Democracy Through the Looking Glass

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Looking for direction / Photo: World Economic Forum, flickr
Looking for direction / Photo: World Economic Forum, flickr

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power. The collapse of the Soviet block in the late 1980s and the Soviet Union itself in the early 1990s can be seen as an inflection point, a moment at which the arc of Russian history changed; it opened up an old wound in the Russian psyche, namely, that of identity. With the loss of its satellites and formerly appropriated republics, a political, institutional, economic and moral decay took hold.  Russia’s need for reinvention became an existential threat and opportunity at the same time.

With Russian foreign policy practically non-existent in the early 1990s, the climactic evidence of which was NATO’s utter disregard for Russia’s position on the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, the soil was moist for a mushrooming ‘man of action,’ who would later use precisely this justification to advance his ambitions of restoring great power status to Russia.

Enter Putin.

Out of this decade spent traversing the ‘valley of death’ emerged a new leadership made manifest in the face of Putin, who marked not simply an inflection point in the political development of Russia, but a strategic inflection point because of the magnitude of change he represented. With time several attributes have become synonymous with Putin’s leadership style- among which assertive, virile and sovereign are the staple diet. Whether shooting tigers in the Far East, showing off his black belt mastery of judo, starring in self-promotion videos, or more recently  diving to the bottom of lake Baikal, at the top of Putin’s agenda has been a radical makeover of not only the outside world’s perception of Russia but the self-perception of Russians, who thrive on celebrating their country’s ‘otherness.’

Ressentiment is the backbone of this philosophy, whereby Russia predicates its existence on the necessity to react to an evil constellation of forces (read The West) in order not to become the victim of the latter’s conspiracy to destroy it.  Nietzsche’s discussion in Beyond Good and Evil of active and reactive forces and the politics of Ressentiment are a good starting point for analyzing Russia’s political raison d’être.

With a long, fond history for dialectics, it is not surprising that contemporary Russian political ideological concepts often acquire double meanings; and words, in general, perform formidable acrobatic feats. Thus, one can’t help but wonder whether some of Putin’s political grammarians had a particular fondness for Humpty Dumpty’s semantic cognizance: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” explains Humpty Dumpty to Alice condescendingly.

Democracy, by its very nature elicits the cacophony of multiple voices. It is a political ideology that ‘invites’ a myriad interpretations, qualifiers and attributes. Wikipedia has compiled a list of a couple dozen compound words of which one is always ‘democracy.’ Somewhat disappointingly, the Russian variety – ‘sovereign democracy’ – hasn’t made it to the list. The term sovereign democracy, a camera obscura manifestation of its western double, was manufactured by one of Russia’s more prominent political technologists Vladislav Surkov and dates to approximately 2006, when it was used to justify the one dominant party system, namely, Putin’s United Russia party.
Russian foreign policy under Putin can be summarized as follows:

Objective: Counter-balance West to (re)gain superpower status
Strategy: Achieve regional hegemony of the regions on the periphery
•    Hard power (overt): coercion through energy dependency
•    Hard power (covert): divide region through bilateral deals
•    Soft power (overt): attraction through cultural appeal
•    Soft power (covert): divide region through identity politics and ethno-nationalism

On the eve of his 10 years in power, the objective and tactics have not changed. On the strategic level, however, Putin prospects look bleak: the Caucasus are a mess, with potential for renewed violence in Georgia, Ingushetia, Transdniestria and Chechnya; the Balkans are slowly but surely becoming incorporated into NATO and EU structures; in Central Asia, attempts to mobilize the local crop of dictators into a post-Soviet Russian version of NATO known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) are failing miserably, with Uzbekistan and Belarus openly boycotting planned initiatives; missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic are still current; and not to forget – a surprising comeback for Nabucco vs South Stream pipelines after the EU signed the long-coveted deal with Turkey in July.

With all this on his plate, it is hardly surprising that Putin is soliciting sanctification of his political sins from his comrade-in-arms, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril. This ‘toad’s eye’ stratagem – the idea that, Andrew Wilson explains, dim-witted electorate will follow whatever flashy show of staged events is paraded before it, just like a toad’s eye follows the moving object, only to forget what was previously in vision, might eventually backfire.

Who knows? It might just be a tad too late; it might just be that “Annushka has already spilled the oil”.

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