Return of the repressed
Recent elections were either a triumph of the will or a confirmation that
Russia has found itself, writes Eric Walberg
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 US.
The triumph of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia -- winning over 60
per cent to the Communists' 12, the Liberal Democratic Party's nine and Just
Russia's eight per cent -- 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 years.
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
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 bête 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 jail.
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
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 to speak.
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 their 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 seven per cent 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
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 Nikita 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
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.