Twenty years ago this month, Mikhail Gorbachev began his policies of perestroika and glasnost , which led to the end of the Cold War. Now, however, a new chill has entered relations between Russia and the West. President Vladimir Putin is frequently criticized for taking Russia in the wrong direction. The very people who in 2000 called Putin a man they could do business with are having second thoughts. People once fascinated by Putin now publicly rebuke him.
Putin is shooting back, accusing the West of trying to weaken and dismember Russia. As politicians in the West compare him to Mugabe or Mussolini, Putin’s Kremlin aides invoke the Munich appeasers who tried to push Hitler eastward. Putin himself once blamed the West for trying to channel Muslim radicalism toward Russia.
Why this sharp change in tone? Initially, most nations exiting from Communism reached out, almost instinctively, to their immediate pre-Communist period. The Baltic states revived their constitutions of the 1930’s, the Armenians and the Azeris revived their political parties of the late 1910’s, and Eastern Europe, with the exception of East Germany, which reunited with the Federal Republic, suddenly became once again Mitteleuropa.
This revival of the past was a big worry for West Europeans and Americans, who feared the re-emergence of historical enmities and tensions, which did indeed come to the fore in the former Yugoslavia. These fears underpinned the dual enlargement of NATO and the European Union.
Russia, for its part, also went backwards, to tsarism. Initially, this was not obvious to all. Boris Yeltsin was friendly to the West, tolerated open debate, and appointed a few individuals as oligarchs. He was given the benefit of the doubt, and his anti-Communism was elevated to a surrogate of democracy. Russia was doubtless freer than ever before, in virtually all respects, good and bad.
But the picture Russia presented to others and to itself was massively distorted. Parliament was lively, but essentially powerless. The electronic media were routinely critical of the authorities, but were owned by a handful of people and depended on their owners’ taste, interests, and fate. Yeltsin’s handover of power to Putin, like a king with his dauphin, tells us more about his regime than almost anything else.
Putin’s regime is openly tsarist. His Duma is much like the Duma of Nicholas II, docile and acquiescent. His governors are also like Nicholas’s; many are governor-generals. The capitalism now being practiced is dependent on the authorities, and plays no independent role in politics.
Of course, this does not mean that there is no difference between the Russia of Vladimir Putin and Nicholas Romanov. What it means is that Russia is back on its historical path of development, back at the point where things started to go wrong. The domestic situation, the global environment, and the historical memory of its people all militate against Russia being bound to relive its own tragic history. But Russia is like Western Europe, in the sense that it will have to advance in stages. It is not like Central Europe, which could leapfrog over some of them by jumping on the NATO/EU springboard.
This means that we need to be more careful in using the language of democracy when talking about Russia. Democracy almost everywhere has been a fairly late child of capitalism, for it requires a self-conscious middle class to take root and flourish. This can only be produced by successful and sustained capitalist development. Russia is generating it, but the process will take time.
Meanwhile, politics belongs to the elites. If Russia is to move forward, its high and mighty must agree about who owns what, who makes the rules, and how to change the rules. Rather than calling for democracy, this calls for a genuine constitutional rule of law. In other words, the task is to turn tsarist Russia into a version of the Kaiser’s Germany.
This won’t be easy, but there are good reasons for optimism. With so much being written about Putin’s Russia, the rest of the country is often overlooked. Putin’s Russia is essentially about the Kremlin and the bureaucracy. They are dominant, no doubt, but they are not Russia in its entirety.
The millions of consumers exercising their right to choose in the rapidly growing supermarket chains; the planeloads of business travelers converging on London, Zurich, and Frankfurt daily; the holiday-makers who, having lost the Crimea, have rediscovered the Mediterranean – all are part of a Russia beyond Putin’s Russia, one that will grow and develop even when Putin is history.
So Russia’s current agenda must be more about freedom than democracy. Even now, Russia, though undemocratic, is largely free. What it needs is to institutionalize that freedom by building a modern state to replace the antiquated tsarist system. It also needs a modern civil society to consolidate its multi-ethnic post-imperial population.
This calls for a kind of liberalism that is now lacking in Russia, one that stands for freedom, reform, and the nation-state. Neither the government nor the current opposition possesses it, which means that Russians must look beyond Putin’s Russia.
As for the West, it is fruitless to try to bring Putin and his team back to democracy, where Russia does not belong, or to punish Russia with sanctions, which won’t work. The West must recognize where Russia stands on history’s timeline and not seek to wish this away. The political gap can be narrowed only by indigenous capitalist development. In the meantime, America and Europe should base their policies toward Russia on mutual interests, not the expectation of mutual values.