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About Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland is a DAAD Associate Professor of European Studies at the Political Science Department of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is a member of the Valdai Club and Expert Council of the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee for European Integration. Among other publications, he edits the scholarly book series 'Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society' (published by ibidem Press, Stuttgart/Hannover). His articles have been published in various newspapers, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Die Welt, Die Zeit, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Moscow Times, Kyiv Post and Le Monde Diplomatique as well as on the websites of the National Interest, World Affairs Journal, Russian Analytical Digest, German Marshall Fund, and Harvard International Review.
Articles by Andreas Umland
The Armenian genocide
Through the bars
No to TTIP
Meteoric rise of Islamic State
Westerners visiting Ukraine and observers analysing the post-Soviet space talk a great deal about Kyiv politics today being a "mess." Few, least of all Ukrainians themselves, would disagree. But sometimes Western ignorance about Ukraine combines with European arrogance to reproduce stereotypes eerily similar to those with which Moscow's former KGB officers like to portray Europe's largest new democracy.
Worse still, what is usually not mentioned in West European assessments of current Ukrainian affairs is that the EU, the foremost Western organisation dealing with Ukraine, bears responsibility for Kyiv's current political disarray.
Most analysts would agree that the EU perspective played a considerable role in, or was even a necessary precondition for, the quick stabilisation and democratisation of post-communist Central Europe. Many political scientists would admit that, in Western Europe too, peace, stability and affluence during the last 60 years have been closely linked to European integration.
However, few EU politicians and bureaucrats are prepared to state in public what would seem to follow logically from these observations, in the case of Ukraine. If from Tallinn to Dublin the prospect of EU membership has had a clearly beneficial effect, then in the case of Ukraine the absence of a European perspective for a manifestly European country also means the absence of that effect.
The post-war notion of "Europe" is intimately linked to the economic, social and political dynamism of increasing pan-continental cooperation. When we use the word "European" today we often mean the EU and the largely positive repercussions which the integration process has had and continues to have on securing economic, political and social progress across borders.
However, against the background of these recent historical achievements, some forget the state of Europe generally, particularly some countries, before integration. Much of pre-war European history was, by contemporary standards, far "messier" than Ukrainian politics is today. Remember the League of Nations, Weimar Republic or Spanish Civil War?
Enlightened East European intellectuals might also admit that, without the prospect of EU membership, their countries today might look more like Belarus or Georgia than Portugal or Ireland. Both West and East European political elites and governments have needed a road map towards a better and common future. Only when European integration provided such a vision did politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals of many EU member states get their act together and make their countries more politically and economically successful.
If we are prepared to admit the relevance of the prospect of, preparation for, and eventual attainment of, EU membership for the internal development of many European states, we should also acknowledge the effect that an explicit denial of such a vision has on Kyiv's elites.
Ukraine finds itself left in the "old Europe" of the pre-war period. Unlike politicians in most other European countries, Ukraine's leaders still have to navigate a world of competing nation states, shifting international alliances, introverted political camps, and harsh zero-sum-games where triumph for one national or international actor means defeat for the other. That is how domestic and European politics functioned before the two world wars, and eventually brought about those wars. East of the EU's current borders these incentive structures are still largely intact. Among numerous other negative repercussions, they have led to the recent wars in the Balkans and Caucasus.
Most Ukrainians would themselves be the first to admit that Ukraine today is not ready for EU membership, or even for candidate status. However, many pro-European Ukrainians find it difficult to understand EU policies and rhetoric on these issues: why is Turkey an official candidate for EU membership? Why are Romania or Bulgaria already full members, while Ukraine is not even offered the tentative prospect of future candidacy? Is Turkey more European? Are Romania or Bulgaria really that much more developed than Ukraine? Did the Orange Revolution and the two succeeding parliamentary elections - all approved by the OSCE, Council of Europe and EU - not show an adherence by Ukrainians to democratic rules and values? Has Ukraine not been more successful than other post-communist countries in averting inter-ethnic strife and in integrating national minorities? Did the elites and population of Ukraine not show restraint when tensions were building up between conflicting political camps in Kyiv, or when Russia was acting provocatively in Crimea?
Some recent developments in Ukraine also point in the opposite direction, of course. These include ongoing governmental corruption, increased political stalemate, as well as lack of progress on the reform of public administration and on industrial restructuring.
