Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Czar Vladimir: How Putin Wasted Russia's Best Chance for a Liberal Democracy 2 / 3

by Nomad

In Part One of this three-part series, we examined how the fall of the Soviet Union should have provided Russia with its best hope for liberal democracy.

In this part, we will look at how Vladimir Putin's autocratic tendencies and hi use of Russian nationalism was a wrong turn for the nation.

Stability, Nostalgia and Nationalism

In some sense, it was inevitable that Putin would make use of Russian nationalism to unify Russia. In the end, there are only two responses when you lose your empire: Acceptance or something else. 

The "something else" in the Russian case was not gradual acquiescence and recognition that a new way of thinking had to emerge. What happened was a defensive surge in Russian nationalism, a return to stabilizing traditions and conservative values.  After years that threatened to tear the nation apart, Russian citizens yearned for stability and something in return for lost prestige. 
This reaction coincided with the rise of Vladimir Putin who promised security and stability. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev credited Putin with having "pulled Russia out of chaos." 
That's probably not inaccurate. It was, however, a stability required some sacrfices when it came to civil liberties, transparency and human rights.

In his book, Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism, Marcel H. Van Herpen observes: 
It resulted in nostalgia for lost greatness mixed with revanchism [a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory.] and hatred of the “enemies” who had brought the Soviet Union down.
Domestically, the results were even worse for any aspiration for a liberal, democratic Russia.
Putin was not only the providential man, welcomed as the leader who would “restore order” in the second cycle of Russia’s anti-communist revolution, he was also a lucky man, because of the huge rise in export prices of oil and gas that coincided with his first two presidencies.
According to Van Harpen, the Russian population ascribed this newfound prosperity not to the faintest trickling down from enormous wealth amassed by the Russian oligarchal class. It was not attributed to the sudden freeing up of the economy, and the generous loans from the West, the influx of Western investment.

Credit for the successful rebirth of Russia was placed on the president, President Putin "who, while not deserving their praise, was quite eager to accept it." 
Popularity allowed him to cement his hold on power to a degree that rivaled the czars of Russian history.

Revising the Definition of Democracy

Putin's concept of democracy was warped by his adherence to the idea that might makes right or to update it a bit, muscle beats hustle. As far as he was concerned, democracy was a very very lofty goal and the Russian people wouldn't appreciate or recognize it anyway.

Intellectual rationalization (no matter how absurd)  required the invention of new terms such as  “sovereign” democracy. (Russian: суверенная демократия, suverennaya demokratiya)
This concept, forged by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former deputy head of the presidential administration, means that “democracy” is no longer a universal concept, the reality of which can be measured by applying universal criteria that are valid in different countries. On the contrary, “sovereign” democracy means that Russia (i.e., the leadership) itself can determine whether its system fulfills the democratic criteria. The regime is, therefore, immune against criticism from international organizations, foreign governments, or human rights organizations.
In other words, democracy could be whatever the ruling party decided it to be. In this way, Russian democracy was taken out of the hands of the people, transformed into a "top-down" system. 

In 2006, two years before he became Putin's right-hand man, present-day Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev thought the term was silly. He said in an interview with Expert Magazine:
"If you take the word 'democracy' and start attaching qualifiers to it that would seem a little odd. It would lead one to think that we're talking about some other, non-traditional type of democracy."
The use of the term was initially used as a defense against Western criticism, as if to say, we interpret democracy in a different way than the rest of the world. In the minds of Putin and his apologists, Russian tradition allowed a rejection of the universal definition standard for democracy. if we repress our minorities, it is because we believe in a majoritarian style of democracy.
In that view, the majority opinion has a right to repress any minority that falls out of line.

Accordingly, human rights in Russia has declined. In its country-by-country report, the independent non-profit Stockholm-based organization, Civil Rights Defenders notes that reductions of civil liberties were systematically implemented by the government (rather than from rouge groups or from "bad apple" police).
Since 2000 the human rights situation worsened in Russia and has greatly deteriorated since Putin was reinstalled as President of Russia in 2012. State repression over the past few years became more sophisticated as legislation was adopted to discredit and/or attack human rights defenders. New laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association have been introduced since Putin’s re-election.
In addition to repressive legislation, there are other worrying signs that human rights in Russia is a very arbitrary issue.

