Putin's anti-globalisation strategy

George Schöpflin
9 July 2006

The pattern of politics under Vladimir Putin is widely understood as a reversal of the democratic changes introduced in Boris Yeltsin's time. This view is correct, as is also Ivan Krastev's insight that the enormous increase in energy prices has made this shift much easier (see "The energy route to Russian democracy", 13 June 2006). But that in itself does not complete the equation.

The story is more complex, because at a deeper level what Putin is doing is elaborating Russia's response to globalisation. He is adamantly not following the advice of the ardent globalisers who believe that "globalisation is good!" (see, for example, the Economist, or the columns of Martin Wolf in the Financial Times), but he is trying to reduce global complexity to Russian simplicity.

Globalisation is broadly summarised as a series of economic processes that open up trade everywhere and thereby mobilise hitherto unused resources. But that barely scratches the surface. What Putin and those around him understand is that globalising processes have far-reaching political consequences. Where power is concerned, Putin and Russia have no intention of following western precepts; but they are perfectly prepared to use (and abuse) western institutions (such as the global capital market) and legitimating narratives (such as the "war on terror") to attain their objective of preventing any erosion of central power.

Globalisation cannot be understood only as a series of economic processes. It has three further crucial consequences:

  • it reduces the power of the state to regulate and organise the population
  • it undercuts the state's dominant control over information
  • it produces constant change through the arrival of new technologies with unpredictable consequences.

All this may be thought liberating, but it is also a source of insecurity and risk. The fight against insecurity and risk is central to Putin's strategy. By offering the Russian population, which had been traumatised by the disorder of the Yeltsin years, protection from the unpredictable impact of globalisation, Putin has secured a considerable measure of popular support.

Nor does Russia have much time for the patterns of corporate governance that the corporate multinationals impose wherever they go. The transparency and accountability of capital flows and shareholder sovereignty are the last things that the Russian state wants. The takeover of Yukos and the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were at least partly motivated by the shift towards western concepts of governance that Yukos was contemplating. For the Putin system, openness is the negative side of globalisation.

George Schöpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.

In this article George Schöpflin is responding to two openDemocracy articles:

Ivan Krastev, "The energy route to Russian democracy"
(13 June 2006)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006)

An uncivil society

Russia's rulers understand that they cannot seal off the country hermetically, but they can minimise foreign influence. They can cope better with dissent than the Soviet system by making Putin's order looser and thus capable of absorbing shocks, but with the proviso that any serious threat to the system will be stamped on firmly. At the same time, in contrast to the Soviet period, the state offers the individual far less in economic benefits and has no serious concept of equality.

This semi-coercive system gives the new middle class – to be observed enjoying their wealth in many a western location – outlets for consumption, but not much access to political power. Public opinion is kept quiescent by the state's control of television, but marginal publications can be tolerated even when they express dissident views. The presence of the west has been reduced wherever possible – that is the meaning of banning links between western and Russian NGOs. Putin does not want a civil society to get in his way.

Globalisation has strengthened individual empowerment. This can be seen in the demands that the collective will of the majority and state power should give way to individual preference. Simultaneously the state is made more porous through the impact of new technology, information and immigration, to name but three. Putin's Russia is determined to resist this weakening of the state. Its understanding of the relationship between state power and the individual is one of dependency, not reciprocity.

In some ways, initiatives from below are viewed as akin to having to deal with "the overmighty subject", who should be firmly suppressed. The oligarchs, the NGOs and the media have all been brought to heel. And it is important to recognise that Russia's recent experience of action from below has been disastrous – the mafias are a form of such activity, but in the absence of rule of law, the outcome is uncivil society.

A state without a people

The system has also elaborated a ruling ideology, which is clearly in the salvationist tradition with the long historical roots identified by Geoffrey Hosking (see "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006). The pillars of this ideology, which may come as a surprise to western readers, are four.

First, Russia is saving western civilisation by sacrificing itself in the war against Islam and China. It has already saved Europe twice, from Napoleon and Hitler, and is doing so again a third, and possibly the final time (defining the world in threes is very characteristic of Russian thinking). In the war on terror, for example, Russia is in Chechnya bearing the brunt of a vicious war on Europe as well as itself.

Second, Islam – ever-present on Russia's southern flank – is even more of a threat to Russia than to Europe. This ideological belief does not prevent ad hoc deals with Islamic states; that is Russian pragmatism.

Third, there is a rehabilitation of aspects of the Soviet system, such as its xenophobic rhetoric and a recovery of influence and voice by Orthodox Christianity. The old idea of sobornost (the community of the faithful) has acquired new life and necessarily excludes non-Russians.

Fourth, there is a mounting hostility towards Europe, a feeling that Europe's multiple demands are devices to weaken Russia and undermine its bid for world status (the charge-sheet includes: Europe's calls for respect for human rights and democracy, its support for the enlargement of Nato, its backing for "colour" revolutions in Russia's backyard and for the Belarusian opposition, its acceptance of the rising influence of ex-Soviet satellites in the European Union, and its claims to energy security).

The last factor legitimates Russia's active expansion of energy power (like buying up gas pipelines in central Europe), the suspension of energy supplies to Ukraine in January 2006, and the continuation of intelligence and disinformation activities by the FSB (the avowed successor to the KGB). All in all, Russia's leaders interpret globalisation as a western instrument to damage Russia – and not without reason, for if the calls of the globalisers were heeded, Putin's system would undoubtedly have to change. The attacks by George W Bush and Dick Cheney on Russia feed resentment at the country's loss of status and its sense of being regarded as inferior.

So the new Russia defines itself against globalisation. It is looking to reinforce the state and state control over economic resources, which it can do thanks to the rising price of energy and other raw materials. At the same time, the Russian state does not want to do very much for the Russian people – of whom, paradoxically and for the first time in Russian history, it has little need, either as taxpayers or as soldiers (the raw-materials bonanza takes care of that). The Russian state, then, has no time for citizenship.

As a result, the elite – both central and local nomenklatura – live in a semi-detached way from the people, and concentrate hegemonic power in its hands. But – and this is significant – its does not seek monopoly power in the way the Soviet state sought to do. There is no serious attempt to "deliver" services or "empower" people; nor is there any idea of "consumer citizenship"; the population at large has to be satisfied with basic welfare provisions, often in kind, and access to goods via the grey market (see Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's corruption dance", 15 June 2006).

Russia today, then, can be characterised as a new kind of postmodern state, which sustains but a few activities – an approach that no western democrat could contemplate. It gives the people enough to pre-empt serious discontent, but not enough to create the preconditions for an upheaval. It is a low-capacity state in areas where the western state still tries to be active (in relations between rulers and ruled, for example).

There is little sign that Russia's new form of state is facing any kind of crisis; far from it. As it prepares to host the G8 summit in St Petersburg on 15-17 July 2006, it seems to have found an equilibrium, at any rate for the foreseeable future. Whether the Putin system can weather future shocks is another question, but for the time being it looks well established and has no incentive to change. It's a system that is going with, not against, the grain of Russia's culture.

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