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By Hamid Elyassi


The Montréal Review, March 2012



Russia's 2012 presidential election follows the controversial parliamentary poll in December last year which resulted in the declared victory of the ruling United Russia party, albeit with a reduced majority. The December election was notable not for its largely predictable outcome, but for the eruption of the mini Arab-Spring style protest against alleged vote rigging and the reactions that followed. In particular, the whole episode raised questions about the possible divergence between the objectives and policies of the Russian state and the ideals and expectations of the Russian people.

The details of the post-election protests are well documented. The protesters in Russia, and their sympathizers abroad, accused the government, the ruling party and in particular, Prime Minster Vladimir Putin, of trying to hang on to power by electoral fraud despite being rejected by the voters. Pointing to instances of electoral irregularity, they called for a re-run which the government rejected out of hand.

On the other side, were those who accepted the declared results of the election and the victory of the ruling party and rejected allegations of vote rigging in favour of the United Russia party candidates. They pointed out that state entities in charge of running the election had put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent serious electoral misconducts all sides. Other defenders of the declared results of the election, of course, offered different reasons. According to them, the victory of the United Russia party was inevitable because the Russian government and its media and business allies had effectively neutralised most of their opponents by intimidation or forced assimilation, and had isolated the rest by depriving them of the channels of communicating and influencing the voters. In other words, the ruling party had won the election by default and not necessarily because it had the confidence and support of a politically informed electorate.

It is difficult to arrive at an objective judgement on a political dispute of this kind without much greater evidence than either side has offered. But from an historical perspective, the nature of the negative and positive reactions to the alleged electoral impropriety is far more significant than the allegation itself. Because in the midst of claims and counterclaims of state-sponsored electoral fraud, few, if anyone, seemed to shake their heads at the incredulity and absurdity of such a serious allegation, as many would, had similar charges been levelled against the state in America, or India or any other established democracy of the world. When the question of vote rigging in the December election was raised, public opinion in Russia and elsewhere convicted or acquitted the Russian state of the charge of holding a bogus election and tampering with the results on technicalities or appeal to selective circumstantial evidence.

The Russian government, too, reacted to the post-election protests more like a Third World autocracy in defiance of the tide of democratic change than a world-class democratic state. The vote rigging allegation was rejected as a smear campaign, and steps were taken to forestall further public gatherings by intimidation, organising counter demonstrations or resorting to rules and regulation put in place to meet such exigencies. On the whole, the December 2011 election gave the cynic cause to suggest that two decades after the fall of the totalitarian Soviet regime, the Russian political system still have some way to go before it can be described as a proper democracy.

Tradition and History

Not that the country's leadership would find such a conclusion particularly cynical or defamatory. A few years ago, then Russian President Vladimir Putin dealt with international concern over reported violation of basic democratic rights in his country by declaring that Russia had accepted democracy, but democracy had to be adapted to Russian conditions, taking into account "our history and our traditions."* What Mr Putin seemed to imply was that the Russians were given a doctored version of democracy with some democratic rights amputated presumably at the discretion of the state. The argument, of course, is only too familiar to those who have lived in now-defunct East European "socialist democracies" or suffer under concocted "democracies" of Third World dictatorships.

Mr Putin did not specify the "traditions" he thought should shape the Russian version of democracy, but in all likelihood, he was referring to the state sponsored doctrine that the Russian people prefer a "strong leader" with the paternalistic prerogative of deciding what is good for them. How, in the absence of the democratic right of free expression, this popular preference is ascertained, and whether the proponents of this doctrine would still adhere to it if they were permanently out of power, are questions that remain. But, the element of "history" in Mr Putin's doctrine is easier to identify.

Much of the history of Russia over the past two hundred years or so is taken up by the story of a ruling elite vying for military and diplomatic equality with great powers abroad while imposing the heavy cost of their foreign adventures on the impoverished masses at home. It has been the history of a succession of vainglorious, authoritarian rulers, and the suffering and frustration of generations of a proud people struggling for freedom and equality.

The Tsarist Empire emerged from the Napoleonic Wars with a military victory, a leading role in European politics and no understanding of the imperatives of the incipient industrial revolution that was altering, among other things, the rules of the game on the international stage. Within a few decades, Western powers were hard pressed to forge their political options in support of the development of market capitalism at home and decide their foreign policy, including on colonial expansion, as an organic component of the process of domestic economic, and soon, social transformation. Not so in Russia. The imperial regime, rooted in a feudal political and social order, was feeding on a stagnant subsistence economy and met the heavy cost of maintaining a sterile empire by simply intensifying the oppression and exploitation of a nation of serfs.

Historians have described how between the defeat in the Crimean war and the outbreak of the First World War, Russia's economy fell miserably behind that of Western powers, how an egoistic ruling elite resisted rising public demand for political, social and economic reform, and how the ruthless suppression of intermittent eruptions of popular discontent only deepened disaffection and hatred of the regime.

Historians also tell us that the Tsarist state, oblivious to its inherent instability, entered the First World War presumably expecting a swift victory to justify the sacrifices it had imposed on its subjects for the sake of a hollow image of grandeur abroad. In the event, all it achieved was a humiliating military defeat that stripped the Tsar of all political credibility and brought down his Empire.

