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“Colour Revolution” and the Myths of Putinism.

Posted by democratist on March 23, 2012

23rd March 2012,

Since 2000, Russia has increasingly come to be governed by the use of propaganda as a method for ensuring the legitimation of the regime and keeping the population in check. A series of half-truths, exaggerations and myths have been created to this end, each of which bears the none too subtle whiff of the work of political technologists; that Russia’s elections are “more or less” democratic; that the country only suffers from “civilized” levels of corruption; that Skolkovo will make Russia’s economy a globally competitive center of innovation within a few years; that the Duma is an institution that dutifully scrutinizes legislation on behalf of the electorate; that political and economic reform is “just around the corner…”

But perhaps the overarching legitimation myth of Putinism is idea of the “Colour Revolution,” the notion that the processes of revolt and democratization which have taken place in the near abroad and (more recently) middle East over the past decade are part of some all-powerful, hydra-headed American conspiracy, aimed at “destroying Russia” (and incidentally, world domination). Indeed, according to this narrative we are to believe that those perfidious Americans work day and night to confound otherwise perfectly content populations into overthrowing such beloved (and, of course, free and fairly elected) leaders as Milosevic, Yanukovich, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.

The rationale behind the promotion of such theories is an unwillingness to accept the growing appeal of democratic governance to 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 elite’s unwillingness to relax their grip on power domestically, or allow themselves to be put to the test of a genuinely fair election (regardless of how popular the opinion polls say they are). It is far easier to ascribe an unwarranted role in these revolts to the CIA, George Soros, the Bilderburg group or whoever, than to accept that the autocratic model of governance, while currently popular in Russia,  has a very limited shelf life in the absence of high oil revenues, and has been rejected by the populations of at least a dozen countries over the last decade.

In terms of the implications of this we might expect for Russia’s domestic political development over the coming years, the continued employment of conspiracy theory as a means of control does not bode well. It is unlikely that the government will allow any genuine political alternatives to emerge to the current system whilst it also tars them, at the same time, as agents of foreign influence. This makes an eventual peaceful transition of power less likely.

A related problem is that Russian history already has several examples which demonstrate that where conspiracy is given prominence, there is a strong tendency that eventually even the leadership and security organs will come to believe their own inventions.

In Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History (2009) the British author David Aaronovich gives the example of 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 in the early 1900′s as a weapon to bolster tsarist autocracy against reformism (many reformist politicians were Jews).

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. During these trials several senior party members 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 pander to the leader’s own deep personal paranoia. As Robert Conquest has described in The Great Terror (1968/1991), many millions died in the subsequent purges.

What is important in both cases is that eventually those in power in Russia came to believe the fictions they had created were true: In The Mitrokhin Archive (a document whose veracity and accuracy never been officially denied, more than a decade after publication), Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin recount that many among the KGB senior ranks still fully believed in the existence of Zionist plots well into the 1960′s and 1970′s. Similarly, many in the nomenklatura genuinely believed in the truth of the “show trials,” and supported the purges up until Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956.

Therefore we should perhaps not be too surprised at the anger in Prime Minister Putin’s voice, and the tears which streamed down his face during his otherwise carefully choreographed acceptance speech on the Manezhka earlier this month. His invocation of outside forces trying to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs may seem contrived to the foreign observer, especially after what the OSCE described as a poll which was “clearly skewed in favour of one of the contestants.” But, old chekist that he is, the possibility remains that Russia’s old-new President has come to genuinely believe in the myths that have been invented over the years by his colleagues in order to ensure he retains his grip on power.

Additional note: I have just added a link for the Wikipedia page for The Mitrokhin Archive. Oddly enough, there is no Russian translation of this page.  I wonder why?

Posted in Conspiracy Theory, Russian Politics | 11 Comments »

Russia 2012: Mr. Kudrin takes a (semi) stand.

Posted by democratist on April 23, 2011

23rd April 2011,

Some fascinating statements from Russian Finance Minister, Aleksey Kudrin at a meeting of the Board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs on 21st April. These have so far received limited coverage in the Russian press, but we have pieced them together from reports in Izvestia and elsewhere.

