Any transition from autocracy to democracy is a tough endeavor. And, so far, there are many more failures on this thorny path than success stories. Colored revolutions in some post-Soviet republics might be a good example. Or today’s developments in some Arab countries that experienced dramatic regime changes last Winter called Arab Spring. Actually, even the Balkan states still represent a very problematic case – despite a forceful engagement of external democratizing actors, primarily the EU but also, in some cases, NATO.
All these problems and failures provide international autocrats with a powerful argument. It may vary in rhetorical devices but its essence is all the same: liberal democracy is a Western invention and imposition, unsuitable for our peculiar circumstances; any attempt to introduce it leads to chaos and bloodshed, political and economic collapse, national disintegration and loss of sovereignty. National unity and stability and, of course full support for autocratic incumbents are presented as the only alternative to the democratization plague.
The strength of this rhetoric dwells in its reasonability. It does not appeal to any lofty ideals or bright utopian visions of the future. It offers a bird in a hand instead of a few in a bush; a well-known and lesser evil instead of unknown and probably bigger one; a bad peace instead of a good war – excluding thereby the option of a good peace from the political agenda even without mentioning it. The rhetoric is firmly based on a common wisdom, it draws upon some traumatic experiences and deeply ingrained psychological complexes and phobias.
Throughout the whole decade, it had been working well in Russia and seemed to be working further in years to come. A few years ago, however, a perfect system of “managed democracy” constructed by the Kremlin “political technologists”, was shaken seriously by the global economic crisis. And last December, mass protests in Moscow and other Russian cities against the electoral fraud challenged not only the system but also its main creator and guardian, a charismatic “national leader”, whose authority and popularity looked unquestionable. The specter of “colored revolutions” promoted allegedly by the sinister West and its local “fifth column” suddenly resurrected in Russia – even though was believed to be successfully buried in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan.
The reasons for Russian awakening are rather clear. The causes, however, are more complicated. The 2008/2009 economic crisis was certainly not so painful and damaging for the majority of Russians as the crisis of 1998 and, more generally, the total collapse of the Russian economy in the early 90s. The 2011 electoral fraud, however outrageous, was not any bigger than in the previous elections and, frankly, did not affect radically the ultimate victory of Putin’s “party of power” and its satellites. Both events, however, – the crisis and the electoral fraud, – triggered some feelings and energies accumulated within the society for years.
The crisis drew mass attention to Russian backwardness, lack of reforms, corruption, nepotism, parasitic rent-seeking, and humiliating dependence of the big and ambitious country on the primitive export of raw materials. The electoral fraud has probably galvanized the feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment and channeled them into the political realm – primarily against the ruling party, aptly labeled the “party of crooks and thieves”, and ultimately against its informal leader who announced, by that time, his unfortunate decision to run for presidency for the third time. De facto in meant that the four-year tenure of Dmitri Medvedev was just a fiction, a fake, a cynical conspiracy of two smarties aimed at bypassing the letter of law that forbids an incumbent to run for the third time. People dislike to be fooled, especially twice in a row, in both parliamentary and presidential elections.
The causes of mass resentment, however, are deeper. The social contract that allowed authorities to curtail civic freedoms in exchange for some sort of stability and relative prosperity for the majority of the citizens, was challenged by not only the crisis but also lack of modernization and growing gap between Russia and the developed countries. In other words, the authorities exhausted the credit they got from the society and drew upon which within the two presidential terms of Vladimir Putin.
One may recollect here the political fate of Leonid Brezhnev who replaced his maverick predecessor Nikita Khrushchev and enjoyed some benefit of doubt within his first decade, until the country fully stagnated, and he became himself an object of anecdotes, parodies, and popular contempt. The authoritarian leader who is neither respected nor frightening, loses his legitimacy. And this is exactly what happens with Vladimir Putin who increasingly becomes booed, ridiculed, and despised.
