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The new Russia: a model state

George Schöpflin
27 February 2008

The new Russia is changing in a number of unpredictable ways, but it is beginning to challenge the west in an area hitherto thought sacrosanct - respect for democracy. Even as the country prepares to vote in the presidential election of 2 March 2008, the character of this change is increasingly evident both in Russia's domestic political system and in the exercise of its power abroad.

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 It has been clear for a while that under Vladimir Putin, Russia's so-called "sovereign democracy" had next to nothing in common with the democratic norms practised in the west; that, on the contrary, the gap between the two has been increasing. The Putin model seems to have little or no room for four key propositions at the heart of democracy:

* that citizens should be able to make inputs into the power of the state

* that power should be exercised with the consent of the governed

* that power should be transparent and accountable

* that tax money should be spent with the benefit of the citizens in mind.

In a word, Russia has moved towards a form of authoritarianism, one that appears stable and has sufficient domestic support to keep it going. The certain victory of Putin's anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in the presidential election - and the nature of the electoral process itself - amply illustrate these trends.

Also by George Schöpflin in openDemocracy:

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy" (9 July 2006)

Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity (7 August 2006)

"Hungary: country without consequences"
(21 September 2006)

Hungary's cold civil war (14 November 2006)

The European Union's troubled birthday (23 March 2007)

Russia's reinvented empire (2 May 2007)

European Union: after the reform treaty (10 July 2007)

Turkey's crisis and the European Union (23 July 2007)In its relations with the rest of the world, however, Russia is adopting a much more aggressive posture, buoyed up by the extraordinarily high price of energy and other raw materials. Russia has intervened blatantly in the internal affairs of those of its neighbours that would like to move towards a western idea of democracy - Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states can all testify to this. There are other, less noisy interventions in the former Soviet satellites; and even some in the west itself.

What is new is the Russian readiness to support authoritarians in the European Union and elsewhere in the world. The EU regards democracy as integral to its identity (part of its DNA, in the phrase of Portuguese prime minister, José Sócrates, in transferring his country's presidency of the EU to Slovenia in December 2007). This stance, however, tends to proceed from the flawed assumption that democracy is the default condition of the world - so that with a little help, any state can be propelled towards attaining it. Russia has begun to regard the implied "democracy agenda" as a threat and a challenge, and has found the counter-instruments to spread authoritarianism.

The use of the energy weapon is the most widely recognised of these. Russia has since 2006 enjoyed considerable success in this area, for example by putting together bilateral deals that lock states into the embrace of the giant Gazprom company. This allows Russia to exert subsequent pressure on its putative partners. Moreover, it can use its United Nations Security Council veto as leverage to extend international crises, as over Kosovo (Kosova).

The crisis over Kosovan independence has allowed Russia to consolidate its already great influence over Serbia. This is directed at capturing Serbia's energy infrastructure and simultaneously seeking to block Serbia's eventual EU membership by encouraging like-minded authoritarians. The success of Tomislav Nikolic in the first round of Serbia's presidential elections was in this respect a welcome development from Moscow's point of view; and though the pro-western Boris Tadic did win in the second round, his wafer-thin majority reflected the size of the constituency open to the Russian message.

A slow succession

The Soviet Union's former communist placemen constitute an obvious network of influence, which Russia uses with alacrity. This is not merely a matter of KGB-trained secret policemen still in positions of power or former communist officials rebranded as "socialists", but also involves a significant number of middle- to senior-level foreign ministry and foreign-trade officials, as well as businessmen (or, in a few cases, businesswomen), and journalists. Many were, during the Soviet period, socialised into regarding Russia as a source of influence and power.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society:

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)

Mary Dejevsky, "After Putin" (21 September 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski"Vladimir Putin for ever" (2 October 2007)

Anna Sevortian, "Russia: seeds of change" (20 November 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The future is ours: Russia's youth activists in dialogue" (19 January 2008)
In the Boris Yeltsin years, these ties were left largely dormant, but they are now being reactivated. As a result, if there is a conflict of interest between the west and Russia, some of those in Moscow's orbit will certainly opt for the resurgent Russia with its rewards, lucrative contracts and other benefits from the energy bonanza. The FSB, the self-conscious successor of the KGB, is actively pursuing these objectives.

