Saturday, October 06, 2007

As Good a Version as Any

Chanced upon this article (in Russian) by one Dmitri Furman, a history professor with the Russian Academy of Sciences. The man has credentials.

He also has a good point to make. He starts out by reminding us all that there's a very good chance we've only seen part of Putin's eventual plan, and that we can well expect reality to turn out completely different from what any of us expect at this point. Having recently boasted of my predictions coming true, I would like to take a moment to wholeheartedly endorse this point. Don't take my ESP for granted. :)

Dr. Furman then goes on to speculate why Putin chose the path of formal legality to remain in power. It's a good question; his recent actions have stupefied observers far more than an all-out power grab would have. Putin chose not to modify the Constitution and proclaim himself President for life, but make no mistake - he could have. A direct quote from the article:
In an imitation democracy, adhering to a Constitution that acts as a facade can result in the destabilization of the true power system. Putin's retirement in the name of sticking to the Constitution is, in this sense, a very dangerous and risky move.
So why did he do it? Why didn't he take the option that the leaders of so many former Soviet republics took, the option that the postsoviet political evolution presents so temptingly?

Furman suggests that the difference between Russia and Kazakhstan is historic pride. The countries that now have absolute rulers do not have a history of statehood, at least not in reasonably modern times. For them, the opportunity to have a nation of their own is inherently satisfying; compared to that, democracy is a nice idea that they might want to consider at some future point, once things calm down a bit.

Russia, on the other hand, has been a European superpower even before the Cold War. Ever since Peter the Great, Russia has fancied itself a civilized, modern country, perhaps with a few kinks here and there in the way they do things, but essentially part of what is now the First World. One of the hallmarks of Western civilization is democracy; turning to an obvious autocracy would be an admission of fundamental inferiority. Not only are the Russian people unwilling to be a Third World country, but Putin himself is unwilling to be the ruler of a Third World country. A power grab would render him the equal of Chavez or Mugabe, not Brown or Sarkozy.

The upshot? Putin is retaining and enforcing the framework for regime change. A Russia without an evident master is an unstable Russia, but by establishing a precedent of respect for the Constitution - no matter how flawed the hyper-presidential Constitution may be - Putin is creating the opportunity for a soft landing once he himself is out of politics.

A token effort to keep up European appearances is a token chance to invoke a European process.


Anonymous said...

Nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.

-Oscar Wilde 1854 --1900
Michael, in Vera, or The Nihilists (1880).

"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

-Sir Winston Churchill
Radio broadcast, 1 Oct. 1939. Churchill added: "But perhaps there is a key.. . Russian national interest."

Jens-Olaf said...

I'm not an insider of Russian politics, so I must rely on sources from others and their conclusions. Reading your perspective it reminded me what journalists wrote about Korea (South) before it became a democracy after the Olympics 88. Before, the journalists were arriving from Japan when something happened there, mostly violent stuff as they wrote, but they could not see that behind protests, riots, uprisings was beeing build a fundament for the change from the military dictatorship to a civil society. They even wrote the Koreans are not ready democracy!
Korea never had democracy before only for a very short period. Similar like Russia. But the professional analysts were proofed wrong, here.

Giustino said...

One of the concepts I have read over the years is the Moscow v. St. Petersburg idea -- that St. Petersburg strives for 'Europeanness' while isolated Moscow strives for 'Central Asian Empire.'

So this might play into Furman's assessment that St. Petersburg-born Putin wants to at least look European.

Isn't that the mission statement of the city itself -- to resemble Amsterdam?

antyx said...

Sure, could very well be. (I think the common notion is of Venice rather than Amsterdam, but yeah.) There's definitely an understanding of the "St. Petersburg Team", Putin's confidants, against the Moscow establishment.

Estonia in World Media (Rus) said...

Russians would never agree on "resembling Amsterdam". The idea is make Amsterdam resemble Petersburg.

Anonymous said...

Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists on being treated as the most easterly of western peoples instead of
the most westerly of easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle.

-Rudyard Kipling 1865 --1936
Life's Handicap, "The Man Who Was" (1891).

ARK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ARK said...

Well, AT, it seems like you & Furman are making some virtue out of Putin's self-defined necessity.

Or perhaps I'm missing something, y'know, between the lines.

Talking up Russia's European identity sounds encouraging. But, from an analytical perspective, it gets a bit wishy-washy and fuzzy-wuzzy. Which is why so many social scientists and historians try to steer clear of political culture and national identity.

A few years ago, Guillermo O’Donnell, a fully credentialed political scientist, discouraged us from defining democracies and regimes in formal terms -- meaning, by strict constitutional adherence or electoral occurence. Elections and constitutions do not a democracy make. Robust (democratic) institutions and civil society development do -- this being a homily among democracy scholars and INGO do-gooders everywhere.

It seems to me -- and an ever-increasing number of global observers -- that Putin has done enormous harm to Russia's foetal post-Sov democratic institutions and civil society. I don't need to recount the regressions here -- they've been widely reported over recent years.

Given that, I can't help but see faith in Putin's formalism as optimism that verges on naïveté. I mean, given the authoritarian (fascist) direction in which Putin has been driving Russia since start-of-decade, what alternate reality can you and Furman envisage?

To envisage something Euro-democratic in Russia (based on current empirical evidence) seems akin to American Neocons envisage a flowering of democracy in Mesopotamia post-Iraq invasion. Freud demeaned wishful thinking with good reason.

Again, you're the one with ready access to Russia, AT: so what am I missing here?

antyx said...

I guess I might be misrepresenting the spirit of Furman's article. There's no measure of certainty that Putin's efforts will ultimately lead to a healing of the political situation in Russia; but there is an off chance that, providing a wildly unlikely sequence of serendipitous events, it just might. After all, the article was written not so much as a prediction, but as a grand "wtf?", an attempt to figure out a seemingly illogical development and assign motivation for Putin's non-obvious move. (On the one hand, it's a power grab; on the other, he is trying to keep up appearances while it was entirely within his ability to declare himself Tzar.)

Also, I do not necessarily agree with Furman, which is why I'm quoting him so faithfully - otherwise I'd just do the standard blogger thing and maybe mention him in passing, while adopting his notions as my own. :) I like to make an attempt to find the objective motivation for events, rather than just condemn them, because I think it's more constructive and I don't really need to convince anyone that PM Putin is a "Bad Thing"(TM). We'll hardly ever know what exactly drove Putin to make this move, but Furman's is as good a version as any. :)

Doris said...

"Whenever Russia and Germany are on friendly terms, the rest of Europe can count on some cataclysmic events. But Germany REALLY need the gas... And Russia doesn't have any other friends..."

one of my Uni professors

... because friends you terrorize into being your friends aren't your friends. Not really.

antyx said...

Germany may need Russian gas, but they don't necessarily need the pipe. They're getting the gas through Poland already, and there is unused capacity in the Blue Stream pipe that goes down to Turkey - would be far easier to jack that into the European network. (However, this potentially allows access to Caspian reserves, bypassing Russia entirely, so Russia is fighting it.)

Also, I'm fairly sure that Russia needs Germany's money more than Germany needs Russia's gas.


| More