2006 January 16 Monday
Liberalism Continues Retreat In Russia

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor Christopher Walker of Freedom House argues that freedom is on the retreat in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union.

NEW YORK – President Vladimir Putin is poised to give the Russian government the tools to exert even greater control over the country's already beleaguered nongovernmental sector. The restrictive NGO law that awaits his signature broadens the grounds for denying registration to or closing Russian NGOs, setting the stage for greater government interference in their work. The draft law on his desk, however, represents only the most recent blow in what is a larger, systematic effort by the authorities to curb independent voices in Russia.

Moreover, this Kremlin measure is just the latest in a string of repressive steps throughout the former Soviet Union. This tightening by autocratic regimes is in no small part a reaction to the recent democratic movements in neighboring countries. The ferocity with which post-Soviet strongmen have reacted, while not entirely surprising, confirms that these regimes are dropping even the pretense of democratic practice.

I haven't written as many posts as I should have on the decay of democracy in some parts of the world including the former Soviet Union. I read the reports of liberal aides forced out of the Kremlin in Moscow and TV stations brought under government control and it just seems so depressing. I'm not surprised really. But the reality is such at odds with the neocon and liberal faith in inevitable democracy (assumed to be liberal and free of course) as the cure for what ails the world. In reality breaks with historical patterns of cause and effect do not happen as often or as easily as the promoters of the latest Panglossian fad for how to fix the world would have you believe.

Russia's a great example of how historical patterns keep recurring. Paul Hollander has a review of Richard Pipes' latest book on Russia Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture. Pipes sees a recurring pattern of authoritarian rule under Tsarist and communist Russia and again in the current trend toward greater authoritarianism. Pipes believes local conditions and history provide explanations for why Russian political culture remains so different from that found in Europe and the United States.

Another question often raised by historians is why the evolution of Russia diverged so sharply from that of other European states, and especially those in the West. Part of the answer is that Russia has never been a fully European country, neither geographical ly nor culturally. Secular political theory in Russia did not emerge until the 18th century. Russia did not benefit from the Renaissance or the Reformation - phenomena that in Western Europe promoted individualism, political pluralism, a sense of property rights, and a work ethic.

But, as Mr. Pipes points out, there are further, more specific explanations of why a country such as Russia was more likely to become (and remain) autocratic. As a large country, it had insecure borders, and so was exposed to foreign invasion. Such insecurity created pressures for a centralized government, and the state's expansion by conquest created a diverse ethnic composition that added to the authorities' determination to bring and keep things under control. Nor were 2 1/2 centuries of subjection to Mongol rule conducive to nurturing self-government, political pluralism, and habits of tolerance.

Local conditions and the nature of the local people also keep the Middle East so different from the West.

Meanwhile Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko's attempt to democratize Ukraine may be backfiring because he's devolved power to a thoroughly corrupt and illiberal parliament.

Mr Yushchenko's main difficulty is that, under the deal that saw his predecessor Leonid Kuchma surrender office peacefully just over a year ago, power is being transferred from the presidency to parliament. In theory this should strengthen Ukrainian democracy by reducing the possibility of a future president establishing a Kuchma-style authoritarian regime. In practice, the reform is moving power from Mr Yushchenko - the one man who was able to rally Ukraine's democratic forces - to an assembly riddled by corruption and self-interest and easily exploited by the Kremlin. With parliamentary elections due in March, deputies are more concerned about saving their seats than saving the country.

Will Ukraine become more Western and liberal or will it follow Russia back into authoritarianism? The US and Europe have a far better chance of influencing Ukraine's development than the Middle East. Though whether a big push to Westernise Ukraine will be made remains to be seen. The EU seems more bent on bringing in a far less tractable Muslim Turkey than in trying to modernize Ukraine. Bush has his attention diverted by the mess he's gotten us into in Iraq. Putin might be able to pull Ukraine back in Russia's orbit.

Dahlia Khalifa seems to think the democratic minority in the world are getting too condescending and dictatorial toward the non-democratic majority.

Carrying such exclusionary logic further, this emerging "democratic-caucus" is now laying the groundwork for the disenfranchisement of all states who are not members of the club. The argument here is while the United Nations is based on the democratic principle of one-nation, one-vote, this is not actually democracy because not all the states represented at the United Nations actually democratically represent their respective peoples. Accordingly, if the government itself is not of a democratic state, how can it have a vote at the United Nations and still maintain that the United Nations is democratic?

Once again, while interesting selective reasoning, with perhaps some slight fallacy in composition, it flies in the face of the very essence of the United Nations in respecting all nations, large and small, based on the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty and inclusionary diplomacy.