The successor to the Tsarist government was a revolutionary regime that took over with promises of equality and rapid social and economic development that would soon put Russia on par with, or even ahead of the capitalist West. And in all fairness, in the first decades of the Bolshevik rule, Russia successfully went through the early stages of "state" capitalism, albeit at colossal human costs, and was ready to embark on the journey to becoming a major world economic power had there been the political will to do so. But the socialist rulers of Russia, like their feudal predecessors, were entrapped by the diktats of "history and tradition" which they duly dressed up with an expansionist, pseudo-scientific theory.

Having decolonised the Tsarist colonial possessions, the Bolsheviks soon employed the necessary military and financial means to reverse the process and launch a new empire under the auspices of the Soviet Union. In fact, they were so eager to assume a grand international role that they saw no harm in tampering with the central Marxian concept of historical determinism and proposed that backward nations could "skip the capitalist stage" by simply accepting Soviet suzerainty. Thus, the Russian people once again found themselves shouldering the heavy burden of their rulers' international ambition, and the inevitable domestic political implications this entailed. Because yearning for an oversized international garb is not just the unavoidable symptom of a psychological disorder that strikes conceited rulers. It serves as the justification for the existence of a "strong leader" needed to unify the "great" nation, guard against predatory, envious foes lurking in every corner and allocate enormous resources to the military and security organs who keep him in power. In the Soviet Union, the "strong leader" doctrine was perfected to produce some of the most heinous dictators in history whose rule always lasted much longer than the ideologically correct collective leadership. Meanwhile, the Soviet propaganda machine was hard at work to convince the people of Russia and her backyard colonies and foreign dependencies, as well as ideological sympathises throughout the world, that communist dictators and their empire were necessary to protect the camp against imminent imperialist onslaught.

Nonetheless, by the early 1960s, Russia's economic and social problems had apparently become so acute that the more realistic members of the ruling elite realized that the regime could not survive, let alone defeat the "imperialist" foe without essential reforms. Yet, even their modest reform movement was foiled by the entrenched political interests that chose to ignore the fact that by then, the outmoded economic and social structure they wished to preserve was crumbling under the burden of running a superpower engaged in the Cold War rivalry and a costly arms race with the West.

It may be folly to speak of history repeating itself, but by mid-1980s, the conditions of the Soviet Russia at home and abroad were remarkably reminiscent of the final phases of the Tsarist Empire. By this time, Russia's Western rivals were already embarking on a more advanced stage of capitalism in which economic activity revolves around the productization of technological progress and marketing high-value added, technology-embodied products, rather than intensive capital accumulation and human exploitation which continued to dominate the Soviet economic thinking. In this stage, economic success depended on encouraging human individuality and individual creativity rather than regimentation, blind discipline and conformity. In short, the new age of capitalism needed the type of human-being that the Soviet Union viewed as the enemy of the state. The result was that when Russia's communist regime fell, it not only had lost the ability to take on Western capitalism on economic and technological fronts, but despite enormous expenditures in certain areas of defence technology, even its arsenal of the ultimate means of destruction could soon become too obsolete to intimidate. And it seems that it was the realisation of this fact that set in motion a process of reform from within the communist regime that a deeply unpopular political system was too feeble to handle.

The new presidency

The fall of the Soviet Union once more gave the Russian people an opportunity to try for social and economic progress in a democratic country and eventually, find their place among the leading nations of the world by right, and not pretence. And what could demonstrate such an aspiration more vividly than the popular resistance to the attempted putsch of August 1991 as the final bid to preserve the Soviet Union and its white elephant of an empire.

Once again, the Russian Federation is poised for a presidential election and observers predict that, with no effective opposition facing him, former President Putin is likely to resume his interrupted career, presumably as the only credible leader a nation of hundred and forty million has been able to produce in twelve years. But the start of the new presidency is an opportune moment to ask how Russia has fared since the fall of the Soviet Union?

Twenty years on, Russia can hardly claim to be marching shoulder to shoulder with advanced capitalist economies, even those in recession. Alongside persistent problems of poverty and a deeply unequal pattern of income and wealth distribution, the Russian economy seems to be taking on Third World characteristics of a primary producer and exporter under a rentier oligarchy, with the main industrial activity confined to a rather inefficient armament sector. Russian society, too, betrays symptoms of chronic economic stagnation with manifestations of extremist nationalism and outbursts of xenophobia. Politically, restriction on democratic rights and the promotion of the "strong leader" doctrine have created serious doubts about the authority of a nuclear state and the risk of its trying to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Meanwhile, in an attempt to bolster its image as a superpower, the Russian government has adopted an increasingly bellicose international posture and turned to the kind of diplomatic discourse more appropriate to the Cold War era than the age of democratic revolutions. Indeed, some of Russia's recent diplomatic decisions been taken to indicate the government's preference for being identified with certain unsavoury regimes by association or assumption of patronage. This has, rightly or wrongly, raised questions about Russia's suitability for the sensitive international role in which it has been cast by historical accident.


* Bush presses Putin on democracy http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4292807.stm


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