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"Virtual politics" in the ex-Soviet bloc

Andrew Wilson
17 July 2007

It is now a commonplace to call Russia a "managed democracy", a "directed democracy", or worse. Commentators have also begun to write about the techniques by which post-Soviet democracies are "managed", known locally under the euphemism of "political technology" (see, for example, Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style", 16 November 2006).

Andrew Wilson is senior lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London. Among his books are The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2002), Ukraine's Orange Revolution (Yale University Press, 2005), Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World (Yale University Press, 2005)

Also by Andrew Wilson in openDemocracy:

"Ukraine's crisis of governance"
(1 May 2007)This short article will examine three key changes since my book on the subject, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World was finished in 2004. First, it looks at the effects of Ukraine's "orange revolution" of 2004-05, which was in origin a revolt against the manipulation of democracy. It has proven fatal to some types of political technology, but not to all. Second, the piece adds a few words about the development of so-called "counter-revolutionary technology", designed to prevent the spread of "coloured revolutions" to other post-Soviet states. Third, it looks at developments in Russia, where problems of over-management and taut control have now come to the fore.

Political technology in post-orange Ukraine

Many of those demonstrating in Kiev and elsewhere in 2004 hoped to usher in a new era of politics without political technology. Certainly, highly-paid Russian and Ukrainian piarchiki were nowhere near as prominent at the subsequent elections in 2006. The Party of Regions shifted to United States consultants instead. However, the revolution that sought to overcome the corruption of post-Soviet democracy has been disappointing. To see why, it is worth examining three key types of political technology, and why their survival prospects have been different.

The first of these is the virtual objects or fake parties that political technologists have used to dupe voters in the past - a "Green" Party in 1998, a "Women for the Future" party in 2002. There was a learning lag after the orange revolution, with business elites launching similar projects for the 2006 elections, many with million-dollar budgets; but all were vulnerable to Ukraine's new media freedom. Armed with better information, Ukrainian voters are harder to fool. Too many "brand parties" could now be linked to sponsors representing completely different brands.

The "small business" party Viche failed because it was too obviously backed by one particular big businessman, who had supported a similar party in 2002. The "People's Party" aimed at rural and small-town Ukraine failed because its backers were big-city slickers like the outgoing parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. The failure of the fake ecological party Eko+25%, backed by the Industrial Union of the Donbas, was due to the aptness of the sponsors' name. Most notably of all, Natalya Vitrenko's "People's Opposition" never recovered from interior minister Yurii Lutsenko's detailed critique of many of its candidates' criminal backgrounds on primetime TV.

That said, the "exposure effect" was not complete. Vitrenko is still around and may well get in next time (elections are scheduled for 30 September 2007). Disillusionment with the "orange parties", and with the Party of Regions since it returned to government in July 2006, has created the political space for rebranding and relaunching. Many projects were just badly designed in 2006.

The second type of political technology that remains deep-rooted in Ukraine is the culture of "black PR" and "information wars". Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma was once famously described as a "blackmail state", though it could just as well have been called a "blackmail society". All the powerful groups had information, or kompromat, on one another; this created an equilibrium of sorts, but also a difficult situation to quit. Good intentions after 2004 were never going to be enough to end this type of standoff. The culture of mutually assured destruction remained barely suppressed, both within the orange camp and between the orange camp and its opponents. Crucially, a freer media may actually increase the temptation to use kompromat, or at least the fear that others may do so first - so you must get your blow in before your opponent. In this sense, perhaps, the orange revolution was doomed to devour itself. Moreover, information wars may only fade away as the supply of kompromat dries up - which may take a generation or more, even if a more civilised business climate and less corrupt politics are able to develop.

A third type of political technology is dramaturgiia , which is the reshaping of politics as highly choreographed event, the concoction of stories to shift political events in one's favour, or to sell a particular party or politician. In the new media environment, stories that are patently absurd or obviously a cover to promote particular interests are difficult to sell. But latent valence issues can still be manipulated at times of convenience. Voters don't have to "buy" dramaturgiia in the same way as they have to buy fake parties; passive acquiescence as the script unfolds will suffice.

The anti-Nato campaign orchestrated by the Party of Regions in the summer of 2006 is a classic example - a real issue exploited to lever certain business interests into government. President Viktor Yushchenko himself has described his extended confrontation with parliament in 2007 as "virtual politics". He is summarised as saying: "Unlike the eruption of people power" in 2004, "which saw millions risk their lives for democracy, today's protestors are hired guns; bussed in from the countryside to protest for $20 a day. This (is a) pastiche of the orange revolution in reverse". This type of "technology" is kept alive by cynical post-Bolshevik elites that see politics as war by other means.

Counter-revolutionary technology

In 2005-06 there was much speculation about where and when the next "coloured revolution" might take place. But regimes are just as capable of learning as oppositions. The elections in Belarus in March 2006 were notable for the successful attempt to disable all the key potential triggers of "electoral revolutions", such as youth movements, election monitors and exit polls. Foreign involvement was kept to a minimum - the key Kremlin ideologist Modest Kolerov has talked of the "de-internationalisation" of post-Soviet space. Also on Ukraine's post-orange politics in openDemocracy:

Alexander Motyl, "How Ukrainians became citizens" (November 2004)

Ivan Krastev, "Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction"
(16 December 2004)

Alexander Motyl, "Democracy is alive in Ukraine"
(12 September 2005)

Alexander Motyl, "Ukraine's new political complexion" (24 March 2006)

Taras Kuzio, "Ukraine: free elections, kamikaze president"
(28 March 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Ukraine's inspiring boredom"
(4 April 2006)

Alexander Motyl, "Ukraine and Russia: divergent political paths"
(17 August 2006)

Alexander Motyl, "Two years after the Orange revolution: Ukraine in a funk"
(22 December 2006)

All revolutions need crowds, but the regime had refined its crowd-management tactics, gradually reducing numbers by controlling re-entry to Belarus's main ‘October" Square, before the apparent use of agents provocateurs to justify a crackdown once most of the international media had left Minsk. Election-day itself, and the expected steal, was rendered less important by four days of early voting. New legislation and draconian threats completely altered the cost-benefit calculus of potential demonstrators, especially those less pre-committed who would be needed to raise numbers to a tipping-point (see Margot Letain, "The 'denim revolution': a glass half full", 11 April 2006). Clever propaganda isolated the demonstrators from any potential hinterland of social support (demonstrators were prevented from setting up mobile toilets, and were then filmed "poisoning the city's water-supply" - a manhole).

