Political masturbation as Russian political practice


“Russia today is not the country it was even as recently as six years ago,” former presidential economic advisor Andrei Illarionov notes sadly in an article for the Kommersant newspaper.

When Vladimir Putin came to power, says Illarionov, Russia was “disorganized, chaotic, impoverished.” Now it has become richer: “We can argue over where this wealth has come from, but it has come, and that’s a fact.”

However, says Illarionov, much has also been lost over that time: “The main thing we have lost is freedom.”

Russia has made a historic choice: “We can argue over how, when, and why the turnaround in favor of non-freedom took place. We can argue what made that turnaround possible – a secret plan or the logic of events, a legacy of ideas or external circumstances, old habits or new opportunities.” One way or another, however, we have passed the crossroads where a choice was possible, and “we’re now living in a different country.”

Illarionov describes it as a “corporate state,” characterized by “selective application of the rules, inequality, discrimination” – in other words, “there are no rules common to all.”

According to Illarionov, the key factor that determines a corporation member’s status isn’t experience, skill, or services to the Fatherland; the key factor is “loyalty to the corporation.” The main incentive for a loyal corporation member is “the prospect of being placed in charge of a state-controlled company; the size of that company’s financial flows is the most accurate indicator of that person’s place in the corporate hierarchy.”

Similar processes are under way in politics: here there is also a certain corporate ideology, described as being “one of us,” or “our-own-ism” (nashism).

“One of us” – it’s the ideology of protecting “our own” not because they’re right, but because they’re “our people,” Illarionov explains. It also means aggression against “outsiders” – not because they’re wrong, but because they’re “not our people.”

There are quite a few countries where state-owned corporations have become the major force in the economy: Libya and Venezuela, Angola and Chad, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq. Now Russia is in their company, having made a conscious choice in favor of a Third World model of society.

Illarionov stresses that the long-term future of such a model is obvious: it’s a historical dead end. Russia can’t solfe its problems by taking this path: rather than catching up with the developed world, it will fall further behind. And the price for the latest experiment will be paid by ordinary citizens, as usual.

Therefore, Illarionov proposes that all those who find the present situation “sickeningly bleak” and don’t accept the Venezuelization of the economy or the degradation of public life, to start “a campaign of civic non-participation in the affairs of the corporate state.”

“By doing so – with the initiative coming from the public, not the state – we can start rebuilding civil, political, and economic liberties.” The liberties Russia gained in 1991, but has been unable to keep.

The pathos of Illarionov’s article inevitably drew a response from the media – but it proved to be a rather unenthusiastic reaction.

Analysts approached by the Vremya Novostei newspaper say that separation of the government from the people in Russia happened long ago. Mark Urnov, director of the Expertise Foundation, says it happend unilaterally, at the state’s initiative.

“The state said: We don’t really care what the citizens think,” says Urnov. “We have studied the citizens thoroughly, and we’ll keep coming up with some actions they’ll enjoy, to keep them happy. For example, we’ll keep saying that Russia is a great power, we’ll intimidate everyone and put pressure on Ukraine.”

Now, says Urnov, the next move is up to the citizens: “If they want to have any real impact on the state, they have to stop thinking of the state as part of them, perceiving it as a father-figure and benefactor. They need to stand aside and look at the state as an assembly of hired public servants who ought to ensure that public funds are used for the benefit of citizens.”

Mercator Group director Dmitri Oreshkin maintains that people in Russia are already more alienated from the state than the citizens of any other country: “Does anyone approach the police or any other state agencies when they’re having problems? No – everyone tries to be self-sufficient, relying only on themselves and their friends or family.”

These circumstances shape attitudes to the state: “No one who’s making money considers it necessary to pay taxes.” Neither do we have a civil society – because “we lack an awareness of common interests; each person is extremely individualized and politically passive.”

This situation is extremely dangerous: the state makes a show of protecting citizens’ interests, and citizens make a show of loyalty to the state. But in the event of a crisis, if the real interests of citizens are at odds with state interests, no one will lift a finger to save that kind of state.

Urnov also notes that it’s uncertain whether Russia still has “enough time to enable the people to come to their senses,” especially since such a state makes Russian citizens uncompetitive in economic or political terms: “This has meant years of incredibly lost opportunities, a parasitic existence thanks to high oil prices and the willingness of the people to turn a blind eye to reality and say that everything is stable.”

In the Izvestia newspaper, Georgy Ilyichev comments on Illarionov’s proposal as follows: “Someone who worked within the authorities can’t possibly fail to realize that the people’s silence has been Russia’s greatest social and political problem throughout its history.” Everyone knows that most citizens don’t care about social issues or politics or anything else outside their daily lives.

Novye Izvestia provides a convincing illustration of that statement: according to a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) in mid-January (a year after the social benefit protests of 2005), 56% of respondents said they have no interest in any protest events. Sixty percent categorically reject the very possibility of ever taking part in a protest.

