Larisa Smirnova (lari_snova) wrote,
Larisa Smirnova

Stability and Innovation: a Balance that Will Determine Russia's Future

ad perpetuum Y.M.P.
He could separate personal honor from political convictions and <…> the superiority of forgiveness over revolutionary vengeance.
On Alexander Hamilton, by his biographer Ron Chernow

The Chinese translation of this article was published by the Financial Times Chinese edition on April 21, 2016:

When, in November 2015, the “Forbes” magazine ranked Vladimir Putin No. 1 most powerful person in the world for the third year running, its commentary ran as follows: “Putin continues to prove he’s one of the few men in the world powerful enough to do what he wants –and get away with it” . After that, the Russian and the world media were full of puzzled titles: “Why the Russians live poorer but support Putin more and more?” As to Putin’s own commentary, it was wise enough: “If you spend too much time thinking of your approval rates, you will have no time to do your job” .
Yet political support is an essential matter in politics and, though often deemed unpredictable, it is likely more calculable than it seems. Politics is, ultimately, about the process of decision-making by people. Depending on how the rules of decision-making procedure are set, political alliances are formed and compromises made to ensure enough support for a decision. Pure arithmetic: in the Russian parliament, we need over 50% of votes to pass most ordinary bills into laws, and over 75% for some especially important laws (the Constitutions provides for which kind of bills fall into these categories). In order to make an ordinary bill into a law, we, therefore need to accumulate at least 50% of support. In order to be able to make especially important bills into laws, we need 75%. Yet, in both cases, as long as we have enough votes, we do not actually need that everyone agrees. Therefore, we can preserve space for divergent positions. If, however, 100% vote were required for some laws, we would have no space at all for any dissident voices.
Politics, too, is about striking the right balance. While enough is enough, either too little or too much can prove counter-productive. Let’s be clear: decision-making procedure is not about democracy. The difference between democracy and autocracy is about how many people are involved in decision-making, not about the arithmetic of decision-making itself. Yet people invented “participatory democracy” in order to make sure that as many stakeholders as possible are involved in decision-making and, ultimately, share the collective responsibility for the consensus reached. Exclusion from decision-making creates frustration, and the bigger the share of those people who feel they can blame others for the decision in which they had not been involved, the more unstable the political situation becomes. This is precisely what happened to the Russian liberals, who, for reasons that I will explain in this article, became excluded from the Parliament in 2003-2011, and as a result, launched a public protest movement that questioned Putin’s policies in 2011-2012 .
Now, let’s explain how Vladimir Putin managed to restore stability by enlarging his support base through involving various political forces in the decision-making and answer the question on how he can now best capitalize on his rocketing support rates in order to determine Russia’s future innovative development.
Main political forces: from USSR to Russia
The political spectrum of contemporary Russia issued directly from the USSR party politics, where, within one party system, there were three main political forces: (1) reform-minded bureaucrats; (2) conservative bureaucrats; (3) extra-system dissidents.
My own stance on the reasons for the USSR dissolution is based on my childhood memories and later conversations with some high profile insiders of the process. The life in the 1980s was economically acceptable. What caused frustration and eventually the social explosion was, likely, increasing self-isolation of the ruling elite, who, concerned with the preservation of their power control, reduced social ladder opportunities, monopolized decision-making in the hands of a narrow group of people, and exercised heavy “mind control” through ideological dogmatism. These were the core causes: other factors, such as intra-Party power fights as well as central and local nationalisms, were merely instruments.
My late teacher Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s most famous philosopher-statesman and a guru of tolerance and common sense, in a posthumously published book “Meeting at crossroads” , describes how, in the 1970s, the discussions became dogmatic even within the stronghold of the Soviet science, the Academy of Sciences. Any push for personal initiative constituted an eternal struggle and had to be exercised in secrecy by a few insider accomplices. The bureaucracy, that reached its apogée in an economically prosperous, to Soviet standards, Brezhnev era, alienated even the intra-system, reform-minded bureaucrats. The system itself first pushed the reformers to an alliance with outsider dissidents that became possible in Gorbachev’s times, and then completely exploded from within, in a context when even the most hardcore conservatives lacked firm belief that their ideas were ultimately worth defending.
The final blow to the Soviet conservatives was an aborted military coup of August 1991 that provided no other ideology but a return to the Soviet values compromised by bureaucracy and dogmatic thinking and unwanted by the majority. Not only the coup did not succeed in preventing Boris Yeltsin from consolidating power on pro-reform grounds, but it also helped isolate the reform-minded yet more hesitant Mikhail Gorbachev. Ultimately, it created grounds for labeling the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPUS) activities “anti-constitutional” and outlawing the party, which was exercised by the order of Boris Yeltsin , by then already a democratically elected president of Russia, in November 1991.
