Return of the Repressed

If Time magazine had a “country of the year”, it would surely be Russia, despite its colourful competition, Iran and Venezuela. All three have dominated headlines, tripping up the United States in its 21st century drive for world hegemony. Venezuela held a referendum 2 December which failed by a whisker, while Russia held parliamentary elections the same day confirming its transformation from a weak kleptocracy, servile to US wishes, into a vigorous and confident opponent of the US.

The triumph of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia — winning over 60 per cent to the Communists’ 12, the Liberal Democratic Party’s nine and Just Russia’s eight per cent — paves the way for the consolidation of what has been described by Ivan Krastev as “sovereign democracy”, a combination of directed democracy and nationalism, and an antidote to the dangerous combination of populist pressure from below and international pressure from above that destroyed the post-Communist Ukrainian, Georgian and Kyrgyz regimes in so-called colour revolutions over the past few years.

In the regime of directed democracy that Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin, the newly formed post-Communist elites managed to control the electoral process without the usual governing party of directed democracies, such as, say, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Egypt and many other similar regimes. Their moral authority derived solely from their allegiance to the liberal democracy of the US and the international community, through various aid programmes and pretences to “democracy building”. They managed to distract the teeming masses, feeding them “Bush legs” (the ubiquitous cheap US chicken imports) and Western-style commercial pap. Of the ex-Soviet countries, only Belarus managed to escape this scenario with the election of its quirky, charismatic socialist leader Alexandr Lukashenko.

But this could hardly last forever, certainly not for a country that inherited the heavy mantle of the Soviet Union. The backlash to the crony capitalism and phony democracy of Yeltsin gave his appointed successor a chance to wrest control from the powerful oligarchs, restore the power of the state as the engine of economic and social development, effectively nationalising the remaining elite power centres. Boris Berezovsky, Putin’s bête noire fuming in London, is a good example of the marginalisation of the “offshore elite”. Another is Mikhail Khodorkosky, in his unfashionable striped uniform, learning to sew in a Russian jail.

Yes, windfall oil revenues have been key to Russia’s rise from the ashes. And the tragedy of Chechnya continues to haunt the Kremlin. The consolidation of the new order is due partly to luck and the road has been rocky. But more important than oil is a powerful mass psychological force at work. Putin’s Russians — and not only Russians, for this applies to Tatars, Uzbeks, Georgians and dozens of other nationalities — soon tired of being lectured by the US as it proceeded to ignore Russia, and as NATO swallowed up Russia’s neighbours and former allies.

Putin’s genius was to be able to articulate the resurgence of national pride, the return of the repressed, as people rallied to the Soviet-style anti-imperialist standard which he hoisted. Unlike the boorish, dipsomaniac Yeltsin, who welcomed US advisers to help him dismantle the once powerful Soviet Union, Putin sent them packing and tapped into the subliminal desire of the people to re-identify with a powerful state which advocated law and order both at home and abroad.

The Soviet national anthem was reinstated and people began to take pride in their history. Putin decried the collapse of the Soviet Union at the 60th anniversary of the victory over fascism in 2005 as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. History books hastily written with American advisers in the 1990s were rewritten to provide a less damning view of the Soviet past. At United Russia’s eighth party congress 1 October, Putin said a big victory for it would give him the “moral authority” to hold the government and parliament accountable.

Western liberals have reacted with feigned horror at the elections, pointing at government control of the media, pre- election intimidation of the liberal opposition and Soviet-style rallying around Putin and United Russia (founded in 2001 as a merger of Fatherland — all Russia and the Unity Party of Russia). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights announced it would boycott the elections, citing visa delays. However, its Parliamentary Assembly (PA) got all the visas it asked for (40) without any problem and sent an observer team which issued a rather negative report 3 December, citing “merging of the state and a political party”, media bias in favour of Putin, difficulties “for new and smaller parties to develop and compete effectively”, and reports of pre-election harassment of political parties. So the PA managed to give the party line, so to speak.

There is some truth and a certain irony to the argument that the return of the repressed has brought with it Soviet-style repression for those who continue to embrace Western-style liberalism. But the 1990s experienced much worse intimidation and violence during the reign of the robber barons. The difference was that it was private and mostly went unpunished. It’s much easier to point the finger now, but no one in their right mind would go back to the crimes of the Yeltsin years. While the anti-Kremlin journalist Anna Politovskaya was indeed murdered in 2006, her killers were hunted down and prosecuted. What is important is that there are laws now which function. And there is arguably more free thinking in Russia these days than in the West.

