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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Why Putin failed and the Russian democrats may too: The Sources and Risks of Russia’s White Revolution

Russian imperial nationalism and anti-Westernism has been a distraction for Putin & Co who did not see the crisis of their regime coming. It may also, however, subvert the currently growing pro-democratic protest movement in Moscow and beyond.
29 December, 2011 - 00:00

It is yet unclear what the exact outcome of the current upheaval in Moscow will eventually be. Yet, it seems already obvious that Russian politics will change substantially, in 2012. To be sure, whether Russia indeed becomes more democratic and free as a result of the growing protests remains open. Nonetheless, speaking of an – at least, attempted – Color Revolution is already justified. To be sure, neither will Russia’s possible White Revolution become a real revolution, nor were the other Color Revolutions fully fledged revolutionary upheavals. Yet, we have now, in Russia, the typical pattern of mass protests after a falsified election that partly delegitimizes the incumbent leadership – a sequence similar to, though not (yet) identical with, what we observed in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgysztan in 2005 – as well as, perhaps, the Arab world, more recently. Why is the Putin system which looked stable as recently as a year ago currently failing? And what are the risks for the re-emerging democratic movement in Russia?

Arguably, Putin made – within the logic of his own system that could have survived longer – one major strategic and one crucial tactical mistake. Strategically, Putin’s preeminent failure was that his “vertical of power” did not fulfill one of its major purposes: to end or, at least, limit corruption in post-Soviet Russia. Instead, of producing a modernizing authoritarianism along the lines of post-war South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore, Putin’s rule deepened rather than erased certain pathologies of late Soviet and early post-Soviet society. Above all, it did not reduce the massive bribe-taking and -giving that goes on in all spheres of Russian public life. Corruption seems to have become even a major problem for the security organs that grew out of the KGB, from where Putin once came. It has thoroughly discredited the entire rationale of Putin’s contract with society: Instead of trading political freedom for effective governance, the “national leader” took away Russians’ civil and political rights without, however, delivering what he had promised, in exchange. It is no accident that one of the leaders of the current protest movement, the nationalist Alexei Navalnyi, made himself initially a name by blogging about prominent corruption cases in Russia’s elite.

The major tactical blunder of Putin was that he refused to comprehend the reasons and nature of the post-Soviet Color Revolutions, above all of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Or he drew the wrong lessons from it. Putin and Co. should have been alerted by how quickly and easily Kuchma’s semi-authoritarianism was, in 2004, brought down by the citizens of “Little Russia,” as Ukraine is often labeled in “Great Russia.” One suspects that the reason for Putin’s obvious misunderstanding of the Orange Revolution as a CIA plot had much to do with his own and his “political technologists’s” massive personal and financial investment in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections. It was a result of their manifest failure to prevent the rise to power Kyiv’s pro-Western elite, as well as of a re-democratization of Ukraine. The neo-Soviet Russian leadership – like the Soviet one before – fell into the trap of believing its own propaganda. Once the idea of a major role of the West and particularly the United States in the Ukraine’s mass action of civil disobedience was entered by Putin and his leading ideologist into Russian political discourse, the idea took a life of itself. Since then, it has been widely popularized and creatively elaborated upon by Russia’s numerous conspiracy theorists, political sensationalists and ultra-nationalist publicists. As a result, the Russian journalist and academic analysis of the social foundations and political pre-conditions of the post-Soviet world’s various electoral upheavals has been lastingly poisoned. Instead of opening Russia’s political system and softening his authoritarian rule, Putin “modernized” his autocracy in the opposite direction. In the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution in 2005, a whole array of new institutions, organizations, and concepts were introduced in Russia that partly reminded of propaganda instruments of totalitarian regimes. These innovations included various youth organizations such as “Nashi” (Ours), the Young Guard of United Russia, Eurasian Youth Union, “Molodaia Rossiia” (Young Russia), or “Mestnye” (The Locals), and new TV stations like English-language “Russia Today,” Orthodox “Spas” (Saviour) or military “Zvezda” (The Star) cable channels. It also included the so-called Public Chamber as a transmission belt between the Russian authoritarian state and semi-autonomous intellectual elite, or the Day of Unity holiday on November 4th quickly hijacked by Russia’s extreme nationalists and their “Russian Marches.” It is remarkable that all of these and some other new initiatives took effect in 2005, i.e. in the year that followed the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Most prominently, Putin’s chief behind-the-scenes schemer Vladislav Surkov introduced in spring 2005 the concept of “sovereign democracy” which became the ideological centerpiece of the Putin regime’s world view, and purported that Russian political stability is threatened by foreign rather than domestic factors. Much of Putin’s and his collaborators’ post-Orange rhetoric consisted of anti-Western hysteria, imperial megalomania, neo-Soviet conservatism, as well as more nationalist jingoism.