In just one example, Human Rights Watch examined how law enforcement turns a blind eye on homophobic attacks, including reports of beatings, abductions and public attacks. As one researcher for the organization notes:
"Russian law enforcement agencies have the tools to prosecute homophobic violence, but they lack the will to do so."
Allowing the criminal assaults on minorities may serve Putin's scapegoat policies, but it certainly runs against the spirit of the Russian constitution. The jurisdiction of the Russian Federation shall include  the "regulation and protection of the rights and liberties of the human being and citizen." 
Article 19 states:
  1. All people shall be equal before the law and in the court of law.
  2. The state shall guarantee the equality of rights and liberties regardless of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, property or employment status, residence, attitude to religion, convictions, membership of public associations or any other circumstance. Any restrictions of the rights of citizens on social, racial, national, linguistic or religious grounds shall be forbidden.
  3. Man and woman shall have equal rights and liberties and equal opportunities for their pursuit.
The Constitution clearly makes no distinction according to religion or sexual orientation. Vladimir Putin and his rubber-stamp party United Russia have alone taken this step. 

In July 2013, The Christian Science Monitor reported:
Russian police in St. Petersburg on Saturday arrested dozens of LGBT protesters and a handful of the more than 100 nationalist counter-protesters who'd gathered to pelt the heavily outnumbered gay pride rally with rocks, eggs, and homophobic taunts.
Immediately new legislation was drafted, approved by the Duma and signed by Putin effectively giving legal sanction for anti-gay nationalist demonstrators.

Critics in the West claimed that this was just another example of how Putin was attempting to undermine the ambitions of a secular, pluralistic democracy as outlined in Russia's 1993 Constitution. 
His supporters claim that Putin was simply acting as a defender of the traditional identity and sensibilities of a majority that feels itself under threat from what it sees as attacks by "aggressive minorities."

Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University in Moscow and an adviser to President Putin, argued that it was all a matter of semantics. Democracy is... well, just different in Russia.
"In the West there are elaborate protections for minorities, whereas in Russia the protection of the majority is the priority. It's still democracy. Every country may choose between liberal democracy and majoritarian democracy. In Russia we tried to follow the liberal model in the 1990s, but it was disastrous. Russia found itself at the mercy of aggressive minorities, who robbed the country and undermined the position of the majority. Now the trend is that minorities must subordinate themselves to the interests of the majority,"  
Ideas like that provide a comforting sense of acceptability for Putin's apologists. 
But only if they ignore the fact that Adolf Hitler could easily have made the same claim in his treatment of Jews. In fact, he actually used the same excuses. 
In attempting to justify the Nuremberg legislation of September 1935. the German leader said:
This legislation is not anti-Jewish, but pro-German.The rights of Germans are thereby to be protected against destructive Jewish influences.
… the Jews who formed less than one per cent. of the population tried to monopolize the cultural leadership of the people and flooded the intellectual professions, such as, for example, jurisprudence and medicine. The influence of this intellectual Jewish class in Germany had everywhere a disintegrating effect .
A comparison between Hitler and Putin is a stretch of the imagination and undoubtedly an exaggeration. However, it does imply on thing: a failure to learn the lessons of history.
There were very few examples of a minority actually destroying a nation (outside of the 1% perhaps) but there are many historical examples in which the mob rule persecuted minorities. 

Perhaps Putin wasn't particularly interested in the lessons of history. He was much more enthralled by the prospect of empire-building.

Putin's Empire

While building that empire, Putin has not tolerated much criticism. With his party in control of the Russian parliament, Putin has been able to maintain a firm grasp on power. 

First step is to limit the choices in the election. Last summer, members of a Russian opposition party were disqualified from running in local elections and subsequently jailed. An outspoken critic of Putin, Alexei Navalny was arrested for election fraud. He claimed that the Russian government fabricated evidence of fraud in order to eliminate competition.
After calling Putin's party, "the party of crooks and thieves" ("партия жуликов и воров"), he is perhaps lucky to be alive. 

Recently, a list of people who opposed Putin and who subsequently died under mysterious circumstances was published.

That list included a former deputy prime minister was gunned down in central Moscow while walking home from a restaurant with his girlfriend, a journalist and prominent critic of Mr. Putin, was gunned down at her Moscow apartment block on 7 October 2006, the president's birthday and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist, Anastasia Baburova both shot down in broad daylight.

