of democracy at home.
This interpretation attributes wrong motives to the Russian behavior. By presenting Moscow as increasingly paranoid and disrespectful of existing international rules, it projects the image of an irrational erratic power that continues to cling to its die-hard habits. Nothing can be farther from truth. The world is faced with an increasingly confident and stable Russia that is rapidly recovering from the economic depression of the 1990s. While taking precautions against encroachment on its sovereignty, Russia is far from isolating itself or launching revenge against those vulnerable to its pressures. Fear and lack of imagination is not what drives Moscow’s new behavior. Rather, this behavior demonstrates a forward-looking vision and an impressive grasp of new international opportunities. After years of searching, Russia has found a firm ground from which to proceed—a successful economic modernization.
Having resisted the eastern enlargement of NATO without much success during the 1990s, Russia has found a positive national idea. Vladimir Putin formulated it in his programmatic election speech warning of the danger of Russia turning into a third-world country. Ridiculing overly noisy great power rhetoric—“let us not recollect our national interests on those occasions when we have to make some loud statements”—he compared Russia to Portugal, the EU’s poorest member, concluding that “it would take us fifteen years and an eight percent annual growth of our GDP to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal.” Since then, Russia entered the stage of foreign policy concentration, with priorities of national economic recovery and secure borders. . .
Today’s Russia, however, is no longer “powerless.” Although much remains to be done in the areas of economy and security, particularly in the North Caucasus, one must register a considerable progress and act on it. Thanks to the high energy prices and pragmatic leadership, Russia has moved from a primitive accumulation of capital to the stage of generating a stable flow of investments in the economy. Internally, it is now in a position to develop more comprehensive social policies and address its status of a “third-world” country. Externally, it is about time that a nation armed with a forward-looking vision and growing resources develop a more aggressive foreign policy. The era of economic stagnation and moral decline is behind Russia, and it is logical to shift from concentration to projection of the accumulated national confidence.