Kudrin said he considers any GDP growth below 3% as tantamount to stagnation, and 3% -4.5% as “minor, unsteady” growth, because at less than 4.5% growth companies would have no time to update their fixed assets.

He stated the Russian economy is currently growing at about 3% and that investment growth is currently 8% – compared with the 30% annual increase he believes is required for modernization.

While the price of oil has climbed about 30% so far this year to $124 per barrel (auguring a dramatic improvement of Russia’s fiscal situation) Kudrin believes that a further increase in oil prices will have a negative effect on the Russian economy through inflation, and that petrostate model of development “has failed.”

He explained that the government has prepared several hypothetical scenarios for the economy, which include various possible price levels for oil, but in all the scenarios, the growth rate remains the same. He stated,”This is confirmation of the unfortunate fact that the price of oil, which before the crisis was an impetus for growth, is no longer such.”

Kudrin’s position is rather telling when compared with Putin’s statement to the Duma the previous day. Putin stated growth would be 4.2% this year, and much of his speech seemed to consist of assurances to various sectors of society that the state would soon lavish spending on them.

The model reflected in Putin’s speech then could be characterised as “back to 2008.” It is dependent on a continued growth in oil prices (or at least a continuation of the current price), and the distribution of the resultant wealth throughout Russian society in a nation-wide divvying up of the spoils. Despite some lip-service to technocratic modernization, there is little prospect that this is going to take place, leading to both stagnation and a continued withering of Russian industry, not least the high-tech sector, including military innovation.

In this light Putin’s position appears shortsighted – and Kudrin is strongly aligning himself with a liberalising agenda, without (as yet) openly backing Medvedev.

Will he go that far? Or is this just political manoeuvring designed to have a moderating influence on Putin? Either way Kudrin is levering himself into a more influential position which will become more evident and important as we move towards Parliamentary and Presidential elections over the next few months.

Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, Democratization, Hydrocarbons, Liberalism, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Economy, Russian Liberalization, Russian Politics | 3 Comments »

In the bag: Putin 2012.

Posted by democratist on April 20, 2011

20th April 2011,

Vladimir Putin’s constitutionally mandated speech to the Duma this morning once again provides additional evidence for our long-held view that the Russian 2012 Presidential elections will consist of an essentially contrived spot of “Putin Vs Medvedev” razzle-dazzle, designed both to keep the masses in check, and deepen the (not so far very successful) illusion of Russia’s “democratic turn” for the more gullible among potential foreign investors.

Although neither President nor Prime Minister has officially declared their candidacy, the language employed and themes covered by Putin this morning strongly imply a forthcoming announcement from the PM at some point over the next few weeks/months (Medvedev has already made similar noises).

In this regard, what was most interesting about today’s speech was Putin’s attempt to differentiate between his own “conservative” positions (stressing stability, social issues and sovereignty) and those of the “young reformer” Medvedev (liberalism, international co-operation, and modernization).

And yet, in reality there is little practical difference in terms of the policies that either candidate is likely to follow; both take their cue from the Russia 2020 policy document, first announced by Putin in February 2008 (i.e. just before Medvedev was elected). And in theory both seek to follow the ”innovation” scenario contained within it, which presupposes the development of a national innovation system, competitive human capital and regional development centers, and a comprehensive reform and investment programme.

So while Putin may have sought to present himself as a “conservative”, he also paid at least some lip service today the need to modernize Russia’s economy, improve the investment climate, fight corruption, increase labor efficiency, and indeed about the need for innovation.

Meanwhile if Medvedev were to gain a second term in office, he would almost certainly remain constrained in what he was able to achieve because of the influence of the PM, and those around him.

