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Americans, Liberasts and Russian Democracy.

Posted by democratist on April 4, 2012

4th April 2012,

In a previous article, I described the argument that Russia’s elections are “more or less” democratic as one of the “legitimating myths” of Putinism [designed to bolster the regime and keep the population in check]. Unsurprisingly, this claim upset some readers, and they made a number of counter-arguments.

Their main points were;

  • The current Russian government is, despite the fraud that took place in both parliamentary and presidential polls, broadly a reflection of the preferences and political goals of most Russians.
  • “Western” democracy is not a universal value; there are many different styles of democracy and the current system in Russia represents an “acceptable” variation on the democratic theme, in line with Russian history and cultural norms.
  • The “western” democratic model is not without its weaknesses and inefficiencies and does not solve problems such as corruption.
  • The “non-systemic” opposition is weak and divided, especially the “pro-western” liberals. Some of these parties may be dependent on American money (witness the $200 million dollars spent by the American government on supporting Russian NGOs since 2009, with $50 million more apparently on the way). Liberalization would only benefit hard-core leftists, nationalists and liberal “traitors”.

These are interesting arguments, but not without some elements which characterize the “mythologising” to which I was referring. I will deal with each in turn:

The first point is essentially true. Vladimir Putin is popular, and would presumably have won the presidential election without falsification (although the fact that falsification did occur makes it hard to be 100% sure; the assurances of opinion polls will never be good as the “real thing,” i.e. a fair vote). However, the position of the party of “crooks and thieves” is far less secure, and it would not have won the (reduced) representation it now has in the Duma without considerable fraud in December. The current government may also broadly reflect the preferences and goals of a majority of Russians but, as is the nature of politics, there is no guarantee that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely, and as Russian society evolves it seems likely that there will ultimately come a point when the majority of Russians find themselves actively opposed to government policy.

More fundamental is the question of whether “western” democracy is a universal value. From Democratist’s perspective, one of the main lessons to be learned from a (non-conspiratorial) analysis of the Arab Spring is that democracy, while “western” in origin, is increasingly coming to be seen as having universal applicability, and that “democracy” need not necessarily mean “Americanization” or “neo-liberalism.”  Recent events in the middle East have shown that the populations of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria have risen up despite American hypocrisy on the issue of democratization. These people are demanding respect and representation for themselves in their own countries regardless of any “Freedom Agenda” or other rhetoric. Democratization is not simply an American plot (although the Americans, just like other major powers will doubtless seek to influence these processes), but is rather reflective of historical-social developments taking place in many countries, and so it is to be hoped that the polities which emerge from these revolutions will reflect the sovereignty, national character and priorities of their people.

Furthermore, the idea that the world is divided into incomparable moral blocs or civilizations has taken a huge blow over the last 18 months. While the cynics have sought to paint the Arab Spring as harbinger of anti-western Islamist autocracy, there have been significant historical-social trends in the region over the last 40 years which suggest that this will not be the case: The large majority of arab Islamists are not calling for the establishment of revolutionary islamic states, but rather the creation of a “civil state” [i.e one which, while not secular, has many democratic elements, including free and fair elections].

So, while the last fifteen years may have been witness to democratic stagnation or reversal in the CIS, on the global scale, the last two centuries (and especially the last seventy years) demonstrate the growing potency of democratic ideals, and the erosion of autocracy as a legitimate form of governance, even in “unexpected” places, and (more recently) regardless of American rhetoric: Democratist contends that a set of shared values is slowly emerging throughout the world, including democracy, human rights, the defence of national sovereignty and a belief in the benefits of economic development, even though this has taken place during a period in which some of these values have come under pressure in the United States: They may have originated in the West, but in responding to basic human aspirations and social change within the context of the spread of capitalism, their potential applicability is growing ever wider.

This brings us to the question of whether the current political system in Russia is just a variation on the democratic theme; one, moreover, which is in line with Russian history and cultural norms. This is, of course ultimately a question for the Russian people to answer, rather than any outsider, and (again) American lecturing on this issue has proved remarkably counter-productive over recent years. Nonetheless, it has to be said that there are strong arguments which suggest that the current system, while popular with a majority of Russians, does not meet the basic criteria of democracy. As an example, the OSCE ODIHR (an organization of which the Russian government is both a member and occasional participant) reports the following problems with recent parliamentary and presidential elections; technical restrictions on who was able to stand, a biased electoral administration dominated by the ruling party at all levels, the partiality of most media, and ballot stuffing on election day. It is up to Russians themselves to decide whether they feel that these problems match existing Russian “cultural norms,” and if they do, the extent to which such “norms” are worth preserving, or should be changed.

As for corruption, it is certainly true to say that no political system can eliminate it completely. However, it must also be admitted that institutionalized democracy, with a firmly established rule of law and independent legal system has proved a more effective guard against corruption than the current Russian system. By many accounts Russia is the most corrupt industrialized country in the world; Vladimir Putin’s friends from his Saint Petersburg youth and the Ozero dacha collective are worth billions. Indeed the current system is so entrenched that it may prove unreformable until a change in the political or economic situation provokes a collapse.

