Vienna, August 21 – Sixteen years after the failed August 1991 coup which effectively put an end to the USSR, Russians now must confront the unpleasant fact that they missed “a beautiful chance” to achieve what most of their East European neighbors did at that time: break with the communist past and institutionalize democracy.
In an essay in advance of Russian Flag Day, which takes place tomorrow, Sergei Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentators on ethnicity and identity, offers a commentary on why things went right in Eastern Europe and why they did not in the Russian Federation (http://www.politcom.ru/print.php?id=4970).
Unlike many Russian democrats who nostalgically mark these anniversaries by behaving like first wave Russian emigrants or post-1991 Communists, Markedonov calls for an objective assessment of why the experiences of Russia and its neighbors have been so different than most expected at the time.
His fundamental argument is straightforward: In those cases where the struggle for democracy and the struggle for the Motherland were viewed as closely linked, there was a chance for a democratic breakthrough. But where they were not, democracy had few if any chances to flourish.
That is because in the absence of any sense among the population that democracy was part and parcel of the national struggle, people would almost inevitably come to “view democracy as something alien, imposed from abroad, and lacking the legitimation” even authoritarian traditions provide.
Most of the nations of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, have succeeded in institutionalizing democracy, Markedonov argues, precisely because their leaders and their populations always considered democracy to be a central goal of their various national projects.
In August 1991, he suggests, it appeared for a brief time that Russians might follow the same path, the Moscow analyst continues, because at that time Boris Yeltsin and the RSFSR government refused to play the roles that the Soviet authorities had assigned to them in the past.
That opened the door, Markedonov says, for the Russian government go break completely with that past and thus to reverse the relationship between people and state that had been true throughout Russian history up to that point. But for three reasons, the analyst suggests, that did not happen.
First, he says, “the victors of August” chose not to make an effort to understand why they had won and why the defenders of the old system had lost. Instead, most of the “reformers” often encouraged by the West who came into the government turned out to be “Marxists who absolutized economics and ignored the socio-cultural sphere.”
As a result, when things went wrong, the country’s ideological space came to be dominated by “the opponents of reform, supporters of ‘the uniqueness’ [of Russia], and xenophobes,” who blamed democracy for what was happening – a message no one at the very top of the Russian political elite did much to counter.
Second, Markedonov acknowledges, “the situation in Russia was “much more complex than that in Poland and the Baltic countries.” For people in the latter, “there was no particular difference between the Russian Empire, the USSR and the Russian Federation” – precisely the distinction the Russian political class needed to make.
Moreover, this political class had to make this distinction not with an axe but rather by careful “microscopic surgery,” in order to separate “communism from power, the state from the Fatherland, [and] the bureaucracy from the state (as a national symbol).”
“Alas,” Markedonov concludes, “Russian politicians [since 1991] were not prepared for such an effort.”
And third – and he argues that this is “the most important” of the three – “the August revolution awoke the Russian people and demonstrated that a political nation can form in Russia.” But very quickly, “representatives of the party nomenklatura” hijacked “the fruits of the victory” of August.
As has become more obvious with time, “the August revolution turned out to be a nomenklatura-bureaucratic one.” And for the nomenklatura, “the nation as the subject of the political process was [not only] uninteresting” but even at odds with their own goals and requirements.
“It is much easier to administer the population of the country as atomized groups (classes, ethnic communities, professional corporations, elite groups)” than to respond to the nation as a whole and serve its interests as a well-functioning democracy inevitably requires.
And that tragedy was compounded by others, Markedonov insists. In post-1991 Russia, no counter-elite has arisen whose member did not also have their origins in precisely the same communist-era nomenklatura, including the country’s business leaders.
Most of them were content to avoid involvement in politics and focus on making the fortunes nomenklatura control of the state made possible, and the few who were not – Mikhail Khodorkovskiy is a rare symbol of the latter – were quickly and even brutally put in their place.
Unlike in Eastern Europe, Russia’s human rights activists turned out to be “incapable of government work. Their focus after 1991 was largely directed not so much against the CPSU but rather against the state as such” – something that as Chechnya and the status of Russian compatriots abroad showed – destroyed their influence.
In that environment, Markedonov suggests, there is now no effective force to support democracy against the far more powerful forces that benefit from its suppression. And consequently, on the 16th anniversary of the coup, he says, there is little reason for optimism, although he suggests he very much hopes the situation will change.