Russia: the European factor

Alexei Makarkin
13 May 2008

Europe is Russia's historic neighbour as well as being part of its own identity. St Petersburg, for instance, is a distinctly European city. Europe is both a role model and an object of phobias. This ambivalence has characterised various periods of our national history.

Today, fundamental differences set Russia apart from Europe. There is the weakness of our institutions, as well as our different understanding of democracy. Our transition from authoritarian socialism to a market economy was also significantly different from that of the European countries of the Soviet empire. These factors all have serious historical roots which affect the national mentality.

The weakness of institutions

The one strong, authoritative Russian institution is the presidency. It is virtually monarchic - an uncharacteristic feature in the post-war European political tradition. Even in France during the Fifth Republic, with its "super-presidency", the capabilities of the head of state are severely limited if the opposition wins a majority in parliament and is forced to ‘coexist' with an opposing prime minister (Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac in the 1980s, Chirac and Lionel Jospin in the 1990s).

Admittedly, the situation in Russia has also started to change recently following Vladimir Putin's decision not to alter the constitution in order to run for a third term. Yet even the possible transformation of the presidential republic into one run by a president and a prime minister one is unlikely to strengthen the role of parliament, which remains a dependent institution. All one can say is that it will be more dependent on the prime minister and less dependent on the president.

Even in this scenario, however, the prime minister will not really represent the parliamentary majority. On the contrary, this majority owes its success in the parliamentary election entirely to him. It is really nothing but a support group for the most influential politician in the country.

There are many reasons why Russian parliamentarianism is weak by comparison with the western model. For a start, its roots are not deep enough in Russian history. The emergence of a legislature, the proto-parliaments, always coincided with turbulent times in the country's life, when the sovereign's authority was radically weakened. The Zemstvo assemblies, or diets, in the early 17th-century are one example. Another is the State Duma established under the Tsar's manifesto of 17 October 1905. The Constituent Assembly, which only lasted for a day in January 1918, was more of a rally of the radical Left than a proper parliament, and the Social Revolutionaries who made up a majority were no better suited to civilised law-making than the Bolsheviks who disbanded it.

The perestroika years, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s are another example. Briefly, the Soviet, then the Russian, parliament became one of the most important factors in the affairs of the state. However, the former passed away together with the Soviet Union, lingering in the collective memory of the Russian people as a major but ineffective ‘rally'. The latter lasted slightly longer and was disbanded by the president when the country found itself on the brink of civil war. Today's State Duma is politically weak and dependent on the executive, voting only to rubber-stamp its decisions.

No counterbalances to power

An important factor throughout is the particular role of the ruling bureaucracy, whether lectors, ministers or people's commissars. Another is Russia's adoption of an Asian despotic tradition, evidently borrowed from the east - first from the Mongols and then the Turks. The efficient state machine of the early Ottoman empire, which destroyed Byzantium, the second Rome, was a daunting yet highly attractive model, both for the Tsars and for their many subjects who craved a strong and stable authority.

The absence of efficient counterbalances to the power of the sovereign since the Middle Ages has played its part too. Plurality has played little part in state affairs. Those who reject the comparison between a ‘barbaric' Russia' and a ‘civilised' west are right to point out that the St Bartholomew's Day massacre was no less bloody than the Oprichnina. However, when Huguenots were being massacred in Paris, the governor of a French province had a choice. He could either follow guidance from above, or he could defy the official line and proclaim religious tolerance in his province.

In Russia, the will of the Tsar was unquestioned law throughout the land, even if the sovereign was clearly acting unsoundly. Sweden's King Eric XIV was no less of a despot and psychopath than his contemporary Ivan the Terrible. But King Eric was soon overthrown and spent the rest of his life behind bars, while the Tsar was free to wreak evil until his death.

Russia had neither feudal castles, those symbols of their owners' autonomy from central power, nor free cities, once Novgorod and Pskov had been brought to heel. Nor was there an external non-national body like the Papacy standing above the monarch, to which one could appeal for protection. England's King Henry II may have been involved in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, even if indirectly. But afterwards he had to bow to the Pope's judgment. Ivan the Terrible, however, dispatched Metropolitan Philip with impunity. The Russian church could only respond many years after the Tsar's death by canonising the martyr.

The judiciary was equally weak in Russia. It only sustained a high degree of independence for the half a century before the Bolsheviks came to power. That experience was then expunged by revolution and turmoil. The same has been true of the mass media.

The absence of civil society has also been characteristic of Russian history. We never had that complex system of horizontal lines of communication which counterbalances the individualism of private citizens in the west. While in European countries, civil society evolved from medieval estates and corporations, Russia simply lacked those foundations. And where corporations do not exist, that experience of protection from the state is missing. Where fully-fledged estates did not exist, there was no constituency which could engage in a sustained battle for political representation.

The uses of democracy

As for political democracy, it is important for Russians only inasmuch as it can bring them tangible material benefits as opposed to freedoms which they regard as abstract. In the late 1980s, for example, the public welcomed free elections, expecting that they would bring to power people who would punish corrupt officials and resolve socio-economic problems by displacing incompetent bureaucrats.