Finally, the question of the non-systemic opposition. Yes. The opposition is weak and divided, sometimes extreme, and possibly reliant on American money (although I still require some convincing on this point). Additionally, American calls for increased funding for NGOs are helping to stoke growing government paranoia. But on the other hand, the current system (deliberately) stifles debate and does little to encourage the development of Russian NGOs. It seems unlikely that President Medvedev’s recent changes to the law on registration of parties will make much difference to this situation. And while it might be possible, with institutional safeguards in place such as an independent legal system, “fair and balanced” requirements for the media etc, to create the basis for wider debate and eventual genuine elections, on the basis of recent history we are unlikely to see these wider structures in place anytime soon.

Posted in Arab Spring, Democratization, Domestic NGOs, Russia - US Relations, Russian Liberalization | 19 Comments »

Democracy and Innovation: Mevedev’s Skolkovo Illusion.

Posted by democratist on March 10, 2011


10th March 2011,

In our last article, Democratist looked at Niall Ferguson’s insightful analysis of the impact of autocratic government and the command economy on the Soviet Union, and the effect this had on the USSR’s ability to compete with the United States, and its eventual collapse.

But the Soviet Union has been history for almost twenty years. The more skeptical among our readers will doubtless be thinking, “The Command economy may be finished, but surely the Chinese example shows that authoritarian capitalism can come up with the goods just as well as democracy, if not better. Why shouldn’t Russia follow an authoritarian capitalist model?”

One obvious answer to this question is that the Russian elite has been following their own interpretation of just such a model since 2000, and that the results in terms of Russian economic diversity, industry and technological capability have been poor at best. 

While economic growth was indeed strong for much of the last decade (and is returning) this has been largely a result of Russia’s vast natural resource endowments, which account for around 70% of exports, and which played an important role in attracting the financial flows that boosted other sectors such as construction and the retail trade: Given easy access to money from hydrocarbons after 2002, and an ingrained fear of the social dislocation that would arise from the introduction of a genuine market economy, with a couple of notable exceptions at the start of Putin’s first term in office, the nomenklatura came to largely ignore the need for economic reform between 2000 and 2008.

One of the results of this has been that the Russian industrial and technological base has stagnated; while Soviet science and technology were inefficient and generally lacking in innovation, they at least had the advantage of being seen as strategically important and prestigious: Under the current system a mixture of cynicism and deep corruption, misjudged industrial policy and protectionism have set in, and while recently the government has again come to see science and technology as strategically critical, they face the problem that (following the nomenklatura’s own example) many of their brightest young people seem more interested in milking the state than serving the nation as scientists. Subsequently, the old Soviet engineering culture is slowly starting to die out.

But, as Andrey Kolesnikov, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta wrote in an excellent article for Open Democracy last July, even since 2008 President Medvedev has felt obliged to restrict his plans for Russian innovation within the confines of the “ghetto” of the Skolkovo project, and in a manner heavily reliant on foreign investment, as opposed to domestic innovation.

According to Kolesnilov, Medvedev is attempting, just like Peter the Great, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev before him, to import technological know-how into Russia from the West, lest the reforms necessary for the development of an innovative culture at home threaten Russia’s social order, and the existing power structure.

But as we saw in our piece about the roots of innovation, genuine innovation (as opposed to re-engineering the ideas of others) can only come from the kind of flexible, creative and inventive culture that emerges from a competitive market economy, backed up by democracy and the rule of law.

Kolesnikov states that the results of this are that;

 “…currently just over 9% of Russian enterprises invest in innovative technology. A comparison: in Germany, the number is eight times that. Fundamentally new Russian products account for just over 70 billion roubles (£1.5 billion). This was 0.4% of the total volume of industrial production in 2007 (in Finland, the figure was 16%). The percentage of innovative production in the total volume of sales in Russian industry is around 5%. Put another way, Russia is backward. 98.5% of patentable innovations are created by 15% of the world’s population, and Russians do not number among them (we are talking in the main about OECD countries)…And this technological gap can only get worse, since the speed of progress is increasing with each year: if in earlier times, moving from one technological generation to another was a matter of 10 or 15 years, now we see that, in aviation at least, this is happening every five years (my source of data are the four 2009 editions of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics Foresight magazine).”

In the first article we posted to Democratist in May last year, we quoted Dimitry Trenin as saying, “The Kremlin …[has been]… forced to come to terms with the fact that Russia cannot modernize on its own and that it needs Western investment and strong business partnerships with the West.”

But upon reflection, even if that partnership were to bear fruit in Skolkovo this still would not really resolve the broader problem of the stagnation of Russian science and technology: That kind of change implies a deeper political and cultural shift.


Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, FDI, International Political Economy, Liberalism, Russia - US Relations, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, US - Russia | 3 Comments »

Dimitry Medvedev and the Autonomous Power of Lies.

Posted by democratist on February 27, 2011

27th February 2011,

Democratist was not especially surprised to hear President Medvedev’s comments in Vladikavkaz last week suggesting that outside forces are plotting a revolution against Russia.

The idea that the US is plotting to unseat the current Russian government (or its allies) in order to get its hands on Russian oil has been making the rounds in the Russian domestic media since at least the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, and gained intensity after the “Orange Revolution” in late 2004 (indeed, a great deal of such propaganda was promoted domestically within Ukraine at the time as part of Yanukovich’s unsuccessful election campaign; Democratist remembers reading Russian-language articles accusing Yukashenko’s American-born wife of being a “CIA Colonel”). The trend has seen a major renaissance since the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the middle East.

