Monday, March 19, 2018

‘One of the Strangest Russian Presidential Campaigns Ever’ Finally Ends

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – Tomorrow, Russians will go to vote after what Yekaterinburg commentator Aleksey Shaburov says has been “one of the strangest Russian presidential campaigns” ever, a campaign that was about mobilization rather than choice, suppression of differences of opinion rather than their clarification, and a failure to talk about the future.

            The Yekaterinburg commentator says that even before the results are tabulated, there were three features of these elections that defined them and their likely impact on Russia’s future, features perhaps never entirely absent in earlier campaigns but that have defined the one just concluded (

            First, from day one it was clear to everyone that Vladimir Putin would win if he wanted to. What mattered was not that outcome but rather the level of participation because this election was all about the ability of the regime to mobilize the population, something measured by participation rather than by the share of votes cast for this or that candidate.

            That was shown by the enormous and striking difference between the amount of money and effort the authorities devoted to getting people to turn out to vote as compared to that devoted to getting them to vote for Putin. “Was participation really more important for the authorities than the results? Of course not.”

            But the goal of the campaign was mobilization because that provides a measure of the capacity of the Putin regime not just to get people to come to the polls but its ability to get them to act.  This “transformation of the elections into a mobilization campaign is not a good signal because it deprives elections of their proper function and makes other things possible.

            Second, elections are supposed to be the occasion for contesting points of view, for challenging the positions of those in power by those outside. But the campaign just concluded almost completely eliminated that possibility for within system protests that could help both the incumbents and the opposition know better where the population is and how to proceed.

            “All the concerns that the elections would lead to a growth in protest attitudes and to the exacerbation of contradictions in society turned out to be for naught,” Shaburov says. One need not restrict this to political protests but rather to enlarge it social ones because there are many social problems in Russia that should have given rise to protest. That didn’t happen.

            “The only significant protests during this time were connected with ecology,” with concerns about trash disposal. “But ecological protest by definition is local and therefore it is not appropriate to talk about its national dimensions.”  A major reason for the absence of protests is the opposition candidates did not encourage them lest they be accused of “’rocking the boat.’”

            Even Aleksey Navalny, who wasn’t allowed to be a candidate, did not make use of his efforts to stimulate protest attitudes.  He focused instead on promoting a boycott, that is, on demobilizing the population rather than mobilizing it against the authorities, according to Shaburov.

             If this absence of protests was very useful for the authorities, the commentator says, “it was not for society. Elections are the best means of talking about all-national problems, finding ways for their resolution or at least raising them at the level of the entire country. But nothing like that happened;” and it is difficult to foresee when it will.

            And third, this election produced no model for the future even though many had expected Putin to declare his intentions.  But he did not. “Moreoveer, Putin didn’t even present his own pre-election program.”  Putin himself became the image of the future, not any specific policies. In that sense, the campaign reinforced the notion that “if there is Putin, there is Russia.”

What these three things mean, Shaburov argues, is that this non-campaign campaign isn’t going to be remembered for very long.  Instead, Russians will immediately start thinking about the 2024 elections “if of course they in fact will take place.”

Russians Hate the West for Far More Reasons than They Used To, Makarkin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – Among the major changes that have occurred in Russia since Soviet times, Aleksey Makarkin says, is a diversification in the reasons Russians hate the West.  In the USSR, there was a single ideological message that the population was expected to accept as to why the West was to be hated. Now, there are many such messages.

            “In Soviet times,” the Moscow political analyst says, “hatred was based on official propaganda,” a source which was increasingly distrusted.  Now, however, it is based on a far more varied set of sources of information, with Russians now having access to more reasons for hating the West (

                That means that not all Russians hate the West for the same reasons: some hate the outside world for one reason and others for a different one, Makarkin argues; and that in turn means that the ability of the Kremlin to change directions on this point may be far less than either it or many in the West think.

            A Russian today can “hate the West because 14 powers launched a campaign against the young Soviet republic” or because it “did not save the sainted emperor and his family from the hands of the bloody Bolsheviks,” he points out.

            Alternatively, a Russian can hate the West for launching the Normandy invasion only in 1944 and not two years earlier as Moscow wanted, and at the same time, other Russians can hate the West for the firebombing of Dresden.  They can hate the West for not returning Russians to the USSR after 1945 and for forcibly deporting Russians to the Soviet Union.