However, with every year that passes since the Orange Revolution, the question becomes more pressing: are the setbacks in Ukraine's recent political and economic transition the reason for the EU's continuing unwillingness to offer Kyiv a prospect of European membership? Or are they rather a result of that unwillingness? Maybe one reason for Ukraine's frustrating domestic conflicts and halting economic transformation is the fact that the country's foreign orientation remains unresolved? Is it possible that the EU's demonstrative scepticism with regard to Ukraine's ability to integrate into Europe is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are the EU leaders of the EU not to some degree responsible for Ukraine's continuing failure to meet "European standards"?
As a result of the EU attitude, Kyiv is left in a geopolitical nowhere land. Lacking a credible long-term vision, Ukraine has become the unofficial battlefield in a political proxy war between pro-Western and pro-Russian governmental and non-governmental organisations fighting for the future of this crucial, yet unconsolidated European country. Without the disciplining effect that a credible EU membership perspective provides, there is no commonly accepted yardstick against which the elite's behaviour could be measured. Ukrainian politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals lack a focal point in the conduct of their domestic and international behaviour. They are left to guess what the West's and Russia's "real" intentions with regard to Ukraine are, and how they should behave to secure economic development and political independence for their country.
The stabilisation of Ukraine is not only in the interests of the citizens of this young democracy. It should also be a key political concern for Brussels, Paris and Berlin. An economically weakened, politically divided and socially crisis-ridden Ukrainian state could destabilise and exhibit disintegrative tendencies. Ukraine's population could polarise along ethnic lines, with ukrainophone Western and Central set against russophone Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Such a development could in turn serve as a pretext for Russian intervention - with grave repercussions not only for East European politics, but Russian-Western relations too. In a worst-case scenario, the entire post-Cold War European security structure could be called into question.
The prospect of EU membership constitutes a key instrument for the West to influence Ukrainian domestic affairs. The prospect of future European integration would reconfigure political discourse and restructure party conflicts in Kyiv. Neither the Ukrainian common man nor Russia's political leadership are, in distinction to their stance on Ukraine's possible NATO membership, opposed in principal to the idea of Ukrainian entry into the EU at some future date.
An official statement by the EU on the possible admission of Ukraine to the EU some day would oblige the Commission and member states to little, during the next years. The Delegation of the European Commission at Kyiv is already engaged in a wide range of cooperation projects with the Ukrainian government. Offering Ukraine the prospect of EU membership would require few practical changes in the current conduct of EU policies towards Kyiv. Yet such an announcement would have a benevolent impact on the behaviour of Ukraine's elites and make a deep impression on the population of this young democracy.
The EU's leaders should try to see the larger picture. They need to remember the recent past of their own member countries, and stop behaving with a cognitive dissonance that denies their own history. They should try to understand Ukraine's current issues against the background of the instability their own members experienced before European integration.
In the interests of the entire continent and its people, they should offer Ukraine a European perspective sooner rather than later.
Dr Andreas Umland is a lecturer in contemporary East European history at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria (http://ku-eichstaett.academia.edu/AndreasUmland ), general editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.hmtl ), and co-editor of the German-Russian journal "Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe" (http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de/ZIMOS/ ).
Over the past few years various forms of nationalism have become aspects of everyday Russian political and social life.
The Caucasus war of August 2008 was a shock to Russian-Western relations. The West's timid reaction to the five-day conflict and to Russia's de facto annexation of two Georgian provinces do not bode well for the future of European security. The recent renewal of friendly relations between Moscow and Washington and the current rapprochement between President Dmitry Medvedev and the liberal Russian intelligentsia may give reason for hope, but a major source of instability in northern Eurasia remains in place.
A radically anti-Western and decidedly neo-imperialist faction of the Moscow elite has gained a foothold in the Russian governmental apparatus, Putin's United Russia party, electronic and print media, (un)civil society and academia. Ultra-nationalists, who are more or less influential and often relatively young, have become part and parcel of everyday political,journalistic and intellectual discourse in the post-Soviet world. They range from the newly appointed presidential administration officer Ivan Demidov to the popular political commentator Mikhail Leontyev and the recently-elected Moscow State University professor Alexander Dugin. These and others with similar views were among the government's whips during the Russian army's intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last summer.
Kremlin-controlled TV channels reported the armed confrontation in the Southern Caucasus as a proxy war fought by the Georgians for, and with the support of, the US against Russia. The media campaign during and after the August war gave official status to the bizarre conspiracy theories that Leontyev, Dugin and Co. have been propagating in prime-time television shows and highbrow analytic journals for a long time.
