Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#15 - JRL 8395 - JRL Home
From: Robert Bruce Ware (rware@siue.edu)
Subject: Russian Democracy
Date: Mon, 4 Oct 2004

Vlad Sobells discussion of The Kremlin Under Siege (JRL 8393) draws a correct and important conclusion from two faulty premises. His conclusion is that blunt and imbalanced Western criticism of Russian democracy is unlikely to make Russia more democratic. To verify this conclusion one need look no further than the timing of President Putins announcement of electoral alterations on September 13th. The announcement occurred at the height of the storm of sanctimonious, uninformed, and flagrantly indecent criticism that Western officials and writers heaped upon Russian officials in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in Beslan, well before any of the facts could be ascertained. Of course, Mr. Putins announcement reflected, at least in part, a political agenda that preceded Beslan. But the announcement also indicated the Kremlins deep political and strategic insecurities that were driven home by that criticism. And, in fact, Mr. Putins announcement proved successful at least in so far as it had the effect of largely silencing Western criticism of the Beslan affair by shocking Western critics and forcing them to change topics.

In the autumn of 1999, when the current Chechen conflict began, Russia looked to the West for support. Instead it received a two-year thrashing that had everything to do with an obsolete ideology compounded by Western careerism, and remarkably little to do with the reality of the situation in the North Caucasus. The United States paid a price for this on September 11, 2001, when it awoke to the realization that on that particular morning there were worse things in the world than the Soviet Union, which after all had disappeared ten years earlier. Russian officials, and a few Western analysts, had spent years trying to explain that point to Russias Western critics. The unfortunate fact is that since the early 1990s, Russian citizens in the North Caucasus have been facing what American citizens awoke to that morning.

Between September 1999 and September 2001, Western officials and organizations threw away most of their potential capacity to have influenced events in Moscow and the North Caucasus in ways that were balanced, informed, and judicious. Particularly during those years, but also in the years that followed up to the present day, a host of journalists, editorialists, academics, analysts, and nominal statesmen have advanced their careers on the backs of the peoples of that region. Clearly, this has not been a winning strategy for anyone concerned.

So it would seem to have been incomprehensibly obtuse of some of these same individuals to have indulged themselves yet again in their Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government Of the European Union and NATO (JRL 8385). This empty, self-congratulatory gesture cannot possibly accomplish anything apart from the provision of further fodder for Russian hardliners. The relentless folly of this approach renders Mr. Sobells conclusion as timely as it is correct.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sobells argument makes two important errors: First, it describes Russias return to Chechnya in 1999 as a pre-emptive strike" comparable to that of the United States in Iraq. Second, Mr. Sobells analysis overlooks the fact that President Putins electoral alterations are genuinely counterproductive and potentially catastrophic. Contrary to President Putin's claims, the appointment of regional governors will not decrease terrorism in the North Caucasus, but will instead sustain and increase it. I will address these two points in sequence.

First, Russias return to Chechnya five years ago cannot be compared to Americas pre-emptive strike in Iraq. Leaving aside the question of what threat America could possibly have been pre-empting in Iraq, Russias return to Chechnya cannot be described as pre-emptive because Russia had already been twice attacked at that time. In fact, Russia had far better reasons for invading Chechnya than America had for invading Iraq. Russias invasion of Chechnya must rather be compared to Americas invasion of Afghanistan or Japan. Consider the following scenario:

What would happen if there were a sovereign, or semi-sovereign, country to the south of the United States that was kidnapping thousands of American citizens, including men, women, and children of all ages? Suppose that after being kidnapped from their homes in the United States, Americans were transported to this country where some of them were sold into slavery and treated thereafter in the cruelest conceivable manner. Most of the other American hostages were chained in dark holes, sometimes flooded, where they were regularly beaten, sometimes starved, and then tortured and dismembered on videotapes that were subsequently sent to their families in the United States in order to extort exorbitant ransoms. Now suppose that the United States government sent two high level emissaries to this country at different times to negotiate issues, including the kidnapping epidemic, and that both these emissaries were kidnapped. Suppose that nearly every day saw cross-border raids from this country into the United States resulting not only in kidnapping, but in plundering and other property crimes, as well as regular attacks upon American police forces, and, on one occasion, a US military base. Finally, suppose that two thousand gunmen invaded the United States from Al Qaida-supported terrorist training camps in this southern neighbor, murdering dozens and driving more than 30,000 Americans from their homes. Suppose that after all of this the American president asked the ruler of that southern country to extradite the leaders of those invasions and close the international terrorist bases in his country, and suppose the southern leader refused to do so. What would happen?