After the dissolution of the USSR was formalized in December 1991 , an alliance of reform-minded former Soviet party bureaucrats, led by Yeltsin, and open dissidents, relabeled together as the “Russian democrats” or “Russian liberals”, became the new ruling force. The former Soviet conservatives, who suffered a hard time for a short while, quickly had the opportunity to capitalize on the poor economic management skills of the new government. They reorganized themselves into the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) with Gennady Zyuganov as the unchanging leader ever since. This party was Russia’s main opposition force since the early 1990s until its recent alliance with Vladimir Putin’s ruling force on patriotic grounds.
The Russian liberal government: praise and blame
Although the main political forces essentially remained intact throughout the post-Soviet period of Russian history, the structure of their political alliances can be divided into three periods: bipolar politics (1991-1996), multipolar politics (1996-2000), and unipolar politics with preserved space for dissident voices (a process that started in 2000 and saw a major shift in the protest movement of 2011-2012 and the Ukrainian crisis).
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the consensus within the ruling elite originally was that Russia was embarked on a US-style two-party politics transition scenario. In order to shed light on why this bipolar scenario has so far proven impractical, we need to understand some major differences between the American and the Russian politics.
The conflict that led to the foundation of the United States opposed two main things: first, the British rule over colonies versus the independence of the United States; second, the agrarian economic model of Southern states based on slavery versus the industrial economic model of Northern states based on free workforce. The outcome of an almost 100 year crisis that led to the 1775-1783 War of Independence and the 1865 abolition of slavery, was consensus among the American and the British elite, first, that the United States shall be independent, and second, obvious as it may seem today yet very hard at the time agreement, that there would be no possible going back to a slavery-based economy.
The issuing political system of the US had, as its basis, an implicit tacit agreement within the elites that first, the British would not exercise external pressure aimed at changing or overthrowing the American government, and second, that the two parties representing the main American political forces with divergent economic base of their subsistence, as a bottom line, will cooperate to overcome their differences and reach a compromise on the best institutions possible but will not aim at violently overthrowing each other.
In Russia, in the first place, all the forces were economically homogeneous (all Russians primarily rely on the country’s natural resources for their subsistence). Their opinions only diverged politically with regard to issues of dogmatism and fresh thinking, bureaucracy and personal initiative, monopolization of resources by the elite and sharing stakes with a larger proportion of the population. Hence, the focus of Russia’s reforms was in fact never really economic, the influence of private business interests was, if any, restricted to lobbying, while the real stakes in attracting social support base for the Russian political forces remained essentially political.
Secondly, as the protest movement of 2011-2012 demonstrated, the agreement has not been reached so far either with the West, that it would not exercise political pressure aimed at the regime change in Russia, or within the Russian elite itself, that they would put in place crisis-management mechanisms to prioritize cooperation over violent regime overthrow, as a bottom line scenario. Notably, it is rather unrealistic to expect that compromises will always be easy to reach. The US government, for example, has put in place such crisis managements mechanisms as “government shutdown”, a temporary closing of government offices if the Congress is at stalemate on a major budget bill (the last such “shutdown” occurred during Barack Obama’s presidency in October 2013).
The Russian democrats who ruled the country in the 1990s actually succeeded in resolving the core issues that led to the USSR dissolution: they broke through the ideological dogmatism, opened the country to the influx of fresh Western methodology, and reopened the social ladder and decision-making processes for newcomers. However, they lacked economic management skills and, moved too harshly while knowing too little of how the world economy worked. While their choices can at least partially be attributed to the fact that, in reality, the economy did not appear like the highest stake for their political future, they ended up paying a heavy price for this negligence.
The democratic alliance broke as a result of the 1996 presidential election. As a result of notoriously unpopular privatization and sudden liberalization of the prices, as well as the secessionist conflict in Chechnya, the incumbent President’s Boris Yeltsin’s approval rates reached historically low levels of mere 8-9%. According to all calculable prognosis, Yeltsin was bound to lose the election to the leader of the conservative camp Gennady Zyuganov. In this context, Yeltsin’s team made a choice to instrumentalize the USSR phantoms, such as the repressions of the Stalin era , to compromise the credibility of the return to Soviet values and ensure Yeltsin’s reelection as “the lesser of two evils”.