Boris Yeltsin's popularity is indicative in this respect. He won power by combining democratic and populist slogans. His rhetoric was populist, at least to start with. He concentrated his fire chiefly on those privileges which had enabled the Soviet nomenklatura to achieve living standards for themselves that were on a par with the west's middle class.

Elections were no exception. Freedom of speech was seen as a means to denounce the corrupt bureaucrats. It also provided an opportunity to discuss the various options for tackling the problems facing the country - with a view to choosing the right one.

Freedom of conscience was seen as freeing the Orthodox church to undertake the moral education of the people. It was seen as a state-orientated, patriotic institution better placed to undertake this than Communist Party committees. Freedom of assembly and association provided an opportunity to denounce the discredited authorities publicly and vociferously.

You could say that Russians feel the need for democracy as a tool to exert pressure on the authorities if they breach their unofficial contract with society. This contract assumes the state's ability to provide adequate living standards for most of the population, and to pay pensions and wages on time. It also enables people to plan their lives for the medium, if not the long term. In other words, the nature of the contract is purely socio-economic, rather than political. It is therefore fundamentally different from the European social contract. The political element in the relationship between the authorities and the population only manifests itself if there is a breach of contract.

Reneging on the contract

In the Soviet era, the state was forced to renege on this contract in the second half of the 1980s. Oil prices had plummeted and the economy of ‘the second superpower' was overstretched by the arms race. This is what generated the demand for democratic instruments and a rise in political activity.

Genuine representative institutions of power emerged in Russia in place of the simulacrum that was the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. This was the body that used to convene for a few days a year to offer the decisions of the party leadership its unanimous approval.

There was a demand for semi-free elections to the Union parliament (with a "filter" in the form of district primaries) and for free ones (without the "filter") to the Russian parliament. For a while, the ins and outs of parliamentary struggle claimed the public's attention, and the most charismatic speakers became household names. The same thing happened in the pre-revolution Duma, with press reports instead of television relays. The authority of the legislature was greatly enhanced. Yet even then, when crisis struck and there was a clash of interests, as in 1993, people backed the president, not parliament, albeit unenthusiastically. That is to say they backed the strong individual leader.

Reinforcing the contract

The contract came back into force at the start of this century under Vladimir Putin. How much this was thanks to high oil prices and how much thanks to the government's sensible macroeconomic policy is debatable. Arguably, oil prices were the key factor. For most Russians all this is of little interest. What matters is that pensions and wages were once more paid on time.

Since then, that stability has been sustained. The attempt in 2004-05 to replace benefits in kind with cash payments, which was ill-considered in terms of social psychology, was never repeated.

The population too has abided by its part of the unwritten agreement. It entrusted the selection of the next president to the incumbent head of state, whose name is associated with the restoration of the contract. Things being as they are, it is much more convenient and comfortable for the voters not to take any risks themselves, for fear of making a mistake and bringing into power another ‘contract-breaker'.

Within the terms of this ‘contract', people were behind the president's decision drastically to reduce the number of political parties and abolish single-seat elections at a federal level. There is little interest in political debates, and the United Russia party's decision to take no part in them did not in the least undermine its electoral chances, as the election campaigns of 2003 and 2007 amply demonstrated. In the circumstances, the public regards it as perfectly natural that the State Duma should be politically weak and that the president should dominate all aspects of power, including the legislature.

Scenarios for change

There are two scenarios in which the situation may change. The first, unlikely, one is that the executive will make some move towards limiting its powers, of its own accord, and in its own time. There are no precedents for this in Russian history.

One partial exception is the era of the Great Reforms in the 19th century. However, this was only possible because the ostensibly unshakeable political system of Tsar Nicholas I had collapsed. On that occasion, the authorities agreed to the establishment of an independent and irremovable judiciary. Soon after, in 1867, Alexander II reluctantly abandoned the idea of breaking the law by sacking Senator Lyuboshchinsky for delivering a critical address at the St Petersburg province zemstvo Diet. The Tsar may have believed that, while the influence of the bureaucracy would be limited, he would not be limiting his own prerogatives, which were supported by a tradition going back hundreds of years. Otherwise the issue would never have arisen. One can hardly expect the same naivety on the part of present-day state leaders.

The second, more likely, scenario is that a change in the socio-political situation will lead to a new unilateral revision of the contract between the state and the populace, with the latter once again clamouring for democratic rights. This revision under pressure from below could become quite dramatic. For we have no civilised procedures for dealing with crises. There is no strong opposition capable of putting forward alternative proposals for political and economic development.

The transition from communism

Let us consider the most significant differences between the experience of Russia's transition from socialism to the market economy and that of central and eastern Europe.

In the first place, unlike central and eastern Europe, Russia's democratic revolution did not go through a national-liberation, anti-imperial stage. It had no power to be liberated from, whereas eastern Europe liberated itself from the USSR, which it identified with Russia. The same, incidentally, applies equally to a number of countries of the present-day CIS. In those countries, politicians who went on to become proponents of a European path of development first appeared on the political arena as fighters against the Empire.