In addition, the Russian minorities outside Russia are being actively targeted; they include both the approximately 2 million in the Baltic states and the new migrant communities throughout western Europe. Around 250,000 Russian live in London alone; it is inconceivable that the FSB is not active among them.

The system being brought into life by Russia involves the state providing susceptible elites with access to rewards while the remainder of the population is either ignored or (as far as possible) marginalised by communicative techniques and so-called "political technologies". The strategy involves forms of political re-engineering that produce a rent-seeking elite and a population allowed just enough in the way of material benefits to keep it docile, but with next to no say in politics. Elections - and the 2 December 2007 parliamentary polls are as apt an example as the presidential ones of 2 March - are constructed in such a way as to produce the simulacrum of an opposition; before, during and after them, the aura of the leader is built up in a way designed to make him appear to transcend politics.

The free-ride's end

There is very little chance that the west (whether the United States or the European Union) can do much to halt the trend, though greater awareness of the new Russian foreign-policy strategy would help. The Putin elite, many of them with KGB backgrounds - the siloviki - are still relatively new in power and (like most newly empowered elites) see no reason for restraint, let alone to make compromises. They will pursue their objective of building up Russia's economic positions with political resonance wherever and whenever they can. The Russians' readiness to exploit the west's naivete about the new mixture of economic power and political strength is quite open.

There is a further, rather worrying lesson to be drawn from this. The west has had a free ride since the collapse of communism, during which time democracy really was the only game in town and authoritarianism appeared to be on the run. The international environment made authoritarianism unacceptable. Russia is looking to reverse this and wherever possible give aid and comfort to authoritarians, natural allies of Moscow. The readiness to legitimate authoritarians and thereby weaken the west's vision of a stable and democratic world is evident, though the west has still to recognise this Russian initiative for what it is.

Russia's dislike of democracy can be given long-term historical explanations; but equally cogent is the straightforward fact that the experiment with democracy (of a sort) in the 1990s was a failure - and, worse, is seen by a majority of Russians as such. A similar broad judgment can be made in relation to several Latin American countries and to some extent southeastern Europe; and even in central Europe, the success of democracy is at best partial (the Slovak National Party - a member of the governing coalition - is hardly the best advertisement for democratic tolerance)

A global competition

A key element in permitting this democratic retreat has been the same in each region: the dominance of the belief that democracy consists of elections and not much else. No attention was paid in the relevant countries to establishing and maintaining the infrastructure needed to make democracy work: the rule of law, transparency, and accountability being the most salient. Worse, the west wholly misunderstood the commitment to democracy of the post-communist leftwing governments in central Europe, as this commitment existed largely on paper; instead, using the spaces created by globalisation, the former communist nomenklatura saw a chance to get rich and continue to do so. This, clearly, was a welcome development from Moscow's perspective.

The openDemocracy network includes a new Russia section edited by Hugh Barnes; its articles include:

Lesley Chamberlain, "From Russia: the art of engagement" (30 January 2008)

In broader terms, the linkage between democracy and globalisation - the belief that a wholly free and unregulated capital market would somehow produce democracy - has proved thoroughly unhelpful to democracy, as those opposed to the damage done by globalisation have been able to indict democratic practices as a co-culprit. The excesses of globalisation have begun to generate resistance, and non-democratic ideas and practices have re-emerged in states where democracy was newly established.

In Russia, where democratic roots are weak anyway, rolling back democratic institutions, like civil society, has been straightforward. Vladimir Putin does not have to pay much regard to the electorate which can (to the degree necessary) be "fixed" once every four years by using money and media manipulation. Russia's authoritarian allies have been taking heart from the success of the Putin model and have begun to rely on similar vulnerabilities: a weak civil society; low institutional authority and corresponding preference for arranging things through personal contacts; wielding legal provision for political purposes (misusing health-and-safety regulations and tax legislation are excellent examples); and intimidation of the media.

What Russia under Vladimir Putin has been doing - and there are no signs that the model will change after he ceases to be president - is to support a particular type of authoritarian governance. It entails:

* the creation of a rent-seeking elite

* "informalism"

* exclusion of society from power

* over-regulation to prevent legal clarity

* privileges for allies

* sanctions for opponents

* exploiting the west's near-religious faith in globalisation as "a good thing".

Democracy now has a serious and active competitor in globalised authoritarianism. Unless there is an early and widespread realisation of this, the stability and democracy advocated by the west will continue to experience severe setbacks.

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