To invigorate his faded image and, probably, to respond to the protests, he published in January two articles – in “Izvestia” and “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that can be also considered an outline of the program of a presidential candidate. Surprisingly, in both pieces, he is firmly stuck to the old rhetoric and seems to completely fail to address the new challenges in more or less constructive and comprehensive way. He praises himself and his team, “a group of like-minded people”, for they arguably “led Russia out of the impasse of Civil War, broke the back of terrorism, restored territorial integrity and constitutional order, [and] revived the economy”. So, everything that the “group of like-minded people” need to do now, is to maintain stability and follow the course chosen back in 2000:
“In today’s world stability is an asset that can only be earned by hard work and with openness to change and readiness for imminent, deliberate and calculated reform. The recurring problem in Russia’s history is the aspiration of the elites for a leap, a revolution instead of gradual developments. Russia’s experience – as well as the experience of the entire world – shows the destructiveness of historical leaps, of overthrowing in haste without creating”.
The scarecrow of “destructive leaps”, “revolutions”, and “overthrowings without creating” is evoked here to make obsolete any discussion about the essence of the “deliberate and calculated reforms”, in either the past or the next decade. This raises a strong suspicion that the main concern of the author and his “group of like-minded people” is their personal stability, whereas all their rhetoric and politics are merely to facilitate it. The official response to the protests, or rather its complete inadequacy, just confirm this suspicion. The smear campaign against the protesters and staunch refusal to investigate any of numerous and well-documented cases of vote-rigging is just a sign of the more fundamental refusal to accept the reality and engage seriously in a difficult task of modernization of the country.
The regime still relies on the silent majority mesmerized by the Soviet-style rhetoric of stability, national greatness, and the need to defend the besieged fortress from external and internal enemies. They disregard the emergence of the new generation that had not been traumatized by the failed attempt at democratization in the early 90s and is not hypnotized today by the magic word “stability”. The regime seems also to neglect the fact that not only the younger generation but Russians in general have much better access today to the external world, both real and virtual, than they had twenty or even ten years ago. And many of them are not eager to buy mythical stories about national greatness and global anti-Russian conspiracy at face value. This does not mean they cannot be any longer tricked and manipulated. This means only that such manipulations require now much more subtle efforts and sophisticated techniques.
Luckily, the regime has not got it. The pro-government propaganda is dull as usual and, in most cases, self-parodying. A short “horror” film Russia without Putin designed to warn compatriots what may happen without the Leader, looks exemplary. The film presents the nearest future in the most apocalyptic terms, with all possible disasters incurred to Russia, including not only Chinese occupation of the Siberia but also Georgian takeover of Abkhazia South Ossetia and, nota bene, the neighboring Krasnodarski krai of the Russian Federation. To add insult to the injury, the mean Georgians host the 2014 Winter Olympic games in the occupied Sochi and do not allow Russians even to participate with their sport team. http://youtu.be/OXEs3Y7IM9I - video was removed.
Back in the 1970s, as students, we indulged ourselves with the thoroughly propagandistic Korea magazine published in Russian by Pyongyang and available at the Soviet newsstands. We read it aloud to our friends – in dormitories, small kitchens, and communal apartments, with a bottle of wine, or cups of tea, and laughed unrestrainedly. Its language was very similar to the Soviet propagandistic newspeak but much cruder, clumsier, and therefore even more ridiculous. By the end of the 1970s, however, our favorite magazine disappeared from sale. The Soviets had probably noticed the weird similarity between their own and North Korean propagandistic discourses, or even more subversive similarity between pompous glorifications of senile Kim Ir Sen and Leonid Brezhnev.
The apparent rigidity and inevitable stagnation of Putin’s regime is a definitely bad news from Russia. The good news, however, is a resurgence of civil society and emergence of leaders who have never been parts of the old regime. So far, all the leaders of Russia were either ancien regime loyalists or, as in the case of Yeltsyn, its dissenters. Only the Bolsheviks represented some sort of a counter-elite but certainly not any form of civility and civil society. The civic credentials of today’s opposition leaders are also questionable, in some cases. Both their words and deeds require a more detailed scrutiny, regardless of whether they are to replace the incumbents at some point in the future, or to make coalition with the growing number of the regime defectors, or just to become a true civic opposition that Russia needs today no less than a responsible and perspicacious government.
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