Whoever eventually wins, it has been evident for some months that the current system will remain in place – as well as the corruption and economic problems which are an integral part of it. However, with the recent rise in the oil price has come a renewed confidence for Putin and his backers (one of the implied messages of today’s speech was that the regime will soon have the cash to buy off any opposition within Russian society for the next few years). Subsequently, if Putin does decide to stand and the elections are not rigged to favour Medvedev (by no means impossible), he will almost certainly win.

Under these circumstances, “Putin Vs Medvedev” essentially heralds Vladimir Putin’s return to power next year, and on this basis Democratist now sees Putin returning to the Presidency in 2012.

Posted in Energy Politics, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Politics | 6 Comments »

Putin vs Medvedev 2012 – Update.

Posted by democratist on March 31, 2011

31st Match 2012,

Democratist has been greatly enjoying this rather groovy piece of satire from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF)

Putin vs Medvedev on 2012? Where could they have got such an idea?

Posted in Democratization, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Russian Military Industrial Complex: An Unresolvable Discrepancy.

Posted by democratist on March 15, 2011

15th March 2011,

In our last article in our “Democracy and Innovation” series we looked at Crane and Usanov’s analyis of the relationship between Russian government policy and the main internationally competitive high-tech sectors of the Russian economy.

Among their (very measured) conclusions were that current policy to encourage growth in these industries through the creation of state-controlled agglomerates had not been effective, and that a favourable outlook was largely dependent on the extent firms were integrated with, and open to, the global economy. However, prospects for the Russian defence industry were limited in this regard, precisely because of its insularity.

In line with the “liberal” innovation model outlined by WolfDemocratist maintains that, while the Russian state is continuing to make a concerted attempt to drive innovation through increased funding and R&D, contemporary corruption, lack of competition, problems with the rule of law and government accountability have all had a demonstrable impact on the ability (and willingness) of many Russian high-tech firms to innovate, commercialize their ideas, expand, and reach their full potential.

With regard to the military-industrial complex more specifically, in an article published todayin the World Politics Review  Dr. Richard Weitz (also of the Hudson Institute) provides some additional and very relevant detail about how such problems are affecting Russia’s current proposed, decade-long $650 billion rearmament programme (supposedly set to include the procurement of 100 ships, 600 aircraft, and 1,000 helicopters).

Here’s a sample;

“….although Russian designers can still develop first-class weapons, Russian defense companies — which have yet to recover from the traumatic disintegration of the Soviet military-industrial complex — remain unable to manufacture large numbers of some advanced systems. As a result, the Russian government has made the unprecedented decision to purchase expensive Western military equipment.”

“…the record of recent SAPs [State Armaments Programs] is not encouraging. They all envisaged providing the Russian armed forces with hundreds of new weapons, but their execution was undermined by insufficient financing, the inefficient and ineffective Russian defense sector, and pervasive corruption.”

“Estimates suggest that one-third of Russia’s defense companies are bankrupt, while another third desperately need an infusion of financial and human capital to modernize their aging production lines and work force. Pending modernization, many defense firms will prove unable to design and produce sophisticated weapons without frequent cost overruns and production delays.”

“…according to some observers, corruption absorbs as much as half of all Russian defense procurement spending due to the irresistible opportunities for graft that exist behind the veil of military secrecy. Serdyukov’s surprise 2007 appointment as Russia’s first civilian defense minister reflected the Kremlin’s hope that, as an outsider, he might be more willing to tackle defense inefficiencies and corruption. Unfortunately, some bad practices have become so ingrained in Russia’s defense sector that they could take more than a decade to root out. ”

From Democratist’s perspective, what is most immediately interesting about what Weitz says is that, while Russian weapons designers are apparently still coming up with the goods in terms of innovative ideas, the state of the country’s defence industry is such that it is unable to reproduce a proportion of the required systems in large numbers.

We see this inability as being at the core of the Russia’s “innovation deficit”; it isn’t that the ideas and the creativity aren’t there – they are. But the unreformed Soviet-era military-industrial complex lacks the competition, investment and flexibility that an advanced industrial economy – and an advanced defence industry require.

