If Time magazine had a "country of the
year," it would surely be Russia, despite its colourful competition, Iran
and Venezuela. All three have dominated headlines, tripping up the United
States in its 21st century drive for world hegemony. Venezuela held a
referendum 2 December which failed by a whisker, while Russia held
parliamentary elections the same day, confirming its transformation from a weak
kleptocracy, servile to US wishes, into a vigorous and confident opponent of
The triumph of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia --
winning over 60 percent to the Communists' 12, the Liberal Democratic Party's
nine and Just Russia's 8 percent of the vote -- paves the way for the
consolidation of what has been described by Ivan Krastev as "sovereign
democracy," a combination of directed democracy and nationalism, and an
antidote to the dangerous combination of populist pressure from below and
international pressure from above that destroyed the post-Communist Ukrainian,
Georgian and Kyrgyz regimes in so-called colour revolutions over the past few
In the regime of directed democracy that Putin inherited
from Boris Yeltsin, the newly formed post-Communist elites managed to control
the electoral process without the usual governing party of directed
democracies, such as, say, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Egypt and many other
similar regimes. Their moral authority derived solely from their allegiance to
the liberal democracy of the US and the international community, through
various aid programmes and pretences to "democracy building." They
managed to distract the teeming masses, feeding them "Bush legs" (the
ubiquitous cheap US chicken imports) and Western-style commercial pap. Of the
ex-Soviet countries, only Belarus managed to escape this scenario with the
election of its quirky, charismatic socialist leader Alexandr Lukashenko.
But this could hardly last forever, certainly not for a
country that inherited the heavy mantle of the Soviet Union. The backlash to
the crony capitalism and phony democracy of Yeltsin gave his appointed
successor a chance to wrest control from the powerful oligarchs, restore the
power of the state as the engine of economic and social development,
effectively nationalising the remaining elite power centres. Boris Berezovsky,
Putin's b�te noire fuming in London, is a good example of the
marginalisation of the "offshore elite." Another is Mikhail
Khodorkosky, in his unfashionable striped uniform, learning to sew in a Russian
Yes, windfall oil revenues have been key to Russia's rise
from the ashes. And the tragedy of Chechnya continues to haunt the Kremlin. The
consolidation of the new order is due partly to luck and the road has been
rocky. But more important than oil is a powerful mass psychological force at
work. Putin's Russians -- and not only Russians, for this applies to Tatars,
Uzbeks, Georgians and dozens of other nationalities -- soon tired of being
lectured by the US as it proceeded to ignore Russia, and as NATO swallowed up
Russia's neighbours and former allies.
Putin's genius was to be able to articulate the resurgence
of national pride, the return of the repressed, as people rallied to the
Soviet-style anti-imperialist standard which he hoisted. Unlike the boorish,
dipsomaniac Yeltsin, who welcomed US advisers to help him dismantle the once
powerful Soviet Union, Putin sent them packing and tapped into the subliminal
desire of the people to re-identify with a powerful state which advocated law
and order both at home and abroad.
The Soviet national anthem was reinstated and people began
to take pride in their history. Putin decried the collapse of the Soviet Union
at the 60th anniversary of the victory over fascism in 2005 as "the
greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." History books hastily
written with American advisers in the 1990s were rewritten to provide a less
damning view of the Soviet past. At United Russia's eighth party congress 1
October, Putin said a big victory for it would give him the "moral
authority" to hold the government and parliament accountable.
Western liberals have reacted with feigned horror at the
elections, pointing at government control of the media, pre-election
intimidation of the liberal opposition and Soviet-style rallying around Putin
and United Russia (founded in 2001 as a merger of Fatherland -- all Russia and
the Unity Party of Russia). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and
Human Rights announced it would boycott the elections, citing visa delays.