In Russia, the situation was different. The political opposition to the Soviet regime used both populist and liberal slogans (Boris Yeltsin being one of its most charismatic leaders). But it could not invoke the rhetoric of national liberation rhetoric. For in Russia it was not clear what power it could liberate itself from. For it could not liberate itself from itself, the USSR having been effectively only alias of the Russian empire.

When the Russian electorate voted for the democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the overwhelming majority of them did not want the empire to fall. Nor did they want Russia's influence on the international stage to be weakened. They were voting for leaders who would be more honest, just and humane.

Central and eastern Europe chose the European way as their national goal. That choice was shared both by the elites and most of the public. But even the westernisers in Russia did not regard the idea of Russia's integration into Europe as relevant for the foreseeable future. Europe does not want to absorb Russia, with all its ambitions and peculiarities and vast size, any more than Russia wants to become part of Europe. For a start, this would mean having to obey the European Union's rules.

Russia has always seen itself as a global centre of influence, alongside Europe but not within it. The European idea, which east European liberals, socialists and conservatives have been able to put into practice, is no more than an ideological factor in Russia. It has no practical incarnation. In some matters, such as the abolition of capital punishment and tolerance towards minorities, this factor is a positive annoyance to the public. Similar attitudes do exist in the countries which have already been integrated into Europe, but in Russia they are even more widespread.

Thus, Russia's transition from communism presents a contradictory phenomenon, accompanied as it is by a rise in imperial sentiment. This is not the only instance of this in our country's history, however. In the 1860s the Great Reforms were unquestionably liberal. They liberated the peasantry from serfdom, introduced trial by jury on par with the best European practices, established local self-government (in zemstvos and in municipalities), and led to a fairer system of manning the army. Yet an overwhelming majority of Russians came out against the 1863 Polish uprising. They regarded it as an act of aggression against the territorial integrity of the Russian empire. Russian radicals, who were sympathetic to the uprising, found themselves politically and ideologically isolated. The famous periodical Kolokol, for instance, which was published in exile by Alexander Herzen, experienced a sharp decline in its reputation as a result of its support for the uprising. Even during this period of liberalisation, the society's imperial mindset never wavered. That mindset is still very much in evidence today.

This raises the question as to why the reaction of Russian society to the amicable divorce of the Soviet republics in the early 1990s was relatively peaceful. The sharp deterioration of the socio-economic situation played its part: many people had to focus on survival, rather than ponder the fate of their empire.

People were also inclined to see these events as temporary: a few years down the line they imagined that the former republics would reunite, albeit on a new and fairer basis. By the time the economic situation improved and the illusions started to fade, the former republics had already established themselves as independent states, and the new realities had taken shape and stabilised. This does not mean that the imperial sentiment had disappeared, of course. On the contrary, it has strengthened since the political and economic situation normalised. Yet it is growing increasingly nostalgic. However, this nostalgia does not incline today's Russia to turn towards Europe either.

What future for the European choice?

This analysis would not appear to leave Russia much room for the European choice today. Yet things are not that cut-and-dried. Russia and Europe have their differences, and these will not be resolved immediately. There are encouraging symptoms, however.

Firstly, Russian society today is much more open than at any other period of its history. Between the 18th and early 20th centuries, a tiny percentage of the country's population (the most ‘progressive', perhaps, but hopelessly far removed from most of their compatriots) could travel freely to the west and absorb its culture. For most people the notion of Europe was purely theoretical.

Today, millions of Russians travel abroad every year, for reasons ranging from education to tourism. This erodes negative stereotypes and leads to better mutual understanding. The world is also becoming increasingly globalised, thanks to mobile telephones, satellite television and the internet, among other things. This information technology also helps the exchange of ideas, mutual understanding and dialogue.

Economic ties between Russia and Europe are expanding too. Europe has been investing in the Russian economy in recent years, since the growth of the economy and political stability made the country more attractive to investors. As for the cultural ties between nations, those have remained strong even when the political temperature was chilly. Take the recent opening in Moscow of Andrzej Wajda's latest film, Katyn, for example. Despite the rise in tension between the two countries in recent years, a significant Russian public responded strongly to Polish culture and its illustrious representative.

The European model of development, combining modern market economy with a high degree of social protection, remains highly attractive. Moreover, Europe itself remains a respectable point of reference even for groups in Russian society which are anti-liberal and essentially anti-European. For instance, proponents of a stronger involvement of the Orthodox church in state affairs often cite the example of the British monarch, who is officially head of the Church of England. Opponents of sexual minorities invoke not only Russia's national traditions but also the ban on gay parades in Warsaw imposed by its then mayor, Lech Kaczynski.

The fact that opposing, and often ideologically irreconcilable political forces invoke European practices proves that Russia does not have a pronounced anti-European bias. The main irritant of Russian public opinion on the world stage is the United States, which should come as no surprise in the wake of the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

So, despite its illiberal historical tradition, significant factors point Russia in the direction of Europe. It will be a long evolutionary process, admittedly. There will be advances and reversals. What happens to those prospects will depend largely on the political will of people in Russia and the states and societies of Europe.


Alexei Makarkin is an analyst and deputy director at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. He was previously a journalist at the Segodnya daily newspaper.

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