Democratist

Democracy. Russia. CIS.

Archive for April, 2012

Putin’s Third Term: Towards Instability?

Posted by democratist on April 24, 2012

April 24th 2012,

Democratist has sometimes been accused of being “theoretical.” We do not deny this charge. For us, using “theory” means the ability to generalize rational insight from experience.  Although not without limitation, any attempt to explain (and by extension change) the world without some kind of rational framework will amount to little, and incautious abandonment leaves one vulnerable to a variety of intellectual hucksters (post-modernists, nationalists, religious dogmatists, conspiracy theorists…).

In terms of International Relations, the most fruitful theoretical tools Democratist has encountered are those drawn from historical-sociology. Part of the reason for this blog is to apply insights drawn from that tradition to the contemporary world.

This explains the repeated importance we have placed on the revolutions of Arab Spring. For us, 2011 was a year of global historical significance - like 1789, 1848, 1917 or 1989/1991. As with those other historically conjunctural years, 2011 combined elements that are central to our view of the world; social conflicts, mass movements and (democratic) revolution. However, the events of 2011 also involved an additional aspect that we have not yet covered in any detail, but which is a cornerstone of our approach, and of particular relevance to the political trajectory of the countries of the CIS; the idea of international society as “homogeneity.”

What do we mean by “international society” and “homogeneity”?

Within the academic study of International relations over the last 40 years, there have been three main perspectives on what constitutes “international society”. These are;

i) It consists of relations between states (governments). Obvious examples include diplomacy and war.

ii) It consists of non-state links of economy, political association, culture and ideology (a favourite of “globalization” theorists).

iii) It consists of a set of ideological values shared by different societies and promoted by inter-state competition, producing international “homogeneity”.

While the first two perspectives are certainly essential to any understanding of international relations, and are regularly covered in the mainstream media, it is the third which comes from the historical-sociological tradition, and on which we focus here.

The basic idea of homogeneity is simple: As a result of international pressures, states are compelled through competition with one another over the long-term, to resemble each other more and more in their internal arrangements. Developments at the international level have an impact on the ideological legitimacy and stability of states domestically: Political and social change within countries have always been to some extent, and are now increasingly the result of external processes.

In Rethinking International Relations (1994), Fred Halliday uses this perspective to explain the end of the Cold War, or as he puts it, “…why a specific political and socio-economic system, one that was in broad terms equal to its rival in military terms, should have collapsed as it did, rapidly and unequivocally, and in the absence of significant international military conflict.”

Halliday argues that communism was successful, not only in the second world war, but in subsequent arms races and third world strategic competition. However, it was at the socio-economic level that the USSR came to be seen as a comparative failure, unable to match its Western competitors: By the 1980′s the domestic record of communism, as compared with its main capitalist alternatives, became a central dimension of Cold War rivalry, resulting in the Gorbachev’s attempts at reform, and the ultimate collapse of a unreformable system.

The key point is that it was an ideologically influenced change of direction by the leadership which brought about the USSR’s demise. Communism could easily have dragged on for another decade or two, but the leadership became convinced that the Soviet system was unable to catch up with the west, especially in terms of economic output and innovation. The subsequent opening of the USSR to foreign influences after 1988 as part of glasnost acted to alert the broader public to these problems, highlighting contrasts in living standards, which led to increased calls for change.

This brings us to the question of the extent that states have responded to international pressure to homogenize since 1991. For Democratist, it is clear that the idea of the democratic “good life” transmitted by popular culture, the media and, above all the internet, has become much more powerful over the last twenty years. Indeed, so powerful is this image, that leaders of many authoritarian countries have come to expend considerable resources in countering it with domestic and international propaganda (e.g. RT, Press TV etc).

International pressure for homogenization has therefore increased, with democracy taking on a far greater role as a factor for domestic legitimization and stability. The Arab Spring was witness to the growth of pressure for reform building due to a number of factors, but not least the example of comparatively politically and economically successful democratic countries. However, the regimes of the middle East proved resistant to reform, and therefore lost popular legitimacy and finally faced revolution.

Similar pressures have also manifested themselves in the former Soviet Union, with revolutions sparked off by rigged elections in a number of countries. However, in contemporary Russia, democratizing pressure remains weak as result the chaos and national humiliation of the 1990′s. This is commonly blamed on “dermokratiya,” while it was in fact actually more the result of the collapse of the command economy and massive corruption. And yet, as described in Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Granta Publications, 2012), the Russian government has shown no serious willingness to reform over the last decade, and the untreated corruption of the 1990′s has in fact worsened.

