Give and take

Contrary to common belief, civil society is not necessarily synonymous with pro-Western, liberal-democratic values. Many civil society groups promote what might be considered ‘illiberal’, nationalist, or conservative views. This is very much the case in Russia. And this weekend the nationalist version of Russian civil society was out on the streets.

Its aim was to mobilize Russian public opinion against proposals that Russia cede some of the Kuril Islands to Japan. These islands were captured from the Japanese in 1945, but Japan and the Soviet Union (and subsequently the Russian Federation) never signed a peace treaty. This has been a cause of considerable difficulties ever since. Aware of this, and wishing to improve and deepen Russian-Japanese relations, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been conducting intensive negotiations in an effort to finally conclude a peace treaty between their two countries. This has led to speculation that Russia would agree to return two of the Kuril islands to Japan in return for assurances from Japan that it would not allow foreign (i.e. American) troops to be deployed there, along with other concessions.

However, the idea of handing over territory to a foreign power is anathema to Russian nationalists. And so it was that several hundred of them came out onto the streets of Moscow chanting ‘the Kurils are ours’ and carrying placards with slogans such as ‘We’ll hand over Putin rather than the Kurils.’ Similar demonstrations took place also in Khabarovsk and Sakhalin Island.

The demonstrators represented a small fringe of left- and right-wing groups, including the likes of former Donbass rebel leader Igor Strelkov. But polls suggest that their views on the Kuril issue are very much in line with Russian public opinion. According to surveys, about 70% of Russians oppose handing any of the Kurils back to Japan. There is a perception in the West that public opinion doesn’t matter in Russia, that Putin decides what he wants and Russian state media then manipulate the people into following him. But this is a highly simplistic model of Russian politics. There are only so many unpopular decisions Putin and his government can do without threatening their own authority. With their poll ratings already much lower than a year ago due to the decision to raise the pension age, they can’t afford to alienate the Russian people even further by making another deeply unpopular move. As Dmitri Trenin comments in an article in Vedomosti:

Politicians will make decisions and diplomats will seek to work out mutually acceptable solutions, but the key question will be public ratification of agreements, if and when these agreements are reached. The Kremlin needs to understand clearly that it is up against not just Japan but also the Russian public-and based on public opinion surveys, two-thirds of Russians do not want to hand over the islands. The Kremlin will not be able to coerce the people into accepting its point of view.

In short, when it comes to foreign policy, the Russian government’s ability to manoeuvre is limited. Policy making in Russia is a complex process, and public opinion is certainly not the only factor determining outcomes. But it does matter, and it is not fully in the control of the state. Moreover public opinion (and in its organized form, civil society) is not necessarily liberal, is generally very patriotic, and is certainly not inclined towards making unilateral concessions to foreign powers. Solutions much beloved of Western commentators, such as democracy promotion and the enhancement of civil society in Russia, won’t help in this regard. Given the public mood, a more democratic Russia wouldn’t be any more inclined to do our bidding than an autocratic one. None of this means, of course, that the Kremlin won’t make concessions to foreign powers, be it regarding the Kuril islands, Ukraine, or anything else. But they will have to be concessions that it can sell to its public. And that means that the concessions will have to matched with equally significant concessions to Russia from the other side. In short, those wanting to deal with Russia will have to give as well as take. It’s a point our politicians would do well to bear in mind.

11 thoughts on “Give and take”

  1. “There is a perception in the West that public opinion doesn’t matter in Russia, that Putin decides what he wants and Russian state media then manipulate the people into following him. But this is a highly simplistic model of Russian politics. ”

    But it’s not simplistic, it’s a lie. There are politicians who are extremely popular and opposed by the West, and those are called ‘authoritarian’. But it’s just a lie.

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    1. If you say something false, and know it to be false, it’s a lie.

      If you say something false, but believe it to be true, then it’s not a lie. You’re just wrong.

      As far as I can tell, people who say such things believe them.

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  2. “And this weekend the nationalist version of Russian civil society was out on the streets.”

    Not “nationalist” – “patriotic”. Our “Гusskiye Nationalists” would gladly cede away “racially impure” territories, till they will have the Beautiful Russia of the Future consisting of their Moscow/St. Pete’s flat, barber shop, smoothie bar, anti café and a square to host their marches.

    Would it kill you, professor, to use the term “patriotic” instead of “nationalist” when talking about Russia and the Russians?

    “This has led to speculation that Russia would agree to return two of the Kuril islands to Japan in return for assurances from Japan that it would not allow foreign (i.e. American) troops to be deployed there, along with other concessions.”

    An important note – speculations, originated by the Japan press and then propagated as the Holy Truth by the Western Free and Independent Media. Strangely enough, should, say Alexander Prokhanov, pen an op-ed where he’d be voicing his firm belief, that the Japanese must be made to see the Truth and cede Hokkaido to Russia, no one would have paid any attention… unless… there would be a direct command to focus on this particular instance of Russia’s “imperialism” and “aggression” originating from the Washington’s ObCom

    “However, the idea of handing over territory to a foreign power is anathema to Russian nationalists.”

