MOSCOW, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- UPI's Moscow-based analyst Peter Lavelle interviews Vlad Sobell of Daiwa Institute of Research Ltd. The views expressed here are Sobell's and not necessarily of Daiwa.
UPI: In a recent research report you wrote, titled "Why Russia is confusing", you buck the new conventional wisdom on Russia in a number of ways. Namely you question what many journalists and analysts call "Russia's growing authoritarianism" under President Vladimir Putin. You also claim that explaining what is happening in Russia is understood and reported in the Western media is very selective at best. Based on your report, what is it that makes Russia so difficult to interpret at present?
Sobell: Russia clearly is too important a country for us to tolerate what I feel is its persistent and widespread misrepresentation by the analytical, journalistic and academic community. Most of the output - at least what one sees in the daily compilation of Johnson's Russia List - tends to be negative, dismissive of Russia's achievements since its post-Soviet transition, interpreting the inevitable shortcomings virtually as a return to Soviet totalitarianism. It is remarkable that both the Russian and Western analysts are guilty in equal measure. I do not understand their motivation, but it seems that the search for a persuasive interpretation of an admittedly contradictory and complex reality has been replaced by a competition in the delivery of the most scathing attack on an allegedly authoritarian Putin regime.
Q.: In your opinion, what are the significant differences (if there are any) marking Putin's rule as different from that of former President Boris Yeltsin? You have written that understanding Putin's authoritarianism can be only understood in terms of his predecessor's polices.
A.: The reason why communism finally collapsed is that the Russian state - although ubiquitous - was actually eaten out from within. In its final phase the state obstructed everything, while being incapable of delivering anything positive. Unfortunately, after 1991, the vacuum created by its paralysis was filled with unbridled criminality and corruption. The decay of totalitarian "law and order" yielded a complete absence of law and order. Yeltsin could not do very much about it, as his primary foes still were the reactionary remnants of ancien regime - the KPRF and the unwieldy Soviet era parliament. He therefore needed to ally himself with those who benefited from the anarchy - unscrupulous individuals, who subsequently became known as oligarchs, and the regional barons, who privatized their local fiefdoms. But this temporary alliance could not be continued, simply because it would have led to Russia's disintegration and/or appropriation by the oligarchs.
When the Communist reaction was defeated at the 1996 elections and, conclusively, after the 1998 financial crisis, when it was revealed as completely lacking credible policies, the rationale for the alliance evaporated. Thus Yeltsin's last visionary decision was to pass the torch to Putin, in the knowledge that he was the right person to reverse disintegration. It needs to be remembered that back in 1992 the impeccably liberal Petersburg Mayor Anatoli Sobchak also engaged Putin on the same task, although he initially was wary of Putin's KGB past. Thus, a western-style liberal allied himself with a former KGB officer in common implementation of a liberal order.
Putin's methods are different not only because he obviously is a different person with a different temperament, but also because the environment has changed and Russia's reforms are facing different threats. In 1993, Yeltsin had to go as far as to fire heavy guns in Moscow, but Putin's environment calls for a systematic curtailment of anarchy. Yes, this has necessitated the curtailment of "exuberance" of the Yeltsin's period, but this, unlike what the negative consensus is preaching, is not his primary objective. It is merely an unfortunate, and probably unavoidable by-product. Furthermore, there's no reason why exuberance cannot return, as Russia cannot return to its past.
Q.: In your research you make mention of how terms like "authoritianism" and "imperialism" are selectively applied to Russia, but are not applied to other countries pursuing policies not unlike Russia. Is there a build-in prejudice against Russia in the Western media?
A.: Russia tends to be perceived as a "guilty" and "defeated" former communist superpower, which must continue to jump through ever more difficult hoops to atone for its past sins. Anything short of perfection is immediately pounced upon as a proof of its allegedly inherent authoritarian culture. The fact that Russia actually spontaneously ditched totalitarianism and embraced liberal reforms, without having first to be defeated like Germany and Japan, is completely disregarded. This is not only disingenuous and misleading, but also dangerous, because the failure to treat the new Russia as an equal and recognize its democratic achievements will strengthen the undemocratic currents (which of course exist in all cultures and countries!). The analytical community and Western politicians should abandon their patronizing lecturing and accept that Putin's Russia is delivering the historic objectives for which the Cold War was "fought".
I do not deny that the Russian foreign policy and security apparatus is filled with officials with unsavory Soviet mindsets. But the West should recognize that Putin has no choice but to work with these structures, as they can change only gradually. The constant Western carping at alleged imperialism is sterile and does not help Putin in his efforts. Also, it is in everyone's interests to become more constructive and accept that like any other major power, Russia too has legitimate vital interests to defend, including its territorial integrity. Chechnya is probably morally and emotionally the most charged case and I would not wish to condone aspects of the Kremlin's policies and the demonstrable abuses by the Russian army. But I wonder how many Western governments would be prepared to yield to terrorism and armed insurrection in alleged pursuit of separatism? And how would they react if Moscow arrogated itself the right to constantly censure and lecture them on how to deal with the problem?