However, its Parliamentary Assembly (PA) got all the visas it asked for (40)
without any problem and sent an observer team which issued a rather negative
report 3 December, citing "merging of the state and a political party,"
media bias in favour of Putin, difficulties "for new and smaller parties
to develop and compete effectively," and reports of pre-election
harassment of political parties. So the PA managed to give the party line, so
There is some truth and a certain irony to the argument that
the return of the repressed has brought with it Soviet-style repression for
those who continue to embrace Western-style liberalism. But the 1990s
experienced much worse intimidation and violence during the reign of the robber
barons. The difference was that it was private and mostly went unpunished. It's
much easier to point the finger now, but no one in his right mind would go back
to the crimes of the Yeltsin years. While the anti-Kremlin journalist Anna
Politovskaya was indeed murdered in 2006, her killers were hunted down and
prosecuted. What is important is that there are laws now which function. And
there is arguably more free thinking in Russia these days than in the West.
However, after the painful and unpredictable upheavals
resulting from the 1917 Russian revolution, the 1991 counter- revolution, and
the flirtation with Western-style liberalism in the 1990s, post-Yeltsin Russia
has developed a strong anti-revolutionism along with a fundamental mistrust
towards the two core concepts of liberal democracy -- the idea of
representation as the expression of the pluralist nature of the modern society
and the idea of popular sovereignty as the rule of the popular will.
A referendum in, say, Chechnya would no doubt advocate
independence, but it would also lead the way to the break-up of the Russian
Federation, and it is just not going to happen. A noisy parliament exacerbating
regional and ideological differences was tried and failed spectacularly under
Yeltsin. Hence creating a new political party is difficult and parliamentary
representation requires a 7 percent threshold vote. Anti-populism and
anti-pluralism characterise Russia today. "I voted for Putin because
Russia has become a strong country. I lived through that nightmare of the
Yeltsin era. It's like night and day," said Sergei Troshin after voting
for United Russia.
Putin seems to thrive on populism, but it is a top-down
populism. People are sovereign here in as much as they identify with the
sovereign and vice versa, and in as much as the ruling elite in league with him
is perceived as embodying reason and the national welfare. Putin's enormously
popular phone-in meetings with citizens through live- hookup, telephone, e-mail
and text messaging are clearly a way to make sure the people have a chance to
actively identify with their sovereign.
Elections are not so much an instrument for expressing
conflicting interests as for demonstrating the identity of the governors and
the governed; not so much a mechanism for representing people but for
representing and legitimating power in the eyes of the people. The concept of
sovereign democracy embodies Russia's ideological ambition to be "the
other Europe" -- an alternative to the European Union, just as the Soviet
Union was in its day, and just as Fidel Castro and Chavez's state socialism
embodies "the other Latin America" today.
As enchantment with the model of liberal democracy erodes --
just look at the farce of the current US presidential campaign -- the
attractiveness of these alternatives grows. A strong sovereign representing the
interests of the nation, backed by a loyal elite, smacks of feudalism, but is
beginning to look good in the 21st century.
"My view is simply that the modus operandi of
Russia is enlightened conservatism," said eminent film director Viktor
Mikhailkov, an ardent supporter of Putin. "Why are people frightened of
patriotism? There's a lot of worrying among the intelligentsia about teaching
the basics of Orthodox culture. It's a hysteria. Russia needs authority. Maybe
for the so-called civilised world this sounds like nonsense. But chaos in
Russia is a catastrophe for everyone."
In reply to Mikhailkov, Alexandr Gelman, a playwright who
rose to prominence during perestroika,
says, "In the Soviet era there was only one party but there were plays and
books that supported the idea of democracy. The less democracy, the more
cultural figures matter. If the tendency against democracy continues, cultural
figures will gain more influence."
"Today we are successful in politics, economics, arts,
sciences, sports," trumpets the announcer in one advertisement,
accompanied by a brass band and images of Putin and other smiling Russians.
"We have reasons for pride. We enjoy respect and deference. We are citizens
of a great country, and we have great victories ahead. Putin's plan is a
victory for Russia!" Hokey maybe, but true.
The problem, of course, is how power changes hands. So far
Putin has refused to pursue a constitutional amendment to allow him a third
term though there is pressure for him to do so. His push to make United Russia
the establishment party intends to guarantee stability. The party is expected
to convene on 17 December to name a candidate who will run in the presidential
elections next March. Sergei Markov, a political analyst and United Russia
member, said Putin was likely to endorse at least two candidates.
Walberg is a Canadian journalist. You can reach him at www.geocities.com/walberg2002.