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Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Sunday Tract: On Neo-Soviet Ideology

Some people (idiots, mostly) claim that the Russia is different from the USSR in that it lacks ideology. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in the Washington Post, shows that they couldn't be more wrong.

Ideology matters again. The big development of recent years is the rise not only of great powers but also of the great-power autocracies of Russia and China. True realism about the international scene begins with understanding how this unanticipated shift will shape our world.

Many believe that when Chinese and Russian leaders stopped believing in communism, they stopped believing in anything. They had become pragmatists, pursuing their own and their nation's interests. But Chinese and Russian rulers, like past rulers of autocracies, do have a set of beliefs that guide their domestic and foreign policies. They believe in the virtues of strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. They believe strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to be respected in the world. Chinese and Russian leaders are not just autocrats. They believe in autocracy.

And why shouldn't they? In Russia and China, growing national wealth and autocracy have proved compatible, contrary to predictions in the liberal West. Moscow and Beijing have figured out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political activity. People making money will keep their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses will be cut off if they don't. New wealth gives autocracies a greater ability to control information -- to monopolize television stations and control Internet traffic, for instance -- often with the assistance of foreign corporations eager to do business with them.

In the long run, rising prosperity may produce political liberalism, but how long is the long run? It may be too long to have strategic or geopolitical relevance.

In the meantime, the power and durability of these autocracies will shape the international system. The world is not about to embark on a new ideological struggle of the sort that dominated the Cold War. But the new era, rather than being a time of common values and shared interests, will be one of growing tensions and sometimes confrontation between the forces of democracy and those of autocracy.

If autocracies have their own set of beliefs, they also have their own set of interests. China's and Russia's rulers are pragmatic chiefly in protecting their continued rule. Their interest in self-preservation shapes their approach to foreign policy.

Russia is a good example of how a nation's governance affects its relations with the world. A democratizing Russia, and even Mikhail Gorbachev's democratizing Soviet Union, took a fairly benign view of NATO and tended to have good relations with neighbors that were treading the same path toward democracy. But Vladimir Putin regards NATO as a hostile entity, calls its enlargement "a serious provocation" and asks "against whom is this expansion intended?" Yet NATO is less provocative and threatening toward Moscow today than it was in Gorbachev's time.

So what is it that Putin fears about NATO? It is not the military power. It is the democracy.

The post-Cold War world looks different from autocratic Beijing and Moscow than it does from democratic Washington, London, Paris, Berlin or Brussels. The "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine, so celebrated in the West, worried Putin because they checked his regional ambitions and because he feared their examples could be repeated in Russia. Even today he warns against "jackals" in Russia who "got a crash course from foreign experts, got trained in neighboring republics and will try here now."

American and European policymakers say they want Russia and China to integrate into the international liberal order, but it is not surprising if Russian and Chinese leaders are wary. Can autocrats enter the liberal international order without succumbing to the forces of liberalism?

Afraid of the answer, the autocracies are understandably pushing back, with some effect. Autocracy is making a comeback. The modern liberal mind at "the end of history" has trouble understanding the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world. But changes in the ideological complexion of the most influential world powers have always had some effect on the choices made by leaders of smaller nations. Fascism was in vogue in Latin America in the 1930s and '40s partly because it seemed successful in Italy, Germany and Spain. The rising power of democracies in the last years of the Cold War, culminating in communism's collapse after 1989, contributed to the global wave of democratization. The rise of two powerful autocracies may shift the balance back again.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, welcomes the return of ideological competition. "For the first time in many years," he boasts, "a real competitive environment has emerged on the market of ideas" between different "value systems and development models." And the good news, from the Kremlin's perspective, is that "the West is losing its monopoly on the globalization process."

All this comes as an unwelcome surprise to a democratic world that believed such competition ended when the Berlin Wall fell. It's time to wake up from the dream.


Anonymous said...

The supporters of democracy should welcome the comeback of competition in the sphere of international politics - after all, competition is the locomotive force of progress and monopolism leads to stagnation and decay. Maybe in the atmosphere of competition the economic results of "colored revolutions" will be less disastrous than they are in present-day Ukraine and Georgia.

