Misperception and Reality

Russia's Future: Deadlock or Competitive Politics (reply to Whitmore)

April 30, 2016


Russia is not the Soviet union.  The regime in Russia has little in common with the Soviet regime. To imply that the process of reforming Russia represents a continuation of attempts to reform the Soviet regime, as Whitmore does, distorts reality beyond recognition.


Failures of reform under the Soviet regime were mostly due to features of that regime which have disappeared: (1) the commando-administrative economic system, (2) the ideological monopoly of truth, including control of all information in public space; (3) the monopoly of power of the Communist Party. All attempts at reform under the Soviet system ran aground when they threatened these pillars of the regime, as all of them inevitably did. All of these regime pillars are gone for good.


Commando-administrative control is gone. Post-Soviet Russia has a market economy that is integrated into the world economy. The monopoly of power of the Communist Party no longer exists. Significant autonomous concentrations of power already exist, and more continue to emerge.  While Communist ideology was an all-pervasive feature of the Soviet regime, post-Soviet Russia lacks any ideology at all. 


Of course, much remains unchanged when regimes change. The people, their culture, traditions, and institutions change only to a limited extent. A substantial part of officialdom stays in place, as do many laws and much of the culture of government and administration. Although foreign relations may change substantially, many state interests remain unchanged. Furthermore, some habits of thinking undeniably carry over. All this was true of Iraq after Saddam and France after the 1789 Revolution, for example. But who would seriously draw parallels between approaches to reform of the old and new regimes in these cases? 


To some extent Whitmore's parallels do hold. Andropovism and Gorbachevism, do represent alternative strategies. However, the statement is nonsense that "three decades after Brezhnev's death, ... The system remains deadlocked with nothing in sight to break the logjam." Whitmore fails to recognize the obvious. Andropov’s and Gorbachev’s attempts at reform failed because they were attempting to reform an unreformable regime. Gorbachev succeeded in breaking the logjam by undermining the foundations of that unreformable regime. The superficially similar strategies of Putin and Medvedev may also fail but, if they do, it will be for entirely different reasons. 


The most likely outcome of crystallization of such alternative approaches to governance and reform in Russia is precisely the opposite of what Whitmore suggests.  There are Andropov-like approaches and Gorbachev-like approaches in all democratic countries, that is, hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, hardliners and moderates.  In a situation of competitive politics, such different approaches are incorporated into political programs that are debated, and the results of these debates reflected in victories and defeats at the ballot box. 


Rather than deadlock, perhaps it is the emergence of competitive politics that is in store for Russia. 

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