Russia’s special path: from "managed" to "adapted" democracy


The basic principles of democracy and democratic institutions should be adapted to the realities of life in Russia today – and to our traditions and history. We will do this ourselves,” this emphatically harsh statement by Vladimir Putin from his interview with the Slovakian media on the eve of the Bratislava summit attracted attention of the majority of Russian observers (quoted as printed by Izvestia).

In other words, says Izvestia, no one should count on external interference having any effect – not even “those behind the interference.”

According to Putin, Russia chose democracy 14 years ago “for its own sake, not in order to be liked by anyone else.”

Recipients of these Putin’s statements are well known. Nezavisimaya Gazeta cites a recent statement by Robert Zoellick, the new deputy secretary of state, saying that $45.4 million and $51 million was spent in 2004 on “democracy-building” goals and economic or social reforms in Russia, respectively. Spending on these budget items will be increased in the next financial year. Besides, adds Nezavisimaya Gazeta, it is also known that around 60,000 Russian citizens have already taken part in exchange programs within the framework of democratization projects funded by the United States.

Thus, concludes the newspaper, assistance to the making of the democratic society in Russia particularly implies “exertion of pressure on orientation of the country’s political elite, according to the Ukrainian script either.”

According to Robert Zoellick, the United States has provided and will continue to provide funding through the National Endowment for Democracy for the purpose of “democracy-building” in the former Soviet states. He acknowledged that the aim of working with “the environment around Russia” is democratization in Russia itself. “We’ve had tremendous events in Ukraine. And I think that one of the things that will eventually influence Russia is recognizing that its relations to the West – with the United States, with the European Union, with a free Ukraine – create an opportunity for it also to open up its society and that the future is not a creeping authoritarianism.”

Apparently, what is termed “creeping authoritarianism” in the United States is exactly what Russia regards as “special” or “adapted democracy” – this expression was used for the title of Anna Politskovskaya’s article in Novaya Gazeta.

“During Bush’s tour of Europe, Russia was offered a place near Ukraine, a country with a higher quality of population,” says Politkovskaya.

Besides, unlike the meeting with the Ukrainian leader, with whom Bush spent a whole day, the time for meeting with Putin was limited (besides, the initial planned duration was halved).

This is a vital point, notes Politkovskaya. It is well-known that nothing happens by chance in big-time politics or the international protocol which accompanies it: “So if someone gives you a slight biff on the nose, don’t assume it’s just due to carelessness.”

The solution is quite simple. The post-Soviet territory, in “democratizing” which the West was keenly engrossed at first, reminds the author, has gradually managed to extinguish this concern for itself.

The democratic hopes haven’t come true: “Once because of oligarchs, then illness of Yeltsin, a war, collapse of the freedom of speech, losing the qualities of parliament by the parliament, decease of the opposition…” Almost the same was happening in all post-Soviet states, which have sunk into profound and hopeless “disablement” in view of the developed democracies as far as the post-totalitarian development is concerned.

However, something unexpected occurred in Georgia and Ukraine then: according to Politkovskaya, the people of these countries suddenly “showed their high quality.” As specified by the author, President Yushchenko “is only part of the people,” which is the source of respect for him.

As for the Russians, they’ve failed to show their real worth.

Moreover, notes an observer with Novaya Gazeta, we “are continuing to move towards a decline – with YUKOS, the war, millions of indifferent lumpens”… Therefore, says Politkovskaya, no “adapted democracy” would help Russia, just the same like the “managed” democracy has failed to. The Kremlin is free to accentuate our originality and Russia’s peculiar way as long as it wants to, notes Anna Politkovskaya. The modern reality evidences: “The quality of nation is real important in the world of nowadays. The quality of people, who makes the elite live like the people want to, rather than the quality of elites, which pull up their nation.”

The question is about potential desires of “millions of indifferent lumpens.”

Commenting on the latest poll results, National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) General Director Valery Fedorov told Novye Izvestia pessimistic assessments of the economic and political situation in Russia prevail among Russians now. And, “a deterioration in society’s state of health and deepening pessimism” goes beyond the response to the monetization of benefits.

According to Fedorov, “the rise in expectations that began in autumn 2003 at the peak of the election campaign” came to an end as far back as last spring, when the dull routine replaced the “festival of democracy.”

