Book Review: Yavlinsky on the Putin System

Twenty five years ago or so, Grigory Yavlinsky, was a reasonably serious political actor. His Yabloko party won 7% of the vote, and 45 seats, in the 1995 elections to the Russia State Duma, and the following year Yavlinsky won a similar share of the vote in the Russian presidential election. As the foremost representative of Russian liberalism, Yabloko was never very popular, but it had enough support to get a place in the corridors of power. Those days are long gone. Nowadays, Yavlinsky and Yabloko get about 1% of the vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. ‘Why should we bother listening to them?’ you might ask.

I’m not sure that Yavlinsky’s new book The Putin System: An Opposing View (in fact a translation and updating of a 2015 Russian-language text) provides much of an answer. On the plus side, the book is a much more sophisticated critique of modern Russia than most of what you find in bookstores nowadays. But at at the end of day, it ends up in much the same place, warning readers of Russia’s rapid decline into totalitarianism. What you get, then, is more of the same, but with the hysterical language of popular authors replaced by dense academic prose.

For that reason, The Putin System is not going to be a best-seller. It’s kind of dull: highly theoretical, and lacking in specifics. I can’t see anybody who’s not a die-hard Russia watcher wanting to spend a lot of time drudging through it. However, as that’s my job, let me tell you more or less what it says.

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Unprecedented brazenness

‘Something is rotten with the state of Denmark’, or if not Denmark then certainly the United States of America. It’s the only conclusion one can draw from the way the absolutely normal is nowadays treated as the most extraordinary drama.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. It’s about as normal a diplomatic event as one could possibly imagine, but it caused much of the American commentariat to go into a collective meltdown.

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Napoleon, Kutuzov, and the changing international order

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy challenged the idea that ‘great men’ change the world. In reality, he claimed, the underlying forces of history determine the outcome. Some people, however, try to resist these forces. They inevitably come a cropper. By contrast, others recognise which way things are going and let these processes determine what they should do, or not do. It’s these people who succeed. In War and Peace, Napoleon is an example of the former; Marshal Kutuzov an example of the latter. Kutuzov doesn’t so much do anything as lets happen what is going to happen anyway. It’s this which makes him a great leader.

Tolstoy tended to overdo things, and most people wouldn’t accept his theory of history in its entirety. But there’s an element of truth in what he said, if you take it not as a reason for fatalism but as an argument for riding with the wave rather than against it. If you look at the world of economics, for instance, companies which resist change, or who respond to it by using monopoly power or political influence to close down competition, end up failing. By contrast, companies which correctly identify future trends and put themselves at the head of them, end up thriving (until such time as they themselves grow old, become inflexible monopolists, and are brought down by the next generation of newcomers, a process Karl Marx failed to anticipate when predicting that monopolization was a one-way process). In short, success is a matter of perspective; the key is viewing change not as a threat but as an opportunity.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that most international affairs analysts look at the world. An example is the annual forecast ‘Russia and the World’, produced by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. Each year, following its publication, the Czech journal New Perspectives produces a special edition devoted to responses to the IMEMO forecast. I covered the replies to the 2018 forecast on this blog a while ago. Now the responses to the 2019 forecast are out, including one written by my good self. You can find them here. I don’t have room to discuss them all, but I will touch upon a few which relate to the discussion of change above.

In my own article, I note how the IMEMO forecast paints a very gloomy picture of international affairs, speaking of ‘the crisis of the international system’, ‘the dismantling of the global order’, ‘the erosion of the established post-war and Cold War system’, ‘an unstable world’, and so on. In line with what I’ve written elsewhere, I cast doubt on whether everything is really as bad as IMEMO makes it out to be. Russia’s main challenge, I argue, ‘is not a global order facing potential collapse … Rather, Russia’s primary problem is internal – a political, social, and economic system which seems to have hit a wall,’ particularly in terms of delivering rapid economic growth.

In another response, Australian academic Cai Wilkinson takes a different approach. Rather than debate whether IMEMO’s analysis is correct, Wilkinson uses it to examine the mentality of the people of who made it – i.e. she uses the forecast as a tool for understanding the forecasters. What the IMEMO forecast reveals, she says, is the ‘avowedly Realist worldview’ of the Russian foreign policy community as well its ‘aversion to the uncertain.’ The forecast is underpinned by a ‘distinctly fatalistic air’ and is accompanied by an obsession with stability. Wilkinson criticises this attitude, quoting technology forecaster Paul Saffo as saying that, ‘uncertainty is a friend, for its bedfellow is opportunity.’ She continues:

In uncertain times, a Realist and fatalistic worldview that prioritises stability risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, blinding policy-makers and forecasters alike to the truth that, as Alexander Wendt famously put it, ‘anarchy is what states make of it.’