New types of political technology and even "soft power" have also been deployed. The authorities are now much better attuned to the use and abuse of the internet than they were in 2004. Russia allegedly launched a "cyberwar" on Estonia in May 2007 during the row over the shifting of a Soviet war monument. Fake supporters for Russia-friendly initiatives now appear on the net. The Kremlin has promoted the Proryv ("Corporation"), a sort of paramilitary NGO umbrella, in Russia's "near abroad"; and the Nashi franchise, designed as a mirror-image of "coloured" opposition youth movements such as Ukraine's Pora or Georgia's Kmara!.

"Taut" technology in Russia

Russia's problems, however, are not just a question of keeping opponents down or out. It management of democracy is such that it now faces problems of over-management and "taut control". The fact that the Kremlin is now the only significant player in virtual politics also makes its efforts too visible, and risks imposing too much monopoly strain on the system. Smaller projects probably have better chances of slipping in under the radar. Larger projects get too much attention.

The Kremlin may want to create a two-party system for the 2007-08 election cycle, but it is far from clear that the second pillar, "Just Russia" will be a success. One of its progenitors, Rodina, was always a complex phenomenon that posed severe management problems for a Kremlin that has been unsure whether to co-opt or control its particular political niche, and which has always been nervous of a genuine grassroots nationalist movement it could not command. Moreover, in "theatre politics", the audience's attention has to be engaged.

But arguably the personality of leaders like Dmitry Rogozin was the key reason why so many voted for Rodina in 2003. They grew too independent and were forced out, but without them the new "Kremlin 2" project may flop like its predecessor the Rybkin bloc in 1995. Finally, the proposed "script" - the myths that Just Russia is an outsider party that is being victimised by United Russia, and that Just Russia is against United Russia but is pro-Putin - is a hard sell. Just Russia may end up winning plenty of seats of course, but it may have to be loaned "administrative resources" to do so.

Another potential pathology is overkill. The 7% target for qualification to win seats in the Duma should be effective in keeping challengers out, but it will be interesting to see if this is regarded as enough. The Kremlin's instinct is still to humiliate potential challengers. It will be indicative if there is still a role for "clones" and "flies" in the 2007 campaign (the launch of artificial spoiler parties to take votes off real rivals). This would in any case likely raise less fuss internationally than the main alternative of judicial deregistration.

Information wars are alive and well in Russia, but in this sphere the Kremlin's monopoly is less secure. Whereas the main oligarchs are in at least temporary retirement from running party "projects" since the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, they need to maintain media influence to run information wars for commercial purposes. Moreover, there is no logical reason why Putin's settlement with the oligarchs could have been backdated to the destruction of kompromat. On the contrary, rival groups can be expected to have kept whatever materials they had, and the Kremlin has not been able to choke off the supply of new kompromat, which often comes through privatised KGB services. Also, the deliberately arbitrary nature of Russian law "enforcement" (the "principle of suspended punishment") means it would be advisable to bolster up defences (see Alena V Ledeneva, How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (Cornell University Press, 2006).

The Kremlin and the oligarchs are therefore still jointly involved in corrupting media space via information wars, which are therefore much more likely to break out again in 2007-08, particularly if the current succession struggle fails to produce a clear winner. Elite unity is only skin-deep.

What then will be the role of dramaturgiia in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2007-08? One big irony is that this time it may not actually be necessary for victory, but the Kremlin elite may be addicted to it. A calm and well-organised transfer of power would hardly count as an election at all. Moreover, unlike in Ukraine, there are fewer restrictions on possible dramaturgiia. Political technologists have a dangerous freedom to experiment.

So what might the big story be next time around? You can't repeat the same trick twice, though another oligarch might serve the same sacrificial function as Khodorkovsky in 2003 if he were more representative of the now derided 1990s, an Anatoly Chubais or a Boris Berezovsky. Some political technologists have oversold the idea of an "orange threat" in Russia to justify their own power and exorbitant fees. Islamic extremism is also a tempting target. Sometimes it seems that any enemy will do. A variety of foreign targets (America, Georgia, Estonia, the OSCE) can help rally support for newly nationalist leaders.

The most important temptation towards dramaturgiia, however, is its relationship to Russia's succession dilemma. Democracies smooth political transitions, but Russia's current political system cannot. The transfer of political power also means a potential transfer of property and income, and a likely redistribution fight amongst elites. Dramaturgiia could solve this problem in either of two opposite ways. One possibility is that a successful narrative could aid rapid elite reconsolidation. The other is that dramaturgiia will be the cover story to define the likely losers in the succession struggle.

The arts of control

The post-Soviet states still practice forms of political manipulation that are more radical, more pervasive and more corrosive of real democracy than anything attempted by spin-doctors or K-Street consultants in the west. And they are still preferred to, though often combined with, cruder and more obviously authoritarian methods. The corruption of the political process is as important as the falsification of election results.

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