Yeltsin won an uneasy victory in the second tour of the 1996 election with less than 54% of vote. The Russian people, however, discovered the shady side of democracy best described by the term of “political technologies”. What that translated into, is that people’s preferences were influenceable or even manipulable by massive media information campaigns. Although quite common in all Western democracies, political technologies conflicted with the Russians’ idealist views of democracy in two ways: first, the free choices of voters were put into question; second, the government having made obvious use of their preferential control over the media to their benefit, the freedom of expression was also put into question.
The ruling alliance broke up into the pragmatists, who considered they had learned a lesson on the practicalities of democracy but saw moving forward with the government in place as an imperative, and the idealists, who questioned the legitimacy of Yeltsin’s reelection and preached a return to the “ideal of democracy”. Following the breakup of the ruling alliance, the forces within the Russian parliament split into too many conflicting segments in a situation reminiscent of the French forth republic. As a result, the law-making procedures became essentially blocked. To be precise, there were 21 fractions within the lower chamber, called the State Duma, that worked from 1996-2000. 11 among these fractions had just one member. There was also a total of 77 independent representatives with essentially unpredictable votes who represented 17% of the total of representatives . Imagine the difficulty to achieve a majority vote on any issue!
Boris Yeltsin, whose health deteriorated, made the choice, as one of his close aides privately shared with me, to preserve social peace to the extent possible, and, paraphrasing Ron Chernow’s comment on Alexander Hamilton, “to separate personal honor from political convictions” and “to privilege forgiveness over vengeance”.
The paralysis of decision-making reached its ultimate point during the financial crisis of August 1998, when the Russian government refused to pay off its debts to international monetary institutions, claiming the Russian state was bankrupt, a rather shameful position for a large and rich country like Russia.
Eventually, when, in 1999, the conservatives initiated the procedure to impeach Boris Yeltsin, part of the democracy idealists aligned with them. And finally, what made things worst of all, was the decision of the Western policy-makers to uphold their own alliance with the Russian dissident idealists and to take a critical stance on the legitimacy of Yeltsin’s reelection, making, in this extremely hard situation, a spectrum of future “color revolutions” emerge at the horizon.
Putin’s strategy for national reunification
Once we understand the background of decision-making paralysis due to the split of political spectrum in too many conflicting fractions, that preceded Vladimir Putin’s accession to power, it becomes easier to apprehend his own choices as a head of state. Vladimir Putin’s strategy consisted of promotion of rule of law and institutional building, on the one hand, and of national unity, on the other hand. Both ideas ultimately aimed to restore the efficient governability of the country.
In his political affiliations, Vladimir Putin is a former reform-minded bureaucrat. He raised up the ranks within the democratic ruling alliance of the 1990s as an aide to Anatoly Sobchak, the then mayor of Saint-Petersburg, who himself was a dissident. After 1996, Vladimir Putin made a choice towards the pragmatists, while his boss remained an idealist (Sobchak’s daughter, Xenia, eventually became a militant leader in the protest movement of 2011-2012).
In the Russian context, where there is no clear distinction between the bureaucrats and the intellectuals (like the example of Yevgeny Primakov, both academician and prime minister, demonstrates) Putin also tried to become a self-made patriotic intellectual. Since the knowledge of foreign languages has always been a prerequisite of Russian intellectuals, Putin mastered German and publicized his efforts to learn English, becoming the first Russian leader since Stalin who spoke more than one language. Assuming there are objective differences between legitimate government officials and spies, as well as between patriots focused on the progress of their country and nationalists focused on intolerance towards the others, Vladimir Putin might be neither a spy nor a Russian nationalist, as some might have tried to portray him.
Vladimir Putin’s idea to streamline the state efficiency was solvable through adjusting the decision-making procedures. Especially important were the law-making procedures within the Parliament. Therefore, Putin pushed through a few pieces of legislation that limited the access of small parties and individuals to the State Duma. As a result, the number of fractions within the Parliament reduced to four for the terms of 2003-2007 and 2007-2011. The ruling alliance led by the United Russia party (a relabeled version of the former pro-reform bureaucrats turned pragmatists) that ran on the platform of centrism and national reconciliation, managed to control enough votes to pass all important laws.
In politics, while enough is enough, too much breaks the balance. Vladimir Putin never actually questioned the principle of democracy in Russia. However, the rules of procedure that his team designed ended up excluding the liberals, who were still suffering their loss of credibility, from the Parliamentary decision-making.
Notably, the law of 2005 required political parties to collect over 7% of votes in the universal suffrage in order to qualify to send representatives to the Duma . The most liberal representatives, the militant idealist part of the former 1990s ruling alliance, who in people’s view took most of the blame for Yeltsin’s failures, lacked social base to pass this threshold. They felt the political spectrum became reminiscent of the USSR times. It was their frustration that led to the protest movement of 2011-2012.
