by Walter C. Uhler
Paper to be presented at the 16th Annual Russian-American Seminar, St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia, May 15-22, 2007
Speaking to the United States Senate Appropriations subcommittee last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented upon the "difficult period" afflicting recent Russian-American relations. She asserted, "the Russians, I think, do not accept fully that our relations with countries that are their neighbors, that once were part of the Soviet Union, are quite honestly good relations between independent states and the United States. Had she been more forthright and understanding, however, she would have acknowledged that the U.S. "does not accept fully" the pursuit of "good relations between independent states" in its back yard. It's called the Monroe Doctrine.
Moreover, and worse, Ms. Rice added that the difficult period has been exacerbated by the deterioration of democracy in Russia. As she noted:
"It is even more difficult when one looks at what is happening domestically in Russia where I think it's fair to say that there has been a turning back of some of the reforms that led to the decentralization of power out of the Kremlin."
Again, few commentators seemed to have noticed the rank hypocrisy underlying her criticism of Russian democracy. For, depending upon your point of view — that is, depending upon whether you consider the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to be a more heinous crime than the Bush administration's unprovoked and, thus, illegal preventive war against Iraq — the majority of the public in America's democracy fully supported either the worst or second — worst international crime of the twenty-first century.
Ms. Rice, in fact, knowingly lied when she told the American public on September 8, 2002, that the high strength aluminum tubes that Iraq was desperately seeking could "only" be of use in a nuclear program.
Moreover, Ms. Rice apparently fails to appreciate how poorly most Russians view the "reforms that led to the decentralization of power out of the Kremlin." As Katrina vanden Heuvel recently wrote for The Nation [May 21, 2007], Boris Yeltsin — whom Americans credit for that decentralization — conspired to abolish the Soviet Union, imposed a "shock therapy" on Russia that "wiped out the savings of most Russians," permitted the "loans for shares" swindle that led to the rise of Russia's oligarchs and ordered tanks to fire on the Russian Parliament in October 1993, which "led to the Russian super-presidency and obedient Parliament of today,"
As Stephen F. Cohen has observed, during all of this so-called "decentralization," Russia's "essential infrastructure — political, economic and social — disintegrated. Moscow's hold on its vast territories was weakened by separatism, official corruption and Mafia-like crime. The worst peacetime depression in modern history brought economic losses more than twice those suffered in World War II. GDP plummeted by nearly half and capital investment by 80 percent. Most Russians were thrown into poverty. Death rates soared and the population shrank. And in August 1998, the financial system imploded." [Stephen F. Cohen, The Nation, July 10, 2006]
Thus, Americans shouldn't be surprised to learn that many Russians have a bad taste in their mouth about the so-called democracy that flourished during the Yetsin period. In addition, they shouldn't be surprised to learn that, as Vyacheslav Nikonov recently wrote in Izvestia, "Russian citizens" by "a ratio of 29 to 1" believe "the rule of Vladimir Putin…[to be] more democratic than that of Boris Yeltsin." Finally, Americans shouldn't be too surprised to learn that many Russians also have concluded that the United States supported and extolled Russian democracy only as long as kept Russia weak.
These same Russians now view the emerging American outcry about Russia's backsliding from democracy as nothing more than the resurfacing of a Cold War mindset that many Americans in both political parties have never abandoned. And, if you read the analyses of Stephen Cohen, or Anatol Lieven, — two of America's more astute Russia scholars — you'll see that their suspicions have a solid foundation.
More significantly, however, the contrasting examples noted above — of (1) an American democracy that sanctions one of the worst international crimes of the early twenty-first century and (2) a U.S.-approved "decentralizing" Russian democracy that permitted the impoverishment and death of many of its people (the so-called demos) — raise a more serious question. What, exactly, is democracy good for?
After all, in a very persuasive new book, Democracy, the eminent scholar, Charles Tilly asserts that democracies "break their commitments differently, make war differently, respond differently to external interventions and so on." Moreover democracies rescue "ordinary people from both the tyranny and the mayhem that have prevailed in most political regimes." [p. 6] Yet, the contrasting examples noted above challenge both of Tilly's assumptions.
Professor Tilly is no "preconditionalist," which is to say that he does not believe that any given polity must meet specific conditions before it can begin to transform itself into a democracy. Thus, he would reject the following conclusions reached in 1992 by Brian Downing: "Unique characteristics such as elective representative assemblies, royal subordination to law, the independence of towns, a balance of power between kings, nobles, and clerics, peasant property rights, and decentralized military forces, "provided Europe with a predisposition toward democratic political institutions, a predisposition that can never be repeated in the modern developing world" (p.3) [See Walter C. Uhler.com ]
Instead, Tilly asserts: "The fundamental processes promoting democratization in all times and places…consists of increasing integration of trust networks into public politics, increasing insulation of public politics from categorical inequality, and decreasing autonomy of major power centers from public politics." [p. 23]
When he writes about the integration of trust networks, Tilly acknowledges such parochial organizations initially were formed to exclusively benefit their respective members. For example, in the United States, "fraternal orders, workers' mutual benefit societies, private militias, fire companies, and similar 19th-century organizations did serve parochial interests before they advanced democracy." [p. 86]
According to Tilly, "Three main processes integrate trust networks into public politics: dissolution of segregated trust networks, integration of previously segregated trust networks, and creation of new politically connected trust networks." [p. 96] Yet, although the integration of trust networks is a necessary condition for democracy, it is not, by itself, a sufficient condition. Democracy also requires the insulation of public politics from categorical inequality and the diminution of the autonomy of major power centers.