Since the rise of Vladimir Putin there have been years of unfettered xenophobic agitation in the Russian mass media by Moscow's revanchist intellectuals. This is now coming home to roost. Recent opinion polling data suggests that anti-Western - especially anti-American and anti-NATO - feelings are widespread among ordinary Russians. The Levada Center,Russia's leading opinion poll agency, has found that attitudes towards the US had become less positive even before the Russian-Georgian War. When Putin became President in 2000 the figure was 65%. When he left the Kremlin in July 2008 it stood at 43%.
Pro-American feelings have declined further in all sectors of Russian society since the war.The state-controlled Russian polling agency VTsIOM, which had earlier downplayed Russian anti-Westernism, admitted recently that Russians' views of, for instance, NATO "have changed fundamentally." In 2006, 26% of Russians had regarded NATO as an organisation primarily promoting US interests. In 2009 that figure is 41%. In 2006 21% of Russians regarded NATO as an organisation whose mission was to "conduct aggressive military acts against other countries". At the end of March 2009 31% were of this opinion. (VTsIOM Press Release no. 1191). Whatever the current "Obama-effect" in Russia, one suspects that it may not last long.
The political outlook in the world's largest country and remaining nuclear superpower has recently undergone a sea-change. This is particularly relevant in the context of several unresolved issues in Moscow's former empire, among them the future of the Black Sea section of Russia's naval forces. The Russian Black Sea fleet is based in the city of Sevastopol,an independent municipality of Ukraine with a population of 379,000. It is the largest city of the Crimean peninsula.
Sevastopol gained world fame in the 19th century. The major port of the Black Sea fleet and its siege, which lasted almost twelve months, became an important episode in the 1853-56 Crimean War between the Tsarist Empire and France, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Many Tsarist army soldiers who fought and fell at Sevastopol were, in fact, Ukrainians rather than Russians. Nevertheless, in Russia the tenacious defence of Sevastopol against the Western invaders became an iconic image. For many Russians the Crimean War also provides justification of Moscow's rightful claim to Sevastopol. Thousands of Ukrainians made a direct contribution to the war, but the powerful military mythology around the Tsarist army's heroic defence of the empire's Southern border could be exploited by Moscow's political technologists in a modern conflict too.
The Crimean War is also important for an understanding of the generic security risks prevalent in the post-Soviet world and elsewhere. The mid-19thcentury standoff between Russia and the West in the Black Sea was the first modern armed conflict and is an example of how international wars have mostly come about. Today's public perception of the reasons for war is dominated by the military adventures of Nazi Germany. This is a topic dealt with in hundreds of documentaries and movies shown on TV on an almost daily basis in Europe and elsewhere. Yet World War II remains altogether atypical. It was caused by the long-planned attempt of the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis" to destroy the states it invaded, annex their territories and subjugate or kill their populations.
This has, however, not been the main cause for armed confrontations in world history, as the prehistory of the Crimean War illustrates. Wars have often been declared not as a result of a long-planned and well-prepared military expansion. More often than not, they were the outcome of escalating tension between states which originally had no intention (or even interest) in fighting each other, or not on the battlefield at any rate. It took a long chain of events for France, Britain and Turkey (with Sardinia) to form a coalition in the 1850s and embark on a war with the Tsarist army in the Black Sea and other seas around the Russian Empire.
Aggressive factions among Moscow's post-Soviet imperialists would, it is true, like to annex the Crimea - if not all of south-eastern Ukraine - sooner rather than later.Many of these ultra-nationalists would also be prepared to wage immediate war in pursuit of this goal. But they do not play a dominant role in Russian foreign policy. Explicitly expansionist Kremlin policies would not be necessary for tensions to escalate around the Black Sea. If emotions were to become heated in connection with the future of the Sevastopol naval base, the position of Crimea's ethnic Russian majority vis-à-vis the Ukrainian state, or the rights of the Tatar minority within the Crimean Autonomous Republic, this would be sufficient to start the bloodshed. The ensuing sequence of political reactions, social mobilisation and mutual accusations by Kiev and Moscow would bring Europe's two largest countries quickly to the brink of an armed confrontation.
