Monday, December 3, 2007

Window on Eurasia: The Russian State Again Wins Out Over the Russian People

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 3 – Despite the efforts of many Russians and their friends over the last 15 years, the Russian state -- s just-completed Duma campaign and its outcome show -- has once again won out against the Russian people, a victory that precludes progress toward democracy and freedom in which many had placed so many hopes.
The reasons for that, as an analysis posted online on Friday suggests, have their roots in the deepest recesses of Russia’s history, roots that Moscow commentator Sergei Pereselegin argues make such continuing victories by the state likely but that suggest the only time that Russia can advance is when state and society are in more equal balance.
On a day when much of the Moscow media is devoted to the victory of Vladimir Putin and United Russia, Perselegin’s perspective provides a context for assessing both what has just taken place and the chance Russia has missed by following Putin’s lead (
In most countries, the Moscow commentator notes, nations have created the state rather than the other way around. That has two consequences: On the one hand, it means that the nation on occasion is ready to sacrifice the state in order to advance or defend its own interests.
And on the other, Pereselegin continues, that relationship between nation and state requires that the latter maintain a constant dialogue with the latter and so act as to bring the members of the nation into their natural historical role as the makers rather than the victims of history.
But to every rule, there is an exception, he says. And in this case, the exception is Russia. “The post-Mongol Russian state,” he argues, has developed in a manner that promotes the inclusion into this broader historical process “not of the nation [as a political community] but rather of territory [as the chief possession of the state].”
This “’spatial character’ of Russian statehood,” he continues, means that the state typically operates largely independently of the people and that it is prepared to sacrifice the nation in order to protect itself much as normal states based on nations are willing to sacrifice an army or a province to defend themselves.
This long-standing arrangement, Pereselegin argues, explains “many of the particular features of Russian history, including its cruelty” and also why “the Russian colonial Empire outlasted its competitors” -- although in the end because of outside pressures and internal developments, it could not survive forever.
But even more important is its impact on the way its regime acts –“repeating one and the same reforms, organizing one and the same revolutions, suffering from one and the same disorders, but nonetheless developing rapidly by combining it itself the past and the future, the most archaic and most contemporary arrangements.”
In most other countries, Pereselegin suggests, politics is about issues, but in Russia it is “something like” a permanent chess match, one in which four key groups interact and in which much can be done when they are all involved but little when one or more of them is frozen out by the search for order.
The four groups in this chess game, the Moscow writer says, include, first, the Russian national elite which lives in Moscow and believes that Russian can only flourish under an authoritarian system, and second, a global counter-elite, which lives in Europe and seeks to transform Russia into a European-style polity.
The third group is made up of local elites who live in the provinces and seek a redistribution of assets and income away from Moscow into their hands, and the fourth consists of local counter-elites who live in Moscow and view their provincial counterparts as secessionist and thus a threat to the territorial integrity of the country.
Throughout most of Russian history, the regime has relied on the first and fourth and excluded the second and third, an arrangement that provides order but that represents “the main Russian problem;” the fact that the country and its government are not able to introduce fundamental changes.
Only when the country has a leader who seeks to reach out to all four groups and combine them in creative ways – Pereselegin points to Peter the Great as the classic example – or when the country finds itself “at a moment of transition from Chaos to Order” or back again is there any chance for real progress.
Russia had that opportunity as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “Russia ceased to be the Evil Empire (and in general an Empire).” And thus it had “a unique chance to choose” a radically different set of arrangements, ones that would allow it to escape from the spatially defined anti-democratic imperial arrangements of the past.
In the 1990s, it appeared that Russia would do just that, but as both his own statements and the campaign just concluded show, Vladimir Putin has moved away from such a possibility by choosing end any conversations with either the global counter-elite or the local elites.
Instead, he has preferred what is perhaps the more “natural for a Russian leadership” stance of seeking to rebuild the “power vertical,” promote Moscow’s influence and control over territory, and ignore the two other players in this chess game in the name of stability.
In the short term, of course, Pereselegin concedes, such a strategy is likely to be more or less successful. After all, it guarantees Russia a rapidly growing economy, increased military power, and dramatically increased influence over those who are either dependent on or intimidated by Moscow.
But what Putin and his backers have said in the course of this election campaign demonstrates is that none of them are prepared to confront Russia’s long-standing existential problem, its existence as a state based on territory rather than its possibilities as a nation with a state.
And until it does, Pereselegin concludes, Russia will not be able to escape its past, involve its own people in defining the future of their country and themselves, and thus move as most advanced countries are doing into rapidly approaching and radically different world of the post-industrial future.
To the extent that one accepts Pereselegin’s argument – and a large number of people in virtually all political camps will challenge one or another aspect of it – that makes yesterday’s parliamentary vote a defining election, albeit one that represents the regime’s success in preventing a redefinition of what the Russian state will be.

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