Monday, October 10, 2011

Democracy a la russe

Medvedev and Putin have recently announced that they would trade places: Putin will run for President and Medvedev will be his Prime Minister.  This was not exactly a stunning surprise, though some speculated that Medvedev and Putin were in reality more competitors than friends.  In fact, their warm smiles and mutual backslapping proves nothing.  For all we know, they could be the biggest friends on the planet or they could be hating each other, this does not matter: they each represent constituencies which have decided to work together.  Love or no love, Medvedev and Putin are therefore political symbionts.

The Western press, lead by the always hysterically russophobic British media, has declared that the upcoming elections (Duma and Presidential) are a "done deal", the not-so-subtle hint being that Russia is not a "real democracy".  But is it?

The fact that in terms of laws or civil rights Russia is very democratic, no less than any Western country.  There are seven registered political parties in Russia, and many more political movements and smaller parties.  Furthermore, all political opinions and movements are legal in Russia (with the exception of the open apology of ethnic hatred), the media is extremely diverse, and most Russians enjoy an unlimited access to the Internet.  Finally, there are a lot of well-known public figures which have openly expressed their opposition to the current government and regime without suffering any consequences.  All this nonsense about journalists killed in Russia for political reasons is hogwash: yes, many were killed, but there is not a shred of evidence of any government involvement.  The fact is that *lots* of people in Russia get killed each year and that there are a lot of financial/mob interests in Russia who will not hesitate to kill when challenged.  Reporters like Anna Politkovskaya or Pavel Khlebnikov or activists like Alexander Litvinenko were all deeply involved in activities which directly threatened Chechen mobsters, not the Kremlin.  No, that "cloak and dagger" image of "Putin's Russia" were KGB killers roam the streets to kill democracy-loving reporters is nonsense, conjured up by the allies of Mr. Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky and the rest of the Jewish "oligarchs" who were either jailed or exiled by Putin.

Not that Putin would hesitate to kill his enemies.  He would not and, if fact, he has done so many times.  The long list of assassinated leaders of the Chechen rebellion (pretty much all of them except the seemingly indestructible Doku Umarov) is the best possible proof of the fact that the Russian security and intelligence services are quite capable of organizing an assassination, both in Russia and abroad.  But Putin has a far better weapon against his political enemies than murder: he has a fine-tuned political system.

If we take a look at the Russian political scene, what do we see?

First, there is the party of Putin and Medvedev, United Russia, supported by a large political movement, the All-Russian Popular Front.  This is the political force which turned Russia from a failed state into a superpower in one decade (from 2000-2010).  This is the force which gave most Russians a real combination of prosperity and freedom.  This is the force which crushed the Chechen rebellion, which achieved a lightening military victory against Georgia, and which lead Russia's comeback on the international scene.  This political force has an extremely sophisticated political PR machine and it organizes US-style political mega-events.  Last, but not least, it is lead by two men, Medvedev and Putin, who are both excellent speakers, capable of alternating charm and "strong leader" like body-language.  Unlike that pathetic drunkard Eltsin (which Russians still associate with pro-Western "reformist" parties), these two men are exceedingly intelligent, very well educated, they are both truly immersed in the nitty-gritty aspects of daily government.  One can like them or not, but nobody can deny that these two are formidable political figures.

Now let's take a look at the opposition.

The two big opposition parties are the Communist Party (KPRF) lead by Gennady Ziuganov and the Liberal-Democracic Party (LDPR) lead by Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The KPRF is an almost comically pathetic party, with red flags, pictures of Lenin, and a leader who has often been compared to a boar.  This party has its power base in the disenfranchised social groups which lost it all when communism collapsed in 1991 and which are openly and unapologetically nostalgic for the "good old days" of the Soviet Union.

In contrast, the LDPR is categorically anti-Communist, it blames the communists for their disastrous rule and for the millions of people they murdered.  They LDPR also has only scorn for various types of "democrats", "liberals" or "reformers".  The LDPR attracts a more sophisticated and younger crowd.  Finally, the LDPR is very much a one-man show with Zhirinovsky has its seemingly eternal and flamboyant leader.

Neither the KPRF nor the LDPR represent any kind of real threat to the current regime.  Why?  In the case of the KPRF, it is ridiculously anachronistic and quite simply out of touch with the 21 century.  Most Russians want nothing to do with Communism and what it stands for.  Sure, they admire some of the achievements of the Soviet Union, but that does not at all mean that they want to turn back the clock, even if it was possible to do so (which it is not).

As for the LDPR and Zhirinovsky, it is deeply disliked by a large segment of the population which sees Zhirinovsky as a clown, which he in reality very much is.  Zhirinovsky is one big joke, each of his appearances is accompanied with the kind of buffoonery which one might expect on the US TV show Saturday Night Live.  A lot of what Zhirik (as he is often called in Russia) makes perfectly good sense, but his sensible ideas are always wrapped into all sorts of lunacies which cannot be take more seriously than then of pro-wrestling actors.

Combined, the KPRF and the LDPR will get a good chunk of the vote, but these parties do not really want to rule, they are only good as entertaining eternal opposition parties.  Not only that, but in reality both parties very often vote with the government, the LDPR, in particular, is notorious for being a "fake-opposition", making all sorts of loud statements before inevitably voting with the government.

The real role of the KPRF and the LDPR is to provide a safety valve for those who hate the regime, to attest to the democratic nature of the Russian political system, and to make darn sure no real opposition party should come and threaten the regime in power.

