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.
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?