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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stormclouds on Russia's Political Horizon: Putin's Time of Troubles

Interesting, very interesting. When last we heard from an obscure little dweeb named Andreas Umland, he was spouting a torrent of outrageous lies about Ukraine in the Moscow Times. Maybe he got knocked on the head (or maybe it was LR's withering blast that awakened his common sense), but now he's talking sense about Russia. Writing again in the Moscow Times Umland (now suddenly identifed as "a former visiting fellow at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford"), in addition to being editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, says that there may be stormclouds on Russia's political horizon:

President Vladimir Putin's decision to head the federal list of United Russia in the State Duma elections may one day be seen as the worst bungle in his biography as a statesman.

The foreseeable result of the outgoing president's unexpected foray into parliamentary affairs will be a crushing victory for United Russia in the December election. The party of bureaucrats -- an organization that did not even exist five years ago -- will probably receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Since many of the remaining votes will be spent on parties that have little chance of overcoming the new 7 percent barrier, the next Duma will presumably become entirely dominated by United Russia. So much that even ordinary Russians brainwashed by years of television idolatry of Putin and his policies may begin wondering why the country requires the institution of a parliament at all.

A major rationale of Putin's centralization policies over the last years was that Russia needs guidance from above in its transition to a full democracy. Many Russians and even some Western observers are convinced that Putin is playing a positive role in Russian history. After the painful years of chaos under Boris Yeltsin, the argument goes, Putin has finally put the creation of a new state under governmental control. Putin had to insert an authoritarian interregnum into the country's transition, providing stability, direction and confidence that society was craving by the end of the stormy 1990s.

Provisional electoral authoritarianism, as it has been argued, is a necessary steppingstone to a thorough modernization of Russia. As society itself was unable to create a functioning multiparty system from below, it could not help but install an enlightened transitional dictator to lay the foundations of an operational democracy from above. With Putin's direct participation in the Kremlin-manipulated party process and the country's resulting return to an almost single-party system, this story, however, will lose its credibility. The following formation of a new government as well as the presidential election next year will be reduced to manifestly formal procedures. That is because Putin is not entering party politics, but a political theater of sorts set up by his own assistants.

This "sovereign democracy" is an imitation rather than the Russian embodiment of democratic principles, such as political pluralism, division of power, checks and balances, an independent mass media and a strong civil society. A modern-day Don Quixote, Putin will be competing against artificial rivals and virtual opponents. He might also face some real enemies in political and civil society. These, however, have been suffering from years of more or less sophisticated intermingling by the Kremlin's "political technologists" as well as some crude harassment by agencies such as the police, the Prosecutor General's Office and the secret services. Thus, Putin will not only be entering a playing field where he is the only serious player. He will become part of a skewed game where his own assistants make the rules. Thus, he will not win but triumph. His few real and virtual competitors will not lose but be humiliated.

In view of this new turn of events, many Russian intellectuals will start asking themselves where the country will end up after the Putin era. With his new political system increasingly resembling the Soviet model, more and more educated Russians may start doubting whether Putin is leading the country in the right direction. As Russians' familiarity with politics outside the country is growing by the year, the Kremlin's overt domination of the entire political playground will look increasingly archaic. Whereas until now, the Russian political processes resembled -- at least on the surface -- those of the "civilized world," the future polity will start to look obviously different not only from the Western political systems, but also from the polities of countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine. It will increasingly resemble a number of states that have an ambivalent reputation among the enlightened parts of the Russian elite, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan and China.

With the re-emergence of a de facto one-party state, more Russians will begin to understand that the country is no longer following the path of the rest of Europe. Rather, it will be obviously moving in the opposite direction as it manifestly rejects some elementary principles of the "civilized world." To be sure, a considerable part of the elite -- the increasingly vociferous proponents of a "Russian special path" -- shall be delighted by their motherland's return to a monistic model of society. But others, especially the younger members of the elite, will realize that they are living in a country that increasingly isolates itself from the rest of the advanced countries with a Christian heritage. With its dubious mechanisms of transferring political power from one leader to the next, Russia has an uncertain future.

The medium-term consequences of Putin's surprising rush into -- and death blow against -- party politics will therefore be new divisions in the elite resembling the ones in the late 1980s. Nationalist hardliners will defend "the Putin system" as perhaps not entirely democratic, but peculiarly Russian and thus appropriate for their motherland. A new generation of cosmopolitan bureaucrats and journalists will not accept the remaining elements of the country's facade democracy as being sufficient, and they will voice their concern about the ability of the recentralized state and closed political society to react adequately to domestic and foreign challenges.

As Moscow's leaders will start quarreling again about whether their country should be a part of Europe or not, a new Time of Troubles may be lying ahead.

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