The legacy of 1989 and 10 years of Putin's Russia

Maanantaina, 9. marraskuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Arkady Moshes
Ohjelmajohtaja - EU:n itäinen naapurusto ja Venäjä -tutkimusohjelma

Today, the nations that once lived under the Communist rule differ strongly. Some have successfully completed the transition towards market economy and liberal democracy. Some still hope to achieve this goal. Some found the transition to be mission impossible and have essentially established sultanist regimes, even hereditary.

Russia is somewhere in the middle of the road, but it seems to have lost a sense of the further direction. On the one hand, it has become a global economy and a country with open borders and a fairly good communication infrastructure. Due to economic interdependence with the West it cannot afford a Cold War paradigm, and its elites care about international legitimization of their own status. It would be a total mistake to view modern Russia as a smaller Soviet Union. On the other hand, many changes that were introduced in the country in the early 1990s were proven not to be irreversible. Once a champion of political freedoms in the post-Soviet space, Russia is now ruled by means of the so-called “vertical of power”– a system universally perceived outside of the country as soft authoritarianism.

It is highly symbolizing, therefore, that for Russia the autumn of 2009 is the time of two “round” dates: the 20th anniversary of fall of the Wall and the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power. Both formally – if one applies the time criteria – and in substance, Russia’s post-1989 history is split into two competing halves.

Have the Russian people forgotten what they had gained thanks to the collapse of totalitarian regimes in Europe, including their own? Aren’t they able to appreciate private property, the possibility to earn, save and spend money as they wish, the full shelves in small shops as well as megastores, the lack of ideological control, the freedom to travel and to send their children to study abroad? They definitely are, even though many nowadays need to be reminded that all this was not available to them as recently as twenty years ago. Although aggregate indicators do not always tell the whole truth, it is possible to agree with the frequent statement that Russia has never been so rich and so free at the same time. Another matter is of course, that this conclusion is, unfortunately, valid even when shrinking freedoms are compensated with growing wealth, and at the individual level the property rights are not insured.

But neither Russia as a whole has forgotten the whole drama of reforms. Furthermore, it has failed to understand this drama in full and surmount the challenge. The society brought up in traditions of state paternalism was shocked when it saw the paralysis of state institutions (education, health care, the military, the law-enforcement system etc.), crime and corruption. A technologically-developed country faced several consecutive waves of de-industrialization, which among other things have destroyed the strata of technical intelligentsia that had been a major driving force of Gorbachev reforms in 1980s. The empire was lost, and the new, liberalizing Russia, was met internationally only with a fraction of respect that a Soviet dictatorship had been used to meet. A profound feeling of insecurity has emerged, when the enlargement of the Western security alliances coincided with the War in the Caucasus, terrorist threat inside the country and uncertainty regarding the future of Russia’s relations with its mighty Far Eastern neighbour, China.

No wonder, the stress under which the Russian people lived throughout the 1990s, especially when the prospects for recovery seemed to have been demolished by the economic meltdown of 1998, shaped the demand for a strong hand in power. Democracy should not be a synonym of lawlessness and chaos, but it was in Russia of those days. Against that background the hopes of the people were too easily placed on the promise of “order”.

It is hardly possible or even needed to try to list all the factors that determined why Russia chose the way of aborted transition that it chose, revealing the hybrid state of its institutions and the confusion of people’s minds through the eclecticism of national symbols – imperial twin-head eagle, the tri-colour flag, and the slightly amended Soviet anthem. Some of those factors – Yeltsin’s sickness, naïve views of early economic reformers - were important, but, eventually, accidental.

The major problem was that after 70 years of Communism the Russian people had at best a very vague understanding of democratic values and of their primacy. Western liberties were viewed as firmly linked with, and bringing, prosperity. When affluence did not arrive, the whole construction was rejected. In turn, the new elites that came to power were not guided by democratic principles either. Too easily they compromised these principles in order to enrich themselves or extend the own stand in power. Elections of 1996 were not fair, and, perhaps, this was the turning point of Russian post-Soviet history, leading to many things that happened after.

As far as the traditional West is concerned, there are many reasons why it should be self-critical as well. The problem is not, as it is sometimes alleged these days, that it “took advantage” of Russia’s weakness, moved geopolitical borders further East in order to guarantee its own security interests and thus contributed to the emergence of the atmosphere of besieged fortress in Russia, even though this effect was there and was exploited. The problem is that the West turned a blind eye to many things happening in Russia and, again, running contrary to the values it proclaimed it was trying to promote. When Russia was poor, the West prioritized stability over the democratic governance – let’s remember that Boris Yeltsin was given a carte blanche when he decided to shell the parliament in 1993. When Russia became richer, the boundaries of morally acceptable in dealing with it were blurred, and the pursuance of liberal values was almost officially sacrificed to “pragmatic interests” in the Russia policy of major EU countries, businesses and prominent public figures.

All historical parallels are false. Every situation is unique. However, when thinking where Russia may go from where it is now, one temporal reference may be relevant. It is argued by some people, that today, when the global economic crisis is doing its sobering work and Kremlin leaders themselves speak about the need to harmonize relations with Western democracies, Russia lives in another 1986, and another attempt of liberal reforms is very close. Others say that after the war with Georgia the country is becoming only more assertive, that it lives in 1982, and that another serious crisis between Russia and the West will happen before the internal changes and the new rapprochement with the West will become possible.

It would be too self-reliant to try passing a final judgment in this discussion. But what is obvious is that West is interested to see Russia going the way of 1989, the way of building a modern liberal state with modern market economy. And the anniversary of 1989 is a reminder and an incentive to reiterate the vision and commitment to help this happen.

This blog entry is based on the presentation at the conference “The legacy of 1989 – Democracy, the Market and Europe”, organized by the Danish Institute of International Studies and the University of Copenhagen in Copenhagen, Nov. 9, 2009.

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