Monday, August 6, 2012

6/8/2012: Russian reforms: Atrophy or Revolution?

Journal of Democracy has 5 articles covering various aspects of the political grass-roots transformations undergoing in Russia (link here):

In "Putinism Under Siege: Implosion, Atrophy, or Revolution?", Lilia Shevtsova argues that the "Putin's regime is clearly now in decline, but it is unclear whether the death knell has sounded for the "Russian System" - a combination of personal rule, the merger of power and assets, and a self-perpetuating stalinist-militarist model. One can conclude, however, that the Russian system cannot be reformed from the top and that real transformation will come only through pressure from citizens."

I am not so sure, this wishful thinking - ranging from rather over-reaching definition of the "Russian System" (which does include the first two of the features outlined in the article, yet hardly resembles a stalinist-militarist model at all) to nostalgia for some sort of a populist, bottom-up transformation (which never happened in the history of Russia before, and given the dire quality of opposition is not about to happen either) - is either a realistic assessment of the near-term (predictable or forecastable) future or a desired path to transformation.

But the article does point to some interesting changes in social dynamics that have led to recent protests and are exposing the dire need for modernization and reforms in the system as well as the fact that since 2006 Russian leadership has had an awfully hard time in attempting to deliver any real change on core political and social changes:

"Discontent with Putin’s regime among educated urbanites has been building for some time as people have witnessed the cynicism, brazen corruption, official high-handedness, and general stasis on display in their government. By the last part of Putin’s second term (between 2006 and 2008), the foundations of his implicit deal with the country were starting to erode. The most active and dynamic sectors of society wanted more than the Kremlin’s offer of stability based on looking to the past and staying within the narrow bounds of old myths about Russia and the world. People began to tire of the notion
that they should be content so long as the authorities let them make a living in return for staying out of politics and recognizing the authorities as having the final say on questions of property ownership, making corruption an essential lubricant when frictions appeared."

"But there inevitably came a moment when Putin’s formula for “social peace” no longer satisfied much of the populace. Too many had come to see that this pact could guarantee them neither opportunity nor prosperity nor even basic security. Moreover, Putin lacked any sense of the kinds of social improvements that might give young people a leg-up in life and a chance to better themselves. The financial and economic crisis of 2008—and the way that Putin and his team reacted to it by guarding their own wealth and that of the oligarchs close to them—cast into especially high relief the flaws in Putin’s model."

So far - plausible, albeit over-rhetoricized account.

The article real failings are in the projections for the Putin 2.0 and gradualist reforms paths, which, the author feels, cannot deliver significant enough change. At this stage, the arguments are purely speculative, based on "why didn't Putin do so before?" reasoning which ignores both the core objectives of pre-2006 path (consolidation of power and stabilization of fragmented institutions) as well as the need for transition to Putin 2.0 regime.

Again, on has to read the entire article in the context of attempting to remove over-extending rhetoric from the fact.

"The authorities’ tactical maneuvers and the myths spread by Kremlin propagandists can no longer stave off a crisis that has already begun. [In my view, this is correct, albeit the word 'crisis' is hardly properly descriptive of current events - the word 'pressure' comes to mind as more apt]. The alleged adaptability of the “Russian system” has been exposed as an illusion—cosmetic changes can no longer hide a more fundamental rigidity. The system guarantees Russians neither personal security, nor
economic well-being, nor a sense of civic dignity. The system works only to satisfy entrenched interest groups at the expense of society at large; the “golden parachutes” that the elites maintain in the form of
assets stored in the West prove that even they do not believe in the sustainability of the current political order. [Well put, in my view... but not warranting subsequent:] The paradox is that propping
up the status quo is speeding up the system’s decline, but attempts to update this status quo without liquidating its basis (personalized power) threaten to cause system breakdown."

In my opinion, the status quo is degenerative. However, change of the status quo requires a long period of building effective, functional democratic opposition. Not a 'personal cult 2 displacing a personal cult 1' system that is currently the only feasible alternative were another equivalent to Putin found somewhere. This process can only be carried out with simultaneous co-existence of the current consolidated regime and constant pressure on this regime to reform. The recent protests have shown this much: there is no alternative to Putin 2.0 transformation for the embryonic democratic forces - which have offered no real policies alternative or leadership options to the current regime, and for the regime itself - which cannot be assured of normal and functional transition of power. In other words, Russia currently has no alternative to the gradualism in transformation. To the author, this means that neither transformation, nor gradualist approach to it are feasible. To me it means that both are inevitable in the long run.

In other words - it is neither Atrophy, nor Revolution that await Russia in the near term future. It is a gradual re-shaping of the Kremlin rule accompanied by the maturing of the democratic alternatives. We better brace ourselves for a much longer term process than the ones we experienced in Russia since 1988. And that is a good news.

I will be blogging on the remaining articles in the issue in time, so stay tuned.

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