Putin’s predictable election

| April 3, 2018 | 0 Comments
Russian President Vladimir Putin had use of ample official resources for campaigning in the latest presidential election. His people counted the ballots and the candidates who were allowed to run were figureheads. (Photo: © Igor Dolgov | Dreamstime.com)

Russian President Vladimir Putin had use of ample official resources for campaigning in the latest presidential election. His people counted the ballots and the candidates who were allowed to run were figureheads. (Photo: © Igor Dolgov | Dreamstime.com)

At press time in early March, it appeared that victory by Russian President Vladimir Putin in this spring’s election was a certainty. The candidates allowed to run against him were figureheads. Putin had ample use of official resources for campaigning. His officials counted the ballots.
What remained to be seen was the size of the turnout and the public reaction to the official results. The massive demonstrations against Putin in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the spring of 2012 and against what were seen as falsified results in his election that year led him to adopt the present aggressive Russian foreign policy in a hitherto successful effort to assuage discontent by appealing to Russian nationalism.

Russian foreign policy
Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is dictated also by external factors. Those include the conviction that the West is trespassing on Russia’s traditional zone of influence and is seeking to overthrow the established order in Russia itself, and the perception of a loss of Russia’s great power status with the collapse of the Soviet Union. These have led to the determination to obtain a veto on security questions of importance to Russia, including the operations of NATO and the EU, as well as to have a free hand in Russia’s near abroad, including in Ukraine.
Russia now bestrides many parts of the world in a way that we have not seen since Soviet times. Its rearmament has given it military superiority in parts of Eastern Europe. Its geopolitical détente with China enables both countries better to resist pressure from the United States. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine have led to a crisis in relations with the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in alliance with Iran and Hezbollah on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, made it a major player in the Middle East.
In addition, Russia’s views on the Korean Peninsula cannot be ignored and its views on nuclear disarmament are more important because it has apparently strengthened its intermediate nuclear forces.

Peter the Great's absolutist monarchy of Russia lasted until the Revolution in 1917. (Photo:  Arkhangelskoye Palace)

Peter the Great’s absolutist monarchy of Russia lasted until the Revolution in 1917. (Photo: Arkhangelskoye Palace)

Rejecting the liberal democratic order
Underlying the Russian policy is a rejection of the liberal democratic order that has gained increasing acceptance since the end of the Cold War. This system placed emphasis on interdependence rather than competition, and on the economy rather than security. It was based on the Charter of the United Nations and other international treaties, including the Helsinki Accords. It recognized, among other principles, the prohibition of war, unless authorized by the Security Council, respect for international law, acceptance of the sovereign equality of states, the inviolability of their borders and non-interference in their internal affairs, as well as the affirmation of democratic rights and freedoms.
While these principles were not always observed in practice, as seen by the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq of 2003, they were almost universally acknowledged as the standard for international conduct. The 2014 annexation of Crimea was the first forcible seizure of European territory since the Second World War.
Instead of the liberal democratic order, Russia apparently wishes to substitute a concert of major powers, each supreme in its own area.
Unless there is an electoral upset, Russia is not likely to depart from the current thrust of its foreign policy, one that apparently still enjoys much popular support.

Even before Boris Yeltsin came to power, the KGB had sought to sabotage Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts at liberalization. (Photo: Vladimir Vyatkin / Ronald reagan presidential library)

Even before Boris Yeltsin came to power, the KGB had sought to sabotage Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at liberalization. (Photo: Vladimir Vyatkin)

The Russian authoritarian tradition
Even should Putin emerge weakened or as a lame duck from the elections, as some have conjectured, it is doubtful that we shall see any move towards democracy. Because of the strength of Russia’s authoritarian tradition, any road to stable democratic institutions and practices is likely to be slow and arduous.
Those of us who live in well-established democracies tend to forget how difficult it is, and how long it takes, to become a stable democracy. It took the French more than 80 years after their revolution to reach this state of affairs. Of the European countries that emerged from the First World War with democratic systems, a large number in Central and Southern Europe, including Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal, succumbed, in the course of the next 20 years, to dictatorship.
Russia has little democratic experience to fall back on. Instead, what is remarkable about Russian history is the strength of the tradition that the Russians inherited from 250 years of Mongol rule — that of a strong state ruled by an all-powerful sovereign as a means of mustering the resources of the country for war.
By the time of Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th Century, Russia had none of the limits on the powers of the monarch that existed even in absolutist monarchies at that time in Western Europe. The Church was nothing more than a government department, the nobles were reduced to functionaries, national and regional assemblies had atrophied, cities were not autonomous. Peter increased the repression and strengthened the secret police.
The basic elements of Peter’s absolutist monarchy lasted until the Revolution in 1917. The two major reforms of 1861 — the emancipation of the serfs and the supervised local assemblies — did not diminish the czar’s powers. Neither did the parliamentary assembly — the Duma — conceded by the czar after the defeat by Japan in 1905.

