Saturday, March 26, 2016

Czar Vladimir: How Putin Wasted Russia's Best Chance for a Liberal Democracy 1 / 3

by Nomad

The collapse of the Soviet Union offered the Russian people an unprecedented chance at liberal democracy. Unfortunately, what has taken root in Russia was a strange mashup of its autocratic past.

In his book, Putin’s Wars : The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism, Marcel H. Van Herpen  examines the tragedy of Post-Soviet Russia. in particular its failure to seize the opportunity that destiny unexpectedly offered.

As a Dutch security expert and director of an independent European think tank, the Cicero Foundation, Van Herpen has spent a lot of time studying and analysing the Russian state and the men who run it.
One chapter entitled "Putin and the End of Russian “Empire Fatigue” offers a good jumping-off point for a little more scrutiny.

The Trauma and Promise of Christmas 1991

For a man like President Vladimir Putin, the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991 was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. His entire career- indeed all of his hopes- had depended on the continuation of the Soviet Union's rule. Putin had served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB with the rank of lieutenant colonel. 

The shock was understandable. He wasn't alone. The entire world, after all, watched in profound amazement when, on Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet flag flew over the Kremlin in Moscow for the last time.

Until that time, the existence of the Empire had been one of the Cold War's immutable facts. We in the West had grown up believing that the Soviet Union was incapable of change and reform. 

Its economy might be a wreck but it was not going anywhere. We were told for years- right up to the minute things turned to dust- to accept that a long and slow evolution and gradual enlightenment was the best that could be expected in the East bloc.
It was an evil empire that we had to live with.

It was conventional wisdom that the best the West could hope for was that Gorbachev's reforms and moves towards a more open, less reactionary posture would succeed.
Other sources conclude that Gorbechev's attempt at reform was the chief reason for the breakup.
The once-mighty Soviet Union had fallen, largely due to the great number of radical reforms that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had implemented during his six years as the leader of the USSR. However, Gorbachev was disappointed in the dissolution of his nation and resigned from his job on December 25. 
In hindsight, historians claimed that the USSR could not reform without undermining its system of control. Glasnost (Russian: гла́сность,) promised a new type of openness. With transparency came implied a degree of autonomy and that, in turn, allowed the USSR's client-state a moment to break free.

In the end, it was all swept away with breath-taking speed.

Van Herpen points out that these events, the trauma of the shattering of the monolithic state, offered Russia a fresh start.
In retrospect, 1991 offered the first real chance in modern Russian history to break the infernal cycle of imperialist expansion and colonial subjugation of neighboring peoples.
After the fact, the collapse all seemed inevitable. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan might have seemed in 1980 to be a necessity but it was, in fact, a fatal miscalculation.  It might have been a step toward the fall but it certainly wasn't the cause. 
The empire collapsed because of its internal tensions: its inefficiently planned economy, its lack of freedom, its corruption, and its bureaucratic overload.
The unraveling of the Soviet Empire was based "supporting and subsidizing the economies of poorer regions of the USSR, such as Central Asia."
Citing Vicken Cheterian, a journalist and political analyst, Van Herpen points out that economic reform and modernization could not have taken place until the Russian State renounced its colonial past. Fresh new thinking was desperately required.

If the former admirers of the Soviet Bloc were in grief over the humiliating loss of prestige, for young reformers, the collapse meant, in a real sense, a liberation not merely from the autocratic and officious state, but from the past, "the historical ballast."
They knew, intuitively, that Russia could only proceed further on the road toward a liberal, Western-style democracy if it were able to shake off its centuries-old legacy of imperial conquest and oppression.

Empire or Democracy but not Both

Working from a theory espoused by Charles Tilly in his book, Van Herpen explains that empires cannot be democratic and democracy cannot be empires. Or to put it another way, the rules of empire excludes the prerequisites for a liberal democracy.
“Segments of empire can in principle achieve some democracy but whole empires remain undemocratic by definition; at an imperial scale their segmentation and reliance on indirect rule bar equal citizenship, binding consultation, and protection.”
An empire requires those who receive the benefits and the client states that pay tribute. Inequality is seeded into the structure.

The Soviet Union and its disintegration were God-sent. For the West? Yes. But also for the Russian people. It, for the first time in over seven decades, allowed the possibility of a democratic Russia to emerge from the ashes.

So what happened?
To answer that Van Herpen points to the paradoxical effects of Russian nationalism. Outside of pure brute force, empires are held together by the concept of a shared identity. 
In the case of the Soviet Union the largely artificial Soviet  "citizenship" was a cover for Russian nationalism.
...ethnic Russians were in control of the party, the army, the KGB, and the heavy industry, but, at the same time, the Russian national identity was suppressed in favor of an invented, mostly artificial “Soviet” citizenship. Indeed, “a strong Russian nationalist movement . . . was in fact the most potent mobilizing force against the Soviet state.
Russian nationalism might have formed a glue that held things together but it also came at a price. That glue was also an acid, This type of nationalism allowed a "certain resentment" by Russians against "other nationalities, some of which had a higher standard of living."
On the other hand, many nationalists felt put upon by less well-off members of the Union.
Others, poorer ones, got subsidies from Moscow to balance their budgets. In the end all profited from the center by buying their energy at cheap, subsidized prices.
The average Russian had every reason to question the legitimacy and the advantage of a nonfunctioning union that could not possibly reform itself. The union was, Van Herpen writes, considered nothing but "a heavy burden that only cost them money."
Russian nationalism, instead of being a motor of Russian expansionism, had become the motor of the Soviet Union’s disintegration in a process of empire fatigue.
This kind of exhaustion for a system that clearly wasn't effective might have been

the origins of a new Russia- a nation state built on democratic principles instead of imperialist goals. 

Instead of a new Russia, what emerged wasn't much different that what came before it. It operated through the same methods and impulses of the dead Empire. In its willingness to use military power, intimidation, in its drive to subjugate minorities to the will of the majority, and support client states like Syria, in its attempt to control media and eliminate criticism through political assassination and incarceration of all disssent, the new Russia looked and behaved very much like a new Soviet Union. 

In short, Russia had learned nothing whatsoever from the fall.

Stay tuned for Part Two in which we look at how Vladimir Putin hijacked the hope of millions of Russians.