On the Politics of Russia

Uncle Volodya says, "Les Libereaux?? Oui, ils ont disparu dans ce direction-la!"

Last post, we discussed the possibility of posting a translation of Alexandre Latsa’s great “On the Politics of Russia“, originally from his blog, “Dissonance”. If you’re not familiar with the work of this intellectual powerhouse, who speaks at least three languages, “Dissonance” is highly recommended. While not everything is available in all three languages (French, Russian and English), there’s something for everyone, and he’s a deep thinker in all three. Anyway, I’m happy to say I’ve received permission from Alexandre, and my translation from the original French appears below.

Kovane mentioned in the comments section of the previous post, in which he made his triumphant debut as guest blogger, that an alternative view on the same subject is always nice. “On the Politics of Russia” is an alternative view, although his observations mostly agree with Kovane’s. However, Alexandre goes into considerably more detail, and his analysis of the reasons for declining liberal popularity in Russia is well worth reading. Let’s take a look.

“Commentary on the last presidential elections in Russia March 2nd has been unequivocal – “absence of democracy”; “opposition stifled”; “a drift toward a single party”; “a return to Stalinist practices”, and so on. These accusations have made the rounds of television and newspapers as well as the numerous blogs dealing with Russia. Still, Dmitry Medvedev’s results reflect the evolution (maturing) of a coherent, stable electorate rooted in 1991; the year which marked the inauguration of universal suffrage, the collapse of the USSR – but also the year in which Boris Yeltsin was elected Russia’s first president! Indeed, Russia is a young and vigorous sovereign democracy!

 Explanation: the Western political checkerboard does not have anything like the same form as the Russian. The West European or Anglo-Saxon checkerboard is marked by pronounced dualisms, generally an opposition of “right-left” or “centrists-extremists”, seen eventually as “liberal parties – non-liberal parties”.  The organizational form of this political gameboard totally excludes alliances between parties of the right and left, or of centrists and extremists; you might say the political partitioning is clear-cut and does not allow for “surprises”. This political organization is that of the United States (Democrats versus Republicans) or European countries (Right versus Left as well as existence of extremist parties)…this dualism does not exist in modern, post-communist Russia.

 The Russian political board is itself comprised of a number of parties, very varied but on the whole gathered in three concentric circles, as a function of their type (nature) more than of the ideas they advocate.

The first circle, called the “central <inner> circle”, is comprised of government parties, generally indistinguishable as “right or left”. This inner circle is comprised generally of alliances of parties of or close to the Kremlin. This movement has its beginnings in 1991, the first “free” elections of Russia; it comprises an alliance of parties one could qualify as “centro-pragmatists” rather than the “centre-right” (Reform) under the Yeltsin era (1991-1999) and the “centre-patriotic” under the era of Putin (1999-2008), with an inclination toward a patriotic left axis. The common denominator in this league of government is the realignment of parties we could, broadly speaking, refer to as “patriotic”; the names of parties that, since 1991, comprise this league speak for themselves – “Homeland” (Motherland), “Unity”, “Our Home Russia”, “Our Land”, “Just Russia”, “United Russia”…the weight of this central bloc (government bloc) that Russians understand unquestioningly to represent “stability”  (social more than political) grows with each election: from 25% in 1999 to 40% in 2003 and finally to 64% in the 2007 elections. The representative of the inner circle also saw his score increase regularly in the Russian presidential elections: from 35% of the vote in 1996 to 52% in 2000, and 70% in 2004 and 2008.

An “outer circle” is comprised of opposition parties who have a solid electoral base in Russia, high scores and which surrounds the “inner circle” on the spectrum. Two most visible are the Popular Democratic Union of Russia (or Communist Party of Russia, more to the left of the political spectrum), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (neo-imperial, and more to the right of the spectrum). However, there are many others, notably a party of entrepreneurs, a leftist nationalist party…but in 2005 they joined the United Russia coalition of president Vladimir Putin. It must be noted that in 1991 and 1996, the Popular Patriotic Union of Russia candidate (Gennady Zyuganov) polled equally with President Yeltsin, who was seeking a second term, this before his election gained the votes of Alexander Lebed’s supporters. Finally, in 1993, The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky) gained nearly a quarter of the vote in the parliamentary elections, becoming the first (opposition) political party to sit in the Duma.