These conspiracy theories continue to circulate despite (or more likely because of) the fact that democracy promotion is has been an openly admitted, and highly successful aspect of US foreign policy for many decades, and has been pursued quite openly by organizations such as NDI and Radio Free Europe, and through international organizations such as the OSCE (of which Russia is a member-state, and as such has agreed to abide by democratic norms such as the holding of free and fair elections by signing the 1990 Copenhagen document).

The rationale behind the promotion of the “Colour Revolution” conspiracy theories (whose central defining motif is to ascribe an unwarranted role in these revolutions to the CIA, George Soros, the Bilderburg group and so on, and to play down the role of popular sentiment and mobilization in the countries concerned) is an unwillingness to accept the appeal of democratic governance for people in autocratic states generally, and of the applicability of the democratic model to Russia specifically. The need for the continued promotion of such a view of the world is dictated by the Russian elite’s unwillingness relax their grip on power, or allow themselves to be put to the test of a fair election (regardless of how popular the opinion polls may claim they are).

So what is the historical background to such conspiracy theories (in the Russian context) and who how do they circulate and gain currency?

As David Aaronovitch recounts in some detail in his excellent Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History (2009), the various incarnations of the Russian secret service have had a lengthy record of both creating and promoting conspiracy theory to influence the world view of the Russian people for their own political ends.

A good early 20th Century example (which we have mentioned before) is the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion; a forged document supposedly describing how senior representatives of the Jewish community were plotting to achieve world domination, which was in fact cooked-up by the Okhrana (secret police) in the early 1900’s as a weapon to bolster tsarist autocracy against reformism (many reformist politicians were Jews). The Protocols later became a favorite of Hitler’s, and were added to the secondary-school curriculum in Germany in the 1930’s, eventually making a contribution to the genocidal mentality that led to the holocaust.

Another example of the NKVD’s (as it was by then called) handiwork can be seen in the Moscow “show trials” of the late 1930’s. At these trials a number of senior Communists were coerced into implicating themselves in a complex series of conspiracies apparently intended to derail Soviet industrialization and overthrow Stalin in favour of the exiled Leon Trotsky. Needless to say (as was later admitted) no such plots ever existed; they were invented by the NKVD in order to consolidate Stalin’s grip on power, provide excuses for the numerous shortcomings of the first 5-year plan, and (significantly) to pander to Stalin’s own deep personal paranoia. As Robert Conquest has described in The Great Terror (1968/1991), many millions died in the subsequent purges.

Other historical examples of the KGB promoting conspiracy theories, both domestically and abroad (e.g. in relation to the Kennedy assassination) abound. Those interested can read The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) for more details.

In contemporary terms, as Democratist has noted before, a considerable proportion of the work of Russia Today seems to be aimed at the promotion of similarly exculpatory or self-serving mythologizing such as the work of Daniel Estulin. Conspiracy theory continues to play an important role within the Russian propaganda pantheon, and has been a central element in official attempts to propagandize the “Colour Revolutions,” and now more recent events in the middle East .

For Democratist, the continuing potential danger of state-promoted conspiracy theory is obvious. As we see in Voodoo Histories they have been a contributory element in at least two of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century and (combined with the official promotion of Russian nationalism) continue to be an important tool available to the nomenklatura for the control and pacification of their own people, and the sowing of confusion and division abroad.

But the greatest danger of the state promotion of conspiracy theories in this way is that (as we appear to be witnessing in Medvedev’s recent speech) eventually the elite will almost inevitably come to believe in their own lies: Going back to The Mitrokhin Archive, Christopher Andrew notes that many among the KGB senior ranks still fully believed in the existence of Zionist/capitalist plots into the 1960’s and 1970’s. Separately, Andrew recounts how the KGB sought to play to the Kremlin’s (illusory) fears of western invasion in their intelligence reporting in the early 1980’s. This resulted in tensions over the 1983 NATO Able Archer ’83 exercise that may well have brought the possibility of nuclear war closer than it had been at any time since 1962.

Posted in Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today | 2 Comments »

The Second Khordokovsky Trial and the “Virtual Mafia State.”

Posted by democratist on December 31, 2010

31st December 2010,

From time to time Democratist enjoys dipping into Truth and Beauty, an intelligent if cynical pro-putin blog run by Eric Kraus, the (fairly openly) mercenary Moscow-based French investment broker who maintains a natty sideline as a sort of ersatz financial Machiavelli among Russia bloggers.

Democratist tends to see the opinions in T&B as a cleverly distilled reflection of the prejudices of the Russian elite, aimed at gaining this critical constituency’s approval, whilst also talking-up foreign investment through Kraus’ own firm.

As such, we found T&B’s recent musings on the second Khordokovsky trial both instructive and informative. These can be summarized as follows;

  • Khordokovsky is a brutal crook, guilty of complicity in a number of murders, and deserves to be in prison.
  • However, he has not yet been charged with murder, perhaps because the Russian government is holding this in reserve so it can continue to threaten him later.
  • Khordokovsky is no more guilty than the worst of his oligarch peers, but unlike them continued to threaten the Russian state after Putin came to power, and has therefore faced the consequences.
  • Putin is being disingenuous when he claims he does not have evidence against the other oligarchs. He does, and can use this kompromat to keep them in line.
  • The West is just as corrupt as Russia, only in a different way: Russia has “honest corruption”; well-stuffed envelopes and fee-for-service, without hypocrisy. In the West, the media are “bought” through the influence of PR men and lobbyists.

