Thursday, April 05, 2007

Back to the Future

I have often defended Russia’s frequently defended status of a democracy. Russia itself was often driven to say that it is a “sovereign democracy”, one that does not and should not portray exactly the US variant, the French variant, and other long-standing presidential democracies. However, whatever you may call it, Russia has steps it has to take to build a full-scale democracy.

Despite popular beliefs, Putin and his administration are hardly responsible for the poor portrayal of Russia’s democratic institutions in the West. If Russia were to immediately follow a laissez-faire path to democracy it would resemble a moderate version of what the Ukrainian people are now seeing. Ukraine’s president Viktor Yuschenko has written a piece for the Financial Times where he stated the following:

“It is quite common in advanced democratic societies for elections to produce results that oblige political opponents to govern in partnership. Germany today is governed by a “grand coalition” of left and right. France has experienced periods of “cohabitation”. The American constitution seems to invite it, with the White House and Congress occupied by different political parties more often than not.

In spite of this, these societies remain stable, prosperous and well-governed. In each case the political elites understand that there is something more important at stake than the pursuit of political power. Respecting the wishes of their voters, they seek to share power in the national interest.

Of course, ideas and policies are contested and debated, often in very robust terms. But all sides observe limits in order to prevent political competition from damaging the fabric of democratic life. When that becomes a risk, they choose compromise instead of confrontation. Above all, they respect their own constitutions and maintain the checks and balances essential to prevent monopolistic abuses of power.”

It would seem true, the range of disagreements between the Democrats and the Republicans on issues such as Iraq, free-trade, environmental protection, are very different, and the majority that each party can control in Congress and the Senate is often very slim. Ukraine has three parties, split into two radically opposed camps (the prime-minister against the president); battling on issues ranging from the acceptance of Russian as the nation’s second-state language, membership in NATO, economic alliances with Russia. Yet for the past two years, consensus has been as difficult to build as the tower of Babel; after the foundations seemed to be in place, some minor issue withdrew one party from the process, and the bricks would fall to the ground provoking mass protests, and speculations going as far as predicting a looming civil war. Similar chaos dominated Russian politics, and the Russian parliament in the 1990-s. And an exactly similar situation occurred in 1993, when hostility between President Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Council (parliament) led to tanks being deployed in the center of Moscow that would later fire at the residence of the parliament; the chances of a civil war outbreak at that point were close to 50%.

So why can’t the former Soviet republics, despite healthy economies, educated masses, close links with the West maintain a democratic floor for debates which would not spill out into open hostilities and would need to be resolved by street protests, and multi-country interventions?

The first reason which has struck Russian society, and will soon strike the Ukrainian, is the fear of instability that has been instilled in people. It is an unfortunate fact that every generation of Russians/ex-Soviet citizens has seen periods of extreme instability and collapse that have little resemblance to periods of instability as they are perceived and experienced in the West. Such periods, where more than half of the population, in a matter of months, dips below the poverty line, food disappears from stores, life-time savings are devalued, stick with a country’s citizens for a long time. Often, such collapses happen after the majority of the population with high hopes for the future votes for what seems to be a progressively democratic candidate, who would later be entangled in massive corruption tales at the expense of the electorate. The fact that people still have their political freedoms, social rights, and economic liberties but have no resources whatsoever to take advantage of them is of little recourse. Such unfortunate events lead society to pursue candidates that would bring stability, security, and a revamped national spirit, and society would be willing to give a lot of rights back to get the resources to maintain a decent living standard. But most importantly this feeds in political apathy as a consequence of complete distrust in the political system. An even more frightening consequence can be ultra-nationalism, of which past history has seen enough of.

The second reason is the high degree of corruption instilled in the political elite, and the political class. The sudden appearance of private ownership requires several generations for society to get used to. An immediate entanglement of business interests with politics transforms the parties participating in the political process from groups following certain ideas of a country’s strategy and posing as “lobbyists” for their electorate, to groups of people posing as a “political party” lobbying business interests, and transforming all political disputes into corporate disputes. In essence this turns out to be the type of capitalism that Soviet propaganda once showed to its people as the evil “capitalist regimes of the West”, that never really existed in the West.