It therefore seems unlikely that the government will embark on meaningful reform over the coming years, whilst homogenizing pressure for change will grow: As the Russian middle class gains in political confidence it will begin to demand the representation it is afforded in other countries, spurred on by technological change.

And while the possibility of a gradual transition to a more representative political system remains, the probability of a political crisis over the longer term if this does not materialize is growing.

Posted in Arab Spring, Colour Revolution, Democratization, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Russia 2012 Elections, Russia Propaganda | 6 Comments »

The “Counter-Revolutionary Council” and the Temptations of Foreign Adventurism.

Posted by democratist on April 13, 2012

April 13th 2012,

Democratist has been interested to read that the Duma is to set up a new advisory “Counter-Revolutionary Council” within the parliamentary Committee for CIS Affairs.

According to the April 10th edition of Kommersant, “Moscow is looking for an antidote for colour revolutions and a means to strengthen its position in the post-Soviet zone… the Duma’s Committee is about to form a council that will be tasked to keep tabs on threats to the interests of Russia in nearby foreign countries and design counter-measures against colour revolutions.”

The key word here is of course, “interests.” The notion of “colour revolutions” (the idea that foreign NGOs are able to trick otherwise perfectly content populations to overthrow their autocratic rulers) is such obvious propaganda as to be unworthy of comment - if it were not for the fact that there are so many within the Russian media who remain happy to repeat this nonsense (and the fabricated kompromat which often accompanies it) without engaging any of their critical faculties.

The spectacle of a group of people who largely owe their positions to electoral fraud creating a parliamentary committee to ensure that other authoritarian regimes are able do the same without hinderance, and on the basis that the populations of other countries have been fooled into rejecting the “benign” guidance of autocrats by outside interference, reveal the hypocrisy and self-interest of the ruling elite. Many seem willing to stoop to any fabrication so they can continue to steal for as long as possible, and ensure their business associates and allies abroad are protected.

According to the “Counter-Revolutionary Council”  we are to believe that revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were the work of American political technologists; but nothing is mentioned of the electoral fraud which was the primary motivation for both of these events: Nothing is said about the abuse of administrative resources by Shevardnadze and Kuchma, or the intimidation, busing, carousel voting and ballot stuffing which were so blatant (especially in the second round of voting in Ukraine in November 2004). We are told that the people who participated in the subsequent Orange Revolution did so for a few Yankee dollars, but nothing is said of the crowds of hundreds of thousands which thronged the center of Kiev during the first days of protest shouting, “No to falsification!” even though it was widely expected that armed interior ministry troops would try to retake the city within hours.

Above all, nothing is said about the position of the Russian government; Vladimir Putin’s open support for Yanukovich in the campaign, nor Russian media support, nor the sources of the funding of the anti-Yushenko black-PR newsheets which seemed to litter every post-meeting park and pavement in Eastern Ukraine back then.

In the creation of the “Counter-Revolutionary Council” we see the (now matured) notion of “colour revolution” for what it is; a deliberate exaggeration of the capabilities and influence of western-backed NGO’s in events which were actually sparked by electoral fraud, and which, more fundamentally, reflected deep social ruptures stemming from the inequalities and indignities of crony capitalism and authoritarianism. This line of propagandizing is not new, and its historical lineage includes examples from the work of the KGB, NKVD, and even the Okhrana. The establishment of this latest body represents an additional stage in the political exploitation of these fantasies, with the aim of justifying repression at home and potentially abroad: If United Russia cheats in domestic elections, the rhetoric of paranoia and the spectre of American interference can be trotted out as justification. If further revolutions occur in the “near abroad” and intervention is required to ensure the interests of the elite and the requirements of realpolitik, the same justification can be applied.

But the “antidote” to colour revolutions does not lie in Duma Committees or “counter measures”. And it certainly doesn’t lie in military intervention; occupied populations quickly rebel.

The historical process of democratization that created the Rose and Orange Revolutions, and more recently the “Arab Spring” will eventually make its presence felt throughout the former Soviet space. As economies grow and populations become more connected with the outside world, this possibility becomes increasingly probable. But Russia must not make the same mistakes that the United States made in Afghanistan and Iraq: It must be wary of the temptation of ill-conceived foreign adventures on the basis of ideological myths (“Neo-conservatism” in the American case, “colour revolution in the Russian). Instead the “antidote” to colour revolutions lies in the acceptance of genuine democracy and self-determination both for Russia itself, and for the “near abroad”.