Concerned Citizen said...

Vot-tak-tak: There you go again, making fun of Ukraine and Georgia, just because they aren't ruled by a cabal of "former" intelligence thugs who ensure "stabilnost" by taking over all the mass media and supressing all opposition. Feel superior? Let me give you a little hint here on the likelihood of your succeeding in this comptetion: no one in Ukraine or Georgia wants to have a political system like yours in Russia. And your ridiculing them every time they go through a slow democratic process to resolve their differences is making you no more friends than your endless, stupid jokes about salo.

concerned citizen said...

The above article is a great explication of the hidden ideology of Putin and other post-communist strongmen. But it misses one important characteristic of the Russian version: Russia has a deep-seated need to view itself and be recognized by others as "democratic". It can't rely on the economic successes and blind nationalism of China to ensure its legitimacy. For a variety of historical reasons, it is cut of a different, more European cloth.

This is different from the communists' obsession with inserting the word "Democratic" and "People's" into country names and everything else. It is not enough simply to strip the word of its meaning through overuse. They really want people in their own country and the West to believe they their own "sovereign" version of democracy is as good -- as democratic -- as Western varieties.

And this will be their undoing. Because with every election they will have to go through the same farce again: the jailing of opponents, the suppression of political rallies, the formation of "anti-Orange" youth brigades, the purchasing of legions of "experts" to fill Western op-ed columns with distracting nonsense, the exclusion of election monitors from the West... and then the final nervous breath-holding as (just to be on the safe side) the voting itself is falsified. Every time, it will become a little more precarious, especially as everyone remembers the last farce, and realizes it isn't getting any better.

The Chinese Communist Party doesn't have to go through this humiliating exercise every time it changes leadership. No one sniggers behind the back of Hu Jin-Tao, saying he wasn't really elected, or is just a "figurehead". But they're doing it to Medvedev, more every day. And in a few years he (or more to the point, Russia) is going to have to go through this embarassing, dangerous process again. Welcome to the new "stabilnost" of your Sovereign Dermocracy, Russia.

Anonymous said...

2concerned citizen - You are right: Ukraine and Georgia are not "ruled by a cabal of "former" intelligence thugs". They are ruled by pro-Western sycophants who are - surpruse, surprise - married to citizens of foreign countries. :) However, it is not Russians who have to go to Georgia and Ukraine in order to make a living; the situation is quite the opposite. So you can't fill your stomach with democracy, can you?

concerned citizen said...

So Russia is economically stronger than Ukraine/Georgia because it is an authoritarian dictatorship? Certainly a novel analysis, vottaktak.

Actually, Russia is somewhat wealthier than Ukraine and Georgia -- at least for now -- solely because Russia exports a lot of oil and natural gas. That is probably also a major reason why Russia, like a lot of energy-exporting countries, has an authoritarian government: the easy money attracts the thugs like flies. Basically, Russia is nowadays nothing but a large Central Asian dictatorship, and most of its neighbors know it.

In light of that, to claim that Russia and Georgia would be better off back under the Russian yoke would be a pretty tough sell. But if you wanted to, Vottaktak, you COULD try and sell that idea to the Ukrainian and Georgian people, because they now have functioning democracies with a free mass media. Which is a lot more than we can say for Russia.

Anonymous said...

Dear Concerned Citizen: it may come as a surprise to you, but when Ukraine and Georgia were "under the Russian yoke" (i.e., during the Soviet epoch) their standard of living was uncomparably higher than that of their presumed Russian "oppressors". This is especially true in respect of Georgia: in a large isolated country with a cold climate, even substandard fruit, tea, flowers and wine from it sold like hot cakes throughout the USSR. However, Georgians thought they would be even better off under the Great White Bwana from beyond the Atlantic Ocean - and so they seceded from the USSR. However, although their President gets his salary from the Soros Fund (!), they lead lives of misery - and when your child has to go to bed hungry, "functioning democracy" (hand-controlled from the US embassy) and "free mass media" are rather poor consolations. So, like East Germans of old, the Georgians and the Ukrainians are voting with their feet, going to Russia to do all kinds of odd jobs and even to engage in prostitution so that their families back home in the "beacons of democracy" wouldn't starve.

