We have become decadent, politically correct, and weak, some people say. Our demise is all but inevitable. And yet, our societies are actually much stronger than the doomsayers imagine. Economically, we continue to prosper; politically, we are stable; morally, we are probably doing better than ever before – we treat each other better and we harm each other less than possibly at any other time in history. Far from being weak and decadent, we are strong and healthy. If only we could accept that, we would avoid many terrible mistakes.
The same is true of Russia. Many Western observers describe the current Russian state as fragile. Sooner or later, they say, political or economic discontent will bring the ‘regime’ tumbling down. Sadly, it seems that the Russian state shares this point of view. As a result, rather than permitting and encouraging the maximum amount of political discourse and opposition, it has sought to place limits upon it. In particular, it has moved to restrict the influence of outside forces in Russian civil society, for fear that they might incite a ‘colour revolution’. The latest manifestation of this is the announcement on Monday that, ‘The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has recognized as undesirable several foreign non-profit organizations, such as the Open Society Foundation and the Assistance Foundation in Russia.’ According to Interfax:
This decision was taken, following an address by the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly to the Russian general prosecutor, foreign minister and justice minister to inspect the organizations, which were put on the so-called “patriotic stop-list”,’ spokesperson of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office Marina Gridneva told Interfax on Nov. 30. She recalled that the ‘stop-list’ was approved by the Federation Council resolution as of July 8 this year, in which the activity of the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) is paid attention to. ‘It was found out that the activity of the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation poses a threat to the foundations of the Russian constitutional system and security of the state,’ she said.
The Soros Foundation is a particular bugbear of critics of American ‘imperialism’. Soros’ support for self-styled liberal democratic opposition movements has been seen as playing an important part in events such as the Georgian Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004. Many believe that Soros would like to encourage something similar in Russia. But even if this is true, it does not mean that banning the Open Society Institute is justified, let alone a good idea. Liberal democratic societies tolerate all sorts of organizations which don’t like liberal democracy or the prevailing social norms. That is part of what liberty entails. Moreover, the fact that an institution would in principle like to change the political system doesn’t mean that it actually can. Perhaps if the Russian state really is as fragile as some people think, then its worries might be justified. But I don’t believe that it is.
There is certainly some discontent in Russia with the political system, but looking at the data of the Levada Centre, we see that a majority of Russians approve not only of President Vladimir Putin, but also of the government more generally, and that they think that their country is moving in the right direction. Despite predictions that the current economic recession would ruin the state’s finances and cause massive social discontent, the Russian economy has proven to be surprisingly resilient and is due to return to growth next year. There have been a few protests against economic hardship (e.g. from truck drivers), but not many. Russia is not a country on the verge of revolution. Neither Soros nor anybody else is going to bring about ‘regime change’ in Russia.
But designating non-governmental organizations as ‘foreign entities’ and placing them on ‘patriotic stop-lists’ is harmful. Martin Malia pointed out in his book Russia Under Western Eyes that Western perceptions of the ‘Russian threat’ are largely about how Western elites view internal Russian politics. When they see Russian rulers as relatively ‘enlightened’, the West doesn’t fear Russia; but when they see them as becoming more ‘autocratic’, then the West believes that Russia is dangerous and has to be resisted. Banning NGOs falls into the ‘autocratic’ framework. It makes Russia look bad, and strengthens anti-Russian feeling.
In other words, just as Western states over-react to the terrorist ‘threat’ out of fear of seeming weak, the Russian state is over-reacting to the danger of colour revolutions, and in the process is shooting itself in the foot. It would be better if everybody could just have a bit more self-confidence.