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Apr 28, 2014

Russia, long time on the fence

Thanks to those of you who asked how we are doing here with all the news. There is absolutely no threat to our personal safety here in Moscow. Ukraine is not going to launch an assault on Moscow. The news from the Eastern Ukraine is scary and disturbing, and it is all very personal to the people of Eastern Ukraine.

Much more troubling is the slow, but steady sliding into a more authoritarian, less free society. It is hard to say which is the cause and which is the consequence – the conflict in Ukraine (and inevitable although sad surge of “patriotism”) or the shift to authoritarianism. And internal politics is always linked to external; that much we know.

I think it is an oversimplification to think that all the strings in Russia are pulled from Kremlin, or personally by Putin. He is as much a hostage of the larger political forces as their master. (Although the decisions to annex Crimea and to threaten Ukraine with invasion are most likely his alone). The myriad small things to drag the country back in time come from many people. Here is where I disagree with most Russian liberals. Their mistake is to equate authoritarianism with one person, or with a corrupt clan of officials. In fact, Russia has seen the birth of a powerful political movement that is both socially conservative and politically repressive; they also tend to be hawkish in foreign policy. It is sort of a version of GOP a-la 1963. It is very unlikely Putin actually controls them, although he uses the movement when he sees fit – which tends to be more and more often. But the liberal minority needs to acknowledge this political force as a legitimate, powerful, if scary political opponent, not as a conspiracy of bureaucrats alone.

The shifts are many. For example, Duma is considering a law that requires bloggers to register with the Russian equivalent of FCC. This only pertains to those bloggers who have an average of 3000 hits a day, which I never have. So, OK, not to worry? Or, they will soon want people with dual citizenship to register with immigration authorities, although the Russian constitution explicitly allows dual citizenship and prohibits any restrictions of rights. Why register then? I am already not allowed to hold certain government jobs, as long as I maintain the dual citizenship. Not that I want those jobs anyway (mostly law enforcement), but it makes me wonder. Or another example, the government is actively developing what looks like an official ideology. Yet the Russian constitution explicitly forbids that. A series of acts restrict activities of NGO’s, including what amounts to a total ban on foreign funding. It looks like the death of democracy by a thousand of tiny cuts.

Democratic institutions have never been strong in Russia. Most importantly, the legislative and the judicial branches have not been truly independent since late 90-s. But it is not just that. There is nothing here like ACLU, so no one will take all these cases to court. A few civil rights organizations tend to be partisan, while ACLU is pointedly neutral. Russian journalism has been struggling, and the state control over media seems to be strengthening. The liberal opposition is very weak. The opposition parties are unable to attract wider audiences, in part because the government severely limits their freedom, and in part, because they simply do not know how.

Yet, this is not the entire story. The country has a significant, and sophisticated middle class. Russians have always loved to travel, and many have seen the world. The adult population is fairly well educated, better than the average OECD country. Within the federal and regional governments, quite a few capable people continue to work on country’s development, despite everything. The rumor of total corruption are exaggerated. The civil society does exist, although not in the same form as it is known in Europe and America. It is too soon to give up on Russia; it has the potential for a normal democratic development. I may be an optimist, but I don’t see significant barriers to that. It is more of a fluke than some sort of an exceptional nature of Russian society. One important reason for the current state of affairs is that Vladimir Putin happens to be an exceptionally gifted politician, who also happens to be very cynical about democracy. And to survive politically, he had to make the conservative turn, because the liberal classes have – rightfully - withdrawn their support. I agree with Stephen Cohen, who believes that the US has made a number of mistakes, which contributed to Russia’s political backpedaling. Of course, U.S.’s own unfortunate prolonged war on terror did nothing to welcome Russia or other regional powers into democratic fold. On a personal level, Putin and many Russians feel that the country has been repeatedly snubbed by the West, the missile defense project is just one of many stories. The particion of Serbia is another, and the list of grievances goes on and on. The perception may or may not be true, but nothing has been done on symbolic level to counteract it.

What I am saying is, the present sad state of Russian democracy does not have deep economic or political roots. It all may change.

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