What then is the emerging scenario from this logic? As of 2004, there were 88 countries rated by Freedom House as being free or democratic. The United Nations has 191 member states. Do states such as China, Russia, and even Iran then lose their right to vote at the United Nations? Shall the other 103 states be stripped of their sovereignty and be relegated, perhaps, to observer status, like the Palestinian Authority, while the club of 88, assuming they even all want to join the caucus, then vote on all issues before the United Nations such as the respect and creation of international law, to maintain international peace and security and promotion of human rights?

You might say that the democratic minority are not respecting the rights of the undemocratic majority. Oh the irony.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 January 16 10:21 PM  Democracy Failure

gcochran said at January 16, 2006 10:29 PM:

Yeah, but Iraq was the real threat, so we shouldn't worry overmuch about Russia. You have to keep your eye on the ball.

Ned said at January 17, 2006 7:01 AM:

The basis for authoritarianism is probably buried deep in the Russian soul, but one reason may be the frequent foreign invasions. The Mongols, the Turks, the Swedes, the French, the Germans and others have all had their shots, and all have ultimately failed. The Russians talk about these invasions as if they happened yesterday. I once asked a Russian friend about all this and why it was so and she sighed and said, "It's a cruel land, soaked in blood. It will never change."

Invisible Scientist said at January 17, 2006 10:52 PM:

According to some Russian friend, the Christian Russians drink vodka like fish, but the Muslim Russian citizens do not much, and they have higher birth rate than the Christians over there. And right now 10 % of the Russian Federation is Muslim, even Moscow city is 10 % Muslim, and the percentages are guaranteed to rise dramatically in a few years. So Chechnia is just the tip of the iceberg for Russland... The Russian Federation is in danger of falling apart, and this is one of the reasons fascism has been gaining ground over there...

Additionally, the Russian Federation is becoming a feudal society, where all the wealth is accumulating in the upper class at an astounding rate. There are many subdivisions associated with the inequality in Russia, and this also seems to add fuel to fascism.

crush41 said at January 18, 2006 2:03 PM:

Russia flexed when Gazprom cut off natural gas to Ukraine for a couple of days. Ukraine was saved by the noise Europe made (some countries in Europe reported as much as a 50% decrease in supply following the shutoff). Currently, gas runs through Ukraine to Europe (Ukraine siphons off around 15% of it in lieu of charging Russia to use the line) but Russia's in the process of working around that:

Former German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroder, meanwhile, has taken a job as chairman of a Gazprom-controlled venture that will build pipeline under the Baltic Sea to bring Russian gas directly to Germany.
Russia has also signed deals with Turkmenistan, Kazahkstan, and Uzbekistan to buy up excess production from those countries to keep it out of Ukraine. Being the largest producer of natural gas and second largest of oil in the world gives Putin enormous economic clout. The Gazprom move is probably designed to hurt Yushchenko's bloc in the upcoming March elections. Lukashenko in Belarus is a firm Putin ally, and Gazprom will continue supplying them with gas for $50 per 1000 cubic meters. The message is pretty clear.

Maybe if Ukraine splits along the Dneiper, the western half will liberalize. But the gas lines are in the east.

Ned said at January 19, 2006 1:20 PM:

This recent article from Moscow News adddresses the demographic disaster that faces Russia (http://www.mosnews.com/feature/2005/09/12/democrisis.shtml). The birth rate is declining, the death rate is increasing and many deaths are due to preventable or treatable causes (smoking, drinking, TB, HIV). One conclusion:

What will happen with the Russian population within this brief timeframe? With the current birth and mortality rates, when Russia is on the upturn of another demographic wave, the country’s population is declining by 700,000 a year. In less favorable years, this decline goes as high as 1 million. Within 30 years, the population loss will be 20 to 30 million. This is comparable to the total losses not only of Russia, but the entire Soviet Union in World War II. Perhaps there is cause for serious nation-wide discussion about getting our socio-economic priorities right. Put simply, are we fighting for what is worth fighting for?

While the Russians worry about foreign invaders, the nation seems to be imploding.

Rollory said at January 20, 2006 2:28 PM:

Take a look at the number of Russian mail-order brides businesses sometime. Even with a significant portion of them being scams leveraging pretty faces to separate credulous Westerners from their money, this seems to me an unusual development. Any nation that sells its women abroad in numbers is a nation that has given up on the future.