Tilly states the obvious, when he asserts that all regimes, democratic or otherwise, inevitably intervene in the production of inequality: (1) "by protecting the advantages of their major supporters;" (2) "by establishing their own systems of extraction and allocation of resources;" and (3) by redistributing resources among different segments of their subject populations." [p. 117]
Yet, "compared to undemocratic governments, broadly speaking, democratic governments offer protection for advantages received for larger shares of their subject populations, create systems of extraction and allocation that respond more fully to popular control, produce more collective benefits, organize broader welfare programs, and redistribute more resources in favor of vulnerable populations within their constituencies more extensively." [Ibid]
Presumably writing about recent trends within the United States, Tilly concludes: "[I]f rich states dismantle the redistributive and equalizing arrangements that have grown up within democratic capitalism and rich people disconnect their trust networks from public politics by such means as gated communities and private schooling, we should expect those measures to de-democratize their regimes." [p. 204]
Nevertheless, he adds that the absence of inequality "cannot be a necessary condition of democracy." [p. 117] "Instead, the democratic accomplishment consists in insulating public politics from whatever material inequalities exist… Democracy thrives on a lack of correspondence between the inequalities of everyday life and those of state-citizen relations." [pp. 117- 18]
The third and final necessary element for democratization and democracy is the willingness and ability of the state to reduce autonomous power clusters within the polity. It's accomplished by: (1) broadening political participation, (2) equalizing access to non-state political resources and opportunities and (3) inhibiting autonomous or coercive power within and outside the state. [p. 139]
And here, surprisingly, Tilly uses President Putin as an example. "Putin's anti-democratic smashing of oligarchs to re-establish state control over energy supplies helped eliminate rival centers of coercive power within the Russian regime." [p. 139]
According to Tilly, once these three elements are in place, it still requires a strong state, led by democracy-tolerant elites, determined to ensure that "political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation." [p. 189] Democracies seldom emerge or survive in weak states. Neither do they survive when political elites withdraw their own powerful trust networks.
In his examination of democracy in Russia, Tilly credits Mikhail Gorbachev not only for glasnost and perestroika, but especially for his stated ambition to create a "profound and consistent democracy" (during his extraordinary speech to the 19th party conference in June 1988). But he also notes how declining economic performance "and widespread demands for autonomy or even independence" weakened state capacity in the Soviet Union and, thus, prevented Gorbachev from leading a smooth transition to democracy on a national scale. [pp. 133-34]
Whatever one says about Yeltsin's decidedly mixed record as a democratizer, it is difficult to deny that such efforts were being pursued during a period when the state was losing its capacity to govern. Which is to say that serious democratization became virtually impossible during the later years of his rule, especially after his faltering health "caused feverish maneuvering for influence within the presidential circle." [p. 134]
Thus, Tilly credits President Putin, not only for destroying the oligarchs, but also for restoring political power in Russia. But, he also blames Putin for strengthening the state at the expense of de-democratizing Russia. Moreover, "as of 2006… Putin's regime was not striking bargains that subjected the Russian state to public politics or facilitated popular influence over public politics." [pp. 139 - 40]
Why? Because, the Russian government currently exercises direct control over huge oil and gas revenues, which renders such bargaining unnecessary. Thus, Putin's regime frees itself from political accountability.
Notwithstanding Professor Tilly's superb scholarship, we still must confront evidence that undermines his interpretation. First, we have President Putin's own commitment to democracy. Second, as mentioned earlier, Russians believe that their country under Putin's rule is more democratic than it was under Yeltsin. Finally, there is still that stubborn fact of elections. As Thomas Carothers has written recently: "Weak and problematic though elections often are, they now form a crucial step in the process of attaining political legitimacy throughout most of the world." [Carothers, "How Democracies Emerge: The 'Sequencing' Fallacy," Journal of Democracy p. 21]
Finally, even if one concludes that democracy in Putin's Russia is weak and undergoing de-democratization, that trend is not irreversible. For, as even Tilly notes: "If, in the future, the Russian state again becomes subject to protected, mutually binding consultation in dialogue with a broad, relatively equal citizenry, we may look back to Putin as the autocrat who took the first undemocratic steps toward that outcome." [p. 137]
More significantly, when one asks about current trends in Russia, he should also ask: "To what effect?" After all, the United States of America boasts about its possession of the oldest and most robust of democracies. Yet, the American public permitted itself to be duped into supporting an illegal, immoral war in Iraq and then tolerated some three years of worsening destruction and, finally, civil war there, before deciding, in the mid-term Congressional elections of November 2006, to hold President Bush and his administration accountable for it. Moreover, even at this late date, the issue moving the public is less the lies and immorality attending the decision to wage war than it is the fact that most Americans now believe that the war was not worth the cost.
By this standard, the sins committed by President Putin, by "turning back of some of the reforms that led to the decentralization of power out of the Kremlin," appear very minor, indeed.
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).
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