Thursday, September 10, 2009

Putin system recalls late Soviet era

The above article was written by Paul Goble and entitled “Putin system Recalls Features and Dangers of Late Soviet Period, Moscow Scholar Says.” I’ll quote from it and comment below.

“By eliminating the possibility of a democratic rotation at the very top of the Russian political system, Vladimir Putin has made federalism ‘impossible’ and ‘quasi-feudalism’ inevitable, thus creating a . . . system . . . ‘which is a direct extension’ of the Soviet one near its end, according to a leading Moscow scholar.

“In an essay in today’s ‘Nezavisimaya gazeta,’ Dmitry Furman, a senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe, argues that Putin’s power vertical has given the appearance of stability but only at the cost of effective central control over the regions and the possibility of future instability. . .

“Furman argues that this trend is most clearly in evidence in the sharply contrasting situations of Ingushetia and Chechnya. In Ingushetia, Putin removed the extremely popular Ruslan Aushev, despite the latter’s success in maintaining order at a time when neighboring Chechnya was in a state of war.”

“. . . Furman points out. “But if Ingushetia is an example of the limited possibilities of the bureaucratic power vertical, Chechnya is hardly an example of its successful functioning.”

“The relations of the Moscow powers . . . are much closer to the relations in a feudal hierarchy in which ‘the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal,’” a point Furman notes has been developed by Vladimir Shlyapentokh in his book “Contemporary Russia as a Feudal Society.”

“. . . The real source of [Kadyrov’s] power is not his appointment ‘from above’ but that he has his own powerful ‘forces’ consisting of former militants and the support of traditional Chechen structures . . . “

“. . . removing Kadyrov would very likely mean to trigger a third Chechen war. And inside Chechnya, ‘Kadyrov rules according to his own lights’. . . Kadyrov proclaims that Chechnya will forever be inside Russia, but the level of his real independence is not less than Dudayev’s and much more than South Ossetia’s.”

“The relationship between Moscow and Kadyrov is admittedly ‘an extreme case,’ Furman says, ‘but this same tendency we see in other regions, above all in ethnic ones and especially those where the local culture is sharply different from the Russian and the peoples have a strong sense of identity.’

"Moscow can send an official from some predominantly Russian regions to other predominantly Russian regions, but ‘to send [such people] to Kalmykia, Tatarstan or Bashkortostan would be very risky,’ not only because the titular nations would be offended but because the officials would not be able to cope with the very different challenges.

“In these non-Russian republics, Furman says, ‘firm imitation democratic systems of personal power have been formed,’ and Moscow cannot easily move against them. Just as the ruler in Moscow has become ‘without any alternative,’ so too these officials have ‘guaranteed themselves a peaceful situation,’ by giving “tribute” to Moscow “in exchange for a free hand.’

“. . . In its early years, the Soviet system avoided this problem because it was prepared to use any means to advance its goals, ‘but as Soviet power aged,’ its chief concern became ‘stability and quasi-feudalism ever more reduced the scope of the bureaucratic system of appointments’ by the center.

“Under Leonid Brezhnev, ‘the Rashidovs, Kunayevs, Aliyevs, and Bodyuls were more in a vassal type relationship with Moscow than a bureaucratic one. They were loyal, said all the necessary words, paid various kinds of tribute, and the most important, they guaranteed stability.’ Given that that was Moscow’s highest goal, the center allowed them a free hand.

“Because it did not have an ideological goal for very long, the post-Soviet Russian leadership focused on ‘self-preservation and stability’ from the outset. As a result, ‘quasi-feudal elements of relations in post-Soviet Russia were manifested very clearly from the very beginning.’

“Despite the stability they appear to provide, such quasi-feudal relationships represent “a continuing possibility of destabilization” because the ‘informal’ and often personal ties do a poor job in regulating the situation. If there are misunderstandings and there often are, then such relationships can lead to instability.