 Finally, there is a “marginal (extreme outer) circle” composed of a quite heterogeneous mixture of parties that includes ultra-radical and extremist parties as “liberals”.  Among those regularly present at elections of the past 15 years, one could mention the “Agrarian Party”, “Yabloko”, the “Union of Right Forces”, the “Party of Regions” and various independents.

 Informed commenters, usually westerners, should give up on this so-called “liberal opposition”.  These generally westward-looking parties have seen their electoral base slowly but steadily decrease since 1991, when some of them occupied important positions in the Yeltsin government, with obvious results…their electoral weight was about 12% in the 1993 elections, 7% in the elections of 1995 and 1999, 4% in 2003 and 2% in 2006 (compared with 1.5% for the liberal presidential election candidate last March 2nd).  Yet another often-heard explanation for this electoral erosion is that “Russians don’t want to be Democrats”, or “The Kremlin censors all opposition”…indeed, these “opposition parties” have coalesced in an interesting alliance that might be called the “Disagreement Alliance”, led by two men with totally different profiles (personalities), Garry Kasparov and E. Limonov. This alliance, based on anti-Putinism, repackages a lot of associations and parties that you’ll find here, plays the media internal-destabilization card (deliberate organization of protests in front of foreign cameras, demonstrations which deteriorate only once legally refused by municipalities, etc, etc…).  Add to this Mr. Kasparov’s deliberate speech in English, and one might ask who were its real targets. Externally, these movements play on the sensitive heartstrings of the EU (human rights violations) and America (support for Orange revolutions, taking of anti-Russian stances on the Caucasus and Central Asia).

It’s a strange supposedly liberal opposition, composed of the shaven skulls of the GNP, a longing for the gulag, former convicted dissidents (such as Limonov, who is of French nationality), political associations financed by NGO’s and American Democrat George Soros’s network and leaders of American think tanks who make speeches… in English in the heart of Moscow! You really have to ask why the West concentrates so much attention on parties that are struggling to gain the legal recognition of Russian political parties, and which represent only a tiny minority of the immense Russian civil society, which is itself very active. The fact that Edward Limonov is French and Garry Kasparov is a regular guest before the TV trays of America is perhaps the beginning of an explanation…Nonetheless, some day someone should explain to Kasparov that it is Russians who must be convinced, and not the Americans and the Europeans predisposed by the atmosphere of Kremlinophobia. It is noteworthy that the two primary opposition parties have refused to join “Other Russia”, so as not to mix with undemocratic and violent elements therein, it is the party of  “Yabloko”, and the Union of Right Forces”. For the great majority of Russians in search of stability and order (after the tumult of the 90’s), this is anything but serious and overall, anything but credible. It must be reemphasized that the title “liberal” in today’s Russia means “pro-western”, which is overtly criticized since 1991 and the chaos of Yeltsin and his ministers – who often presented themselves as “reformist/liberal” – has been assimilated by the Russian collective unconsciousness as “liberalization”, “economic pillaging” and “social chaos”. In summary, if Kasparov and his cohorts are the pillars of “opposition”, it is only for westerners, as they remain relatively little known in Russia. But that is to be expected if one campaigns in English in front of the TV trays of western countries; it is difficult to be heard by the Russian people but easy to masquerade as the poet of democracy for the complicit presenters and ignorant spectators. It is noteworthy that lying only works for westerners as a strong feeling (and only at home) that the scores of foreign candidates for the Kremlin (German, French, English, UK..) are generally highly regarded in Russia.