In pointing out that Mr Khordokovsky was (to put it mildly) no saint, admitting the political motivation for the original trial, and underlining how the case has served as an important constitutive element in the creation of the of the current political system, Kraus is surely correct.  For Democratist however, his main failing is his clearly false, nomenklatura-flattering insistence that Russia and the West are two sides of the same coin in terms of corruption.

In a competitive political environment, politicians, voters, PR men, lobbyists, civil society do-gooders, journalists, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers and others are forced to constantly fight it out for political influence.  The result is a system which, while far from perfect, retains a considerable resistance to political and judiciary corruption, and in which policies and legal decisions are usually tested by criticism, and face possible correction.

In contemporary Russia there is no longer any political competition; corruption flourishes to an extent unseen in any other major industrialized country, and the rule of law is open to the kind of selective application (as a warning to others) demonstrated by the second Khordokovsky trial. Under Putin, murder and blackmail have been subsumed into the fabric of the political system rather than quashed by it. The predictable result has been, in the wikileaked words of the US State Department, “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy…in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state.”

It will be very interesting to see how many foreigners will be keen to invest their money into such a country in 2011.

Posted in Democratization, Human Rights, Russia - US Relations | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: Strange Days Indeed, The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen

Posted by democratist on December 24, 2010

24th December 2010,

In line with our policy of writing book reviews for titles that have already been available for some time (a result of both sloth and impecuniosity), Democratist recently acquired a copy of Francis Wheen’s excellent Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia. (4th Estate, 2009) through the good offices of, and for the very reasonable sum of £0.01 (plus £2.75 post and packaging).

Strange Days is essentially a political and social history of the 1970’s, focused principally on the US and UK, which seeks to highlight the developing “mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever” that characterized much of the decade, as the optimism of the 1960’s came face to face with (among other things); Watergate, the 3-day week, Baader-Meinhof, the IRA, the growth of religious cults, and the popularity of conspiracy theories.

As such, the book provides an especially interesting re-introduction to the decade to those of us who were born during it but were too young to understand much about what was going on at the time (and which was considered too recent for us to be taught as history at school).

The pages dealing with the origins of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland were especially revelatory in this regard; Democratist grew up under the very real threat of IRA bombs, but was only faintly aware of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s, or the 1972 “bloody Sunday” massacre (for which the UK government has only recently apologised).

However, while Democratist strongly recommends Strange Days to our readers, from our own particular perspective, we have to say that we think the book might perhaps have benefitted from a few extra paragraphs about the role of the Soviet bloc during the period.

This is firstly because the USSR and its satellites were a political arena in which paranoia played a key role, not just in terms of the KGB’s repression of the Soviet people, or the commonly held views about capitalist/Zionist conspiracies of their senior staff (see “The Mitrokhin Archive“), but also in their tendency to pander to the Kremlin’s paranoid fears of western aggression in their intelligence reporting, culminating in participation in operation RYAN in the early 1980’s, which in turn led to tensions over the NATO Able Archer ’83 exercise, that brought the possibility of nuclear war closer than it had been at any time since 1962.

The second reason to bring the Soviets and their fellow travelers into the picture is that, in a number of cases, their hand is visible in stoking political instability in the West, as well as the fires of paranoia initially lit by Watergate (and other US intelligence abuses). The promotion of instability is clearly demonstrated in the case of Baader-Meinhof, who had extensive help from the East German Stasi after 1977. More subtlety, the KGB was involved through its program of “active measures” in the promotion of numerous conspiracy theories throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s (especially in relation to the Kennedy assassination) which did much to heighten the “conspiratorial fever” to which Wheen refers.


Posted in Book Reviews, Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russian Espionage, US - Russia | 1 Comment »

Of dissembling and Disinformation.

Posted by democratist on December 12, 2010

12th December 2010,

While it is usually fairly easy to spot the various forms of Russian disinformation campaigns in state-controlled media such as Russia Today, it is rare for the public at large to have an opportunity to examine a piece of Russian diplomatic dissembling, as practiced by an expert.

However yesterday an example of the genre came to light, courtesy of Wikileaks and The Guardian.

Dissembling is the art of concealing one’s true intentions, or seeking to arouse sympathy for a cause by the spreading of falsehoods or rumours. While the use of the mass-media for this purpose might be termed “macrodisiformation”, in as far as it is aimed at as wide an audience as possible in the hope that some will believe it, dissembling is a form of “microdisinformation,” practiced on a individual-to-individual basis, and is generally targeted at smaller groups, such as journalists themselves, or the diplomatic communities that one finds in most national capitals throughout the world.

In each case the end goal is the same; that the targeted individual(s) will repeat the rumours that you have fed them, thereby influencing the perceptions of others. In the case of diplomatic dissembling, the expectation might be that the target will repeat the rumour in a cable back to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and that this will cast enough doubt on alternative versions of the event being described (where the truth is not yet fully established) to influence decision-making in one’s favour, or at least temporarily prevent potentially unfavourable decisions being taken.

This surely, was at least partly the logic behind a reported meeting in Paris in late 2006 between Russian special presidential representative (and former intelligence officer) Anatoliy Safonov, and US ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism (and ex-CIA bureau chief) Henry Crumpton, shortly after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, during which Safonov told Crumpton that “Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city, but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place”.

