Daiwa Institute of Research Europe Limited
5 November 2004
Putin’s political reforms need not be viewed as anti-democratic
By Vlad Sobell
President Putin’s proposed reforms of Russia’s political system have, predictably, been interpreted as conclusive proof that he is creating an authoritarian system. This note points out that Russia’s transformation is simply too complex and unpredictable to permit any such definitive conclusions.
We argue that the pessimistic conclusive judgement entails the unacceptable price of driving its proponents into a cul-de-sac of closed thinking, which assumes that bona fide democracy can be only what is sanctioned by the West. Since civilisations such as Russia or China must pursue their own path, they will always fail to meet these standards, no matter what they do.
With the dawn of the post-totalitarian era receding, time has come to part with the closed thought of the US-oriented “democratic Rome”, and allow for the possibility of genuine democracy emerging outside its confines.
Question marks over Russia’s direction are again at the forefront
President Putin’s recent proposals to reform Russia’s political system (chiefly the central nomination of regional governors) have once again intensified the debate both in Russia and in the West about the regime’s character and ultimate objectives. On the one hand, the sceptical school has interpreted Putin’s political reforms as the conclusive proof of their view that the president is building an authoritarian polity. As far they are concerned, the argument has been settled. On the other hand, those not subscribing to the sceptical school have generally stuck to their belief that, despite some setbacks, Russia remains on a democratic path. (This broadly echoes the regime’s official line, that far from abandoning democracy, Putin’s reforms constitute its further development).
We point out here that, although appearing unassailable, the sceptical view can actually be accepted only at relatively high intellectual price of embracing some shaky assumptions with decidedly unpalatable ramifications. The weightiest such cost is the cul-de-sac of closed, dogmatic thinking: the sceptical view makes little or no allowance for the possibility that Russia’s evolution may remain on a democratic course, even when the regime’s policies appear to contradict the received wisdom of what constitutes bone fide democratic development.
We also argue that the sceptical school’s characterisation of President Putin as an authoritarian is due chiefly to his refusal in fact inability to follow such a “prescribed path”. If this is so, then the priests of Western democracy will always consider Russia as heathen, because Russia must plough its own furrow.
The perils of closed thinking
The change within Russia is simply too complex to enable anyone and least of all foreigners to make conclusive pronouncements, not merely on its final destination, but even on its current state. There are many reasons why this is so. To start with, Russia is not a compact Central European country such as Hungary or even the much larger Poland. It is a sprawling, continent-wide empire, where Russians live alongside numerous ethnic groups as well as a large Muslim population. It has a distinct Euro-Asian political culture, with unique geo-political dynamics. Russia’s economy remains heavily distorted by the decades of Soviet development.
The re-designing of the Russian Federation along the modern, democratic lines is, therefore, a much more complex and longer-term undertaking than that customarily summarised under the heading of “transition”. It is an historic project comparable to the opening and liberalisation of China or the construction of the European Union. This process not only cannot follow any plans issued in the West; it positively must not follow such instructions. Bona fide democratic and, hence, sustainable, political culture in such self-contained formations can emerge only as a result of internal ferment.
Yet the sceptical school’s implicit point of departure is the mechanical comparison of Russia with established Western democracies or the former communist countries, now generally stable full members of the European Union. Its implicit assumption is that Russia is a “country” rather than a multiethnic empire which, like a discrete planet in a simple Newtonian universe, should be moving towards a clearly defined democratic model. Since Russia’s complexity has made such comfortable, “European” progress impossible, and in fact inadvisable, it is concluded that it must be moving away from democracy.
This kind of dogmatic thinking leaves no room for consideration of other dominant factors shaping Russia’s transformation, such as the need to build an effective state, develop an optimum relationship between Moscow and the provinces and counter terrorist-driven separatism. Since the regime is addressing all these urgent issues, it is automatically seen as authoritarian.
The main charge against the regime, however, is based on “structural” grounds. It is assumed that, since President Putin is a former KGB officer, who has, moreover, surrounded himself with similarly minded, so called siloviki cadres, he must by definition be working towards an authoritarian system.