Inter-ethnic violence would put both sides under pressure to intervene militarily. The Russian-Georgian war illustrated that Russia has no qualms about deploying regular army units beyond its borders swiftly and on a large scale. Furthermore Moscow was prepared to provide "assistance" to South Caucasian peoples. In the ethnic Russian heartland of the Russian Federation (RF) these people are often victims of racist prejudice. They are classified as "persons of Caucasian nationality", and Caucasian here means "black" rather than "white" people.
In the case of Abkhazia, Moscow offered "assistance" to a population that was under no immediate threat from Georgian troops. The case is especially remarkable because in August 2008 the Abkhaz republic was finally excised from Georgian state territory. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazians were not in the majority in the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic(ASSR), a situation that was replicated in many other USSR autonomous republics. The peculiar migration policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union meant that at the last USSR census in 1989 45.7% of the inhabitants of the Abkhaz ASSR were classified as "Georgian", whereas only 17.8% called themselves "Abkhazian". Abkhazians were thus only slightly more numerous than Russians (14.3%) and Armenians (14.6%).
By "recognising the independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and deploying troops on their territories, the Russian political elite has demonstrated its desire for a partial revision of the results of the fall of the Russian empire. The situation in the Crimea is unlike the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia: most inhabitants are ethnic Russians who appear to be actively acquiring RF passports. Should the public in the RF come to believe that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians in the Crimea are under some sort of threat, the Kremlin may feel obliged to "protect its compatriots", whatever the larger implications and geopolitical costs.Decision-makers in the Kremlin may even understand that the chances of a full military victory in the Black Sea peninsula are slim. This was not the case with South Ossetia. But if public opinion were to be whipped up by apocalyptic visions and hate-messages from the likes of Leontyev or Dugin, even moderate Russian politicians would feel a compulsion to prove their "patriotism," and "take a principled position."
The two foremost Western specialists on the Crimea are Gwendolyn Sasse of Oxford University and Taras Kuzio, a regular contributor to openDemocracy. They explain why existing ethnic tensions have not so far led to large-scale violence in the Crimea. Sasse found in mid-2008 that "in recent years, Russian leaders have understood the benefits of a cooperative relationship with Ukraine, but have also taken advantage of close ties to the Crimea as a means of influencing Kiev." Kuzio is more sceptical of Russian intentions, but he too noted (early in 2009) that there is a "low level of animosity between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea." Kuzio identified inter alia "the ability of the Ukrainian security service to undermine Crimean separatism."
These and other factors recently listed by Sasse and Kuzio are still valid and will remain so. However, it is not clear if they have taken full account of recent changes in Russian public opinion concerning the outside world in general, and the political mood of Moscow's elite regarding the conduct of foreign affairs in particular.
In a confrontation between relatively pro- and radically anti-Western political factions within the Kremlin, Russia's new frame of mind could easily be exploited by Moscow's ultra-nationalists. Encouragement of Crimean anti-Ukrainian and separatist forces could be seen by the extreme right as a strategy to undermine the Russian-Western rapprochement.
A resulting Russian-Ukrainian war would be devastating for the relationship of these two closely-linked nations and disastrous for European security. A worst-case scenario could replicate the situation during Russia's first two Chechen wars: it could lead to the deaths of thousands of Crimeans (including many ethnic Russians), and a long period of international isolation for Russia.
It would also discipline President Dmitri Medvedev, as the Russian-Georgian War held back - at least temporarily - the new President's domestic and foreign initiatives. Another irredentist war would transform Russia into something like a fortress with an even more rigid internal regime and less international cooperation than today. It would again postpone, or even put an end to, the Medvedev circle's attempts to re-democratise Russia.
Moscow's revanchists may calculate that the political repercussions of escalating tension in the Crimea will strengthen their position in Russia. Should they get a chance to manipulate the politics of the Black Sea peninsula, a second Crimean War could become a reality.
An abridged version of the above article was published by "Russia Profile." It also appeared, in Russian and Ukrainian, in the Kyiv weekly "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnia," on April 25 2009.
In a poll by FOM-Ukraina in mid-November 2008, Viktor Yushchenko's popularity reached a new low. With 3% of the respondents saying they would vote for him in elections, Ukraine's current President trails not only far behind his main contenders Yulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich. Yushchenko's support is also below the percentage of popular backing that such minor politicians as Arseny Yatsenyuk, Petro Symonenko and Volodymyr Litvin currently receive. It has been clear to most observers for a couple of years now that Yushchenko's chances for a second term are, at best, dim. One hopes that now even the detached President and his myopic aides will acknowledge that a re-election of the incumbent is beyond reach. As bitter as this might be for the hero of the Orange Revolution, this circumstance also provides the Orange camp with a window of opportunity to complete its second push for democratization started four years ago. In 2009, Ukraine will have a rare chance to get rid of its ill-construed semi-presidential system.
