Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Managed Democracy: Understanding Putin and Understanding Russia
There is a very interesting piece in the recent issue of History Today (London, March 2009) by Daniel Beer called Russia’s Managed Democracy.
The important point is that what might be called the ‘Putin System’ offers a secure alternative to the undercurrents of centrifugalism and anarchy that have been such a feature of Russian history at moments of crisis. Yes, the Russians have perhaps sacrificed certain rights that we in the west tend to see as an essential part of a democratic culture. But for most Russians order and security are far higher priorities than human rights. Indeed, the free for all of the Yeltsin years, the economic and social chaos of the early nineteen-nineties, caused such reaction that people began to refer to democracy as dermo, the Russian word for shit. Vladimir Putin, if you like, came like a new Michael Romanov, a successor to a second Tsar Boris and the Time of Troubles.
So, are Putin and his KGB coterie simply a return to the forms of rule prevailing under the Communists? Well, only in part. The most successful aspect of his appeal to the people is to convince then that Russia’s authoritarian traditions are just as valid in moral terms as those of the west. And he is not necessarily drawing on the traditions of Lenin and the Tsars; for Russian Liberalism well before the Revolution of 1917 was undergoing a steady reappraisal of what was politically possible in Russia, a country without a tradition of the rule of law, a country where the events of 1905 had introduced widespread and continuous violence, and not necessarily revolutionary violence; just violence. Writing in 1905, Count Sergei Vitte, expressed the view that ‘All Russia is a madhouse.’ It was to remain a madhouse for years after.
So, in the pre-war Dumas the Russian liberals were already moving in an authoritarian direction, a process continued by the Provisional Government of 1917 after some initial revolutionary enthusiasm. Russian Liberalism was therefore established on a new basis, drawing on three elements: nationalism, the need for a strong state, and a readiness to ‘manage’ the democratic wishes of the population at large when these were perceived to be in conflict with the interests of the state. The Yeltsin years demonstrated the dangers of losing sight of these guiding principles; years where the government took advice from Harvard-based free marketers who were in the deepest ignorance about Russian history, politics and culture.
Putin, the author concludes, is not the gravedigger of Russian liberalism but the inheritor of its first experiment. It’s as well to remember this, as well to understand Russia, as well to understand that Vladimir Putin is best cultivated as an ally and as a friend. As with Iraq, western policy towards Russia has been atrociously ill-judged. I personally have no problems whatsoever with the whole concept of managed democracy.