However, after the painful and unpredictable upheavals resulting from the 1917 Russian revolution, the 1991 counter- revolution, and the flirtation with Western-style liberalism in the 1990s, post-Yeltsin Russia has developed a strong anti- revolutionism along with a fundamental mistrust towards the two core concepts of liberal democracy — the idea of representation as the expression of the pluralist nature of the modern society and the idea of popular sovereignty as the rule of the popular will.

A referendum in, say, Chechnya would no doubt advocate independence, but it would also lead the way to the break-up of the Russian Federation, and it is just not going to happen. A noisy parliament exacerbating regional and ideological differences was tried and failed spectacularly under Yeltsin. Hence creating a new political party is difficult and parliamentary representation requires a seven per cent threshold vote. Anti-populism and anti-pluralism characterise Russia today. “I voted for Putin because Russia has become a strong country. I lived through that nightmare of the Yeltsin era. It’s like night and day,” said Sergei Troshin after voting for United Russia.

Putin seems to thrive on populism, but it is a top-down populism. People are sovereign here in as much as they identify with the sovereign and vice versa, and in as much as the ruling elite in league with him is perceived as embodying reason and the national welfare. Putin’s enormously popular phone-in meetings with citizens through live- hookup, telephone, e-mail and text messaging are clearly a way to make sure the people have a chance to actively identify with their sovereign.

Elections are not so much an instrument for expressing conflicting interests as for demonstrating the identity of the governors and the governed; not so much a mechanism for representing people but for representing and legitimating power in the eyes of the people. The concept of sovereign democracy embodies Russia’s ideological ambition to be “the other Europe” — an alternative to the European Union, just as the Soviet Union was in its day, and just as Fidel Castro and Chavez’s state socialism embodies “the other Latin America” today.

As enchantment with the model of liberal democracy erodes — just look at the farce of the current US presidential campaign — the attractiveness of these alternatives grows. A strong sovereign representing the interests of the nation, backed by a loyal elite, smacks of feudalism, but is beginning to look good in the 21st century.

“My view is simply that the modus operandi of Russia is enlightened conservatism,” said eminent film director Viktor Mikhailkov, an ardent supporter of Putin. “Why are people frightened of patriotism? There’s a lot of worrying among the intelligentsia about teaching the basics of Orthodox culture. It’s a hysteria. Russia needs authority. Maybe for the so-called civilised world this sounds like nonsense. But chaos in Russia is a catastrophe for everyone.”

In reply to Mikhailkov, Alexandr Gelman, a playwright who rose to prominence during perestroika, says, “In the Soviet era there was only one party but there were plays and books that supported the idea of democracy. The less democracy, the more cultural figures matter. If the tendency against democracy continues, cultural figures will gain more influence.”

“Today we are successful in politics, economics, arts, sciences, sports,” trumpets the announcer in one advertisement, accompanied by a brass band and images of Putin and other smiling Russians. “We have reasons for pride. We enjoy respect and deference. We are citizens of a great country, and we have great victories ahead. Putin’s plan is a victory for Russia!” Hokey maybe, but true.

The problem, of course, is how power changes hands. So far Putin has refused to pursue a constitutional amendment to allow him a third term though there is pressure for him to do so. His push to make United Russia the establishment party intends to guarantee stability. The party is expected to convene on 17 December to name a candidate who will run in the presidential elections next March. Sergei Markov, a political analyst and United Russia member, said Putin was likely to endorse at least two candidates.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on December 12th, 2007 at 10:47am #

    I was amused by Mr Walberg’s artcile, which is largely fiction. He seems to be another of these elderly pipedreamers who are hoping to see dictatorship re-established by the back door. I love the bit where he talks about “Russia’s ideological ambition to be “the other Europe” — an alternative to the European Union, just as the Soviet Union was in its day”. Since everything Putin does and says indicates that he wants to cozy up to the EU, not oppose it, I just wonder where he got the idea that the new democratic elite in Russia is in any way hostile to the EU.

    Mr Walberg is just a pathetic old man clinging desperately to an ideology that the world has left high and dry!

  2. heike said on December 12th, 2007 at 12:14pm #

    This article is filled with Newspeak that would be worthy of a George Orwell novel. Try “sovereign democracy.” Sounds something like “people’s democracy,” or “democracy of real socialism.”

    “Dangerous combination of populist pressure from below and international pressure from above.” What a fantasy! Popular pressure from below is dangerous? Tell that to the editors of DV! What kind of elitist are you? International pressure? To do what? To feed their people and listen to them? Your Russian friends tried to murder Viktor Yushchenko, and you’re only concerned about “international” (read Western pressure). Well, we did express ourselves about the murder of Georgyi Gongadze, as did many of his fellow Ukrainians. You have of course heard the Kuchma tapes? Pretty vile stuff. Frankly what’s wrong with destroying these post-communist regimes? They weren’t even socialist so why should you care about them?