In our opinion, this unresolvable discrepancy between design and finished product, between planing and implementation, and subsequently in Russia’s military position in relation to the West (and therefore also the desirability of her military exports) can only become wider in the future, given the current politico-economic system.

Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, Russian Military, Russian Politics, Russian Science | 3 Comments »

Russia: FDI and the forthcoming elections.

Posted by democratist on February 18, 2011

18th February 2011,

Democratist was fascinated by Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s speech in Krasnoyarsk yesterday.

According to Kudrin FDI into Russia fell to  $12-14 billion last year, the third successive year of decline since 2008.

“Direct foreign investment was one and a half times lower,” Kudrin said, “This is not much. In the best years it reached $27 billion.”

And he also stated that this has had a negative impact on President Medvedev’s “modernization” effort, and is holding back economic growth. “We will see in the coming years a stable growth of around 4% and above. However for Russia this – the level of a mid-ranking economy – is insufficient,” he said. “We need a significantly higher growth rate of 6-7%.”

For Democratist’s perspective, what is most interesting about these figures is that they cover the period before last December’s release of embarrassing Wikileaks cables which described Russia as “a virtual mafia state.”

Given the near-continuous (and frankly mostly warranted) bad press the Russians have been suffering over the past several months, it seems very unlikely that the much hoped-for Western FDI flows into Russia will recover any time soon.

So, what are the most likely effects of  continually declining FDI on Russian politics? Will Russia, as Kudrin (rather unexpectedly) suggested, decide to hold free and fair elections later this year, and in 2012 as part of a strategy for future liberalization?

Alas, this is unlikely. The nomenklatura has an intrenched fear of “instability.” Giving power away in any meaningful sense is largely anathema for Putin and his former KGB pals, regardless of the lessons that recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt may imply. Their main medium-term hope remains a (continued) rise in raw materials prices.

So while there may be some measured liberalization in the parliamentary polls set to take place in December, Democratist continues to maintain that the regime will probably try to leverage the Presidential elections due in 2012 as method for winning increased international legitimacy by enhancing the (not so far especially successful) illusion of Russia’s “democratic development” through a poll that apparently offers more political competition than was the case in recent years, but in reality whose parameters have been carefully determined in advance.

While the exact form this contest will take may be beyond even our predictive powers, Democratist continues to feel that the obvious choice will be a superficial competition between an emphasis on ”stability” or “modernization”; between Putin or Medvedev.

Posted in Democratization, Elections, FDI, Hydrocarbons, Jasmine Revolution, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Economy, Russian Politics | 3 Comments »

Russia and the WTO: Not so fast, Seymour.

Posted by democratist on January 12, 2011

12th January 2011,

Last December’s agreement between Russia and the EU, and the subsequent speculation about potential accession to the WTO at some point in 2011, has prompted Democratist to cogitate upon the likely impact of international economic integration on Russia over the next few years.

While the agreement with the Europeans may have brought accession further towards reality, there remains a great deal of protectionist sentiment domestically within Russia. This is best exemplified by Putin’s own attempts last year to modernize domestic industry through a renewed emphasis on industrial policy (to be funded by raw materials rents). A lack of cash seems to have put paid to that strategy for the time being, but Democratist maintains that a rise in raw materials prices beyond a certain point will likely prompt a shift back towards protectionism.

However, while we cannot yet be fully sure that it will finally happen, the prospect of accession looks like being one of the Kremlin’s key trump cards for 2011. In the face of western investor scepticism, anger over the second Khordokovsky trial and the imprisonment of Boris Nemtsov, Medvedev will doubtless find it convenient to offer up the prospect of Russia’s eventual WTO accession as an indicator that the country is basically on the right, liberal path.

This will play well with many Western leaders as it appears to accord with liberal political theory. According to this perspective (often attributed in origin to Seymour Lipset’s 1959 classic Some Social Requisites of Democracy), WTO accession will act as an anchor for long-term reform and increase economic growth, leading to the consolidation of a democratically minded middle class. Seen in this light, the privatization program that began in Russia last year promises a lengthy pull-back by the state, and continuing rapprochement with the West as Russia seeks support for modernization.