Posted in Colour Revolution | Leave a Comment »

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 »

International Relations and the Arab Spring: A Non-Conspiratorial View.

Posted by democratist on April 2, 2012

2nd April 2012,

In my last article I discussed the issue of the idea of “colour revolutions” as a “legitimizing myth” of Putinism, arguing that it is far easier for the current Russian government to blame the revolts which have taken place in the “near abroad” and middle East over the past few years on various invented (usually western-backed) “conspiracies” than to accept the increasing anachronism of their autocratic model of governance in the contemporary world.

To nobody’s surprise, this article naturally resulted in yet more conspiracy theory. Did I not know who was “really” behind these events? Who was my article “cooked up” for, and to what end? Surely I was working for [inserted prefered conspiracy here].

It therefore occurred to me that there exists a contemporary demand for an explanation of why (especially) the Arab Spring has taken place; one which might provide a more rational alternative to the fantasies of those whose stock-in-trade is obfuscation and paranoia. Fortunately, an existing theoretical framework with a long scholarly pedigree already exists; that of historical-sociology.

Historical sociology takes much of its inspiration from The Sociological Imagination, a book by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959), which (drawing on Marxism), underscores the centrality of historically specific social structures (patterns of social relationships over time) for sociology in particular, and the social sciences in general. Within the field of International Relations, the historical-sociological school has been developing since the mid-1980′s.

For the practitioners of the Historical Sociology, the key factors behind the Arab Spring are to be found, not in fanciful foreign plots, but rather in sociological developments which have taken place within societies in the region over recent decades: These include tremendous upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of “crony capitalism” (abject poverty side by side with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and technically savvy) young; the delayed flowering of civil society, and finally the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by both Russia and the West in many cases for decades).

The place to look for serious analysis the origins of these events is therefore in the tensions which have occurred within these societies over recent years, rather than in the baseless propagandizing of “foreign interference”. While it may be true that the “great powers” have sought to extend or protect their interests as a result of the initial uprisings (for example, overthrowing Gaddafi in the western case, or seeking to protect Assad in the Russian and Iranian), outside forces were clearly not the initial cause of these uprisings. Indeed, they appear to have taken place despite repeated American hypocrisy on the issue of democratization: The populations in these countries have not been swayed by the fact that the US talks the language of democracy whilst employing the stratagems of realpolitik; rather they are demanding respect and representation at home regardless of (often empty) American rhetoric.

However, this focus on internal developments and rejection of conspiracy-as-explanation does not mean that “international” factors were absent in the Arab Spring. In fact, structural international factors, such as the place of these countries within the global economy, were critically important in the influence they had on promoting the drive for accelerated development witnessed over the last few decades: If these revolutions have been organized through social media; Facebook, Twitter and so on, then the reasons why many of these countries have experienced large expansions in literacy, education, foreign languages and computing skills lies in the positions that they came to assume within global economic and security structures in a globalizing world, and the desire of local elites to improve those positions.

From an even broader historical viewpoint, as Fred Halliday points out in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999), over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has not been on the most developed states, but rather revolutions have tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism. It is at this stage of development that the countries of the Arab Spring now find themselves; driven towards revolution, not by conspiracy, but rather by the pressures placed on existing societies by international structural factors, and the subsequent drive for accelerated development at home.

In conclusion, the obvious question to ask is the extent to which this mixture of domestic and international pressures applies to Russia as well? Russia does not lack a corrupt, inefficient and un-innovative brand of crony capitalism, or the rising expectations of the technologically capable and politically-concious young (especially in the urban centers). Nor is the government indifferent to Russia’s position in the world. On the other hand, exploding oil wealth has meant poverty has decreased greatly over the past decade, and Russians are richer and freer than at almost any other point in their history. The demographic situation is different (fewer young people), and “democracy” is associated with the chaos of the 1990′s. As long as the oil price remains high, economic growth will continue, and the Putin systema remain stable. However, a sharp and sustained dip in hydrocarbon prices would certainly make Russian political life much more complex, and potentially lead to greater change as Russian society evolves.

Posted in Arab Spring, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR) | 13 Comments »

 
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