After the fall of the USSR, most countries emerging from it adopted a slightly transfigured version of the Soviet executive structure in which the respective republic's First Party Secretary was replaced by the President - a model that had been provided by Gorbachev, on the Union level, already in 1989. In the aftermath, this transmutation was, in public, rationalized as an adoption of the "French model of government." In reality, the division of executive power between the President and Prime-Minister in much of the post-Soviet world had little to do with learning from France's experiences, but was, instead, the result of idiosyncratic power-struggles in each of the former Soviet republics. The seemingly novel configurations of institutions in the central apparatuses of the Newly Independent States were christened "parliamentary-presidential" or "presidential-parliamentary" though, in most cases, these political systems were or, still, are neither.
Rather, they constitute(d) autocracies or oligarchies with a rubber-stamp or/and toothless parliament, and with a "Head of Government" who is no head and does not govern, but is merely the country's highest ranking bureaucrat, and often plays the role of a scapegoat, in the case, things go wrong.
In Ukraine, this started to change in late 2004 when it were, oddly, the opponents of the Orange Revolution who - out of ad hoc calculations - initiated a partial shift of prerogatives from the President to the Prime-Minister as well as to the Rada thus creating something close to real semi-presidentialism. As important as this transfer of power was for the re-democratization of Ukraine, it did not solve, but merely transformed the problem. Since then, Ukraine has a divided government with a duumvirate, at its top. To understand that this is unsatisfactory is not something that Ukrainians need to be explained by political scientists. Since 2005, the country has experienced such agonizing conflicts between the President, on the one side, and its two "cohabitating" Prime-Ministers (Timoshenko, Yanukovich), on the other, that there are, probably, few Ukrainians left who think that this political solution has been good for their homeland.
What (not necessarily foreign) political scientists could and should be still telling Ukrainians is that this problem is, contrary to what many believe, not something unique to Ukraine. One often hears from both younger and older citizens of Ukraine that democracy does not properly work there because of the low political culture, moral inadequateness or similar deficiencies of Kiev's political elite. While hardly anybody will disagree, these shortages are not the only and, probably, not even the main reason for last years' destructive confrontations between Ukraine's power-holders. International experience shows that these clashes President vs. Parliament, the Head of State vs. the Head of Government are inherent to duumvirates, in general, and typical for semi-presidential regimes in emerging democracies, in particular. Ukraine's chaotic politics of the last years has, contrary to commonly held opinion there, less to do with the culture of its nation, than with the structure of its state. The problem with semi-presidentialism - everywhere and not only in the post-Soviet world - is that it elevates conflicts between political parties or camps into confrontations between the branches of power or constitutional organs. An old democracy like France is able to deal with these tensions and euphemistically calls the conflict emerging from different parties occupying the country's highest posts "cohabitation." In young democracies and especially in post-colonial ones like Ukraine, the stakes of the decisions to be taken by the top officials are, however, much higher. Here minor inconsistencies in the voting behaviour of the electorate or in the coalition building of the parties or factions may transform into major political stand-offs that, in the worst case, come close to civil war (like in Russia in September-October 1993). Contrary to what many in the post-Soviet world believe, the Prime-Minister of Britain or Chancellor of Germany have more power, in their national contexts, than the President of the United States - at least, in those situations in which the President's party does not have a majority in Congress.
It should be noted that not only Moscow's "political technologists", but also a number of serious international political scientists advocate presidentialism, and see this form of democracy as superior to parliamentary systems - the world oldest democracy, the US, being the obvious example. However, concerning the specific challenges that young democracies are facing, study after study has shown that the stronger a new republic's parliament is the better are the chances that genuine political pluralism will survive and that the novel system of government will consolidate. Notably, these findings are not outcomes of theoretical considerations by experts who may have a preference for this or that form of government. Instead, the inference that parliamentarianism is better for an emerging democracy than a presidential or semi-presidential system is based on empirical research and results from more or less wide-ranging cross-national investigations.