But we might wish to refrain from opening the champagne for a second; Democratist has long argued that whether Putin or Medvedev wins the Presidential election in 2012, any liberalization in Russia will remain tightly constrained by the interests of the nomenklatura. The current government has demonstrated comprehensively over the past decade that the manipulation of public opinion is one of the few things they genuinely do well. In this regard, in contrast to the rosier expectations of some of our liberal friends, Democratist suspects it may take several decades for economic development to provide a basis for the promotion of the rule of law and a broader liberalization.

Additionally, WTO membership seems unlikely to do much to promote the diversification of the Russian economy away from reliance on raw materials without a concerted effort to tackle corruption. Given that the current regime has itself acted as an important facilitator and beneficiary of corruption since 2000, Democratist is of the opinion that change in this area will take a long time to emerge, and will face many serious setbacks. If parts of Russia’s backward (and still largely state-controlled) industrial sector start to lose out after the country joins the WTO, causing unemployment and unrest, this may also prompt a return to a greater reliance on industrial policy, or back to protectionism. 

As is so often the case, much depends on the price of hydrocarbons; Russia requires deep and potentially unpopular reforms to diversify its economy, but many among the elite seem to believe that, despite the apparent lessons of the Soviet period, the economy can be developed effectively (and painlessly) through state-led industrial policy. If the money becomes available again, this would presumably be the prefered option. However, if prices stagnate or decrease over the coming year or two, the prospects for economic reform within the context of WTO accession will be somewhat better (although they will still face resistance from elements within the elite).

Posted in Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Liberalization, Russian Middle Class, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »

Russia 2012 Predictions: An Update.

Posted by democratist on December 9, 2010

9th December 2010,

Some months ago Democratist made the prediction that,

“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….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…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.

At the time, even we thought that we might have indulged in a spot of crystal ball-gazing too far, and that we would soon have to bury the offending piece deep within our archives, in the hope it would soon be forgotten.
But not so quick with the shovel: On Tuesday, Vedmosti came out with the following quote, at the end of an article speculating that Putin will lend his name to the United Russia party ticket for elections next year;
“Interviewed while on the visit to Poland and asked if he intended to run for the president again, Medvedev announced that it was possible indeed since he always stood for continuity. “There are others, however… people who might participate in this political process too,” he said without giving any names.”
An odd statement. Medvedev evidently does not just mean that there will be other candidates for the Presidency (it’s kind of obvious). He means that there are others who actually stand a chance of winning who might participate.

Who could that be?

Posted in Elections, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Liberalization, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »

Sympathy for the devil?

Posted by democratist on October 17, 2010

October 17th 2010,

Was the West and the so-called “Washington consensus” responsible for the socio-economic problems that blighted Russia in the 1990’s? This question is rarely discussed in Europe or the US these days, but it reflects a widely held opinion in contemporary Russia, and moreover an intellectual position that for many years has provided one of the Putin regime’s principle ideational mainstays.

Indeed, the fear of a repeat of the chaos of the 1990’s is surely one reason why, as Vladislav Inozemtsev noted in the Moscow Times on October 15th, so few Russians are motivated by Dimitry Medvedev’s calls for modernization, and subsequently why Russia remains, “Deeply mired in the complacency of ‘stability””

But is it really the case that Western advisors, and institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank were responsible for the chaos that engulfed Russia throughout much of its first post-communist decade?

In order to examine the other side of this story, Democratist has recently been re-reading Anders Aslund’s How Capitalism was built: The Transformation of Central And Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Aslund begins by noting that most countries entered the transition process amid a serious economic crisis inherited as a result of communist mismanagement, “A whole new system had to be built, and knowledge of how to do so was limited.” In such a situation, transition was always likely to be a difficult and lengthy process, even if the advice provided was of good quality.

