Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: In Russia, Political Anecdotes Point to Changes Ahead

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 15 – More than perhaps in any other country, anecdotes in Russia not only provide insights into the nature of politics there but also serve, perhaps more reliably than anything else, as indicators of either continuity or impending change, in the latter case often far earlier than any other measure.
Today, Moscow commentator Konstantin Remchukov writes in “Nezavisimaya gazeta-Politika,” “political anecdotes are becoming different and more funny,” an indication that a 2009 is drawing to a close, “something is changing in Russia” although it is still too early to be certain exactly what and how (www.ng.ru/ng_politics/2009-12-15/9_2powers.html?mthree=1).
But it is not just anecdotes that are changing, he suggests. For a few days in October, the Duma actually resembled a parliament when its members protested election results. “Everyone recalls the advice of the head of the MVD to resist unjustifiably aggressive militiamen.” And Russians have paid more attentinto disasters and protests than in the past.
On top of that came President Dmitry Medvedev’s “unexpected essay, ‘Russia, Forward!’,” a document that presented “an anti-paternalistic platform, with a stress on the individual strengths of the personality, the market and freedom” and one so remarkable that it was discussed for two months in the hopes that it would represent a breakthrough.
When Medvedev delivered his message to the Federal Assembly, however, “no real political and institutional structures of modernization were presented.” And a few days later, the Congress of United Russia adopted its “program of Russian conservatism,” which pointed in an entirely different direction.
“Thus,” the Moscow commentator continues, “the Medvedev themes of change and the unbearable quality of paternalism and its incompatibility with the ideals and values of the contemporary state were enveloped in a conservative jacket. In a conservative context, one might say.”
Moreover, “it became ever more evident” that Vladimir Putin had “thought through all the risks connected with the temporary departure from presidential responsibilities” and even retained for himself “the post of the leader of the party so that the new president could not automatically take control of it.”
In addition, Putin’s four-hour-long television visit with the people was clearly arranged so that people would hear the following message: “I will soon return, social expenditures will grow at still higher tempos, and the government will not leave you in the lurch,” a very different message than Medvedev had been sending and one that has drawn little support.
Drawing on the works of Joseph Schumpeter, Remchukov points out both that entrepreneurs play a key role in societal transformations and that the economic and social progress which they promote tends to spread “as a result of the diffusion of two types of innovation”: organizational and informational technology.
In Russia, the Moscow analyst argues, the former is especially important given the size and role of the state in the economy, and change becomes an increasingly obvious necessity as daily reports about “tragedies, catastrophes, accidents, explosions and fires shows the inability of the [Russian] bureaucracy to effectively fulfill its functions.”
But this situation also shows, Remchukov suggests, that “the corrupt bureaucracy is being transformed into an independent economic and even political player, pitilessly defending its own material interests,” which in many cases are tied up with ownership of land, “the most natural manifestation of the deficit nature of an economy of our type.”
All that makes the bureaucracy extraordinarily dangerous to the future of the country, Remchukov says, noting that Albert Speer had told Hitler that the German bureaucracy was behaving in such a way that it was becoming “the main cause of the defeat of Germany” in World War II.
Even if one finds that hyperbolic, Remchukov suggests, “at a minimum it forces us to think again about the terrible potential of the destructive power of the bureaucracy,” a destructive power that is manifested in very different ways at the political level than many people now appear to think.
Speer, for example, noted that “’Churchill and Roosevelt without the slightest vacillation forced their peoples to bear all the burdens of war.’” But in Germany, “‘the authoritative regime strove to win the sympathy of the people.’ That is, democratically elected and thinking leaders told the people the truth about the situation … But the authoritarian bureaucracy only plays with the people … [and] does not speak the truth.”
“Playing with the people in this way,” the Moscow commentator continues, “is a sign of a backward state, backward in the sense of not being a contemporary on,” and “a sign of the underdevelopment of democratic institutions and procedures,” but not just those but the society itself. Unfortunately, precisely that kind of approach is in evidence in Russia now.
Democracy requires not simply a set of institutions by which the people can choose its representatives who can then make decisions for the common good, Remchukov says. It requires the existence of “rational opinion” among the people who will vote their interests and values rather than be led astray.
“This is a problem for Russia” because “it is possible to organize elections” where “people will vote for an irrational opinion.” Russians ignore the problems in the country and vote “with their hearts, emotions, and feelings but not with their rationality.” Many of them “do not consider elections as a way to improve their lot or even an occasion to speak to the powerful.”
That reality, one that Putin very much understands, represents “a serious barrier” to what Medvedev says he wants to do. But the situation is further complicated by the following reality, Remchukov says. “The economically and socially active young in practice don’t want federal television channels.
The very people “who 10 to 20 years from now will define the economics and politics of Russia do not watch television and they do not go to vote. “ They thus constitute a “different” Russia than the one that does watch television and does vote for the party of power regardless of their situations.
This generational divide may not help Medvedev immediately, but it poses a serious threat to what Putin is trying to do at least in the future. This rising generation “sees the greatness of Russia in a different way,” and it evaluates the country on its ability to create “conditions for the self-realization of the creative potential of the person.”
“The new patriotism consists in the establishment of those institutions of freedom, democracy, business, and innovation which correspond in the greatest possible way to the flowering of the individual.” It is not going to develop the country in the “sharashka” style of the Stalinist model.
That reality points to changes ahead, but Medvedev may not be the person to lead them. However much he believes in the ideas of “Russia, Forward!” the Kremlin leader has not created a personal command as Putin has, although perhaps he could create a new political party “directed at the modernization of Russia.”
The current tandem, however, has had one important consequence, Remchukov says: “two sources of power for Russia is a good thing,” and “in the current year, the number of genuinely free people in the country has doubled. There are now two; all the rest are not completely free.”
“All the rest are not completely free,” Remchukov argues. “Fear gives birth to conformism, and conformism to stagnation, because no one wants change” at least among the existing elites, whose members will do almost anything to hang onto power even if they must sacrifice the country in the process.
“Democracy,” the Moscow commentator says, “is a special means of avoiding [such] power dependence,” but introducing it requires not just institutions but cultural change. Russians have built “enclave capitalism. Now perhaps is the turn of enclave modernization?” If so, that will fail, but the anecdotes have changed and so there is a chance for a breakthrough.

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