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#6 - JRL 2006-167 - JRL Home
From: Vlad Ivanenko <ivanenko60@yahoo.com>
Subject: JRL 165-9: Russo-phobia or Kremlin-phobia?
Date: Mon, 24 Jul 2006

Vedomosti's article (see JRL 165-9) astutely commented that Western Russo-phobia should be seen as Kremlin-phobia or even Putin-phobia, and further were Russia to be politically weak, the West would not fear Russia, and at worst, would treat it with minor contempt, not fear and rejection. The article stopped short of the question, why is the West fearful of Russia?

For starters, residents of competing countries often fear one another but they seem to view some countries be less frightening than others. For example, the US and France may have more points of conflict than does the Russo-American relationship but Americans are less likely to see the French as adversaries. Why, then, is the Kremlin more feared in the US than the Élysée Palace?

The answer appears to be locked in subconscious distinctions that Americans make between the two. France is an American competitor in business and world politics; however, is considered a part of the West both culturally and historically. Russia may be a partner in certain business deals and have congruent political interests, but it definitely is not a part of Western culture. When asked why Russia is not seen as in the west, the most common answer is "lack of democracy."

Obviously, western perception of Russia's belonging to the group is wholly dependent on the West's seal of approval regarding the former’s democracy. But like a weathercock, America's perceptions of democracy shift rapidly depending new alliances or politics inside the Beltway. Since the issues surrounding democracy-building figures prominently for the Kremlin-phobes, it is critical to focus on how the concept of democracy is related to Russia's reality.

Democracy is a method of public governance that is supposedly superior to alternative forms of governance. However, all important is the balance between constructive and destructive forces unleashed by public choice. Not at all understood in the west, is the destructive power of unleashing democratic processes within a populace unfamiliar with and unprepared for self governance. Russians remember with horror the 1990s when freedom bordered on anarchy and no one knew what to do with it, including President Yeltsin. Hence, political stability to Russians in the 2000s is a welcome respite after that decade of chaos even though they, all to well, understand that too much control can be greatly problematic.

It is mature, consolidated democracies that can allow social fine-tuning of which no authoritarian ruler can even dream. When left to their own senses, in peace and security, citizens understand and better address social needs than hierarchical structures. But for this condition, the society has to possess a stability that keeps it's body politic together. At which point, citizens are capable of tweaking issues to further refine their democracy.

In unconsolidated, developing democracies, where citizens are politically immature, the benefits of social activism must be weighed against the costs of social breakdown as occurred in the 1990s across Russia. One peculiar feature, detectable in discussions with Russians, is that many believe the 1990s' disorder and chaos was foreign in origin. The whole concept of Putin's sovereign democracy, coined by Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov, places emphasis on preventing in-country perturbations initiated by foreign governments. Apparently, the Kremlin does not think that local disagreements will flare independently without foreign influence.

The west gives some grounds for such belief. For example, Russian sources publicize (see, e.g. http://www.compromat.ru/main/kasianov/olbrait.htm) that the National Democratic Institute advises Russian NGOs to blame the Kremlin for every flaw in Russia even when local authorities are really responsible. This approach is likely to be counter-productive. Mimicry is widespread among the humans and many offended executives or bureaucrats – however corrupt or inefficient – are likely to portray themselves as “true patriots” smeared on “foreign orders”. Thus, to progress within the framework of “sovereign democracy”, civic activists may need to avoid being closely associated with foreign interests.

Much is still amiss in Russia's evolution toward democracy. It helps little to unbalance the Kremlin when the key problem with democracy lies in the electorate's weak understanding of its role in a democracy and free society. the west will need to accept that Putin isn't fully democratic and may never be; but he is an effective, pragmatic leader. If democracy delivers on his top priorities for Russia, i.e., economic might and global political acceptance, he will gladly pursue democracy.

Vlad Ivanenko, PhD economics
consultant, Ottawa.