    You have a strange view of democracy. It all boils down to feeding the Russian masses chicken legs? The moral authority of any regime rests on the consent of the governed, not on whether they sign on to any Western aid programs. Since when and by what definition is democracy building a “pretense”? Your defense of Lukashenko is truly absurd. “quirky charismatic leader”? Try despot. How does the U.S. “lecture” to the minorities of Russia? What proof do you offer to your assertion that the Uzbeks and Georgians are tired of being “lectured” at. Actually, the Georgians look to the U.S. and the West as their only bulwark to preserve the territorial integrity of their country which happens to be occupied by Russian, not NATO troops.

    Western advisors didn’t help Yeltsin to dismantle the USSR – it collapsed on its own after the August 1991 coup. Remember? What they did try to do was to offer economic advice and assistance to smooth the transition to a market economy – something where they accomplished very little.

    Check the words of the Russian anthem and compare them with “Soiuz Nerushimiy.” The music is the same but the words are quite different. Less damming view of the Soviet past? Only 5 million people were sent to the gulags? Even Hitler built the autobahns. More disinformation. Polotivskaya’s murderers have not been brought to justice, although the Russians arrested some hapless Chechens. Look at the litany of murders that have been going on unpunished in the “sovereign democracy.”

    Noisy parliament exacerbating regional and ideological differences? Hey, wake up! Some people call that DEMOCRACY. The Russians don’t aspire to be the ideological alternative to European democracy as they have nothing to offer on that score. What they do aspire is to reclaim control over the errant respubliky, including the Estonians, whom they outnumber by 100 to 1 who dared to interfere in their own internal affairs. Remember that the Russians sent in a Zhdanov-style delegation to demand the resignation of their government? There’s a word for that in Russian, “imperializm.”
    Finally, to pander to his Al Ahram readers, Mr. W wrote:.
    Then there’s the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which sets out just such a programme in albeit an overtly grotesque form and is solemnly disowned by Zionists as a forgery, though a forgery of what is never made clear.

  3. HR said on December 12th, 2007 at 2:24pm #

    It is always comforting, and entertaining to me, to see the neoliberal wingnuts come apart at the seams when someone points out what a horrible mess their “philosophy” and “economics” wrought in Russia following the long-expected implosion of the Soviet system. Instead of bashing the Russia of today, they ought to become a little introspective and look at the joke that democracy is, and always has been, here in the land of the brainwashed.

  4. arisch said on December 12th, 2007 at 2:50pm #

    I think Wallberg’s just trying to be more diplomatic about Russia. Instead of saying, “Fascism is on the rise” or “Nashi = Hitler Youth” or whatever other nonsense the maintstream press conjures up, he is trying to be provocative and saying Putin is merely rejecting liberal democracy for “direct democracy.” I would assume his intent is to criticize Russia without attracting a slew of anti-Globalist retaliatory posts.

  5. heike said on December 12th, 2007 at 4:19pm #

    //Wingnut, a term used to describe a person who is currently, or has been in the past, completely out of their mind. e.g. “Karen is a wingnut.” //

    I would suggest that, if you disagree with something someone has written, you provide a better argument, and don’t descend into infantile name calling. Just because people don’t accept your view of the world doesn’t mean they are “brainwashed.” Who designated you the person to decide who is sane and who is not?

    What credentials do you have to evaluate what has or has not been going on in Russia?

  6. Bobby said on December 13th, 2007 at 8:43am #

    Walber is a well-known neo-Stalinist. He also writes as “Simon Jones.”

    To see what sort of publications he writes for, try “Northstar Compas” which is a neo-Stalinist rag “Dedicated to the Re-Establishment of the Soviet Union as a Socialist State.”

    Scroll down to the cartoon which features an antisemitic caricature of a hook-nosed Jew in an Uncle Sam hat to getthe flavour.

    Walberg credits his article (unreadably bad) to both his pseudonym and his real name: “Andijan Massacre In Uzbekistan, By Simon Jones, With thanks to Eric Walberg.”

  7. Christian said on December 17th, 2007 at 10:08am #

    Let’s not think in binaries…

    YES, the “shock therapy” system of piratizing state industries was a ginormous disaster for Russians.

    But, NO, Putin is not some friend of the common man who is fighting oligarchs and the US on a common front.

    Investigations and prosecutions have been pitifully few given the scale of the waste of public wealth.

    Putin has not taken steps to recover that wealth.

    Russia is, like China in different ways, getting the worst of both dictatorship and capitalism.