When Putin is the Hope of Democracy

By Arthur Evans

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By Arthur EvansJun 5, 2020 – You probably won’t like what you’re about to read. You might even get angry. But what if I say that Mr Putin is one the most consistent advocates for democracy in today’s world. True or fake? Let us look at the facts.

That paradoxical conclusion only became obvious when the world faced the challenge of having to fight an invisible enemy, a biological virus that revealed and at the same time exacerbated the imperfections of our world—from the dysfunction of the global governance systems to the chronic disproportions in economic development, the diffusion of the information anarchy, latent social inequalities, and racial, ethnic and religious tensions. Societies across the globe have realized, to their surprise, that the systems of weak ties and signals, distributed control, local self-government, delegation of sovereignty to the supranational level, total pluralism—all work fine in an ‘earthly paradise’ but melt away at the first existential threat, like a fata morgana, an atmospheric optical illusion consisting of multiple displaced images of real objects. Those who, at the time of well-being, think that they have rid themselves of adversity forever are mistaken.

In contrast with all the above, Putin’s Russia has proved to be surprisingly organized and resilient. Besides, this time it could get through without the hordes of Mongol horsemen or ‘General Frost’ or Stalin and his gulag. Thanks to its preparedness for crisis, the Kremlin has achieved impressive key performance indicators, including large-scale humanitarian assistance to other affected countries—from Italy to the United States. The question is, who helped Russia?

Perhaps, it was us who accustomed Russia to the permanent state of crisis and trained Russian democracy, making it preemptively build up immunity to the threats which we have faced just recently, such as lies and political manipulation, threats to security, economic disorder, and uncontrollable cataclysms. These ‘Four Horsemen’ fully portray the range of challenges which the Russian governance system and personally Vladimir Putin have had to deal with for many years. In those circumstances, the Kremlin has persistently maintained the primacy of the democratic social order, avoiding the temptation to slide into totalitarianism in a 20th-century style. For all these years, we’ve considered the Moscow regime to be too brutal and authoritarian; now it is clear that we have lived in completely different realities, and we can make a credible comparison only between concepts belonging to the same spectrum.

For many years now, the Russians have been following a defence-in-depth strategy in politics and mass media. Western media, soft power mechanisms, policy makers and public officials view Russia as an effective tool to gain rating points and increase their revenues. Willing or not, Russia—by old tradition—has been playing the ‘enemy role.’ In an era of fake news, it has become obvious even to the thickest minds. It would be naive to believe that Moscow doesn’t see that and fails to take counter measures. Hence the reason for the Kremlin’s moves towards a sovereign information space, its increased attention to social networks, counterpropaganda in the state-run media, close control over the processes related to the opposition entities and their funding from abroad, focus on the inadmissibility of interference in the internal affairs of states, and at times excessive advocacy of increasingly outdated norms of international law. Noteworthy is that, faced with similar new threats in the information space, the United States has now come up with even more extreme ideas, with Donald Trump’s recent moves to crack down on social media companies that do not support his policy.

As far as security is concerned, the situation is quite the same.

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The US and NATO’s policy aimed at strategic encirclement of Russia, destabilization of Russia’s geopolitical environment (the republics of the former Soviet Union) and support, tacit or otherwise, for any anti-Russian forces has driven Putin to develop appropriate policy responses, including steps to strengthen the army and security forces, which have demonstrated their effectiveness both in fighting international terrorism and in establishing ‘smart’ control over spontaneous protests within the country. For what it’s worth, Russia hasn’t seen anything like the yellow vests rioting in France or recent protests in many parts of the United States.

Economic hardships caused by the coronavirus have inflicted severe damage on all nations in the world and the global economy as a whole. Interestingly, thanks to our tireless efforts, Russia turned out to be much better prepared for the disruption of economic ties compared to many other countries. The reason is that Russia has already overcome part of the problems that we face today, as a result of crippling international economic sanctions imposed on the country since 2014. It was then that Vladimir Putin set a long-term priority to increase Russia’s economic independence—so far as was reasonably practicable—from imported food, resources and components. The government strengthened economic regulation and embarked on a more socially-oriented policy to address the most pressing sanction-related problems faced by ordinary citizens.

In fear and danger, we are more likely to believe in miracles—but it doesn’t seem to be a miracle at all.

The demise of the Soviet Union, its consequences and the way Western countries behaved towards Russia taught Putin’s regime to exist in a state of cataclysm and to find the tools to manage the chaos— the fuel of our days—while generally preserving democratic principles of social life. No Western country has gone through such experience in the last 30 years. Moreover, there is no doubt that it was the increasing pressure on Russia that brought Putin to the idea of introducing constitutional reform, which he announced just before the acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic and which will begin once the situation settles down. In fact, President Putin has now announced that July 1 will be an ‘impeccable date’ for a nationwide vote on constitutional amendments, thus making a bold start to the transformation process, despite all the difficulties of the current moment.

We have to admit that, if constitutional changes are properly prepared (and there is no doubt about it), Russia will be the first country in the world to adjust its political system to the new circumstances that require mobilization on the one hand and effective civil society institutions on the other. If we feel frustrated or even angry about it, it means we just want our own state to work to improve its readiness and efficiency, without any political fuss. Democracy is not an idol, it is a principle that says all voices must be heard, considered and taken into account. Perhaps, by denying Russia the right to its own voice and trying to judge it through a lens of our notions of what is right, we lose something very important—for instance, its experience in countering uncontrollable threats with limited resources. And who can say today that this knowledge is absolutely useless? We thought that he who has enough money cannot be punished, but it turned out that the virus doesn’t bargain, nor does it make meaningful economic choices or play geopolitical chess. Under such conditions, there is a strong temptation to give up even the appearance of democracy; indeed, this has happened many times in history, but the example of modern Russia shows that there is another way to combine efficiency and openness, capitalism and the principle of social justice, sovereignty and mutually beneficial cooperation. Of course, this example is far from perfect, but it is important in building a strategy for the future.

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