I’m fairly sure that the politics of Higher School of Economics professor Glenn Diesen are very different from Wilkinson’s, but in his response to the IMEMO forecast he makes a rather similar point. ‘While the report focuses on the threats from this disorderly transition to a multipolar international distribution of power, the opportunities from moving towards a less Western-centric order tend to be neglected,’ he writes. I tend to agree. As the balance of global power shifts, there will inevitably be disruption, but there will also be immense opportunities. It would do everyone some good if they focused on the positive.

The failure to do so is not a purely Russian phenomenon. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended a couple of meetings here in Ottawa at which colleagues and (serving and retired) public servants discussed the changing international order and the implications for Canadian foreign policy. The discussions almost exactly mirrored the conclusions of the IMEMO forecast – the prevailing view was that world is going to the dogs. The language was all about ‘challenges’ and ‘threats’. I kept my mouth shut until right at the end of the last meeting, at which point I finally complained to all and sundry that I’d heard nothing but negativity, and that among all the talk of ‘threats’ I’d not once heard anybody talk about the opportunities which the changing international order offers us. And there are many – growing markets for our products in the developing world, just for starters.

The negativity has important effects. When international change is viewed solely in terms of challenge and threat, the policy response is to try and stop the change. But as Canute pointed out to his advisers, you can’t hold back the tide. It’s pointless trying, for instance, to contain China. You can’t do it. Power is shifting in the world. It’s inevitable. Instead of worrying about the change, we need to think about how to exploit it for our own benefit. Do we want to fight the tide of history, or do we want to ride the waves? Do we want to be Napoleon or do we want to be Kutuzov? Our future depends on our response.

No social activism here, please

Protest in Russia is often considered to take two distinct forms. The first is social-economic; the second is political. The first tends to be local and specific; the second general and abstract. Examples of the former would be protests about garbage disposal and truckers’ protests about new tariffs imposed on them by the government. Examples of the latter would be demonstrations about democracy or human rights. The specificity of the former appeals directly to peoples’ concrete interests in a way that the more general nature of the latter does not.  On the other hand, that very specificity also tends to limit the number of the people who can be brought into the cause, as it is unlikely to interest people who are not directly affected. It is also simpler for state authorities to appease social-economic protesters with timely concessions than it is to satisfy the more sweeping demands of political demonstrators. It is a matter of some debate which of the two worries the authorities the most.

A recent story provides one clue to a possible answer. The story in question is that French sociologist Carine Clément was detained by Russian border guards last week when she attempted to enter the country to attend an academic conference, and was then deported back to France. Clément had been due to give a paper discussing the French ‘Gilets jaunes’ and comparing them to Russian vatniki (rednecks, roughly speaking). Superficially, it doesn’t seem like something which should really bother the Russian security services. After all, the Russian state-funded TV network RT has been about the only international media outlet to regularly report on the Gilets jaunes over the past year. Nevertheless, despite the fact that she has a Russian husband and daughter, Clément was declared a threat to national security and told that she was forbidden from entering Russia for 10 years.

As a professor, restrictions on international academic exchange inevitably trouble me. I had never heard of Clément, so I looked her up. You can get an idea of her politics by a French article which notes ‘ses engagements en continuant de pointer le manque de justice sociale en Russie et la politique libérale pilotée par Vladimir Poutine.’ Anyone who considers Vladimir Putin’s policies ‘liberal’ clearly isn’t marching in step with the mainstream. Indeed, Clément appears to be very much of the left, described as a ‘militante des droits sociaux’, who has been active in defending housing rights, striking workers, and migrants, as well as striving to change Russian employment legislation. In short, she’s a social activist as much as an academic sociologist. It is this, no doubt, which has gotten her deported.

Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing recent written by her which is available on the internet, though if you speak French you can watch her talking as part of a panel of interviewees on Sputnik News in September of this year, here.  However, I was able to find an English-language version of a 2015 article entitled ‘Putin, Patriotism, and Political Apathy’.  It’s actually quite good, so I thought that I would share some excerpts of it here.

Clément starts off by noting Putin’s political popularity. This is genuine, she argues, and it’s not just a product of alternative voices being repressed. Political repression exists in Russia, but ‘Repression is not occurring on a massive scale. Many independent initiatives that are critical of current authorities still operate in broad daylight.’ The root of Putin’s support instead lies in the experience of the 1990s, Clément argues. In that time period, ordinary people ‘watched unscrupulous individuals make fortunes through small or big-time fraud’, while being treated with the utmost ‘contempt’ by the reformers and their allies, who dismissed them as ‘losers’ and ‘maladjusted’. Clément asks:

Why wouldn’t these people identify with Putin’s populist rhetoric, which recognizes their importance and respects and acknowledges their demand for a socially progressive state, rather than scorning their purported sense of entitlement and preference for paternalism? Why wouldn’t they support patriotic discourse that finally gives them a reason to be proud of their country, which their ancestors defended, but which has since been allowed to decline? … [Putin] is associated with a return to economic growth and paid salaries and pensions. Thanks to him, Crimea now belongs to the Russian Federation and the wounded pride of several generations of Russians resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been healed. Thanks to him, the “ordinary citizen” and the “people who work” and “love Russia” (to quote Putin’s speech at the rally held on February 23, 2012 at Poklony Gory in Moscow against the “for honest elections” movement) once again have something resembling a social and political status.