             And a Russian is offered the chance to hate the West for destroying the Soviet Union or for failing to embrace it more fully once that happened, Makarkin writes. “People on the left are angry at colonial expansion; those on the right are upset by single-sex marriages;” and so on and so forth, a diversity never seen in Soviet times.

            “Such [diverse] hatred has a more constant character, even more so because various arguments in a post-modernist and pluralist society can be combined depending on individual choice without having to consider the position of the party committee.” Thus, one can hate the West whether one is “an Orthodox Stalinist or an anti-fascist xenophobe.”

Russia Isn’t a Nation State but Rather a Stratified One of the Very Worst Kind, Pozharsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – Most countries around the world are or aspire to be nation states in which all the members of their societies share a common identity and have common rights and responsibilities, Mikhail Pozharsky says; but Russia in contrast, however much its leaders talk about the nation, is in fact divided up into social strata with different identities, rights and duties.

            In today’s world, the Moscow commentator says, “the only alternative to a nation state is a strata society,” and Russia under Vladimir Putin has again become one, thus rejecting or being deprived of the rights and freedoms which only a nation state can provide its people (

            Present-day Russia, Pozharsky says, “suspiciously recalls a strata-based society. It is obviously divided into groups which have different rights and different responsibilities.  For example, the average ‘Chechen’ has somewhat different rights than the average ‘Russian.’’ He can be almost openly a racketeer, but he also has certain limits: he cannot be gay.

            Similarly, “the average resident of Russia and the officer of the FSB have completely different rights” and this will lead them to behave in completely different ways. If an FSB officer runs over a pedestrian, he will simply record the license plate number and go on, confident that “nothing will happen to him,” something very different from the situation of other Russians.

            Thus, Pozharsky says, “we live in an obviously strata-based society and at that in one of its worst variants. All these different rights, privileges and responsibilities are nowhere written done or set in stone. They exist in an unwritten form because ‘everyone understands.’” But that also means no one can count on them either.

            Russia’s failure to move toward a nation state as Ukraine and other countries has, the commentator continues, “is entirely connected with the historical fate of Russian nationalism.” The Uvarov trinity of the 19th century – Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality – provides a clue to understanding why Russia is what it is.

            The nation is put in third place, after Orthodoxy and Autocracy, an indication, Pozharsky says, that the nation exists not in its own right but to support the other two, that is, “to feed the tsar, the priests and the nobility.” 

            That pattern, of course, “was not a purely Russian phenomenon.” Crudely speaking, there is the nationalism of a social contract like that in England or the nationalism of the realization of the state as the highest form of existence as Fichte and Hegel postulated for Germany two centuries ago. Russia is part of the latter world, not the former.

             Thus in this sphere as in so many others, “Russia did not think up something new in principle but simply borrowed this idea” and imposed it with such force and enthusiasm that many Russians imagine it to be uniquely theirs.  But they understand very well that spontaneous, contractual nationalism is something quite alien to theirs

            That keeps nationalism and liberalism apart in Russia, something that was not the case in Britain, and makes it very difficult to explain to Russian liberals that “nationalism is not xenophobia” and to Russian nationalists that liberalism, which releases the power of the nation, is not their enemy.

            Both the protests of 2011-2012 and even more the responses of Russians to the events in Ukraine in 2014 confirm that, Pozharsky continues.  According to him, “Crimea and ‘the Russian spring’ were [not] the result of some long-term geopolitical plan. The Kremlin reacted to the situation but things turned out very conveniently for it.”

            As so often in the past, Russian nationalists and Russian liberals both found themselves deceived by the Russian state for the usual Uvarov rules: the nationalists soon discovered that the Russian state wasn’t interested in national rebirth in their understanding; and the liberals found themselves at odds with the imperial nature of the state. Those differences kept them apart.

            Of course, Pozharsky says, there are also “objective preconditions for the formation of a nation state. These include a diversified economy, the existence of a bourgeoisie and middle class with its own interests which can unify others around these interests.” And Russia lacks all of these as well.

            Russia today is “a state in which two-thirds of the budget comes from oil and gas sales and most of the middle class consists of state employees or those whose livelihood is based on state contracts. It is understandable that to mobilize them for a national project is much more difficult than in countries where these nation states were formed historically.”

            That is in countries like the US, “a country of a bourgeoisie and farms,” Pozharsky explains. “But we have a country of state employees, policemen, and those who depend on them.” For such a country, a social strata state is easier to organize and likely to keep a nation state from appearing.