Democratist suspects that the Safonov’s main motive was to try to forestall potentially negative US actions in support of the UK during the tense period that followed the Litvinenko murder by; i) implying that the FSB was not involved, and that the murder was the work of non-state actors and, ii) perhaps seeking to imply that the British spooks allowed the murder to take place because they had their own agenda, and they could later use Litvinenko’s death as a cause célèbre.

Interestingly, the Russians have sought to use a very similar (albeit more open) tactic in relation to the recent Zatuliveter case. In the same article, the Guardian reports, “Alexander Sternik, chargé d’affaires at Russia’s embassy in London…denounced the move [to deport Zatuliever] as a “PR stunt” designed to mask Britain’s own problems. “These problems are many over the last couple of months,” Sternik said. “You can cite the unflattering leaks from WikiLeaks and [England’s] unsuccessful [World Cup] bid.”

While no hard evidence of Zatuliever’s guilt has come to light so far, Sternik’s explaination of the UK’s actions lacks credibility when seen in the context of the KGB/SVR’s history of dissembling, as practicsed by Safonov.

Posted in Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russian Espionage, wikileaks | 1 Comment »

Book Review: “Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can” by Michael McFaul.

Posted by democratist on November 29, 2010

29th November 2010.

As Michael McFaul, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, and latterly Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the US NSC notes in his preface to Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). “After eight years of the George W. Bush Administration, most Americans, as well as many people around the world, had grown tired of the United States’ efforts to promote democracy in other countries.”

And yet, while the paramount objective of US foreign policy has always been to defend the security of the American people, from the very beginning of the republic US leaders have consistently defined a special, ethical role for the US in world affairs.

McFaul argues passionately, persuasively, and in great detail against the adoption of a narrowly “realist” or isolationist foreign policy in reaction to the mistakes of the Bush administration, and for the continued relevance of democracy promotion for reasons both ethical and practical.

In the introductory chapter, he neatly summarizes his perspective in a single sentence; “Under democracy, people around the world enjoy better government, more security and economic development. In parallel, the advance of democracy abroad has made Americans safer and richer.”

At the core of his argument is the claim that, “The history of the last 200 years, but especially the last 80 years, shows that American security, economic and moral interests have been advanced by the expansion of democracy abroad, while reliance on realpolitik frameworks [i.e. alliances with autocracies] as a guide for foreign policy has produced some short-term gains, but many long-term setbacks for American interests.”

Advancing Democracy Abroad is therefore essentially an expanded, detailed and very timely restatement of the Kantian argument for the international benefits of the spread of democratic government, in light of  the practical concerns of foreign policy, and as such, equally a statement of Democratist’s own broad core position.

McFaul points to the long-term security advantages for the US that have stemmed from enduring alliances with other democracies, as well as democratization, and the economic and reputational dividends of democratic expansion. By way of contrast, he considers the three main problems of alliances with autocratic states have been sustainability (e.g the Shah in Iran until the 1979 revolution), consistency (Nasser in the 1950’s, or Saddam in the 1980’s and 1990’s) and cost (billions of dollars given to Iraq for its war with Iran in the 1980’s).

As such, McFaul calls for a  pragmatic and commonsense foreign policy based on “Wilsonian liberalism with a realist core.” He argues that, while at times the US needs to work with autocratic regimes to pursue vital national interests, it must never lose sight of its values, or of the critical importance of internal regime type for its ongoing relationships with other states.

In this regard, he devotes a detailed and useful chapter considering the wide range of instruments the US and its allies have available for the gradualist facilitation of democratic development. These include “dual track” diplomatic engagement; trade and economic incentives; security guarantees,  the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US’ participation in the OSCE, funding for foreign domestic NGOs and election observers, media resources such as Radio Free Europe, and the International Republican and National Democratic Institutes.

McFaul is also fully aware that the United States’ democratic and human rights failings over the last decade have considerably weakened America’s standing in the world, and made it much harder for US leaders to call for democratic practices in other parts of the world.

As such, the renunciation of military intervention as a tool of democracy promotion, criticism of autocratic allies (including Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and the reassertion of democratic values at home are, he suggests, important prerequisites to the successful promulgation of liberty abroad.

Posted in Book Reviews, Democratization, Human Rights, OSCE, Russia - US Relations | 9 Comments »

Russia 2012: Towards an “all new and improved” simulacrum of democracy.