Not only did Putin and Co. let distract themselves by their own propaganda. They also “oversaw” that the idea of democracy is surely weak, but not entirely without roots in Russia. The Russian democratic tradition goes back at least as far as December 1825 when a group of Russian aristocrats who became known as the Decembrists had unsuccessfully tried to end Russian autocracy. This democratic tradition was, in the 19th century and early 20th century, continued by the Westernizers and Slavophiles, social revolutionaries, social democrats (“Mensheviki”), as well as constitutional democrats of the declining Tsarist regime. During Soviet rule, the Men of the Sixties within the Soviet intellectual elite, the anti-Soviet human rights activists of the 1970s, and so-called “informals” of the glasnost-induced Soviet civic movement of the late 1980s helped to prepare Russia’s democratization resulting, around 1990, from Gorbachev’s perestroika. Most of the older activists of the current protest movement were either themselves members or have been inspired by the ideas, spirit and activities of this earlier generation of the late Soviet and early post-Soviet democrats. Symbolically, the 24 December 2011 demonstration took place on a Moscow street named Andrei Sakharov, Russia’s most prominent human rights activist who, shortly before his death, played some role in bringing down the Soviet system in 1989-1990. While the historical rootedness of the current protests may look encouraging, the actual history of the Russian democratic movement, however, is not. Whether in 1825, 1905-1918 or 1991-1999 – all of Russia’s democratization attempts failed miserably, in the end. The current re-democratization drive too may become victim to factors similar to those which subverted Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s experimentation with political pluralism: disunity among the liberals, anti-Western paranoia, and imperial nationalism.

First, today, as in the early 1990s, Russia’s democratic movement may turn out to have too many rather than too few charismatic leaders. A possible strategy of the ancien regime for the upcoming presidential elections may be to register several pro-liberal candidates who would split the liberal vote among themselves. This would, as in many previous federal-level elections in Russia, ensure that the most serious alternative to the Putin and his “United Russia” party may again become the communists, i.e. as previous presidential elections, Communist Party chairman Gennady Zyuganov. One could, for instance, imagine a situation, in which Putin will have to stand in a second round facing Zyuganov who may have gotten less votes in the first round than the sum of the votes for liberal or semi-liberal candidates taken together. Whether this will happen or not, one fears that – as in 1917 or the 1990s – Russia’s democratic movement will again become victim to its disunity, and the personal ambitions of its leaders.

Second, paranoia with regard to the West may again undermine Russian democratization. NATO’s expansion to the East as well as bombing of Serbia were factors that weakened the pro-Western Russian liberals who, in considerable numbers, turned themselves against the West, in the late 1990s. What was overseen at this time was that the major driving force for NATO expansion was less Amercian eagerness to include into NATO, for instance, the Baltic states than these countries’ pressure on the West to become parts of the Atlantic alliance. In August 2008, Russia demonstrated in Georgia vividly what exactly the Baltic countries had been afraid off, and why they had been so insistent to become part of the Western defense community. Without NATO enlargement, we might have gotten by today not only a pseudo-state called Republic of South Ossetia, but perhaps also “The Free City of Narva.”

Russian hysteria about NATO’s bombardment of Serbia was in 1999 already strange as the air raids were, to significant degree, carried out by German, French and Italian war planes, i.e. done by countries with which Russia was trying to build special relationships, at the same time. The whole episode looks bizarre today: Serbia has now for months been knocking loudly at the doors of the European Union, demanding entry, although several member countries of the Union had been bombing Serbian military targets, some 12 years ago.

Anti-Westernism, in particular anti-Americanism, is still a major current in the Russian collective psyche, in particular in (semi-)intellectual discourse. It was a major source of legitimacy for pre-revolutionary Tsarism, Soviet communism, and neo-Soviet Putinism. Post-Soviet fear of a possible Western subversion of Russian identity and sovereignty will most probably be used by both the official nationalists in the ancien regime and extra-parliamentary ultra-nationalist groups to attack the liberal movement and question its patriotism. We may soon observe that anti-Westernism becomes the basis for a rapprochement between Russia’s authoritarian state and “uncivil society,” meaning the multitude of semi-political Russian grouping and grouplets that are impregnated with, or propagate openly, racist, xenophobic, fundamentalist, occultist, differentialist, ethnocentric, or/and similar ideas.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Russia’s imperial temptation could become a major challenge to the new Russian democratization. Will the December 2011 protesters of the White Revolution fully accept the independence and sovereignty of the former Soviet republics, above all of Ukraine and Belarus? The historical namesakes of Russia’s today would-be revolutionaries, the Decembrists of 1825 as well as the Whites of 1918-1922 did not. The historical Whites, for instance, remained mostly staunchly imperial nationalists. They insisted, during their Civil War against the Bolsheviks, that Russia should be “united and undivided.” By that, the Whites meant that the national minorities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia would not gain independence, but continue to belong to the Russian empire. A popular saying in Ukraine since then has been that “Russian democracy ends where Ukraine’s independence begins.” Will Russia’s new revolutionaries resist the imperial temptation, focus on their own country, and let the other post-Soviet nations go? Will democratic leadership manage to prevent ultra-nationalists form hijacking the current protest movement, and from leading the upheaval ad absurdum?

Russia’s old elites before and after the October Revolution, the CPSU apparatchiks of the Soviet stagnation period of the 1970s-1980s, and Putin’s team during the last years failed, in their own ways. Yet, the declines of Russia’s authoritarian regimes were also fundamentally similar. These descents all happened against the background of Russia’s rulers’ excessive attention to the outside world rather than to problems at home. The Russian White revolutionaries of the early 21st century would be well-advised not to step in the same trap as the Whites of the early 20th century. They should concentrate themselves and they should turn Russia’s attention, in general, on her own problems. Russia will become a law-ruled democracy once it stops seeing herself as an imperial or/and civilizational center engaged in a geopolitical struggle beyond her borders.

Dr. Andreas Umland is DAAD Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy,” a member of the Valdai International Discussion Club, and general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html).

By Andreas Umland
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