The society was shocked by hostage taking in Beslan in September 2004. Pollsters believed that society had recovered somewhat in December; this is when the accelerated growth of the inflation masked by the talk of the upcoming social reform started.

As well as the revolution in Ukraine. Unlike Russian liberal politicians, the major part of the population tends to perceive the events in Ukraine negatively, VTsIOM director says on Novye Izvestia: the “orange revolution” reminded many Russian citizens of “the saddest episodes of 1991-1992: a divided society, the danger of chaos and civil war.”

According to Fedorov, the ensuing “monetization was another step down the ladder.”

These days, people are “paying attention to negative news rather than positive news,” Fedorov says. It’s a kind of filter: people expect the worst. Reforms in the housing and utilities sector are still to come, and reforms in the health care and education systems are promised. The people aren’t expecting anything good from the government; they view any and all reforms with suspicion.”

According to VTsIOM, only 15% of respondents agree wholeheartedly that Russia is moving in the right direction; 38% said definitely not, 42% said maybe.

The public opinion is worse as far as the economic situation is concerned: only 7% of respondents describe the state of the Russian economy as good. This happens in spite of high oil prices! notes Novye Izvestia. Meanwhile, 48% of respondents describe the economic situation as average and 40% call it bad.

Evaluations of the political situation in Russia are similar: 10% of respondents call it good, 53% call it average, and 30% call it bad.

However, analysts of the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) explained to Expert magazine, distinction of Russia from developed democracies is that the notorious public opinion is often unsteady as far as political issues concerned and is even absent in some aspects.

“In many cases, the people possess no rational opinion about politics, because politics and the authorities are alienated from the people. Since politics is not part of the range of issues in which people take an interest, attitudes to politics are shaped at the emotional or unconscious level,” FOM says.

The same article in Expert contains a convincing example of the “collective unconscious” in the perception of political problems. FOM has done surveys with regard to Russian-U.S. relations. It occurred to some of the pollsters that the respondents much be asked two questions with a minimal interval between them. The first: “What do you think of the United States?” The second: “What do you think of America?” The results were amazing: it turned out that Russians think better of America than they do of the USA.

The pollsters, however, immediately managed to find convincing explanations for this unique result: “In the public mind, the USA is primarily a state. The word ‘America’ is milder, smoother, a humane word.” This is evidently why it generates more positive emotions.

On the other hand, show poll results from VTsIOM (as reported by Profil magazine this time), 20-30% of respondents pay virtually no attention to developments in foreign affairs, and almost as many (20-25%) “are inclined to drastic fluctuations in their assessment of Russia’s foreign policy course, under the influence of the media. And we all know which media in Russia are the most influential, and who owns them, and how they cover the president’s actions, adds Profil.

It’s hard to conceal the true “achievements” of the past five years. The president doesn’t seem to aid them zealously: Profil recalls Vladimir Putin’s words of those who are striving to “tear away as tasty a morsel as possible from us, on the assumption that Russia – as one of the world’s largest nuclear powers – still does pose a threat to someone.” This was stated immediately following the Beslan tragedy.

What’s more, our president also compared the West to “a kind but stern man in a pith helmet” who issues orders to other countries and punishes them for disobedience, including punishment “with the rod of bombs and missiles, as already used in Belgrade.”

Putin also spoke of dangerous attempts to “restructure the multifaceted, multipolar modern civilization, created by God, along the army barracks principles of a unipolar world,” and of dictates in international affairs, “packaged in the pretty wrapping of pseudo-democratic phrasing.”

In general, as Profil sums up, the solid residue is disconcerting: “partnership with the West (including America) has turned into a relationship characterized by suspicion, at least, if not yet outright hostility.”

This is more annoying, notes VTsIOM International Relations Director Dmitri Polikanov, because “during Putin’s first years in power, the political elite seemed to succeed in overcoming its divisions and set out on the path of rapprochement with Western civilization.” In the process, “the overwhelming majority of senior and middle-ranking state officials took the entirely rational view that Russia’s impending modernization would inevitably require investment, technology, and management resources from the West.”

This entire process has come to a stop and, according to Profil, “this happened mainly due to the willful efforts of the ruling elite,” which seems to have fallen “victim to sky-high oil prices,” Profil experts say.

Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center says: “Over the past few years, Russia has become one of the leading holders of the world’s riches, and hence the Russian elite has developed a wish to do all it can to avoid sharing those riches with anyone else.”

Ryabov admits that this kind of behavior can yield some immediate benefits in tactical matters. In the strategic long term, however, it can lead to heavy losses, since it “tends to preserve the status quo, thus hindering Russia’s modernization.”

Piontkovsky continues: influenced by the moods of the ruling class, the president himself is undoubtedly drifting in the direction of upholding “Russia’s special path” and pseudo-imperialist values.

Indeed, asks Profil, how can he seriously make a choice “between the moods of a society that doesn’t know what it wants, and the fears of an elite that is scared of losing its windfall of wealth and power?”

Besides, says Profil, Putin, keenly aware of shifts in his own approval rating, has no inclination to repeat the experience of his predecessors – Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who didn’t hesitate to adopt a pro-West policy course (in the good years, at least).

“In fact, there is no presidential approval rating nor any figures which express it. Such a notion doesn’t exist for sociologists at all – there are only replies from particular citizens to specific questions,” says Expert magazine. For instance, what is called “the electoral rating” is only a reply to the question: “Who would you vote for if an election took place this week?” According to FOM, these indicators fluctuate around 45-50% (with the exception of a rise on the eve of the election).

The “rating of confidence” is a reply to the question: “Which of the listed politicians do you trust?” At the moment, says FOM, it is 27% for Putin. It doesn’t seem to be high, but this is fairly good against the backdrop of other politicians, especially given the fact that only 5% of respondents think the president deserves no confidence at all.

There’s another approval rating – a reply to the question: “Do you approve of the president’s actions on the whole?” As a rule, this rating is the highest and reaches 65-70%.

Thus, even the monetization of benefits hasn’t become the judgment day for Putin’s confidence rating. “Because those who trust Putin and those who are ready to vote in his favor either approve of the reform, or hope that the president will see that it follows the normal and just course.”

According to the statement of Iosif Diskin, renowned political consultant and economist, in his interview with Kommersant-Vlast, the cause of the painful response of the population to the measures taken by now primarily lies “in the nature of power, which approached the reform from purely economic view, without thinking into which social dimension it would thus move its idea.” I.e., a special social technique, which nobody cared to invent, was required to conduct this reform.

“Roughly speaking, the economic meaning of any liberal reform is as follows: ‘pay for everything.’ However, other categories make up the foundation of the social dimension of such reforms,” says Diskin. As such he regards the freedom of choice, responsibility for the choice made, for a decision passed. By abolishing all benefits at a stroke, the power has displayed its utter neglect for the public opinion: “As a result, in opinion of pensioners, it has cast doubt on all of their basic values, and in the social dimension the matter concerned the monetization of sense of living, rather than monetization of benefits.”

Therefore, says Diskin, so acute response was offered. The authorities lacked “a skill of discerning the social context during the problem-solving,” rather than sophisticated financiers or economists.

Though declined, however, the president’s popularity rating hasn’t collapsed.

Expert warns that similar events always bring consequences and the attitude for the president is changing.

In minds of some people the image of Putin now remains as steadily positive as at the start of his presidency. At the same time, it begins distorting in minds of others.

Moreover, by canceling direct elections for regional leaders, Putin “has been left one-on-one with the people,” notes the magazine. If elected governors used to absorb part of the people’s grievances and negative emotions, the president will now be held responsible for everything: “The regime is becoming utterly non-transparent, and only one character remains in the foreground. Heavy conflicts will be linked to this fact.”

However, says the magazine, despite the fact that the president has managed to spite everybody by now – “oligarchs, pensioners, the military” – his actions might preserve their attraction for a part of the electorate exactly due to this ability to “acquire enemies everywhere.”

The reasoning is simple, says Expert: “The people may note that the president had acted poorly in the benefits saga; on the other hand, he may have pushed the oligarchs, or, on the contrary, he is stepping on the business, but is trying to carry out liberal reforms, makes everything as it is done in the West.”