    Sorry, professor, but could you please revise this statement a bit? Are you saying that anyone BUT Russian nationalists would like to see Kuril’s given to Japan? Or you are claiming that 75%+ of Russians are “nationalists”? Hey, what about other countries? How would the British like giving Gibraltar back to Spain, Malvinas – back to Argentina and Ulster back to Eire?

    “But this is a highly simplistic model of Russian politics.”

    Then why do you in the previous paragraphs resorted to simplistic labeling throwing “nationalist” left, right and center?

    “With their poll ratings already much lower than a year ago due to the decision to raise the pension age, they can’t afford to alienate the Russian people even further by making another deeply unpopular move.

    …Given the public mood, a more democratic Russia wouldn’t be any more inclined to do our bidding than an autocratic one. None of this means, of course, that the Kremlin won’t make concessions to foreign powers, be it regarding the Kuril islands, Ukraine, or anything else.”

    Are you claiming, therefore, that low rating is the only reason why Putin is not giving away Kuril’s to Japan?

    BTW – what’s with all this talk about Russian Nationalism, this bête noir of the international relations, that ruins such excellent deal with the Japan? What about the Japanese Nationalism? Or, what – it’s of the handshakable variety?

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      1. “There’s really no pleasing you, Lyttenburgh. You seem to take offence at everything.”

        Professor, I understand what kind of point you are trying to make here. Like Mao in his comment above, I’m suspecting you are fighting a strawman. Judging by the West’s support for Yeltsin in the past and Poroshenko now, hearing from all corners wailings and the gnashing of teeth over “populism in politics”, coupled with the hardcore (and still going!) mainstream NeverTrumpist elites and persistent rumours of the second Brexit referendum, one has to conclude, that the West doesn’t give a fuck about the democracy. As it often happens, it’s the young proselytes, who give up the whole charade, voicing the unspeakable – just like Julia Latynina did, with her open admiration of Pinochet and Lee Kuan Yew and “suggestion” to bar the poor from the voting. If the mode of rule threatens the ruling ideology (the liberalism) then it must be “reformed” till you get the desired result. For the teaching of the Liberalism is all powerful – because it is True! ™

        As for the argument about the so-called civil society promotion as a way to the “democracy” – we have been over this many times. The West has its own definition of what is the “civil society” and why it promotes it in other countries – it needs a fifth column and a loyal strata of the future Schutzmannschaft, totally beholden to it heart, soul and pocket. But, hey – don’t believe me! Instead, listen to the universally beloved, honest and principle figure of the Western liberal sphere, a veritable Living Saint of the Selflessness – George Soros:

        “Soros set up his first foreign foundation in Hungary in 1984, and his efforts there serve as a model of his activities during this period. Over the course of the decade, he awarded scholarships to Hungarian intellectuals to bring them to the US; provided Xerox machines to libraries and universities; and offered grants to theatres, libraries, intellectuals, artists and experimental schools. In his 1990 book Opening the Soviet System, Soros wrote that he believed his foundation had helped “demolish the monopoly of dogma [in Hungary] by making an alternate source of financing available for cultural and social activities”, which, in his estimation, played a crucial role in producing the internal collapse of communism.

        […]

        “As he witnessed the Soviet empire’s downfall between 1989 and 1991, Soros needed to answer a crucial strategic question: now that the closed societies of eastern Europe were opening, what was his foundation to do? On the eve of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Soros published an updated version of Opening the Soviet System, titled Underwriting Democracy, which revealed his new strategy: he would dedicate himself to building permanent institutions that would sustain the ideas that motivated anticommunist revolutions, while modelling the practices of open society for the liberated peoples of eastern Europe. The most important of these was Central European University (CEU), which opened in Budapest in 1991. Funded by Soros, CEU was intended to serve as the wellspring for a new, transnational, European world – and the training ground for a new, transnational, European elite.

        […]

        “Democracies,” he lamented in 1995, seem to “suffer from a deficiency of values … [and] are notoriously unwilling to take any pain when their vital self-interests are not directly threatened.””

        Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who does this – either private capital or the governmental agency, the end result is the same, only labels are a bit different. Therefore, active “civil society” members (as defined by the West) have no one else to blame, for why they get the treatment they richly deserve.

        Next. Professor, you are strangely unforthcoming as of lately, when it comes to answering simple questions. Here I come to you, eager to learn and listen to the answers, not afraid to sound uninformed and reveling before all the world my utter, shocking ignorance of the “things that everybody knows” ™. I asked you in the previous blogpost comment section – how do you define “leftist”?. Here I have to add a new question – how do you define a “Russians nationalist”? Because, as I see it, in order to fight one strawman, you made a new one.

        See this fine very short haired gent on the right, participating in the (governmentally approved) rally against giving Kuril islands to Japan? This is Sergey Udaltsov, up to recently – a long suffering victim of the Bloody Putinist Regime, who spent several years after his most active participation in Bolotnaya protests, in GULAG the Putinist gaol. No one (NO ONE) of his former temporary allies from among the liberal and handshakable non systemic opposition (yes, including Navalny) paid him a visit. Western press didn’t focus too much on him – there were “sacral victims” aplenty.