John S Bolton said at January 24, 2006 1:25 AM:

Like SKorea several decades ago gave up on the future? We shouldn't be so smug about Russia's weaknesses, when not so long ago, elite opinion snickered at China's threat potential. Overextended projections of current trends cannot tell us about changes in the speed or direction of those trends. To call the turn in the trendline is even riskier.
Neocons have been insistent that all the peoples of the world want freedom, and anyone who says otherwise is a racist. Proceeding on such a basis is not only fallacious, it makes it sound as if no real arguments can be found for such a belief; but a more realistic one, which acknowledges differences between peoples.
Is it clear that the American people want freedom, and not power to plunder the net taxpayer for free medical, education, pensions?
If what is meant by freedom, is freedom for aggression, hopefully no citizenry wants that. How can a nation want what remains undefined, and remains contradictorily conceptualized and propagandistically obfuscated everywhere? The world does not know the difference even between freedom for aggression, and its contrary: freedom from aggression.

Alexei said at January 25, 2006 3:43 AM:

I am afraid the title of this post is somewhat misleading because the very term, liberalism, loses much of its meaning outside of the Anglosphere, and most of it in Russia. It is not a brilliant idea to apply concepts that describe peculiarly Anglo-American, or at least Western European, social institutions and political principles, to countries with radically different backgrounds. The American obsession with political freedom, or liberty, commendable in many ways, obscures the obvious fact that people in other cultures -- and, more importantly, in other circumstances -- do not prioritize political freedom. Pipes -- although (as far as I know) a secondary thinker (borrowing heavily from great Russian historians such as Klyuchevsky and Kostomarov), a Russiophobe and a neoconservative -- offers good points this time. I would say the history of the Russian people, starting with East Slavic tribes enlightened with Greek faith and learning, is the birth and evolution of a people under adverse circumstances such as external threats, a harsh climate, and a centralized government whose security benefits only initially outweigh its suffocating effects. But when, by the late 1700s, the first of these problems -- external threats -- was greatly alleviated, it only took Russia's ruling classes a few decades to Westernize themselves and try to liberalize the political system.

Russia's progress was cut short in 1914. Despite the cataclysms that followed, there was a large social strata in the Soviet Russia of the 1970s that resembled, behaviorally, the middle class in the West (decent education, family values, saving vs. consumption choices, work ethics). The 1990s both pauperized and demoralized this group. I'm probably generalizing a bit (and the Russians tend to see themselves in a bad light -- they are the least happy nation in their GDP niche) but to say the nation is exhausted, humiliated and depressed wouldn't be a huge exaggeration. Most people want nothing but to be left alone to spend the rest of their lives in some sort of comfort. Russians have always been prone to atomistic individualism (whose flip side is extreme collectivism) but today, society is atomized as never before. If it weren't for the exhaustion and individualism, a Russian Hitler would have emerged by now to avenge the humiliation.

That said, it is very sad that the facet of America that Russia has to deal with today is profoundly unattractive with its democracy-spreading messianism, arrogance, ahistorical thinking, and betrayal of the nation's founding principles.

"The basis for authoritarianism" that is probably buried in the Russian soul is a desire to stay clear of politics as an ugly business and to have somebody else sort it all out and do the dirty work. This basis is in the Russian's preference for living a strictly private life (that of an idiot, in the original Greek sense) without having to fight to protect the privacy.

Jorge D.C. said at January 26, 2006 2:33 AM:

The West evolved from Monarch hard dictatorship to democratic soft dictatorship over hundreds of years. The serf class of medieval England eventually clawed out of the goo. The Russians will too eventually, but only if they can boost the IQ of the population.

It is interesting to think of Russia as a parallel universe where key figures like Martin Luther simply did not emerge. Their's is an alternative history. And it is a retarded history. The "Russian people" - taken as a whole - test as the lowest IQ white people on the planet. The question is why do Eastern Slavs lag so much compared to Western Europeans. Steve Sailor says micronutrient deficiencies lead to low IQ in Africa.

Maybe ethnic minorities are lowering the overall IQ scores in Russia. But that happens in the US probably to a greater extent and still we score higher.

Low IQ populations like in Russia (and Iraq) cannot handle living in a free society. And soon the new, majority non-white American population will find the concept of a free society to be incompatible also.

Alexei said at January 26, 2006 6:36 AM:

Jorge, I am not sure that there exists reliable data on Russian IQ, but the data I have seen suggests only a slight difference between Russia and the US, possibly due to nutritional differences. The theory that Russia is basically a Western country retarded in its progress has been in circulation for 200 years but there are good arguments against it, as one can see from the same Pipes Sr.'s writings, unoriginal as they may be.

Alex said at March 17, 2006 1:02 AM:

Russian national IQ is 96, the heightest average IQ in Europe have Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Austria (something like a 102) the lowest have Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Albania
(someting like 93) What a bullshit about Russians as a dullest white people.

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