The conclusion for a country like Ukraine is that, in order to become a more stable and effective democracy, it should transform sooner rather than later into a parliamentary republic. While political conflicts will continue to be fought ferociously in such a system, they will happen within the parliament, and not between parliament and president. Coalition building will become the major feature of the political process, and replace such strategies as brinkmanship, intimidation and bluffing prominent during intra-executive confrontations in semi-presidential systems. Parlamentarians able to build bridges between political opponents and not ideologues whipping up their political camps will take center-stage. Apart from that, for Ukraine, simply saving the costs of another round of elections, and having only one national poll every four years will help to save much money and energy that is dearly needed to further reform and stabilize this young nation-state.
Dr Andreas Umland is editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.hmtl) as well as the Russian journal "Forum for the Contemporary History and Ideas of Easter Europe" (http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de/ZIMOS/forumruss.html) and administers the website "Russian Nationalism" (groups.yahoo.com/group/russian_nationalism
Yeltsin's 1993 Constitution, which is still valid today, has never been a particularly balanced basic law. The Russian political system is called ‘semi-presidential.' It has even been claimed that it follows the French model. In fact, the emergence of the Russian presidency in 1991 did not have much to do with international experiences, any more than did its strengthening through the constitution of 1993 and later on. These developments were rather a mutation of the Soviet model of governance. They were determined by the narrow interests of the major actors involved, at the respective points in time.
The Soviet model
Within the power structure that Stalin left to his successors, the General or First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee was the central role in the governance of Russia's Soviet empire. We in the West would regard the Soviet state's prime-minister as equivalent to the status of a deputy minister with an especially wide range of responsibilities embracing economic, cultural and social affairs.
Not only had the Chairman of the Council of Ministers little influence on such issues as foreign, military or security policies. All major decision-making power was eventually located in the hands of the CPSU's Central Committee's Politburo - the de facto government of the USSR. The Council of Ministers was not a government proper, but merely the highest echelon of the state bureaucracy directed by the CPSU apparatus.
Having dismantled much of the legitimacy of one-party rule in the late 1980s, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev needed to diversify his power base. In 1989, Gorbachev introduced the office of the President of the Soviet Union to which he was duly elected by the Congress of People's Deputies.
Yeltsin's move to create the office of the RSFSR President with a popular mandate two years later, was less a replication of France's power structure, than a copy of the executive on the level of the Union. It was thus a somewhat transfigured replication of Soviet ruling patterns, but based on a popular vote rather than totalitarian control and political terror. While the gradual collapse of the Union-state in 1991 completed the shift of power from the party to the state, many of the underlying concepts and the dominant habitus, or system, of Soviet governance survived.
Russia's post-Soviet autocracy
In much of the post-Soviet area, including the Russian Federation, the prime-minister remained a tertiary figure in the power-structure and, sometimes, a scapegoat when things went wrong.
Under both Yeltsin and Putin, certain deputy Prime Ministers as well as other officials particularly close to the President, like the Head of the Presidential Administration or Secretary of the Security Council, came second to the President and overshadowed the Chairman of the Council of Ministers in terms of their influence and authority.
In both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, the use of such words as ‘minister' or ‘head of government' was, in fact, a game with words that reminded of the misuse of such terms as ‘democracy,' union' or ‘federation' in Russia after 1917. With brief intermissions (1917-1920, 1924-1928, 1953-1954, 1989-1993,1998-2000), the political concept that best described Russia's post-revolutionary polity was the same as before the October Revolution - autocracy: self-rule by one man.
The duumvirate's unclarities
In a way, this changed this year when Putin stepped down as President, and created a duumvirate. Leaving the Kremlin and becoming Russia's new prime-minister, Putin took, informally, much of the authority and many prerogatives of the President with him to Moscow's White House, the seat of Russia's formal government. Such a power-shift has been useful in so far as it has transformed Russia's Council of Ministers into a proper ruling body. For the first time since Lenin's chairmanship of the Council of People's Commissars, most power is concentrated within Russia's official government.
However, Putin's move also entails risks. The new prime-minister overdid his establishment of real semi-presidentialism in Russia in that he now overshadows his formal superior, President Dmitry Medvedev. This not only creates non-clarity about who is responsible for what in Russia. It has also devalued the office of the President - a dangerous development that continues Putin's earlier blurring of the distribution of power and accountability in Russia.
Putin inherited from Yeltsin a set of institutions already involved in an unhealthy competition for the formulation of policies. The Council of Ministers, Presidential Administration, and Security Council had conflicting responsibilities. After Putin took over in 2000, he not only reduced the influence of Russian civil society, political parties and regional power. He also added to the already cumbersome central power system new offices and bodies like the Presidential Plenipotentiaries in Russia's new Federal Districts, the State Council, and the Public Chamber. All these bodies now contend with the Governors, State Duma and Federation Council in exerting political influence on the federal level.