        Why? Because Udaltsov is the Great Helmsman of the “Left Front” organization. Upon his release from the prison, he lost the last vestiges of handshakability by proclaiming Crimea to be a lawful part of Russia and dissing everyone in the tight-knitted “democratic tusovka” who thought otherwise. Or, and he double dissed Navalny, who by this time became a full time (net)hamster-shearer.

        [Disclaimer: No, I’m not a fan of Udaltsov. His support in 2018 of Pavel Grudinin (Candidate From the People (c)) as well as other escapades that were painfully facepalm inducing once again proved, that the prison changes person’s mentality]

        Here you are, Professor – a “lefty” leading a bunch of other “lefties” are protesting their comprador’s elites attempt to reach a treasonous agreement with the government of the predatory capitalist country, which, in turn, is a willing satellite of the criminal military-industrial Regime, that imposes itself on the proletariat of the United States of America 🙂 More so – KPRF’s State Duma deputies staged unsactioned protest rally in front of the Embassy of Japan the same day Putin and Abe were holding their talks with about 15-20 participants been detained (why the international community, btw, was silent over such example of the “suppression of the dissent”?).

        But, hey – this little details are inconvenient to your strawman, Professor. Your point was (correct me if I’m mistaken) to show, that Russia is not a land of browbeaten bydlo like peasants, willing to put up with any kind of shit the Regime imposes on them, with only a tiny sliver of the brave Western funded Cathars non-systemic oppositionists bravely voicing their disapproval. Such line of thought is dangerous, for it encourages the dream of the regime change among the Westies, who might believe that Putin is be all end all source of what Russia currently is, and replacing him will make Russian more pliable.

        If you wanted to disprove this silly (nay – utter moronic) notion, Professor, you could’ve reliaed on many, many more valid examples and articulate it in much more professional, less lame fashion. Instead, you created another strawman – about ill defined “Russian nationalists”. It is them now, who are preventing Russia from behaving like a normal country and selling out its land… or something like that. At the same time you failed to define this “nationalism”, seeing as you threw into the same heap Strelkov-Girkin and Udaltsov. Your message pretty much amounted to claiming, that Russia plays “tough to get”, but, still, could be bought. Moreover – you even failed to present an example of when Russia indeed made a concession to the West after what it considered a fair trade. Saying that “Russia is no longer ruled by Yeltsin, Gaidar and “Mr. Yes” Kozyrev types” is not a great accomplishment.

        As for the failure to satisfy me – dear Professor, ah… No. I don’t want to break your heart, but, really – you shouldn’t worry about this. Like – at all. If you want to call me names – go ahead, I will survive such outpouring of honest emotions. Just please, please, keep in mind, that neither your sense of propriety in communication, nor my personal opinion of you in this instance would be harmed as much as you harm the very essence of the terms when you so carelessly use them in your writings.

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  3. Oh, and one more thing – about the results of this and past week’s talks. Told you so:

    “In six month time there won’t be any progress on the issue (by then totally forgotten) and all those who breathlessly promised a “breakthrough” will conveniently forget their own words.”

    Now, 1.5 months later, after Abe’s solemn oathtaking on his father’s grave, after all speculations and panic… sides agreed to keep talking. Harrumph!

    4.5 months to go by the wager I suggested (and no one took!), but I don’t see any reasons for a change. Not because of “bad nationalist Russia” or “Putin is afraid to damage his ratings” – but because functional states simply are not in the business of trading off their territories for the lentil soup – or the modern equivalent of it.

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  4. Making so-called “concessions” should IMO be ideally relative to other related circumstances.

    After WW II, some non-Russian territory in Europe changed. Comparatively speaking, Germans don’t moan as much about their lost territories. After WW II, the Germans were faced with some in the face realities of Nazi crimes, which in turn made Germany more understanding of its past wrongs. In comparison, Japan wasn’t as force fed on its wrongs as much.

    Hence, the explanation for Japanese behavior like (in comparison to Germany) not being so sympathetic to past WW II wrongs and the constant bringing up of the Kuril Islands.

    For accuracy sake, the Russian realist premised patriotism shouldn’t be confused with the extreme variant, as well as the ongoing anti-Russian influenced ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy.

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  5. It’s seems to me Russia and Japan are discussing two different things

    Russia is discussing a peace treaty

    Japan want the return of what they see as their territory

    Trying to mesh / mash them together will get nowhere.

    The issue of the peace treaty – doesn’t seem to be important to Japan

    The issue of the territory is obviously important to Russia.

    The main fact though is that even if Russia and Japan can never sign a peace treaty – as this act can change the fundamental relationship between the two countries
    Japan could find it difficult to be an active part of the western alliance against Russia, with sanctions etc

    They are controlled by the USA and cannot act freely. So no peace treaty

    The issue of the Kurils is key for Japan as it gives them a fig leaf to hide behind – they are just like a colonial protectorate.

    Abe can act tough and give his people some sense of nationalist pride by claiming the Kurils.

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