Posted by democratist on September 23, 2010

23rd September 2010,
As Democratist’s teacher and mentor, Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was very fond of pointing out, the limits of the predictive abilities of the social sciences ought by now to be better recognized than they are;
What political scientist or “policy specialist” predicted the Lebanese Civil war (1975), the Iranian Revolution (1978-79) or the collapse of Soviet Communism (1989-91) with any kind of serious foresight?
Answer: Not a single one. No one managed to predict any of these critically important events with any kind of meaningful foresight or accuracy.
But this should hardly come as a surprise. Even in the natural sciences prediction is not as precise as commonly assumed; just ask a meteorologist, seismologist or demographer. The world of human affairs and politics, is by its very nature necessarily uncertain; and will doubtless so remain. 
Since this is the case, Fred very wisely recommended that the task of social science was essentially to concentrate on explanation of what had already occurred, rather than predictions of the future: The best we can hope for is the identification of significant contemporary trends; the rest is “speculation.”
But the problem is (for Democratist at least) that while the identification of trends is jolly good fun, the temptation to additional “speculation” (especially when it comes to the “dogs under the carpet” world of Russian politics) is even greater.
So, it is therefore with Professor Halliday’s eminently sage words ringing in our ears, that Democratist will now ignore (at least some of) his advice, stick our collective neck out, and gaze into our crystal ball so as to outline, on the basis of observed social trends and speculation alike, how we see things shaping up for the 2012 Russian Presidential elections. 
Social Trends.
As mentioned in previous posts, Democratist sees contemporary Russia as a product of a number of identifiable political, economic, social and international forces, most of which find their historical roots in the Soviet period, and in the collapse of the USSR in 1991:
The “transition” as it has taken place in Russia since 2000 has clearly not been to democracy or liberal capitalism, but to a repressive political system based on a “corporatist” economic model; a regime essentially composed of, and subsequently molded by a reconfigured Soviet nomenklatura, itself dominated by former members of the KGB centred around Vladimir Putin. This regime has consciously sought to move away from the “western” template of market economics and political freedom introduced in the 1990’s,  because it considered that these reforms had failed (culminating in the national humiliation of 1998).
Instead, the new system introduced since 2000 has promoted and maintained an authoritarian concept of the state, in which the elite maintains a decisive and guiding, albeit sometimes informal, control over key aspects of the economy. Despite the rhetoric of “modernization”, there has been very little meaningful economic diversification since 1998, despite repeated promises that it would take place, and the period since 2003 has seen the re-nationalization of much of the raw materials and other “strategic” sectors (only superficially altered by recent “reforms”). Similarly, much of the limited flow of FDI that has found its way to Russia since 2008 has been channeled into joint ventures with cossetted “state corporations”, therefore keeping these within the corporatist system whilst avoiding any requirement for wider economic reform. 
Politically, the media has been largely co-opted; parliamentary political parties such as the Communists and LDPR tamed or inventions of the regime; elections progressively rigged, and genuine opposition repressed and sidelined. The Duma has long been a rubber-stamp; many MPs little more than regime appointees. This has been accompanied by a culture of nearly all-pervading corruption and rent-seeking; a problem that has expanded to include almost all sections of society, and which has become an integral feature of how the country is governed.
The regime is equally the inheritor of the KGB’s instrumental “end justifies the means” attitude towards ethics, as exemplified most prominently by the FSB’s probable involvement in the September 1999 apartment bombings, which were used, in conjunction with the resumption of hostilities in Chechnya, as a platform to generate support for the (previously largely unknown) Putin in the March 2000 Presidential elections. Since then the regime has also been complicit in the development of a  culture of impunity, and in the encouragement of violence towards those who are prepared to criticise it (as exemplified by the Klebnikov, Politkovskaya and Litvinenko cases).
Another political inheritance of the Soviet period, and especially the collapse of the USSR in 1991, is that the nomenklatura is distinguished by its strong nationalism and desire for national resurgence. This contemporary revanchism also reflects and magnifies an enduring and often overriding historical preoccupation with the importance of military competition against comparatively advanced western nations, which runs throughout modern Russian and Soviet history at least as far back as Peter the Great, and finds its contemporary expression in the “modernization” drive which began during the late Putin presidency, but has come to the fore under Medvedev.
The current situation, and predictions.
On the basis the above trends, and of Russian and international press reports over the last few months, Democratist suggests the following analysis of the current situation, and (doubtless highly speculative) predictions for the 2012 elections; 
The “modernization” promoted by President Medvedev, to the very limited extent that it has had an effect on the Russian political system or economy at all, has put a very large degree of emphasis on technocratic/institutional, as opposed to broader political change. Thus in Yaroslavl on 10th September 2010, while rather unconvincingly suggesting that Russia has already achieved some limited form of “democracy”, Medvedev repeated implied that meaningful political change is a long-term aspiration that will broadly follow technological modernization, rather than accompany it.
Unsurprisingly, given that the different paths to “modernization” were already laid out while he was still in power, Putin’s position has remained very similar to that of his protégé; both stress the need for technological modernization and foreign investment; both push political reform to the side. The main difference is one of presentation; where Putin is blunt and confrontational, and puts greater rhetorical emphasis on “stability”, Medvedev is more diplomatic and prone to talk up “modernization” and “innovation”. While, as The Economist noted on September 9th, this is an essentially stylistic distinction, it is also, rather tellingly, one that both President and Prime Minister have recently been seeking to play up.
It is logical to suggest that many in the nomenklatura identify themselves far more readily with Putin (since he shares their background), than with the academic Medvedev. Additionally, the overriding emphasis placed on maintaining “domestic stability” by the elite (and FSB) over the last decade, the usefulness of hydrocarbons as a tool of foreign policy, and the corporatist nature of the contemporary Russian state itself tend to imply a preference for an “energy and raw materials” path of development, with the “innovation” path remaining under tight state control. Therefore, in as far as there is a difference between the two main potential candidates, this key constituency would probably broadly prefer Putin’s return to the Presidency, as an additional insurance that things will not “get out of hand”.
From Putin’s perspective then, given that he has the domestic situation pretty much wrapped up, the challenge is to leverage the forthcoming elections in order to achieve the somewhat contradictory goals of maintaining internal stability, encouraging growth, innovation and foreign investment (in what has become a tougher international climate), and improving Russia’s international position and military capabilities.
Now we come to the speculative part: One way of moving towards achieving at least some of these disparate and contradictory goals (as well as preparing a future path for the longer-term achievement of the others) would be to use the 2012 elections to gain the regime increased international legitimacy by enhancing the ongoing illusion of Russia’s “democratic development” through a poll that apparently offers more genuine political competition than was the case in recent times (although one in reality whose parameters have been carefully determined in advance).
How could this be achieved? The answer is slowly emerging: In line with the image of a “limited” democracy that Russia is now promoting for itself internationally,  Democratist suspects that the 2012 elections will present a superficial electoral choice between an emphasis on “stability” or “modernization”; which is to say a choice between Putin or Medvedev.
If Medvedev wins, then things will remain broadly as they are; Putin will stay as Prime Minister with the ongoing support of the nomenklatura. If Putin wins then Medvedev will take on some lesser role such as Prime Minister and continue to tout the virtues of modernization from the sidelines (or Putin will find someone similar).
Either way stability is to be maintained while fostering a greater illusion of political pluralism. To aid this process, opportunists from every field will doubtless soon be mobilized; MPs from the Duma will form or manage parties to support one candidate or another, the state-controlled media will enjoy giving equal coverage and support to both main candidates – thereby proving their “impartiality,” (while ignoring or bad-mouthing all the others), the many foreigners and their PR men who want better relations with Russia to serve their own commercial interests (as well the crooked politicians on the Kremlin’s payroll) will talk up Russia’s new “democratic turn”. Even the OSCE will be forced to admit that the elections “marked a significant improvement on previous polls…” in their preliminary statement, as direct electoral fraud is limited in favour of subtler techniques.
In this regard the artificial political lines are already starting to be drawn up; both Putin and Medvedev are acting as if they intend to stand; both are already “campaigning” in their own differing styles.
Many commentators are already linking the recent media campaign against Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov as an early offensive by Medvedev related to the 2012 elections. Yet, in this regard it is interesting to note that Putin has chosen not to come to Luzhkov’s aid – even though Luzhkov  has been loyal to him for years.
Putin in fact appears quite happy to have the Moscow vote go to the supposed “young reformer” in 2012, further suggesting that he is essentially unconcerned at the prospect that Medvedev might beat him. 
But then again, given that he appointed Medvedev in the first place, why would he be?  

