Misperception and Reality

Political decompression and Russia's emerging public

September 24, 2014

Russia's leaders have long recognized a need for competitive politics.  They tried twice, in 1995 and in 2006, to create a two-party system from above. Most observers among those who even took note of these attempts ridiculed them. Both times, they stressed that the parties created from above were "pro-Kremlin," so the attempt to create a two-party system could not be serious.  


Such observers failed, and still fail to recognize that there are powerful reasons why the Kremlin needs competitive politics. They smugly assumed that  all talk of competitive politics was shear hypocrisy.  “If Putin really wanted competitive politics,” they would say, “why does he persecute the Opposition?”  Quite apart from the issue of whether Putin is actually persecuting anyone, they do not understand that the so-called Russian "Opposition" has little to do with the kind of opposition  found in developed democracies.  The Opposition in Canada and Great Britain are called "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition."  They criticize the Government and its policies, and put forward alternative leaders and policies.  Yet, they always remain "pro-Kremlin," that is, "pro-Queen," never questioning the fundamentals of the regime.


The so-called Opposition in Russia follows in a very different tradition.   "Get rid of Tsar Putin" and everything will be fine, so they seem to believe.  Even taking into account election fraud, and other manipulation, those who call themselves the "Democratic Opposition" enjoy little popular support, yet they somehow still see themselves as the true voice of The People. 


It is difficult to imagine this Russian Opposition participating in round tables like those in which the leaderships of several East European Communist regimes negotiated transition to democracy with their oppositions.  In a recent interview, the leader of the Solidarity movement in Poland, Lech Walensa said "They [the Communists] tried to outsmart us, and we tried to outsmart them." It is difficult to image the Russian Opposition thinking this way.  The habit of the Russian intelligentsia of regarding any dialogue with the wielders of state power as immoral and futile is among the most important reasons why the familiar pattern of Government and Opposition has not as yet emerged in Russia. 


What Putin said to the demonstrators on Bolotny Ploshchad in December 2011 is revealing.  Where were their leaders, he asked? With whom could the leadership of the Russian state, negotiate?  Where were the their proposed alternative policies? When asked if he would formally join the opposition, former Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, replied, "right now there is no need to join Bolotnaya – there is nothing there to join.”  It is understandable why Putin would like to see an Opposition different from the one Russia currently has. Opposition of the kind that now exists in Russia is typically found only on the margins of the political process in democratically-governed states. Putin appears to want an Opposition like Her Majesty's.


The results of the 1995 and 2006 attempts to create a two-party system taught Putin and his associates that genuine political parties cannot be created from above.  Real political parties need to reflect the kind of genuine polarization of the electorate which can be observed in mature democracies, and which has so far been missing in Russia.  The electorate needs to be confronted with real alternatives and to learn to struggle politically in a civilized manner.  This lack of polarization has been largely due to the absence of attitudes, habits and political skills among the electorate, which are indispensible to the functioning of liberal democratic regimes.   


Another reason why no Opposition like Her Majesty's has yet emerged is that the Russians and other peoples of the former Soviet Republics are not yet fully accustomed to being citizens in the true sense of the word. Citizenship implies a "Civic Culture"--a political culture in which citizens regard the state as their property and their responsibility.  The Russian state developed as an imperial autocracy, a tradition continued by the Soviet regime.  The peoples of the former Soviet Union, with the partial exception of the Baltic states, have not yet fully developed the attitudes and habits implicit in a Civic Culture.  


This has begun to change.  In recent years, a Civic Culture has begun to develop in Russia at an accelerating pace. There is no reason why a Russian version of liberal democracy should not eventually emerge, but this cannot happen overnight.   Political forces have been crystallizing, real public issues have begun to capture the attention of significant parts of the Russian public, credible leaders have started to appear on the political scene. The leadership of the Russian state is fully aware of this, and has been striving to manage this process of gradual decompression.  


The new Putin, unlike the earlier Putin, no longer tries to please everyone, either at home or in the international arena.  He has transformed himself into a polarizer.  He sometimes even goes out of his way to provoke and alienate.  Since returning to the Presidency, Putin has been leaning towards typical moderate-conservative positions and style.  He has even begun to call himself a conservative.  He appears to be striving to mobilize Russia’s Great Silent Majority, to borrow a term coined by President Richard Nixon to describe his support base during the Watergate scandal. Eventually, part of the Russian public will no doubt begin to crystallize around alternative, more liberal leaders and policies.  


Ironically, many of the rather harsh laws recently adopted by the Duma, which are widely regarded as rolling back democracy, have actually been making Russia more democratic.  They appeal to significant segments of the Russian electorate, which had previously not been engaged by political processes.  Like it or not, many Russian citizens approve of the punishment imposed on the Pussy Riot women.  Many Russians are suspicious of foreign influence.  Many proudly see Russia as a Great Power, many are anti-gay, and many are hostile to immigration.  Such views are not peculiar to Russians, they can also be found in established democracies, including the United States.  In the U.S., the political center of gravity tends to be more liberal than it is in Russia, but not all that much more liberal. 


Russians, along with the peoples of the other post-Soviet republics, have begun to find their political voice.  A genuine, live Russian public has finally begun to emerge, and Putin has been striving to mobilize its moderate right wing.  Although this should be obvious by now, it never seems to cross the minds of many observers that Russia’s leaders may regard the emerging public as a positive development. 


It should be clear by now that Putin and other Russian leaders have beеn striving to stimulate, facilitate, and channel political decompression, all the while taking care that it does not go out of control.  Anti-corruption blogger, Aleksei Navalny, may even be part of the Kremlin's decompression strategy.  He may be fulfilling  a function like that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, tasked by the KGB in the early stages the Soviet collapse, to organize far right forces into a political party before these forces could produce their own leader.  The pardoning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky may conceivably be aimed at floating a new moderate, business-liberal type candidate for political leadership, who is definitely not perceived as being in Putin's pocket.  


If the situation does go out of control, a possibility that cannot be categorically ruled out, there may well be yet another Russian tragedy. However, if ongoing developments continue at a moderate, controlled pace, if the country remains unified and stable, there may be grounds for optimism regarding Russia's future. 

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