Second step is to control the message by limiting the information the public receives.
When it comes to investigative journalism, according to the international watchdog Freedom House. Russia currently ranks 180 out of 199 countries for press freedom, behind Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 
Politifact adds:
Combining data from two nonprofits that records violations of press rights (the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation), we found that at least 34 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000.
(This tally only includes deaths confirmed or likely to be work-related homicides committed in Russia. It doesn’t include murders where the motives are unclear, or journalists killed in war and on other dangerous assignments, like covering the mob or riots.)
Again, the Russian constitution  is supposed to provide for free speech and a free press. Under Putin, however, those written protection have come to mean nothing. Frredom House reports:
Politicians and government officials frequently use the country’s politicized and corrupt court system to harass the few remaining independent journalists who criticize widespread abuses by the authorities.
Admittedly there's no evidence directly connecting Putin with any of these crimes. On the other hand, with all of the lack of transparency- a prerequiste for accountability-why would there be any incriminating evidence?

The message to the Russian population was simple and effectively presented.
Particular lines should not be crossed.

Ask the wrong questions, or become too vocal and you will be met with a forceful reply. 

Saints Come Marching In

Apart from outright assassination, there were other signs that things in Russia were moving in retrograde, provided you looked carefully.
For example, the unprecedented transparency that existed following the collapse of the Soviet Union was withdrawn by the authorities. The archives of the KGB- Putin's former employers- were summarily closed.

Van Herpen cites the "rehabilitation of Stalin and the minimization of his massacres, purges, executions, and genocides."  
Revision of some of the Soviet Union's (as well as czarist Russia's) darkest days prepare the public mind to accept what should never be excused.
The great autocratic and imperialist tsars, especially Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, and Alexander III, were rehabilitated and reestablished in their full glory. In September 2000, tsar Nicholas II was canonized and became an official Orthodox saint.
This new saint Nicholas II was, in fact, hardly a saint, according to the history books. The czar had ordered his troops to fire on peaceful demonstrators on a number of occasions.

In 1902, the Czar's appointment of Vyacheslav Plehve as his Minister of the Interior gave official approval for Anti-semitic policies, including the establishment of pogroms, discriminatory legislation against Jews. In 1903, he was accused of being responsible for anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, two days of mob violence that shocked the world.

Nicholas reportedly supported and was a member of a group known as "The Black Hundreds."

This ultra-nationalist organization known for their extremist Russocentric doctrines, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and incitement to Jewish pogroms.
It seems fitting therefore that Putin should think of such a person as a saint. 

As in the times of the czar, Russian Orthodoxy has regained its former status of semistate ideology,  In contrast to the Soviet days which professed atheism as an ideal for any civilized society, Putin's power structure has made good use of the Russian Orthodox Church to solidify its hold, and to dictate its own social mores. 

For the conservative Russian nationalist, it amounts to a rejection of what they see as the extremes of Western values, such as respect for minority rights, freedom of dissent, freedom of travel, and gender equality.

In addition, since the start of the war in Ukraine,  the Orthodox Church has played a key role in the Russian propaganda campaign.
With all these policy changes, President Putin seems to be stressing one message to his people. Not only was living under an autocrat, according to Putin, acceptable, it was suddenly both a national tradition and source of pride. 

Putin's National Religion: A Pandora's Box

Since the end of the Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Church has aligned itself closely with the Russian government and especially the nationalist strategies of Vladimir Putin. 

Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has in speeches has made it clear that he considers the Church and the Russia one and the same.
One source explains:
Following a long Russian Orthodox tradition, 
[Patriarch Kirill of Moscow] likes to contrast Russia with secular Western nations. In Belgrade in November 2014, the patriarch argued that Western nations had “abandoned their Christian identity.” He identified both liberal democracy and secularism as enemies of Orthodoxy and envisioned a “clash of civilization” in which Russian Orthodox values stood against those of the secular West.
That's a message with Putin’s stamp of approval all over it. His close coordination with the Orthodox Church should be recognized as an example of cynical power politics.
Forbes observed that this relationship "has been a key factor shaping the increasingly authoritarian bent of the Russian government under Putin, and strengthening his public support, and must be understood in order to understand Russia’s international behavior."