In general, says FOM, the president’s image is getting more complicated in the public eye and the unambiguous evaluations are reducing in number. This may pertain to the foreign policy either: “For instance, the people give him the credit of foreign policy because Russia is no more regarded as a country, which is dependent on Europe, America, financial corporations, and the people like this. However, he’s rebuked: the people think that the president is too engrossed in the foreign policy and this is why the situation is not in order domestically.”

There’s one more peculiarity: according to FOM, in Russia the president is not perceived as a politician.

For the majority of people, FOM explains, a politician is a person who is struggling for power: “Putin is the president; he’s something unshakable, which doesn’t depend on the conjuncture. He’s not fighting for power: a tsar is not a politician in a monarchy.”

National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovsky, who explained the essence of the alternative Russian Constitution his structure is proposing in his interview with Sobesednik weekly, makes an almost verbatim repetition of FOM conclusions.

The media has for long been discussing the rumors that amendments have been prepared for the Constitution; according to the newspapers, the presidential administration has nearly prepared amendments for the Basic Law. After they are passed (in April 2007 as expected) the parliament, rather than the people, will be electing president in Russia.

Belkovsky says, however, that the amendments ought to be deeper. “The new pattern of power, which envisages that the president is actually an uncrowned monarch, is the core,” Belkovsky told Sobesednik.

Such head of state could hold the power indefinitely. However, the scope of his powers would be limited considerably: the president won’t interfere with social and economic policy issues, which are in competence of the government, which is likely to be formed by the parliamentary majority.

The president will preserve the opportunity of appointing security ministers, judges, prosecutor general, as well ?s the “role of the supreme political arbiter, who’s assume responsibility in crises.” As said above, the government is normally responsible for the economic issues.

“Infallibility of the supreme power is the major factor for Russia. No the slightest doubt should exist that the power is an absolute moral authority for the entire society,” Belkovsky told Sobesednik. Therefore, “it should stay out of political battles, it should be above politics.” This is not “creeping authoritarianism” already, but a normal restoration – as in France during the era of bourgeois revolutions. By the way, in his comments Belkovsky refers to the instance of France.

As for Putin, Belkovsky says he won’t remain the president: “Moreover, he won’t be willing this. His task is to exert a drastic influence on the country and even govern it, but no be responsible for it.” Does it look like the role of the prime minister in the new state regime?

Belkovsky is confident, however, that despite all of Putin’s attempts to hand over the power to his successor he’s unlikely to succeed in this. The motivation is quite vague: “The structure of power is so strongly deteriorated that any successor is out of the question.”

This is why Belkovsky presumes that Putin resigns ahead of schedule “and, being a rich man, he’d spend the rest of his life in Europe as a peaceful observer over all processes, unfolding in the country which used to be under his control.”

This is actually an envious position: many of the future participants in the above “processes” wouldn’t evidently have anything against occupying it.

There are those who are preparing to head these processes now: according to media reports, curtailment of the democracy in Russia is not the concern for the West alone, but also many members of the Russian elite, including those who are designated for the role of leader of the unified democratic opposition by the press for a long while.

First and foremost, the matter concerns former prime minister Mikhail Kasianov. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kasianov’s report on the situation in Russia delivered at the session of the International Relations Council in New York contained severe criticism aimed against the Kremlin’s actions.

Elements of democracy – all those mentioned in the West: free media, political parties which are uncontrollable to the power, independent courts, etc. – are disappearing from Russia as a result of policy carried out by the authorities Kasianov said.

According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, strictest secrecy was the only condition for Kasianov’s public speech: not a single Russian (his daughter being the only exception) was inside the hall.

The story was similar when Kasianov addressed students at the University of Columbia, says Komsomolskaya Pravda. Once again, university traditions were broken, with only selected students permitted to attend (such lectures are usually open to all). According to reports, at this meeting Kasianov delivered some withering criticism of Putin’s regime. The media then seriously grasped at the topic that “Kasianov intends to become the second Yushchenko;” Kasianov wouldn’t deny the possibility that he might run for president in 2008.

Thus, the script for a “velvet revolution” might be gradually prepared for Russia – just in case the Kremlin is unwilling to heed the warnings of the West that following the classic canons of democracy is essential.

However, it is hard to believe that a revolution in Russia could ever be a “velvet revolution,” or a “singing revolution, let alone a “chestnut revolutio” or a “roses revolution.”