“Sometimes as now this can take the form of a fronde against the center either in response to excessive centralization, fears of regional leaders about succession in the absence of elections they could control, or uncertainty about what relations with Moscow will be like as long as the “tandem” is in power.

“But this fronde, which under current conditions will inevitably take the form of a demand for a return to democratic procedures, ‘is hardly particularly dangerous’ for Moscow. But if, as happened at the end of the Soviet period, the center tries to go too far as Mikhail Gorbachev did . . . And these republic leaders “began to recognize that they could live without the Center. They had in their hands already a plenitude of complete power.’ They didn’t need Moscow, and although they did not lead the march to independence, they did not oppose those who did and were happy to take advantage of the situation.

“’A bureaucratic power vertical is effective in a totalitarian society based on faith and terror,’ Furman concludes. ‘But if there is not one or the other, its effectiveness is limited and the system is rife with destabilization.’ Democratic procedures can limit that trend, he notes, but they too carry with them their own problems for incumbents and the political system as well.”


I am quite willing to concede that Putin is doing his best, but isn’t Russian hubris getting in the way of a much better “best”? We hear, “we are the way we are and we have always been this way.” We hear “we are Russian and not European.” Good Grief! What does that mean? Does that mean that Russia is going to revert back to pre-Soviet Feudalism?

Surely Russia has historical evidence that Tsarist Feudalism was if not a failure then a level of primitivism that it would be impossible to return to. And surely Russia has ample evidence that the Soviet experiment was a failure. So what is this eternal Russia that we hear reference to?

Perhaps all nations have some ideal period that they can look back to with pride and longing. I’ve discussed both the American veneration of the Old (Wild) West and the Japanese veneration of the Samurai. They are similar in many respects. They have been romanticized in stories and movies and neither nation has been terribly threatened by attempts to deconstruct these national myths. The American gunfighter and the Japanese Samurai may be mythological, but they are tropes of important elements in these cultures.

What is the Russian equivalent to the American and Japanese tropes? May I suggest that the Russian tropes are the Tsarist period and Stalinism? The days of the Wild West and the Samurai are over, but they are still venerated. Does not a similar veneration exist in Russia for Tsarist Feudalism and Stalinism?

In the case of Japan and the US we sublimate our tropes. We can see it in the American attitude referred to as being “a cowboy.” We can also see it in the Japanese “Corporate Samurai.” These tropes are very well known, but the Russian Tsarist and Stalinist tropes may be just as powerful. And they may be negatively affecting the current Russian government: How can a Russian leader be like a Tsar or Stalin but avoid making their mistakes? In the West our immediate reaction to this question would be to ask, “why would anyone want to be like them?” But these are Russian tropes, the most important eras in their past. They cannot utterly reject them, nor do they (most of them, apparently) want to.

Could we in America return to our mythic West? I have thought about that. I was a rifle instructor in the Marine Corps and later spent a lot of time target shooting with hand guns. Also, I rode a motorcycle and had ample evidence that I had very good reflexes; so I probably would have fared well in an Old West-type shoot out. However, I don’t let my imagination take me too far down that path before I recall other elements of the Old West, e.g., it wouldn’t make any difference how good a shot I was if I was “dry-gulched.” And it wouldn’t make any difference how good a Samurai was if his master was killed. If his master was killed he was obligated to kill himself. So if I and my Japanese counterpart were sitting in front of time-machines and assured that all we needed to do was push a little red button and we would be transported back to those periods we admire, would we push them?

What is it in Stalinism that the Russian looks back to with longing? And what was in Stalinism that they have no wish to return to? We in the West can suggest answers to the latter questions. Surely the Russians want no more suppressing of opinion, no more purgings, no killing of political rivals and no condemnation of political prisoners to Gulags.

But can we get our minds around what it was in Tsarism and Stalinism that seems good to them? Yeah, the defeats of Napoleon and the German Wehrmacht, but what else?

The more I read about current Russian politics, the more it seems they have pushed the red button in their time machine and are now hoping for the best.

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