Mixing religion and politics is always a gamble that can lead to a plethora of social problems.

One of the problems with Putin's utilization of the Orthodox Church (and nationalism in general) is that it has opened the doors for radical extremists which the Russian leader may not welcome. Still worse, Putin's support for the Orthodox Church has effectively tied his hands when dealing with such radical extremists who also claim the Orthodox mantle.
*   *   *
There's nothing very original about people who use religion to preach non-religious views. The US has more than enough examples. Still, when this phenomenon arises in a formerly atheist Communist country, it does come as a bit of a shock. 

Take this extreme example. 
The white-bearded leader of Russia’s ultra-conservative Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers movement, Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich, might look like Santa Claus, but Father Christmas he isn't. The Banner Bearers has been described as "a cross between the “Grateful Dead and the Ku Klux Klan.”
He is quoted as saying:
"We have declared a new holy inquisition that will fight all villains who oppose Christ, sacred symbols and the Orthodox Church."
To be sure, Nikshich presents a minority even among the nationalist movement. Yet his mix of radical nationalism and religious should have given pause to Putin. 
“I am against immigration. And I am against the idea of tolerance and political correctness – the Bible makes no mention of tolerance.”
There's a lot of irony in that quote and says so much about the Russian ability to rationalize any position, contrary both to the facts and logic.

Firstly, the Bible is filled with verses about tolerance. It's one of the fundamental principles of the faith (even though it is often ignored in practice.) These verses should provide enough proof.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45)
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
(Matthew 7:12)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Another irony of the remark is that if, as Nikshich claims, there's not mandate for tolerance, then where the distinction between Christianity and any other religion? Sadly, the misrepresentation of the faith and the perversion of Scripture as an excuse for intolerance seems to be a universal feature of all religions. The Russian church has implicitly repudiated any support or any connection with the group.  

Like Putin, such extreme nationalist groups believe that Western liberalism is corrupting Russia’s “traditional values." The problem is that nationalism coupled with largely-imaginary religious and traditional values could tear the nation apart. 
There's a very good reason too.

Russian Nationalism's Weakest Link

Russia's Muslim population is the demographic equivalent to the African-American population in the US. At roughly 13.2% of the population.African Americans are the largest racial minority in the US. In Russia, the percentages are in the same ballpark.
There are about 20 million indigenous Muslims living in the Russian Federation where the total population is over 140 million (about 15 percent of the total population). 
Russia's capital, Moscow is home to at least 1.5 million Muslims, more than any other European city where the local population is not predominantly Muslim.
Unlike other Muslim minorities in Europe, Russian Muslims are not foreign immigrants. They are native citizens of the country in which they live in.
In theory, they have the same rights as any other citizen. At least, that would be true in a liberal democracy. In a majoritarian democracy, there's no actual guarantee that other religions cannot be suppressed by the majority or by decree. 

In fact, Article 28 of the Russian Constitution makes no mention of a state religion. It only states the freedom to worship (or not) according to one's conscience. However, in the law passed in 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church was deemed a part of Russia's "historical heritage" giving it a higher status than any other religion.
(As most human rights groups will tell you, the Constitution has, under Putin, become a rather bitter joke for Russians who believed liberty was possible after the Soviet era.)

Any attempt at creating a national religion (as well as a majoritarian style government) is fraught with the risks of destabilization and all that comes with religious clashes. For Putin to push Russian Orthodoxy over other religions is playing with fire. 

In June 2013, police in Moscow interrupted Muslim prayer services at local mosques and detained 300 Muslims, including 170 foreigners, without disclosing reasons behind their arrest. These mass sweeps which involved the arrest of hundreds was part of a larger effort by Putin to curb radical Muslim extremism in his country.
Without blinking an eye, Putin told senior security officers two days earlier:
"The fight against corruption, crime and insurgency has to be carried out harshly and consistently ... We must fight back hard against extremists who, under the banners of radicalism, nationalism and separatism, are trying to split our society."
Amazingly, not one person in the audience laughed at the irony of that statement.

In the final part of this series, we shall take a closer look at the effects of Putin's policies on Russia. In some ways, Putin's critics could claim,  the Russian people are now worse off than they were during the Soviet times.