We all know what would happen. Russia had at least as much justification for going to war with Chechnya in 1999 as the United States had for going to war with Afghanistan in 2001, or with Japan in 1941. If there are any JRL readers who do not yet recognize that the preceding account is exactly what Russian citizens endured from Chechnya from 1997 to 1999 then they might wish to take that up with Western journalistic, academic, and human rights establishments. It is therefore simply unhelpful to suggest that Russias invasion of Chechnya was pre-emptive.

Yet, second, it cannot be denied that President Putins proposal to appoint regional governors is not only anti-democratic, but directly and dangerously counterproductive. Mr. Putin presented these changes as his response to a series of recent terrorist attacks in Russia, including explosions in two passenger planes and a Moscow subway station, and the hostage tragedy in Beslan. Yet, unfortunately, President Putins electoral changes are precisely the wrong response, and are certain to increase terrorism in southern Russia.

The problem is that President Putins changes will further undermine democratic procedures in the North Caucasian republics that run along Russias southern border, to the east and west of Chechnya. His plan to begin appointing the previously-elected provincial governors will further restrict political access and expression; will further shift local political power away from popular control; will augment the regions endemic political corruption; and will thereby multiply local resentment and frustration. These frustrations are already major factors in regional terrorism. Indeed, the coming destabilization of the North Caucasus by the Kremlin's appointment of regional governors has already been foreshadowed by the recent destabilization of Ingushetia that has followed Mr. Putin's undemocratic selection of Murat Zyazikov to replace the relatively popular and effective Ruslan Aushev in 2002.

Throughout the last five years, North Caucasian societies have already seen rapid contractions in the circles of local economic and political elites. These contractions have narrowed both economic access and democratic participation. While this process of elite contraction has local causes, it has also been exacerbated by the recentralization of Russian government that has taken place since the beginning of Putins first term in March 2000. This process of recentralization followed the democratic reforms of the Yeltsin era, which granted sweeping autonomy to provincial leaders. Seeking to restrict this autonomy, Putins program of recentralization has already given Moscow a much greater presence throughout this region. Whereas regional elites were previously bound by their need for a local political base, Moscows expanded influence has increasingly become the basis for their power, and has tended to insulate local elites from local accountability. This has already led to anger and resentment among village leaders and other activists who previously constituted the core of local political bases, but who are now finding their roles to be increasingly redundant.

Historically, democratic traditions were more developed in the North Caucasus than in much of Russia. Hence, there is something deeply corrosive in Moscows support for corrupt North Caucasian leaders who display few virtues beyond their loyalty. In an effort to reduce the spirited proclivities of North Caucasian honor cultures to something more compatible with its own cultural traditions, Moscow tries to construct local hierarchies of power and obedience. These efforts only multiply local frustrations.

These are some of the negative trends that have contributed to recent terrorist acts in Russia. President Putins latest changes are certain to accelerate these trends. As a consequence of these changes, local governments will be even less legitimate than they are now. The new system of central appointments will increase corruption and economic disparities in the provinces. Throughout the region there will be thousands of village leaders, local activists, bureaucrats, and businessmen who are frustrated and resentful about their sudden lack of political access. Some wealthy locals who find that they have less political access will start contributing financially to radical causes simply because they resent the new forms of suppression. More young men will feel humiliated and angry about their lack of economic prospects and their lack of legitimate channels for political expression. Twelve months after gubernatorial appointments begin there will be more terrorist acts than there would have been without these changes, and considerably more than there might have been had Mr. Putin instead moved vigorously to support democratic procedures and economic development in the region.

The North Caucasus is full of young men, who see no prospects other than those afforded by radicalism and senseless violence. After a decade of economic collapse the only growth industries in the region are law enforcement, narco-business, terrorism, and war, each of which is interconnected with the others.

Given his announcement of this plan, the best thing that Mr. Putin could now do is to establish a policy of North Caucasian exceptionalism, allowing for the support of democratic procedures throughout the region, coupled with campaigns that decrease local corruption while increasing economic development. None of this appears likely to occur.

President Putins announcement was partially intended to counter a chorus of claims that terrorism had exposed his weakness. Hence, it will be counterproductive if Russian leaders now perceive themselves as being attacked in statements by Western officials and opinion leaders, since these will likely encourage another hard-line reaction. Yet Putins latest move is folly, and Western officials must be distanced from it. It may be best for Western officials to explain that while Russia is a partner in the struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism, this latest move is directly contrary to the objectives that we share with Russia in that struggle, since it is likely to increase extremism and terrorism in the strategic region of the North Caucasus, and is likely further to jeopardize Russian influence along its southwestern border.