Vladimir Lysenko, president of the Contemporary Politics Institute, reminded Novye Izvestia that in the early 1990s, rallies in Moscow would draw up to a million people. But the situation has changed in recent years: on the one hand, “people are disillusioned and don’t believe that demonstrations can bring about any real changes.” On the other hand, “over half of our fellow-citizens still trust Putin. They believe that Putin and his team are likely to solve problems faster than the opposition could.”

FOM also reports that most of those who said they have taken part in protests recently also stated that the issues and demands were entirely non-political. Leading responses were wage increases (2%), improvements to housing and utilities services (2%), lower taxes and prices (2%), and the return of money invested in housing construction (under 1%).

Lysenko considers that the lack of political slogans is due to society in general becoming less politicized: “In the 1990s, many people read papers and watched news programs – but now no more than 10% follow politics, and no more than 1% are members of parties.”

In Lysenko’s opinion, this situation “is a sign of political crisis, demonstrating that we haven’t been able to establish a democratic system where people would feel free and take part in public affairs.” Besides, there is also the impact of “our Russian mindset, which is essentially monarchist.” People still retain their faith in the “Father-Tsar” – that is, Putin: “We have elected him, he’s young, he’s more energetic than Yeltsin – and he can solve all our problems.”

This observation is supported in Nezavisimaya Gazeta by some data from the Sociological Studies Center at the Russian Academy of Education.

The SSC approached senior high-school students in Moscow, asking about Russia’s political structure. They found that 49% of respondents consider a presidential republic to be the most appropriate form of governance for Russia. In a similar poll a decade ago, in 1996, that response got 38% support.

Over the same decade, support for a parliamentary republic fell from 27% to 16%. Even the proportion of monarchists among high-school seniors is now greater (18%).

Overall, support for democratic forms of government dropped from 71% to 58%, while the proportion of respondents who consider a totalitarian regime justifiable more than doubled: from 3.6% to 8.7%.

Demand among these “future voters” for a strong hand and disillusionment with the existing model of statehood can be attributed to the failure of reforms, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta columnist Marina Matskyavichene: “Judging by the figures, most of these respondents believe reforms have failed.”

In Izvestia, Georgy Ilyichev says: “Our attitude is understandable – after all, the recent era of changes has left no doubt about the most important rule of conduct in the post-Soviet world: rely only on your own resources, and try to survive despite the kaleidoscopically changing rules of the game.” This is very difficult, so “people have no time, energy, or attention to spare for anything else, especially politics.”

The people “still remain silent – gradually recovering from upheavals and sorting out their lives.”

What else is there to do? By no means all citizens who take an interest in politics are keen to join the United Russia party – though it already has almost a million members, according to figures posted on its official website.

Novye Izvestia reports that according to analysts, United Russia owes its success to clever management by the Kremlin. Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, says that “United Russia has now reached a level where it’s sure to require more than one curator.” Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Political Information Center, says that the list of United Russia’s covert managers includes Vladislav Surkov and Igor Sechin, deputy heads of the presidential administration, and presidential aide Viktor Ivanov.

United Russia has recorded plenty of election victories, notes Profil magazine: it won most of the 13 regional legislature elections held last year, averaging 48% of the vote.

What’s more, the second half of 2005 was noteworthy for “state officials of every rank joining the party en masse: nine regional leaders alone.”

In mid-December, the Duma passed some amendments to the law on political parties. The party that wins a regional legislature election (in other words, United Russia) now has the right to suggest a regional candidate to the president.

United Russia seems to be turning into an “ersatz CPSU” (the Profil article’s headline): presumably, the regional leader will concentrate on economic affairs, while political power is held by the leader of the regional United Russia branch.

Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center told Kommersant that United Russia’s position isn’t all that easy these days, since “the people associate all of Russia’s successes entirely with President Putin and the government,” while United Russia can only try to “latch on to those successes.”

And it would be unwise to rely entirely on state administration resources in the next federal parliamentary election – if only becuase President Putin might not come up with a “worthy successor” before then.

All the same, as Yeltsin’s former press secretary Vyacheslav Kostikov put it in Argumenty i Fakty, Russia’s entire political elite is now “engaged in political masturbation on the topic of who will ride into the Kremlin after 2008.”

Kostikov himself says: “The question isn’t who will be the next president, or for how long. The question is when we can come up with some parties and leaders who will establish the principle of ‘clean hands’ and ‘everyone equal before the law’ in Russia, with a policy aimed at growth rather than consumption.”

Kostikov goes on to quote Winston Churchill, who said that a politician looks to the next election, while a statesman looks to the next generation.

Given the poll results mentioned above, in our country there isn’t much difference between a politician and a statesman – nor can there be, since present and future voters are practically unanimous in their opinions.

As for Illarionov’s call for non-participation in what the present authorities are doing, and refusal to support state institutions – the best answer may be provided by Francis Fukuyama, also quoted on the pages of Kommersant: “Institutions are important, but a country’s development isn’t determined by institutions alone – political culture is also important.” For those who really don’t get it, he adds: “What is written on paper doesn’t always correspond to what happens in real life.”

A very simple thought – but true, unfortunately for our politicians and statesmen.