Posted in Russia - US Relations, Russia 2012 Elections, Russia Foreign Policy, Russia Propaganda, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »

Springtime for Dima?

Posted by democratist on May 22, 2010

22nd May 2010

Rumours abound that a new, pro-western foreign policy shift is underway in Moscow. But if Russia really wants to attract European investment and American technology for the long-term it will need to implement root and branch political and economic reforms. Are the Russians really ready to play ball?

A report on two supposedly “leaked” internal foreign ministry documents which appeared in Russkiy Newsweek on May 10th has sparked off a wave of speculation about the possible future orientation of Russian foreign policy in the local press and diplomatic circles.

These documents: “A List of Criteria for the Effectiveness of Foreign Policy” and “A Program for the Effective Exploitation of Foreign Policy Factors for the Purposes of Long-term Development” – both written over the past six months, together imply a rethinking and potential realignment of Russia’s external relations.

In line with the much-discussed (but so far largely rhetorical) trend evident since Medvedev took on Presidency in 2008, the focus of both papers is the need to modernize the Russian economy, and the use of foreign policy to achieve this goal. As such, both underline the need to attract external financial investment, as well as the technological and scientific resources required for Russia’s modernization – especially from the United States and European Union.

This renewed concern with foreign relations as a path to domestic modernisation, while clearly still a matter of internal dispute within the ruling elite (indeed the “leaking” of these documents are almost certainly a symptom of these internal discussions) nonetheless reflects two serious problems that Russia needs to address with some urgency; firstly the impact of the ongoing global financial crisis on the Russian economy, especially through the effect that this has had on global hydrocarbon and raw materials prices; and secondly, a recognition that Russia is falling behind in terms of technological innovation.

With regard to raw materials, oil, gas and mineral exports currently account for 70% of Russia’s exports, making the economy hostage to price fluctuations. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin stated on May 14th that Russia’s 2010 federal budget, including reserve fund spending, will only be balanced if oil reaches $95 per barrel (considerably above the current price of about $71). Given recent market developments, oil prices seem likely to stall or decline over at least the short-term, and perhaps for longer. As a result, The Russian government expects its budget deficit to rise to 5% of GDP by the end of the year and external sources of funds will therefore be required. Given that overall debt stands at only 50-60% of GDP (compared with 115% for Greece), Russia had little difficulty raising $5.5 Bn from its sovereign debt sale in April (the first since 1998). Nonetheless, this pattern of borrowing looks set to grow significantly as reserve funds are drawn down.

As for technological innovation, as Dimitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre noted in an article in the Moscow times on 14th May, in addition to diminishing the hubris that Russia displayed in the years of high energy prices, the current crisis has awakened the leadership to the reality that Russia is losing ground in the global pecking order by falling behind in terms of its industrial, technological and scientific capabilities.

As Trenin observes “…Russia is sorely lacking what it takes to be a major global economic and political force in the 21st century. Relative energy abundance and nuclear arsenals are simply not enough. The Kremlin …[has been]… forced to come to terms with the fact that Russia cannot modernize on its own and that it needs Western investment and strong business partnerships with the West.”

But how will this need for investment and scientific know-how be translated into policy? Is Russia really willing to make the deep domestic political and economic changes necessary to make itself an attractive place for sceptical Western companies to invest, as Trenin suggests? Western markets cannot be bargained with or cajoled in the same way that Russia strong-arms other States – they will have to want to come.