Much has been written already on the technologies of popular movements, such as color revolutions. To make a long story short, the popular movements are led by the part of the elite, frustrated for  various reasons, but instrumentalize the nationalist feelings of masses. While the movement usually starts in feelings of fraternity, if the street protest lasts for a long enough period of time, for some intangible reasons that could arguably be attributed to the human nature, violence tends to prevail over reason. I had a chance to witness it at least twice: first, when, as a high school student, I attended the protests at the US embassy against the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia. Second, during my failed attempt to cross the Russia-Ukraine border in summer 2015, when I was met on a night train by the Kalashnikov-armed border guards turned militiamen, and told, along with all other non-Ukrainians, that “all foreigners are provocateurs”.
Predictably, in the protest movement of 2011-2012, the voices of the idealist liberal pro-democracy activists, like Xenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s former boss, started to be taken over by the nationalists. The Russian movement resulted in violent clashes with the police in May 2012, after which the government took action to limit the scale of further demonstrations through both concessions to the requests of the demonstrators and limited repressions against some of the leaders.
Putin’s willingness to make concessions was crucial. The election threshold was lowered back to 5%  (this is the rule of the next State Duma election scheduled for September 18, 2016). Germany's Bundestag, similarly, requires a 5% threshold. It could be envisaged, if the situation is stable enough, that, as Dmitry Medvedev mentioned, the threshold is further lowered, let’s say to 3% , a Council of Europe recommendation.
Much has been written as well on the subsequent Ukrainian crisis and the events in Crimea. But among polemics, one thing is certain: the events played to the benefit of Putin in his internal strategy. It allowed the alliance between the ruling force and the main opposition force, the Communist Party of Russia, on patriotic grounds. This alliance stabilized Putin’s support rates at around 80% .
What will ultimately determine Russia’s future?
Vladimir Putin has learned several crucial things from his predecessors. First, he learned that exclusion from decision-making creates frustration and potentially leads to an intra-system explosion. Second, he learned that denigration of predecessors is not a constructive thing to do, so he always treated Boris Yeltsin and his memory with a lot of respect. He finally learned that basic principles need not necessarily be thrown away, but can be adjusted instead.
Therefore, Putin never questioned democracy as the way of Russia’s political development. Neither did he challenge the openness of the economy, including freedom of ruble exchange rates and freedom of flows of people and capital. Neither did he challenge Russia’s achievements in terms of principles of legal protection of human rights, the most important of which was the unification of law by the Constitution of 1993 that streamlined law-making procedures and the hierarchy of legal acts, canceling the formerly large extra-legal field of various administrative and party regulations. The system in place is obviously imperfect and needs further work, both cognitive and practical, but the consensus in Russia is that there is no need, because of practical imperfections, to challenge the painfully won principles.
The main risk comes today from the excessively conservative political spectrum of current Russia that is, again, split in three forces, dangerously reminiscent of the USSR times. The United Russia party, as the ruling party, plays the role of the former conservative bureaucracy. The Communist party plays the role of the former intra-system pro-reform bureaucracy (although it lacks, unlike the Soviet reformists, a constructive platform or expertise to undertake reforms). This kind of political spectrum recreates the old risks of monopolization, bureaucracy, and dogmatism of thinking.
In this environment, Russia’s future appears to depend on its ability to uphold the space for innovative thinking. The USSR has once been on the cutting edge of the world science and technology. The potential of science and technology in contemporary Russia, even if hindered by the financial penuries and other factors, remains huge. Innovative thinking might best thrive in the environment combining a niche for free thinking (the role played by the USSR Academy of Sciences) with outside systemic discipline. Famously, the USSR was able to produce more in terms of science and technology than the totally free Russia of the 1990s. This was also the case of medieval European Universities that, during the times usually referred to as the Dark Ages, functioned as autonomous communities and produced the foundations for the Age of Enlightenment.
In today’s globalized environment, where flows of talents are free, Russia’s future depends on its competitiveness in the attraction of the most capable people. And since many scientists and innovative thinkers tend to be true liberals, it is usually irrelevant and counter-productive to handle them through discipline, coercion, bureaucracy, and standardization. Arguably, the way in which history will judge Vladimir Putin will finally not be so much based on his actions in Crimea and Syria, but on his ability to capitalize on the political stability that his high support rates guaranteed him, in order to allow the remaining 20% to think innovatively and move the country forward.
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