Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Enlightened Authoritarianism, Not Traditional Despotism Can Save Russia

Paul Goble

Baku, February 13 – Given the lack of strategic vision from Vladimir Putin and his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, Russian neo-conservatives are urging the restoration of “Russian despotism, empire and anti-Western attitudes,” a move one writer says would lead to “the disintegration of Russia and the collapse of the state.” ”
Indeed, in this age of high technology, Russian commentator Irina Pavlova argues, “as a result of such experiments, Russia could disappear from the map of the world much as did Byzantium, which certain pro-Kremlin propagandists offer as a model for imitation” (
But to decide from this history and this prospect that it is impossible to imagine a way in which enlightened authoritarianism might allow Russia to escape this fate, Pavlova continues, is fundamentally “incorrect.” And she devotes her article on the site to the reasons why she believes this is so.
In Russia, she writes, “all liberal reforms were begun and carried out ‘from above,’” something that was often true in other countries as well. As examples, she cites once-totalitarian Germany and Japan which after their defeat in World War II were forcibly and dramatically changed by those who occupied them.
“Russia began its emergence from totalitarianism not only without recognizing its defeat in the Cold War but not even having drawn any conclusions from the Soviet past,” she says. Neither Yeltsin nor his advisors thus were able to come up with a strategy equal to the task of moving Russia from where it really was toward democracy.
And the widespread and entirely mistaken assessment of the August 1991 events as “a democratic revolution” further prevented them from facing up to this task. Instead, they launched “the so-called liberal reforms” which did little more than share out state property to the former Soviet nomenklatura and its hangers on.
All that has led Russia to its current impasse, one in which the leadership seems likely to move toward despotism and disaster but also one in which that the Kremlin could take steps toward the kind of enlightened authoritarianism that might ultimately create the conditions for freedom and democracy eventually.
According to Pavlova, there are three possible paths that leaders who recognized the desirability of proceeding in this second direction might follow. First, they might “call in” outsiders to run things, as Russian rulers have often done in the past. But given current Russian attitudes, this path today is “impossible.”
Second, they could seek to spark the creation of a law-based state “from below,” hoping that social movements could do what the leadership cannot. But given that such an approach would lead to chaos, few in Moscow are willing to take the chance, however positive the ultimate outcome might be.
And finally, third, they could seek to make use of an “’enlightened’ authoritarianism,” that would rule for a specific period in order to create “a legal state, freedom and democracy” and to promote “Western values and laws applying equally to bureaucrats and the subjects.”
Russia has had such rulers in the past: Aleksandr II was one and Pyotr Stolypin was another, but both were killed by those who could not tolerate the kind of open society their reforms would have made possible. And because of their experience, Pavlova says, “the problem” now is “where to find a leader” who would take these risks.
But if such a leader is not found and if he is not given the chance to promote exactly this kind of transition, then it is quite possible that Russia will disintegrate into chaos and that “the West as a matter of self-defense” will erect a new “iron curtain, this time on its own initiative.”

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