However, there are a number of compelling reasons why serious reform is unlikely:

The main argument against the probability of anything more than superficial political an economic reform in Russia over the next few years is the nature of the current regime. This is essentially a reconfigured Soviet nomeklatura – more homo Sovieticus than homo economicus. The nomenklatura sees itself as having a quasi-divine right to rule and shape the country, and sought in the early 2000’s to move precisely away the “Western” template of market economics and political freedom introduced in the 1990’s – because it considered that these reforms had failed (culminating in the national humiliation of 1998) and that additionally, as many siloviki believed, that these reforms had in any case been little more than an elaborate Western “conspiracy” aimed at weakening Russia right from the start.

This nomeklatura is distinguished by its strong nationalism and desire for Russian national resurgence (as a regional power, if no longer perhaps a “superpower”) but also additionally by three significant traits [1] inherited from the late Soviet period that make economic liberalization and diversification extremely difficult.

These are;

  • A culture of nearly all-pervading corruption and rent-seeking.
  • An authoritarian concept of the State (in which the elite maintains a decisive and guiding – albeit sometimes informal – control over key aspects of the economy).
  • An instrumental “end justifies the means” attitude towards ethics.

In terms of corruption and the authoritarian concept of the state, the “transition” as it has taken place in Russia since 2000 has clearly not been to democracy or liberal capitalism but to a repressive political system based on a “corporatist” economic model – with the state retaining decisive influence over key companies as a lever of both economic and political power. This includes, as the most prominent example, Russia’s largest company, Gazprom, which supplies about 17% of the world’s gas and on its own, and has at times accounted for 10% of Russia’s GDP. Gazprom has at least four cabinet ministers on its board of directors, and was chaired from 2002 until 2008 by none other than Dimitry Medvedev – who owed that position (much as he now owes the Presidency) to his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Any statements from the “liberal” Medvedev (or those surrounding him) regarding economic diversification or political reform need to be considered in this light. The recently “leaked” foreign policy documents also need to be considered in this context.

The “corporatist” or “petro-state” model, with its heavy reliance on hydrocarbons and raw materials, fits this authoritarian conception of the State neatly because it allows for an easy source of rents, which can be distributed on the basis of loyalty, and equally because it provides the State with the tools of the energy-based foreign policy we have seen deployed on numerous occasions in Eastern and Central Europe, especially since the Orange revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. While the need for reform is likely to be invoked in order to attempt to drum up foreign investment, any resurgence in the oil price above (say) $100 per barrel will initiate a fairly rapid return “business as usual” so long as the current nomenklatura remains in power.

And it is very likely to remain in th driving seat for many years to come, because the Putin regime is additionally the inheritor of the KGB’s “ethical instrumentalism” and is unlikely to cede power to anyone else anytime soon: Despite a sophisticated propaganda offensive of denial (suggesting such claims are little more than conspiracy theory, comparable to those surrounding the 9/11 attacks in the US), there is little doubt that the current regime achieved power through the mass-murder of hundreds of its own citizens by the FSB in September 1999, as well as through the subsequent resumption of hostilities in Chechnya as a platform to generate support for Putin in the 2000 Presidential elections. Such a regime is unlikely to encourage its own marginalization by the introduction of genuine democratic reforms.

Indeed, over the last ten years, progressive presidential, parliamentary and (most recently) local elections have been marked by a worsening tendency towards fraud. As a result, the key political institutions required for meaningful economic liberalization and the attraction of Foreign Direct Investment – free elections and a free press (to fight Russia’s truly monstrous corruption), the rule of law, and the guarantee of property rights – are largely absent in the contemporary Russian case. The Kremlin has instead assumed (despite the apparent lessons of the Soviet experience) that it is able to manage the social and economic development of the country from above without any requirement for these constraints. So far, the economic crisis has only resulted in a tightening of already severe domestic restrictions – as was evident from the extraordinary level of outright falsification in the 10th October 2009 local elections.

Instead, the instincts of the siloviki are almost always to maintain and extend power and control as far as possible in both political and economic spheres. The history of the regime since 2000 has been one of continual centralization of both polity and economy. In fact, there has been no meaningful diversification of the economy since 1998, despite repeated promises that it would take place, and the period since 2003 has seen the re-nationalization of much of the raw materials and other “strategic” sectors.

While recently the Kremlin may have appeared to be considering the possibility of a fresh round of (vaguely defined) “reform” – with a diplomatic charm offensive (purporting to show how Russia has “changed”) due to take place over the summer, allowing genuine liberalization would potentially allow the development of alternative centers of power to the corporatist state. This raises the specter of, (for example) a revival of independent-minded oligarchs operating outside of the current structures (the “Yukos” effect), or the growth of a critical mass media, or of genuinely reformist political parties gaining seats in the Duma in an un-rigged parlaimentary election in late 2011. Therefore, real reform is most unlikely. Instead, the nomenklatura, is more likely to decide that the best available current strategy is the superficial invocation of the need for change through the offices of the “liberal” President. This will hopefully drum up some additional investment from the more gullible sections of an overly eager West while they wait for a resurgence in commodity prices.

[1] This section draws on work by the late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE

Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, Democratization, Freedom of the Press, Human Rights, Russia - US Relations, Russia Foreign Policy, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, Russian Espionage, Russian Liberalization, Russian Military, Russian Politics, UK Foreign Policy, US - Russia | 12 Comments »