At the same time, Clément remarks, the liberal opposition is ‘cut off from the people’. It is obsessed with overthrowing the ‘Putin regime’, but ‘The problems that preoccupy most Russians, as indicated by polls, including poverty, housing, education, and health, do not appear as priorities.’ She recounts the story of a woman who visited the offices of the Yabloko party to complain about people who were poisoning dogs in her locality, and was told, ‘yes, of course, we see the problem. But tell us, how are we going to fight the regime?’

Russians see that this sort of thing is pointless, Clément argues. The political protests of the liberal opposition don’t interest them. Instead, they’re turning to more local forms of action, focusing on the sort of social-economic issues I mentioned at the start of this post. Clément believes that it is this sort of action, coming from below, and ‘rooted in local concerns and the realities of daily life’ which offers the best prospects for change in Russia. Thus, she concludes, ‘It seems to me, however, that a (re)politicization—a recovery of cognitive, emotional, and practical bearings—has no choice but to follow the tentative paths of mobilization “from below”.’

One can argue about how true this is, but I find it interesting that it’s gotten her into so much trouble with the authorities. After all, there’s hardly a shortage of Western academics who write nasty things about Russia, and who are allowed into the country to, among other things, meet with members of the liberal opposition and sing their praises. Political activism by foreigners seems to be more or less tolerated. But if Clément’s example is anything to go by, social-economic activism is a big no-no. Returning to the question at the end of my first paragraph, perhaps that tells us something about what worries the Russian state the most.

No such thing as Russophobia

Russophobia is a manipulative defensive line, often used by Russian propaganda to reduce any criticism of the Russian state to an irrational intolerance towards the Russian people. (Euromaidan Press).

‘[Russophobia] is a powerful weapon in the current Kremlin’s rhetorical arsenal – deployed mainly to obscure criticism of Vladimir Putin’s regime by smearing, stigmatizing, and discrediting the messenger’ (Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL).

‘Russophobia is a label to deflect criticism from the Kremlin.’ (Hannes Adomeit, Raamop Rusland).

I could find more, but I’m sure you get the point. There’s no such thing as Russophobia. It’s just an invention of the Kremlin. As Brian Whitmore notes, ‘Moscow has attempted to portray valid critiques of things Russia’s rulers are doing – things that many reasonable people can easily find objectionable – as chauvinistic assaults on all Russians.’ The idea that quite often criticisms of Russia are indeed ‘chauvinistic assaults on all Russians’ is thus dismissed as a fantasy.

I wonder, then, what Whitmore would have to say about Mike Luckovich, the award winning cartoonist of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Luckovich has received not just one, but two Pulitzer prizes, and in 2005 was winner of the National Cartoonists Society’s top award, the Reuben. Today, he produced this gem. It takes the breath away:

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‘Russophobia is a label to deflect criticism from the Kremlin’? Really???

 

Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.

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Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

It seems that scarcely a day goes by without a major news story which in some way or another portrays Russia as the international bogeyman. Just yesterday, for instance, we had a completely pointless story in The Observer about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting an ‘ex-KGB agent’ (actually newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev) at a party in Italy. Meanwhile, today’s copy of The Times reports that an as-yet-to-be-published British parliamentary report says that, ‘Russian interference may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum, but the effect was “unquantifiable”.’

What both these stories have in common is that they’re utterly meaningless. Prime Minister meets newspaper owner! So what? And what does it tells us that interference ‘may’ have had some impact, or may not, and that anyway it’s ‘unquantifiable’? Nothing at all. So why were these stories published? The logical answer is that it’s because putting ‘Russia’ into a story automatically lends it some air of malign mystery and makes it look like something untoward is going on. In other words, such stories make headlines not because they’re truly newsworthy but because they tap into what British academic Mark Smith calls ‘the Russian Anxiety’.

In his new book ‘The Russian Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve it’, Smith describes the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard. Sometimes, Westerners fear Russia; other times they just view it with contempt (‘a gas station masquerading as a country’); and other times they prefer to ignore it entirely. The anxiety takes the form of a cycle: fear turns into contempt, then disregard, then back into fear again. And it ‘comes and goes’ according to circumstances. Still, says Smith, ‘The Russia Anxiety is a historically deep-seated feature of international relations’, and it has a very negative effect on how Western states treat Russia, creating tensions which do not need to exist.

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