What about the various small political parties?  Most of them are rather pathetic pro-Western "liberal" or "democratic" parties which have exactly zero chance of ever becoming relevant.  The fact is that the nightmarish rule of the US-supported Eltsin regime and his Jewish oligarchs has left a terrible trauma in its wake.  If there is one thing which unites a vast majority of Russians is a total distrust of the West combined with a strong sense of disgust those who still parrot the US Empire's propaganda about free markets, human rights, self determination, etc.  This is why pro-Western political parties could not even get a single person elected into the Duma and now the regime is pushing for a new law lowering the needed threshold to get at least one representative in the Duma (talk about democracy: the regime wants a stronger, more visible, opposition!).  This is also the reason why the regime couldn't care less about pro-Western democratic journalists: they are despised by most Russians and their political backers are totally irrelevant (in jail, in the UK or in Israel).

Does this mean that the current situation is necessarily good for Russia?  Not at all.

The fact that Putin's "United Russia" is the only credible political force in Russia does not at all mean that this is good for Russia.  Yes, this political force did achieve some absolutely amazing results in one decade, but it's rule also resulted into quite a few very bad consequences:

a) Corruption is still at an all-time high.  Russia is a de-facto Mafia-state, in which laws matter much less than the informal honor code of the mob (воровские понятия). This all-permeating corruption is a rot which cripples the entire Russian society from top to bottom, at all levels.

b) Putin, Medvedev & Co. have presided over a massive re-Sovietisation of the Russian society, with a broad re-introduction of Soviet symbols, with a quasi-constant glorification of the "honest" secret service officers from the ChK to the KGB.  The 'official' Russian Orthodox Church (the Moscow Patriarchate - MP) has fully resumed it's role of supporter of the state, and MP priests have now largely replaced political commissars as the main propagandists of a rather vapid, if not obnoxious, nationalist mindset.

c) In the Russian armed forces the record of the current regime is checkered at best.  Alongside some very real success, the regime has clearly cracked down on some key elements of the armed forces, the military intelligence service - the GRU - particular has been almost completely dismantled.  The so-called "reforms" of Minister of Defense Serdyukov and his subservient Chief of Staff Makarov, have so far failed to achieve anything, besides some totally arbitrary budget cuts.  While some much needed weapon systems have been developed (Mi-28N, Ka-52, T-50, Iskander-M, S-400, Borei SSBN, etc.) the bulk of the armed forces is still in dire need of modernization.  Interestingly, Putin is now promising a massive increase in the military budget and a complete re-arming of the armed forces in the next decade. In contrast, the internal security forces (FSB, MVD) are the clear darlings of the regime and they have lavishly funded.

d) On the international scene, the record of Medvedev's Presidency is rather dismal: the US is happily going ahead with its plans to introduce anti-missile systems on Russia's borders,  NATO forces are deployed in the Baltic states, Russia betrayed Iran and Libya at the UNSC and Russia is still letting US and NATO forces use Russian territory and airspace for its military operations in Afghanistan even though the US lets a tiny and irrelevant country like Georgia block Russia's accession to the WTO (a blessing in disguise, IMHO).  Finally,  Russia has failed to turn the SCO/CSTO into anything meaningful.

e) The Russian economy is still heavily dependent on the export of raw materials and weapon systems.  However, considering the comprehensively failed condition of Russian state and economy which Putin inherited in 2000, some slack should be cut to the Russian government, but this should not make anybody blind to the fact that, at least so far, Russia has failed to realize its potential as a BRICS country.

f) Last, but not least, what Russia lacks most today is a set of  some kind of spiritual or, at least, philosophical values.  Think about it: in the modern world, what does Russia stand for?  Most definitely not communism.  Not pro-Western democracy either.  Non-alignment?  Of course not.  Socialism?  Nope.  Orthodox Christianity?  Most definitely not?  Then what?  All one can observe today is some vague sense of nationalism, as insipid and as empty as can be, removed from any kind of real historical, cultural, spiritual or ideological roots. 

70 years of internationalist (and very much viciously anti-Russian) communist rule have cut off the Russian nation from its own historical roots.  I would even argue that the two centuries of Russia as an Empire (roughly between the reign of Peter I and Nicholas II) have also created a supra-national ruling elite with very little in common with the original Russian culture.  It would not be incorrect to say that Russia is suffering from cultural multiple-personality disorder since at least 1721.  The current regime has done nothing to change that with its weird if not bizarre mix of nationalism, democracy, neo-socialism, multiculturalism, etc.  I am not sure that it would be fair to blame the current regime for this state of affairs, but this must sad state of affairs must absolutely be kept in mind when assessing the current situation.

Bottom line: what we have today in Russia is a formal democracy, fully dominated by a political force with a mixed record of truly amazing achievements, utter failures and mostly many gray areas.  In many way, Medvedev, Putin and their "United Russia" party are a true and accurate expression of the condition of the Russian nation and state today.  It is most definitely not an ideal condition, but one could easily imagine a far worse one.  Russia lacks a clear vision and it therefore has very few strategic goals (other than survival).  It is, however, an increasingly capable tactical player.  The regime in power has successfully eliminated any serious internal or external threats to itself and, thereby, probably to Russia too.  And that is already way better than what Eltsin's "democrats" ever did.

Piotr Stopylin, arguably the most brilliant Russian political figure of the 20th century, declared in 1907 to his rabid "democratic" opponents "you need great upheavals, we need a great Russia".  A decade later the world saw what kind of "great upheavals" Russia's democrats could deliver.  The situation is similar today and his words should probably still be heeded.

Russia most definitely does not need "great upheavals".  This is, of course, no excuse for stagnation, but it would be fair to say that under the rule of Medvedev and Putin Russia did show a healthy, albeit not ideal, level of dynamism and stability.

This is probably why the Putin/Medvedev team will end up being reelected.  Democratically.

The Saker