Such a diversity of institutions has, obviously, been designed to reduce or dilute all non-presidential power. The many formal office holders of the listed institutions neutralise one another, while all relevant decisions are made by the President and his buddies.
The personalisation of political rule
Under Putin's incumbency as President, political competition was still taking place in Russia. Yet, was happening within a narrow circle of power-hungry presidential cronies - often, with a security service background - whose influence was determined less by their official functions, than by their relative closeness to Putin.
After the introduction of the duumvirate this year, this configuration transformed somewhat. The Presidential Office too has fallen victim to Putin's grab of power. Whereas until 2008, Russian politics was centred on the Kremlin as the seat of the President, his aides and his administration, no such clear centre of power exists today.
Instead, Putin himself - as a private person rather than as an office holder - is the remaining locus of power. Today, Russia has a strikingly personalistic form of political rule that is unusual, if not anachronistic for a highly developed country, in the 21st century.
Recent changes to constitution
It could be that Medvedev's recent proposals to change the Russian power structure are meant to solve this problem. The office of the President will be strengthened through an extension of the term from currently four to six years - a measure that may re-establish this institution as the main locus of power.
At the same time, the Russian political process will become less focused on the presidential office alone. For the term of the State Duma will be extended too, but only for one year, i.e. from four to five years. Thus parliamentary elections will in due course cease to be primarily run-ups for the presidential elections, as has been the case since 1995.
President Medvedev also announced, in his first presidential address of November 5th, that he wants to extend the State Duma's control functions. He made a number of further specific proposals and announcement. While these minor adaptations seem designed to increase society's influence on government. But taken together, they lack a clear direction, leaving both Russian and Western observers guessing where the new President wants to go.
Medvedev's presidential address should not be taken to constitute a proper and coherent political programme. Rather, it can be seen as an expression of the elite's uncertainty about Russia's political future, and might be understood as a reflection of power struggles behind the scenes.
At least that would explain various contradictions in Medvedev's outline of future domestic and foreign policies. For example, his attack on the Russian statist tradition sits oddly with his proposal to expand the presidential term. Likewise, the rabidly anti-American rhetoric at the beginning of his speech is out of kilter with his denial that there is anti-Americanism in Russia at the end.
This explanation would also account for the awkwardness of some of Medvedev's proposals, such as his idea that parties that receive between 5% and 7% of the vote in a State Duma election should get one or two seats in parliament.
This strange formula looks as if it was the result of a uneasy compromise between those wishing to increase societal control (including, probably, Medvedev himself), and those wishing to preserve the insulation of power from the people.
Return of Kremlinology
Above all, it is unclear who will benefit from the extension of the presidential term: Medvedev himself or Putin? The latter illustrates what is, perhaps, the most frustrating aspect of Medvedev's recent reform plan - the way it has been announced and is now being, at least partly, implemented. There has been some media discussion of Medvedev's various proposals after they had been made. But the design, evaluation, specification and execution of the numerous changes to Russia's political power structure remain, as under Brezhnev and Putin, secluded domains with no public participation.Pundits in both Russia and the West are returning to the uncertain discipline of Kremlinology in order to make sense of where Medvedev wants to go. This feeling of déjà-vu is, perhaps, the most disturbing experience one is left with when trying to make sense where the world's largest country is heading in the new century.
"Sorry? I didn't get that!" - exclaimed the journalist Matvei Ganopolsky on the radio station "Ekho Moskvy" (Echo of Moscow). It was the evening of 8 August 2008 and Ganopol'sky was interviewing the leader of the International Eurasian Movement Aleksandr Dugin, who had just told him that Georgia's actions in South Ossetia that day were "genocide." Ganopol'sky could not believe that anyone would use such a loaded word to describe the events in Georgia. Just a day later, on 9 August, in spite of Ganopol'sky's outrage, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also described Tbilisi's action as "genocide." On 10 August, Putin's chosen successor, President Dmitri Medvedev, who had earlier commented on the conflict using less dramatic terminology, followed suit, claiming that the events of the last three days in South Ossetia were to be classified as "genocide."