As to your notion that Russia has a higher living standard solely because "it exports a lot of oil and natural gas" - I would like to remind you that Japan (governed by a Divine Emperor and a parliament where the Liberal Democratic Party holds a majority for half a century) or Singapore (a one-man dictatorship) do not export any oil and gas - but living standards there are a lot higher than in Ukraine and Georgia as well.

concerned citizen said...

Both Japan and Singapore have much more press freedom than exists in Russia. And neither place relies on "extrajudicial punishments" the way Russia does to maintain its status quo. That's because neither place is run by a cabal of former intelligence thugs. (Neither, for that matter, was the Soviet Union of the 1980s, which in many ways was a safer place to voice dissent than modern-day Russia.) Put simply: if Russians want to develop by the model of the "Asian tigers", they will need to put the thugs back in their place, not at the helm of the country. They need to put the businessmen in charge of the government, not corrupt government officials in charge of the businesses.

But then, that's not really possible, is it? Because as soon as you subordinate the security services to anyone else, all the bones of their previous misdeeds come spilling out of the closet -- all the Litvinenkos, Politkovskayas, Khodorkovskys, etc, etc -- to say nothing of all the hunreds of billions of dollars that have been sent to Swiss bank accounts by the siloviki since Putin came to power -- they all come dancing out into the open. And then you get the lustration that should have been done back in 1992.

Being good chess-playing Russians, the Siloviki will never allow that to happen, as long as they have a single piece left on the board.

As for Ukrainians going to bed hungry, I doubt it happens any more. But it certainly did, back when the Russians were in charge. And the fact that Russia to this day refuses to acknowledge its role in the genocidal crime of the Holodomor seriously undermines the credibility of Russians like you who say they want to see a better-fed Ukraine.

Anonymous said...

Dear Concerned Citizen: Since there is no way you can twist the Ukrainian-Russian migration statistics to suit your purposes, you are changing the subject. :) There was a time in the recent history of Russia when such "businessmen" as Berezovsky, Gusinsky and Khodorkovsky were in charge of the government - the 1990s. The overwhelming majority of Russians considers those years as a disaster.

As to the 1932/33 famine, there is no evidence that it was specifically targeted against ethnic Ukrainians. Among famished areas then were southern regions of Russia, Siberia and even Kazakhstan. By the way, in Russian and Ukrainian the word for famine is golodomor, but "orange" Ukrainian wheeler-dealers used the Ukrainian fricative G to transcribe the world in English as "holodomor" so that it would resemble the Holocaust. :( I find this "PR on human bones" quite disgusting.

concerned citizen said...

Vottaktak: Regarding migration of Ukrainian workers, I acknowledged it: Russia is somewhat wealthier than Ukraine and Georgia, so of course it attracts workers from these countries. In the case of Georgia, Russia's relaive wealth also attracts merchants, who have a very strong sense for commerce and used to dominate the outdoor markets until Putin kicked them out because they were not part of (in his words) the "core population". I simply doubt Russia's wealth is a result of its authoritarian style of government -- I especially took issue with your comment that "you can't fill your stomach with democracy", so it seemed logical to move on to that point. I think in a few years, Russians will discover you can't fill your stomach with autocracy either.

Now as regards the holodomor, I am very disappointed in you, vottaktak. Surely, as an expert on Ukraine, you know that in Ukrainian the cyrillic letter "г" is pronounced as an "h", while in Russian it is pronounced as a "g". They suffered it, they get to name it. And I understand Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko recently opened an institute for the study of the Holodomor, which will have broad access to the Soviet government archives that exist in Ukraine. I think from this we will soon get a much clearer picture of what happened in Ukraine in the 1930's. Nice hovoriting with you, vottaktak. ;-)

Anonymouse said...

CC: Didn't you know? - Ukrainians pronounce their g's like h's just to annoy Russians. And other than that, there is actually no difference between the two languages. Just ask any Russian.

VTT: Actually, though, I think the Ukrainians started playing this naughty trick on their big brothers long before the Holodomor/Golodomor.