Mikhail Gorbachev, then secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, meets with then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan and his vice-president, George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Ronald Reagan presidential library)

Mikhail Gorbachev, then secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, meets with then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan and his vice-president, George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Ronald Reagan presidential library)

The repressive czarist regime following the defeat of Napoleon spawned the Russian revolutionary movement. The radical intelligentsia who emerged were also not democrats. Indeed, they were not influenced to any significant extent by Western ideas.
Instead, they were, like czarist officials, hostile to pluralism, liberalism or the common law. They had no concept of human rights or constitutional government. They shared the traditional Russian idea that the rights of the individual had to be subordinated, to one degree or another, to those of society.
Furthermore, under the influence of the narrowness and brutality of czarist rule, the Russian revolutionaries became extremely dogmatic and intolerant, with totalitarian tendencies.
In 1912, Lenin stated that his Bolshevik Party represented the fourth generation of Russian revolutionaries. The party was, however, also the inheritor of the absolutist traditions of the czarist regime. While Lenin was relatively restrained in the use of his dictatorial powers after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, he laid the basis for the tyranny of Stalin.

Russia’s two tries at democracy
Both of Russia’s attempts at democracy were defeated, in part, by the force of the absolutist tradition.
Russia’s first experience with democracy was with the provisional government that exercised authority after the abdication of Czar Nicolas II in March 1917 until the Bolshevik putsch in November. The provisional government was not up to the task. In a country wracked by war and food shortages, it misjudged public opinion. It was also too weak to prevent Lenin from constructing a parallel administration and then staging his coup.

The tumultuous period of the Boris Yeltsin presidency took place between 1992 and 1999. This anti-Yeltsin protest in 1998 called for his resignation.  (Photo: Bakhtiyor Abdullaev)

The tumultuous period of the Boris Yeltsin presidency took place between 1992 and 1999. This anti-Yeltsin protest in 1998 called for his resignation. (Photo: Bakhtiyor Abdullaev)

Russia’s next attempt at democracy was the tumultuous period of the Yeltsin presidency over an independent Russia from January 1992 until the end of 1999. There is reason to think that, even before Yeltsin came to power, the KGB had sought, by moving the Communist Party’s vast financial reserves abroad, to sabotage Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at liberalization. The failed communist coup of August 1991 was directed against Gorbachev.
The Yeltsin years did not lead to a broad consensus for democracy. Yeltsin had played a decisive role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, for Communists and nationalists, was a catastrophe. Yeltsin’s siege of the White House, the Communist-dominated parliament, in October 1993, did not defeat the nationalist and imperialist ideas that had inspired the rebels. Their revanchist ideas continued to smoulder until Putin, 20 years later, fanned them into flames.
Yeltsin’s efforts to create a market economy through privatization and price liberalization led to inflation, mass impoverishment, corruption, lawlessness and the emergence of the oligarchs. The currency crisis of 1998, in which the Russian government was forced to declare itself bankrupt, destroyed the belief of the liberal reformers that Russia could be transformed into a functioning market democracy through economic reform.
For Putin, the failed Communist coup of August 1991 was a defeat and a humiliation, and the break-up of the Soviet Union a “catastrophe.” During the Yeltsin years, Putin belonged to an extensive group of elites that worked, with the apparent support of the KGB, to re-establish an authoritarian regime in Russia, possibly along the lines of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. In the view of this group, such a regime would permit the resurrection of a great state that would be respected abroad.
Two days before coming to power as acting president, on Dec. 3, 1999, Putin issued a manifesto that echoed centuries of Russian thinking. According to Putin, while Britain and the United States had liberal values, Russia’s core values were patriotism, collectivism, the primacy of the state and the tradition of being a great power. Putin implied that personal rights and freedoms were of secondary importance. According to Putin: “For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly to fight against. Quite the contrary, it is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change. Society desires the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state. In Russia, a collective form of life has always dominated over individualism.”
Putin’s apparent blueprint for building an authoritarian state, a plan that he certainly proceeded to implement, was leaked to the press days before his inauguration as elected president in May 2000. This blueprint provided for a gradual erosion of basic democratic freedoms — those of press, assembly and speech. The blueprint also called for a concentration of powers in the presidency so as to control the government administration, parliament, courts, media, elections, regional governments, non-governmental organizations and even the other former Soviet republics.
The foreseeable prospect for democracy in Russia does not look promising. The consensus of Russia watchers appears to be that Putin’s successor, whenever he eventually leaves office, may be chosen from within the existing power structure rather than emerging from free elections. The elites have too much to lose to allow power to slip from their grasp. They also share the traditional Russian belief in the need for a powerful leader presiding over a strong state.
After Putin, therefore, we may remain confronted in Russia by a powerful state, dominated by strong men. Furthermore, these strong men may, like Putin, seek, when necessary, to pursue an aggressive foreign policy as a means of justifying their hold on power.

Derek Fraser is an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Victoria. In a long career in Global Affairs Canada, he was ambassador to Hungary, Greece and Ukraine.

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Derek Fraser is an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies and adjunct professor for political science at the University of Victoria. He was posted to Ukraine as ambassador from 1998 – 2001.

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