Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Liberals Have No Reason for Optimism as 2008 Ends, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 31 – Western and Russian analysts, encouraged by a disinformation campaign the Kremlin is conducting, are currently deceiving themselves that the current economic crisis will lead anytime soon to the liberalization of Russian life, according to one of the most consistently thoughtful Moscow commentators on politics there.
“It is difficult to understand,” analyst Irina Pavlova writes in an essay posted on that site this week, “what is the basis for the optimism of liberal experts who have concluded that the result of the crisis will be a cleansing of the economic, political, and social situation in the country” (
Why do they assume,” she asks, “that “Russia is subject to ‘the same laws, harmed by the same illnesses that affect all capitalist countries,’ that ‘the current economic cataclysm will not leave [its elite] with hopes for a favorable outcome’ [for itself], and that ‘in any case the coming year will become a time for a new political order and a new mandate for the authorities’?”
Pavlova’s essay is a response to comments offered by various Russian commentators earlier this week on what has happened in 2008 and what they believe will take place in the year ahead, comments that reflect the almost inevitable optimism of such surveys in almost all countries (
While acknowledging their points that Russia has been affected by developments that have had an impact on others – including declines in the price of oil, protests and expert discussions about what to do – Pavlova insists that these are not driving developments in Russia. Instead, she says, it is “the powers that be” and only them who are deciding what will happen.
Not only can they “ban speaking about the crisis,” she notes, but “they can initiate broad discussions about it,” discussions that help boost “the image of ‘sovereign democracy’” but that in fact represent little more than “disinformation as a means of rule” because the participants “as a rule do not touch the essence of problems” as they exist in Russia.
Indeed, about the only thing these discussions of the crisis demonstrate, Pavlova continues, is that there is “a severe deficit in the understanding of the phenomenon of the new Russian economy,” one that has little in common with Western ones, however much officials and experts insist otherwise.
And because Russia’s “mafia-style economy” is so different from the others, “proposals which are suitable for curing the economies of Western countries are not applicable to the Russian criminal-market economy,” which exists out of public view and works for the benefit of Russia’s rulers rather than for the Russian people.
Today, she says, “it is difficult to imagine that [the ruling elite] will voluntarily agree to the extreme liberalization being proposed by experts.” When the Communists took that step nominally because of economic difficulties at the end of the 1980s, they did so only to legalize nomenklatura division of state property, a motivation she notes that the current rulers don’t have.
“If the current regime were really interested in the development of the country and not in the strengthening of its own powers then,” she argues, “ it would recall the lessons of history and act in correspondence with the simple but extremely important truth formulated already at the start of the 20th century by Count Sergei Witte.”
He warned, Pavlova says, that any country which “does not educate in its population a feeling for legality and property but instead imposes any kind of collective control” faces a terrible future, one that it will find almost impossible to escape from because of the interests of those in control at the top.
That is a warning the current Russian government is not likely to heed because “despite its liberal rhetoric, it has not laid down the foundations of a law-based state but instead thrown up obstacles to its emergence,” thus retreating from the progress toward one that Russia did in fact make in the now often-denounced 1990s.
Indeed, she argues, over the last decade, “the policy of the Russian powers that be has had another vector of development” altogether, a reflection of the terrible reality that the current rulers have “a different education, a different vision of the world, and different historical heroes.”
And consequently, “in order to understand how this power acts, one must turn attention not to its rhetoric and to noisy disinformation campaigns organized from above but to those decisions which for all the secrecy in which they are taken nonetheless at least in part come to the surface” and can be seen.
What are those decisions, Pavlova asks. Among them are allowing the military-industrial commission rather than the economics ministry to decide on state orders in the coming years, a national security strategy which calls for a more aggressive stance abroad, and a putting off of any reduction in the size and powers of the special services.
“In a word,” she concludes, “there is nothing unexpected [for those who are paying attention]: the process of the further strengthening of the existing powers within the country and the broadening of its influence on the international arena are taking place are occurring” in precisely the way one would expect this political system to develop.
Pavlova is not the only Russian analyst with a pessimistic view as 2009 begins. Others are even more bleak, with one saying “the crisis has provided cover for the current rulers” (, and another arguing that “there is no crisis [in Russia]; there is rather a collapse” (
But in all too many cases, those comments come from analysts on the far right or the far left, depending upon one’s point of view, and thus reflect the views of those who attract little attention from mainstream commentators either in Moscow or Western capitals until of course their projections of disaster come true, after which they once again will be quickly ignored.
That makes Pavlova’s argument on this last day of 2008 especially timely and important, although her words are unlikely to get the attention they deserve either from her fellow Russians or from those in other countries who follow Russian developments or have to deal with Russian government actions.

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