However, little or no consideration is given to the dramatically changed environment over the last 15 years. In this new environment, the KGB cannot be seen as performing the same function, and pursuing the same objectives, as it did in its earlier life. It would be absurd to believe that an organism genealogically rooted in the KGB will always, and in all circumstances, work in the same style and towards the same aims as the original KGB. But this precisely is one of the assumptions of the sceptical school. It is paradoxical that the sceptical defenders of Russia’s democracy (and, presumably, open society) are in fact stuck in the morass of closed thinking, while being blissfully unaware of it.
It is probably not coincidental that the charge of authoritarianism appeared at the point when the Putin regime ended Russia’s reliance on foreign advisers and when Russia no longer needed the IMF’s financial backing. Could it be that Russia grew “increasingly authoritarian” because it stabilised and started sorting out its affairs independently of Western pronouncements? Indeed, one of the central pillars of the sceptical school is the belief that the golden age of Russia’s democracy culminated under President Yeltsin, when policies were shaped by the IMF, Yeltsin’s Westernised “young reformers” and the rising class of oligarchs.
The situation in Ukraine is instructive
The flaws in the sceptical assessment of Russia can be well illustrated with reference to the topical case of Ukraine. This former Soviet country is currently locked in an electoral struggle between the “official” presidential candidate, PM Viktor Yanukovykh and former PM Viktor Yushchenko. (After an inconclusive first round, the decisive second round will be held on 21st November). Since Mr Yushchenko has campaigned on a ticket of EU/NATO orientation, he is widely seen as a defender of bone fide democracy. Conversely, his opponent, who would continue the current Moscow-oriented course (partly motivated by the EU’s disinterest in Ukraine), is seen as a proponent of essentially undemocratic status quo. Democracy is defined simply as anything subscribing to the EU/NATO (and vice versa).
However, since a major part of Mr Yushchenko’s programme is his promise to end the currently deeply entrenched oligarchic rule in his country, would his living up to his promises place him in the same “authoritarian” company as his Russian counterpart?
Alternatively, should Mr Yanukovykh become president, will he remain a Moscow-oriented “dictator” even if he continues to tolerate the “democratic” oligarchic rule? The coming two years will provide the answers.
The time has come to accept independent democratic evolution
The arguments put forward here do not seek to whitewash phenomena and conduct clearly incompatible with universal democratic norms, which of necessity occur in Russia as they do in mature democracies. The objective is, rather, to caution against the use of simplistic, unsuitable tools and knee-jerk reactions, based on stereotypes and catchy caricatures. Russia is too important to be subjected to such flimsy analytical tools.
Putin’s political reforms may well look like an attack on democracy. But they equally look like a change of gear, following a retreat from what the regime considers as dysfunctional regional elections. Evolution or design is all about trial-and-error, and this is what may well be happening. The idea is that an apparent loss of democracy at one level, will, in the longer run strengthen the democratic prowess of the entire system, as Russia’s integrity becomes stronger. Definitive judgement at this juncture is impossible.
It seems that the prevailing system of judgment relies excessively on the past experience and, hence, is in need of some updating. Since democracy in the major former dictatorships such as Germany and Japan was developed in the wake of US occupation, it tends to be assumed that bona fide democracy cannot evolve, unless it is in some way linked to American (or rather Anglo-Saxon) roots. After the Second World War, the species has spread to the continental Europe and since 1989 it has colonised the former Soviet bloc (albeit also driven by the modified Europeanised version as embodied in the EU). In recent years, a similar process has been evident in the Middle East.
Because large entities such as Russia or China have not been militarily occupied and must, in any case, pursue their own path, they continue to be implicitly viewed with suspicion, no matter what they do. Their evolution is viewed as headed anywhere but genuine democracy, simply because it has not been anointed as democratic by the West. As the dawn of the current post-totalitarian era recedes, time has come to part with the entrenched view that democracy can happen only when orchestrated by its US-centred Rome.