The analytical community is particularly guilty of distortion in the case of Chechnya. For example, the critical fact that Putin's "attack on Chechnya" in 1999 was preceded by Chechen insurrection in Dagestan, whose objective was to turn it into another unstable "Chechnya", is regularly ignored, depicting the second invasion of Chechnya as a plot by Putin to get elected. This is an example of what I would consider gross and in most cases willful misrepresentation of key facts, regularly deployed in the negative analysis.
Actually I believe, that unlike many a "liberal" Western leader, Putin would be only too pleased to grant Chechnya as much independence as it wants to take, in fact even outright secession, provided the Chechen's themselves were able to ensure internal stability and stop exporting terrorism. This is not an issue of imperialism, but struggle against terrorism and the pursuit of regional stability. Like all modern politicians Putin understands that a country's greatness is a function of stability, a condition for economic prosperity, not of territorial possession.
Q.: You have stated that Russia today is both liberal and authoritarian. How is that possible - or what does that mean? This is something that is not understood or even deemed possible by most Western readers.
A.: Liberalism must not be confused with anarchy: a truly liberal society can exist only because the state and its law and order structures uphold, if necessary by coercion, the rules by which everyone must abide. Thus the coercive power of the state, paradoxically, is one of the cornerstones of a liberal society. I would argue that this is the point which Putin himself came to understand, not from scholarly books, but from his own experience as a citizen of post-Soviet Russia and as someone privileged to understand the West. This is also the reason why he became an effective enforcer of order in the interests of liberalism. The patronizing Western critics never actually pause to consider the spectacular irony of a man trained to defend totalitarianism actually turning out as a defender of its opposite. But "God moves in mysterious ways" and Putin is not the first historical figure to end up in this way. The negative mainstream analysis of Russia stubbornly refuses even to entertain such a possibility, naively believing, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that "authoritarian Russia" cannot change. Ultimately, I think this betrays the analysts' own lack of belief in the attraction and power of liberalism.
As I noted earlier, Putin continues Yeltsin's job of maintaining a strong presidency under whose protective umbrella the government can pursue the complex and piecemeal implementation of structural market oriented reforms. It cannot be denied that the regime - its vital protective shell - has now grown very strong, and possibly too strong. However, since it is difficult to strike an optimum balance at all times between authoritarianism and freedom, it could be argued that there are bound to be episodes and periods when authoritarianism may go too far. But from the broader and long-term perspective, these are mere unavoidable "oscillations" around the optimum balance. The decisive fact is the alliance, again completely overlooked by the mainstream analysts, between the regime and government reformers - led by Herman Gref. In the long run, the latter's efforts will deliver the best guarantee of the Russian democracy - a robust market-driven economy with all its standard institutions.
Q.: Thus, it would appear it is easier to "get Russia wrong" than "right" given how many Western journalists and analysts irresponsibly throw around value-laden and emotive terms.
A.: Yes. Russia remains, and will remain, a very difficult country to understand. It is moving into the modern information-driven age, while still struggling to off-load its medieval and totalitarian baggage. The freedom of the Internet and unhindered exposure to Western open societies will remain curiously intertwined with these traditional reflexes. In this confusing environment, the skeptical analytical community prefers to seek its answers in what I would call "default interpretations": if in doubt, go for the "authoritarian" rather than democratic interpretation, because, after all, this is what most of the others do. And if necessary, twist the facts accordingly and/or ignore any counter-evidence. But I consider this to be the dereliction of professional duty and a violation of ethics, apart from it being a very uninteresting and unimaginative stance, obscuring the true picture from the readers.
Q.: Predicting the future is always a hazardous endeavor. That understood, what could we expect during Putin's widely expected term and how Russia's Western critics might react.
A.: Putin will continue with his "managed democracy", with the government and the "compliant" Duma effectively implementing reformist legislation. I believe he will not change the constitution to secure another presidential term for himself, but will instead "appoint" a successor in the same way as Yeltsin "appointed" him. Thus the Russian democracy will remain "controlled" and the negative analysis will continue to rail against its abuses and "authoritarian" character, failing to see the broad picture. Ultimately, however, as the market economy and civic culture matures, Russia will develop a proper party-political system, which will produce its own presidential candidates "from below". The notion that this major European culture, which has spontaneously dislodged communism, would fail to develop its own "full" democracy and revert to the past is simply not credible.