Managed Politics in Russia from Yeltsin to Putin

I want to refer back to a blog entry from January 30, 2007 on the new politics of Russia. The article by Perry Anderson that I excerpted then is relevant now to the forehead-thumping political discussion sure to accompany the Russia-Georgia crisis.

In the run-up to the Russian Presidential election last year, commentators in the major U.S. media were beginning to wonder if President Vladimir Putin was establishing one party rule. Of course he was.

There had been some criticism by NATO countries of Putin’s foreign policy directions since the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning in November, 2006. This critical tone was an innovation as previously the U.S. especially had been pleased with the economic recovery in Russia – taking it mean a general trend toward a free-market system in the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This version of events relies on a simple progressivist view of history. I think a critical reading of broad foreign policy papers shows that something new is developing in Russia and nothing can be assumed about the way it will turn out. I also think its clear that our government and media are poorly equipped to recount these changes or posit likely outcomes.

Anderson’s article was written in the aftermath of this critical shift by the NATO governments. As he points out, there were good reasons to be suspicious of the new order in Russia long before Litvinenko’s poisoning. Putin’s innovative incorporation of the secret services into the economic organization of the Russian industry may mean the new Russia is more repressive than the old Soviet Union.

Anyway, NATO has continued a policy of expansion into the old Warsaw Bloc, as though land grabbing before a potential confrontation with Russia. Georgia began seeking NATO membership in 1999, and was expected to join in the next year or two.

Russia has warned NATO against expanding to its borders, but this has not been taken seriously. Think-tanks like the Carnegie Endowment have suggested that Russia should simply join NATO, but his position seems to disallow independent Russian strategic interests. On March 30, 2008, George Bush endorsed the entry of Ukraine into NATO.

At the same time, NATO proceeded to aid Kosovan separatists to secede from the Republic of Serbia. The Russian government took the side of Belgrade and strongly opposed the further disintegration of Serbia. Commentators always talk without footnotes about a longtime alliance between the Serbs and Russians. Maybe you could consider the relationship of the Russian Empire to Slavic peoples within the Ottoman Empire. Why not first consider the current similarities between Serbia and Russia: relatively large remnants of recently dissolved socialist states (Yugoslavia and the USSR) containing the dominant ethnicity of that state (Serbs and Russians) and retaining large minority populations (Hungarians and Albanians within Serbia, Chechens, Tartars and literally hundreds of other sizable peoples within Russia).

The existence of breakaway regions within Georgia which were for a long time under Russian protection, offered Russia the justification of humanitarian intervention in repelling Georgian encroachments on South Ossetia and Abkhasia. As such it is modeled on NATO ‘s rationale for defending the Kosovans of Serbia. Even Russia’s granting of its national passports to South Ossetians is complemented by the possible future integration of Kosovo within the European Union.

The justifications may be different and so maybe just coincidental. The logic of state dissolution has obviously progressed very far by this time in the former Yugoslavia. However, as power politics Russia and NATO’s interventions in small neighboring states are co-equal.

The people who will suffer are the Georgians, who are being collectively punished for their leader’s participation in NATO’s geopolitical game of chicken.

The U.S. and NATO will have to come to some kind of accommodation with Russia now.

Nixonian Conservative Dimitri Simes wrote in the November/December 2007 Foreign Affairs that the U.S. government had given up on democracy in Russia during the Clinton administration. Yeltsin’s willingness to use shock therapy to disestablish state control of the market was sufficient reason for support. When the Russian economy failed, the U.S. supported Yeltsin in his confrontation with the Duma and throughout the continuing economic crisis of the 1990s.

By the end of Clinton’s second term, any potential political or social political gains from the dissolution of the Soviet system were erased. All Bush subsequently wanted from Yeltsin’s appointed successor, Putin, was to look into his soul and see a strong man that the U.S. could deal with. Even the brutality of the Second Chechen War was only mutely criticized, as Bush pursued war with Iraq.

By now Russia now has no civil society that could oppose a war or launch a popular political movement against government policy. We should consider why that is, but in order to understand why the U.S. encouraged its dissolution first consider how the news from Russia is filtered through U.S. media obsessed with domestic preoccupations.

If you go back and read the wire service and mass market magazine articles on Russia from the past twenty years, you’ll find very little that isn’t As much as Western media was concerned with the repression of The Other Russia in last year’s election, they were never so concerned with the previous repression of the Communist and Agrarian Parties which were already in the Duma and represented much larger constituencies. As foreign and soviet-derived as those parties were (and the CPRF still is) they represented the political expression of millions of Russians. The large protests against Yeltsin’s economic policies in April and May 1998 were among the efforts of post Cold War civil society in Russia. Yeltsin’s subsequent decision to let the ruble float further destabilized the economy and resulted in the October 7, 1998 general strike by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). Responding to Yeltsin’s inability to work with the Duma in 1993 the executive committee of the FNPR released a statement in support of the elected house, which read in part:

The trade unions do not aspire to political power, but they cannot accept the trampling on constitutional rights and freedoms, because it inevitably entails a series of violations of the socio-economic rights of working people. The unconstitutional limitation of the activity of one of the branches of power leads to the strengthening of the other and opens the way to a regime of personal power. This can be called nothing other than a coup d’etat.

From “Gitsenko, Kadeikina and Makukhina, 1999, p 364′. Cited in Trade Unions and Politics in Post-Soviet Russia p. 41, Sarah Ashwin and Simon Clarke. Palgrave. 2002. Online in PDF format here.

In hindsight, the committee of the FNPR would seem to be correct. But the political movement in Russia against Yeltsin got very short shrift in the U.S. and Western European governments at the time.

As a labor union, it was compromised by its authoritarian history in the soviet system, but as the largest mass organization in Russia, its failure to affect the outcome of economic policy under Yeltsin ended the aspirations of tens of millions of members within the political process. The independent GMBR metal-worker’s union, which had a relationship to the Western-style liberal party Yabloko, participated in the movement, but were equally discredited by its failure. The irrelevancy of these mass organizations is the cause of the new Russian autocracy.

Which leads us to the situation we have today in Russia, where the Communist Party is the only opposition party still represented in the Duma. Neither Fox News nor the News Hour with Jim Lehrer will be able to parse that.

Too often, what we look to see in other countries just a reflection of what we expect to see in this country. The “U.S.” position was for a compliant and free-market Russia, so the government encouraged the growth of an autocracy to manage the economic transition.

It isn’t surprising to me that the mass media in this country would privilege a foreign policy analyst over the aspirations of the Russian people, since I’ve experienced the 2001 – 2003 anti-war movement and know that it is essentially only remembered by the million or so participants.


Posted on August 12, 2008, in Analysis, BBC, history, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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