Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's not Putin's fault

Putin is incorrectly described as having strangled Russian democracy. The problem with this view is twofold.

1) By 1998 "Democracy" in Russia, perversely, had zero democratic legitimacy. Not only did many Russians miss the heady days of the USSR, but the Russian state had clearly failed to generate or even maintain any standard of living. So while Russians today regularly say they support "democracy", they really have no love for what democracy did and how it performed.

2) The illusion that Yeltsin's rule was democratic really needs to be squashed once and for all. Here, Stephen Cohen writes excellently in the Nation:
As for Yeltsin's role, even the most event-making leaders need supporters in order to carry out historic acts. Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union in December 1991 with the backing of a self-interested alliance. All of its groups called themselves "democrats" and "reformers," but the two most important were unlikely allies: the nomenklatura elites that were pursuing the "smell of property like a beast after prey," in the revealing metaphor of Yeltsin's own chief minister, and wanted property much more than any kind of democracy or free-market competition; and an avowedly prodemocracy wing of the intelligentsia. Traditional enemies in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet system, they colluded in 1991 largely because the intelligentsia's radical market ideas seemed to justify nomenklatura privatization.

But the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals, who played leading roles in his post-Soviet government, were neither coincidental fellow travelers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s, they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on a recalcitrant Russian society by an "iron hand" regime. This "great leap," as they extolled it, would entail "tough and unpopular" policies resulting in "mass dissatisfaction" and thus would necessitate "anti-democratic measures." Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia's newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had brutally imposed economic change on Chile, they said of Yeltsin, now their leader, "Let him be a dictator!" Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the US government and mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia's popularly elected Parliament in 1993.
I'm listening to Cohen now on the podcast for Open Source (an excellent NPR program) and one of the things he points out is that when Gorbachev agreed without complaint to the reunification of Germany, and the inclusion of that reunified Germany within NATO, the US in the person of James Baker promised that NATO would not move a single inch closer to the USSR.

The constant drumbeat of the American press - wailing constantly about Russia's reversals, but unwilling to admit to any of America's broken promises - puts me in a pretty foul mood some days.


Sam L. said...

No doubt Yeltsin's government was illegitimate after destroying the Russian white house, but I think it was also pretty clearly more democratic than Putin's Russia. Yeltsin didn't have nearly the control over the media that Putin has, and he certainly wasn't appointing governors in the regions or forcing NGOs to register with the government. Yeltsin actually had serious opponents campaign against him (though he probably wouldn't have ceded power had he lost). Putin would never let an opponent get so far as to pose an actual electoral threat. I don't think there's a serious argument that Yeltsin was a democratic leader, but I also don't think there's a serious argument that the Yeltsin government had anywhere near the centralized power that Putin does.

john said...

I agree with you comment entirely - especially about the centralization of power.

My argument is not that what Putin is doing is "good", "okay", "passable", or even neutral. I'm not a fan. The point is only that people talk as if Putin broke something good. He didn't. He took something that was already crap and made it differently-crappy. (Better analogy needed, it's late.)

I'm actually more sympathetic on certain aspects of Putin's centralization of power - in particular, I think the death of Russian federalism should be noted without grief. The federal structure in Russia was abysmally bad, and destroying it - in effect, Russia today is a unitary state - is not really something I'm going to weep over.

Sam L. said...

Yeah, I haven't shed tears over his crack down on the oligarchs. I can picture a healthy democracy eventually arising out of a dictatorship, but I can't imagine one rising out of a country where a handful of thieves hold half the GDP or whatever.

Also, on my other computer, I can't comment on your site because the word verification block disappears. I use an older version of firefox, but I don't think it is the ad-blocker that's doing it. I just thought you should know in case other people have the same problem.