However, the main reason that economic chaos endured for so long in Russia was not that the government followed “bad” western advice, but rather that it was slow to implement much of it, because it was politically in thrall to a group of people who had a vested interest in dragging out transition for as long as possible; these were “rent-seekers” (prominent members of the old and new elite, the most successful of which would eventually become known as the “oligarchs”) who had a vested interest in making fortunes out of the distortions of the emerging market economies. 

As Aslund notes, “Rent-seekers were cold-blooded, rational businessmen. They had no ideology but convenience. They engaged in politics mainly to secure their rents. Confusingly, they were reformist and progressive as long as communism lasted, because their profits derived from the market, however distorted, and they wanted to escape the old communist control system. As soon as communism was over, however, the threat to rent-seekers came from a truly free market. Logically, they tried to slow down market reforms to preserve market distortions that generated rents while invoking many fine social causes.” 

As such, it was not western advice which was defective, but rather the slow pace of its implementation as a result of political interference.

And indeed in the Russian case Aslund suggests that the market economy was in place to a considerable degree by the late 1990’s; “The Russian financial crash turned out to be the catharsis Russia needed to accomplish a full-fledged market economy, with a critical mass of markets, macroeconomic stability and private enterprises.”

This leads him to make the provocative suggestion (partly based on a historical comparison with the United States’ nineteenth-century “robber barons”) that, with the eventual advent of the free market, the attention of the oligarchs had shifted from rent-seeking (no longer possible under free market conditions) to the securing of their economic position through support for the rule of law. As he says; “Later on, many wealthy businessmen became interested in securing their property rights against capricious rulers, which rendered them more liberal again. Now they stood up for the principles of a free society.”

So, from this perspective,  not only is it questionable to suggest that “westerners” were responsible for Russia’s problems in the 1990’s, but it would also appear that by the end of this period, the oligarchs, who had borne a considerable degree of responsibility for the enduring problems of transition were (by following their evolving self-interest)  slowly emerging as a central support for the consolidation of Russian democracy.

But whereas the financial crisis of 1998 put Russia on a path to economic stability and high growth that might well have eventually resulted in a lasting transition to democracy, it also had the effect of forcing President Yeltsin to appoint a government with Yevgeny Primakov as Prime Minister, followed in 1999 by Vladimir Putin, thereby eventually allowing former members of the secret police to take over both power and some wealth from the oligarchs, while also benefitting for a number of years from a combination of the post-1998 reforms and higher oil prices.

By the time of the arrest of Mikhail Khordokovsky in 2003, it became apparent that the oligarchs were unable to safeguard their property rights, or resist large-scale renationalisation and political suppression by the resurgent Putin-led espiocracy, and they were subsumed into the new system.

Subsequently, the hallmarks of Putin’s second term (2004-2008) were a degree of renationalization, the enrichment of officials, rapidly growing corruption, and the fading of industrial growth; all of which was (superfically and temporarily) masked by high raw materials prices.

However, the global financial crisis has done much to reveal the growing severity of these problems, especially in relation to Russia’s reliance on raw materials. Additionally, the last few years have also demonstrated how Russia’s industrial, technological and scientific capabilities are slowly suffocating in a the predictable resultant morass of corruption, and (of special concern to some elements within the nomenklatura) how this is degrading Russia’s military capabilities. 

And yet for all the talk of political and economic modernization that we have seen over the past two years, the regime’s response to these issues has so far been muted, precisely because of its unwillingness to countenance potentially “destabilizing” political change: For all the President’s talk of reform, there has been little indication that Medvedev would be willing to allow the remaining (and evidently much weakened) oligarchs any increased political leeway, as part of a broader political liberalization.

While it may seem counterintuitive, if Aslund’s thesis is correct, the oligarchs, impediments to reform that they might have been in the 1990’s, may well today be exactly the people Medvedev should be talking to if he genuinely wishes to move beyond the political strictures and economic malaise of “sovereign democracy,” to remove the remaining market distortions, and provide Russia with the kind of innovative economy that most people seem to agree she requires.

Posted in Democratization, Russian Economy, Russian Politics | 1 Comment »

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?  

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