It is doubtful that Putin or Medvedev were directly inspired by Alexander Dugin to use the "g-word" in describing the August events in Georgia, but the similarity of their hyperbole is indicative of the direction Russia has taken over the past few years. Dugin has become a prolific political commentator and, some say, influential pundit in Putin's new Russia. A well-known theorist of fascism in the 1990s, Dugin presents himself today as a "radical centrist" and ardent supporter of Russia's authoritarian domestic and anti-Western foreign policies. Both his impassioned articles in defence of Putin and his especially rabid anti-Americanism are, apparently, popular in the Kremlin and in Moscow's "White House" (the seat of the federal government). No other explanation is possible for Dugin's frequent appearances on popular evening shows on Russia's government-controlled TV channels, or his numerous articles in the many Moscow newspapers and websites ramming the latest Kremlin line down the throats of the Russian people.
Dugin's rise over the last few years has been irresistible. This is in spite of the fact that, in the 1990s, this self-styled "neo-Eurasian" joyously welcomed the imminent birth of "fascist fascism" in Russia and praised the organiser of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich, for being a "convinced Eurasian." Back then Dugin frankly described his ideology as "conservative revolutionary," asserting that the core idea of fascism is the "conservative revolution." Throughout the nineties the "neo-Eurasian" made a whole number of similar statements, including various more or less qualified apologies for the Third Reich.
In recent years, to be sure, Dugin's rhetoric has changed - if not in tone, then in style. He now, oddly, often poses as an outspoken "anti-fascist," and does not hesitate to label his opponents both in- and outside Russia "fascists" or "Nazi." Paradoxically, he does this while still admitting that his ideas are close to those of the Strasser brothers in Germany between the wars. Dugin presents these two German nationalists as "anti-Hitlerites". He forgets, however, to mention that Otto and Gregor Strasser did indeed oppose Hitler, but were at the same time part and parcel of Germany's emerging fascist movement. The Strasser brothers played quite a significant role in transforming the NSDAP into a popular party in the late 1920s, but then Hitler expelled them from the Nazi party. They were two influential leaders who had become politically and ideologically inconvenient rivals.
The rise of Dugin does not, however, mean that Russia is becoming fascist. Well-known Russian public figures can often not hide their aversion to the growing right-wing sentiment. A good recent example is Sergei Dorenko, the ORT TV channel presenter of the nineties (controlled by the fugitive oligarch Boris Berezovsky), who played a significant part in helping Vladimir Putin to win the presidency in 2000. Like his master Berezovsky, Dorenko too fell out of favour with the Kremlin and was only permitted to promote his controversial critical views on the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow. During the recent Georgian war Dorenko supported the Kremlin and as a reward was appointed Head of the Russian News Service, which provides news services to the immensely popular "Russkoye Radio". One of his first decisions there was to ban Alexander Dugin from the airwaves.
Yet with every passing year the new century sees closer rapprochement between the rhetoric of Russia's extreme right and those at the very top, not least Putin himself. The strange repetition of Dugin's interpretation of Tbilisi's actions as "genocide" by Putin and Medvedev is merely one of many such signs. Moreover, many more or less influential actors in Putin's "vertical of power" are, in one way or another, linked to Dugin. Viktor Cherkesov, for instance, one of Putin's close former KGB buddies, is said to have been acquainted with, and sympathetic (as well as, perhaps, helpful) to, Dugin since the 1990s. The same goes for Mikhail Leont'ev, one of Russia's most well known TV commentators and, according to some information, Putin's favourite journalist. In 2001 Leont'ev took part in the foundation of Dugin's Eurasian movement; subsequently, he was, for some time, a member of that organisation's Political Council. In February this year, Ivan Demidov, a popular TV presenter, was promoted to Head of the Ideology Directorate in Putin's United Russia party. This happened in spite of the fact that only a few months earlier Demidov had professed to be a pupil of Dugin and announced that he would use his talents as PR manager to disseminate Dugin's ideas.
The Russian extreme right, including some of its crypto-fascist sections, is becoming an ever more influential part of Moscow mainstream public discourse. Its influence can be felt in Russia's mass media, academia, civil society, arts, and politics. Against this background the growing estrangement between Russia and the West is hardly surprising. Should Dugin and co. continue to exert their influence on the Russian elite and population, the currently emerging second Cold War between Moscow and the West will be with us for many years to come.
Dr Andreas Umland is editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html) and administrator of the web site "Russian Nationalism" (groups.yahoo.com/group/russian_nationalism/).