 It’s hard to believe that the ballot-boxes are stuffed in consulates, yet the voices of Russian voters living in these “civilized, free and democratic” countries tend naturally toward the Kremlin parties. Something to think about…

This entry was posted in Boris Nemtsov, Government, Law and Order, Russia, Uncategorized, Vladimir Putin and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to On the Politics of Russia

  1. kovane says:

    Excellent article, I especially liked the point about the votes of Russians living abroad. Reading Alexandre’s other writing, I have to say he is suspiciously pro-Russian for a Frenchman. 🙂

  2. marknesop says:

    Agreed. I liked his emphasis on Kasparov and the others plainly playing to the western media by making speeches in English; it’s been mentioned before, but it’s hard to overstate what an insult it is to Russians. Do they think nobody notices? Perhaps their faith in the power of the West as kingmakers is exaggerated.

    Russia has a surprising number of foreign advocates. There were a couple of recent comments (on the “Where’d I get my Degree? Potemkin University” post) from Charles Ganske; I hadn’t heard of him before, but he was a contributor to “Russia Blog”, and his reporting on the war with Georgia in 2008 was excellent. Have a look when you have a free moment; I think you’ll like his work. He’s as American as they come.


      • marknesop says:

        Excellent info, Mike!!! The discussion of the advantages of an expat community to the native country was particularly interesting for me. Not mentioned, but certainly implicit is the understanding that an expat community is an asset only inasmuch as its conduct speaks well of it; obviously, if Russians living abroad were responsible for a high level of criminal activity (for example) in the host country, they would become a liability rather than an asset.

        • Misha says:

          Thanks Mark.

          Such input is limited when the higher ups aren’t putting it to good use.

          I don’t expect many in English language mass media to embrace such commentary.

          On the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to expect more from Russian government funded English language media and PR efforts.

          How Russia screws itself in a way that’s not so well known is a valid issue. “Russophobes” aren’t interested in responsible pro-Russian advocacy better communicating itself. On the other hand, the pro-Russian establishment (for lack of a better term) at times seems to be either aloof and/or stuck up on a crony system, which doesn’t always put out the best possible product.

  3. Nils says:

    This blog is improving everyday, excellent!

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mark, Kovane-

    I suspect that the “pro-Kremlin” vote of the Russians living abroad could be explained by the fact that in order to vote, you have to be a Russian citizen. I can only speak for the Russians living in the U.S., but here, Russian-speaking people are still largely Jewish immigrants. They hold mostly negative views of contemporary Russia (to say nothing about the Kremlin:), but they don’t vote because they lost their citizenship upon leaving Russia.

    In contrast, if a person living abroad still holds Russian citizenship, that means that he/she came to the country relatively recently (and is more likely to be on a long-term business trip rather than being a “stable” expat). These people usually feel much better about today’s Russia.

    That said, I can’t imagine any real Russian-American who would vote in the Duma election. I wouldn’t. But for the sake of argument, if I did, I would vote for Zhirinovsky 🙂

    Eugene Ivanov

    • marknesop says:

      I wouldn’t have thought the votes of Russian expats would make such a difference anyway. According to Wikipedia (yes, I know, but it’s actually a fairly reliable source for things like demographics) there are about a half-million Russians living in Canada and a little more than 3 times that number in the United States. In both cases there’s a note in parentheses that says “Russian ancestry”, so nowhere near all that four-and-a-half million would be eligible to vote. Ukraine is the only country with real clout, with more than 8 million Russians, and even that would be unlikely to sway the vote – besides, the campaigning in English and the mugging for western cameras is plainly not targeted at Ukraine. If the numbers work out the way they look in Alexandre’s post, the liberals are probably looking at something less than 4% of the vote this time around. However, I see that hope springs eternal; Nemtsov, Kasyanov, Ryzhkov and Milov have joined forces for another run up the glass hill. How long will it be before they’re squabbling among themselves in between their preening for the cameras, I wonder. They’d do far better if they stopped sucking up to the west and hoping westerners will do the vote-buying for them, and start articulating some sensible and workable plans. In Russian.

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  8. Yalensis says:

    I agree with Nils the blog is getting better every day. Good job, everyone. Interesting discussions.

  9. Pingback: The Kremlin Stooge, on the politics of Russia | Dissonance

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