The third reason is the absence of a civil society in the ex-Soviet states, and its accompanying institutions. The ex-Soviet republics have often adopted a form of ultra-capitalism, functionally resembling the operation of corporate “democracy”; the shareholders have rights, but have limited ways in which they can use them. It is common sense to say that ensuring elections on a governmental, regional and a municipal level is not enough to get full-scale political participation from society. The only other alternative the population has is mass protests. In essence, minor issues which usually due to their abundance represent the majority of issues and law-making activity in Western democracies arise in the electorate. When the electorate has no chance to push for minor issues to be considered in parliament, but has the ability to express opinion on populist measures, policies that affect a majority of the country, the interests of the electorate and the government are misaligned. These minor issues most often resemble feedback on large-scale projects launched by the governments. Without proper feedback, implementation of such projects or new government policies resembles the game of a “broken telephone”, whereby someone’s intent is interpreted in an exactly opposite way by the time it gets to the fourth, fifth and sixth person in line of communication.

The three reasons are by no means being hidden away by the respective governments of ex-Soviet republics. In Russia’s case, debates regarding all three are frequent at the top-watched political programs. However, the government’s action on each of them is another topic. The government puts a dominant focus on the first reason, stability. It is perhaps the easiest of the three, and yields immediate results. Yet, a dominant focus on it produces mixed results for corruption and the establishment of a civil society.

Stability, which in Russia is presented through massive loyalty and wide-spread support for the policies of the president makes competition among formal rivals look almost artificial. This serves to mute, what can be defined as “external corruption” of the government and the tie-in of business interests into political rivalry. When the majority is tied to, in principal, one particular business group, external lobbying through television, newspapers, and artificial generation of “buzz” is unnecessary. Most of the struggle happens inside the political parties, within the government, and within the administration. The people see little of it, and thus corruption seemingly disappears, when in fact only “external corruption” disappears. (I must define the corruption in this note to be limited to a large presence of business interests in politics, and not the corruption at the day-to-day municipal and intra-society level). Finally, stability and the silencing of corruption brought about after times of chaos in day-to-day political life bring political apathy amongst the people. No major factor interferes with the ability of a society to function and promote its well-being; and with the distrust in politics still present it really has no motivation to give major feedback to their government while the period of stability lasts. There are thus no stimulating factors to the development of a civil society.

On a very rough basis this is what is happening in Russia, and maybe such a situation if it carries on for the next ten years is advantageous, as it can solidify the mechanisms of the economy, reform the socialist pillars which can no longer effectively support the well-being of the pensioners, middle-class and the lower-class.

Ukraine’s people on the other hand, with a heavy hand of the political elite, chose the laissez-faire approach; they chose what seemed to be a group of politicians dedicated to solving the three reasons responsible for the malfunctioning young democracy simultaneously. The strategy did not work. The reforms were initially supported by a very slim majority of the population, resulting in a constant struggle in parliament, a scenario of struggle that soon was a mirror of the “external corruption”. In such an environment radical shake-ups rarely work and resemble German tanks rolling through the Russian rasputitsa with the fate of freezing in a matter of weeks.

The Ukrainian scenario is a dangerous example for Russia. On the one hand, it justifies Russia’s strategy of focusing on stability and muting corruption and political apathy. Yet, on the other hand, this may instill a fear in the current generation of politicians; a fear of a Ukrainian-type parliamentary struggle being born in Russia if serious action is taken to give birth to a civil society. This fear is a fear of losing power, and will spill out in the conservation of current reforms. Yet, what a wise politician must take from the Ukrainian scenario is that without a civil society civilized inter-party competition is unlikely; without civilized inter-party competition business lobbying plays the dominant role in decision-making no matter what end-game. While the period of stability lasts, and the government has guaranteed support of the majority of the population, it must take small but thought-through, insured steps at founding the civil society. Russia must see in Ukraine its past and a potential future; it must take decisions to avoid such a future. Only then can it open up its doors, not just its windows.

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