Russia’s search for new ideology

RUSSIA NATIONALIST IDEOLOGYLiberal observers say that, by giving ample airtime to figures such as the rightwing propagandist Alexander Prokhanov and denouncing government critics with terms such as “fifth column” and “national traitors”, Russia’s official media has borrowed from the tactics of totalitarian regimes, Kathrin Hille writes for The Financial Times.

“It now resembles Goebbels; and even comrade Zhdanov would never have dreamt of this,” says Echo Moskvy’s Sergei Buntman, referring to the man in charge of cultural policy and censorship under Stalin.

A handful of young people are trying to counter that. Organised by Maxim Katz, a deputy in a Moscow district assembly for the liberal Yabloko party, they began analysing TV news programmes and rating them for propaganda three weeks ago. …

But while media veterans are encouraged by their efforts, they harbour little hope for change. Several opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians believe the state has the right to censor the news and shape a national ideological narrative.

This situation, say analysts, is the result of a consistent push by Mr Putin to consolidate his control over the media, school curriculum and culture policy since taking power in early 2000.

“A monopoly on information has been established,” says Igor Yakovenko, former head of Russia’s Journalists’ Association. “It was not absolute, and is not absolute now, but over all the 14 years of Putin’s regime, he has strengthened the information vertical, step by step.”

Russia’s official ideology prior to 1917 was Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost, which has been translated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, notes Walter Laqueur, formerly the head of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of, among many other works, The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union.

“It was therefore no surprise that with the fall of the Soviet Union some of the old pre-1917 ideas resurfaced and should undergo something like a renaissance,” he writes for World Affairs. “In his first major speech during his second term as president, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia should look to its history and traditional values to determine its post-Soviet development, not imitate Western political models.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy — something to define who Russians are and where they are going, analysts Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn write for Foreign Affairs:

“In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods — monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”

To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”).

Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals, Barbashin and Thorburn note:

By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West — such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism — were popular in Russia.

In terms of players today, the Russian right wing is by and large home to the groups most intensely preoccupied with the creation of a “Russian” ideology, Laqueur writes:

To the degree that any of them are in opposition to the ruling elite, it is certainly as a loyal opposition. Some of the more serious figures and groups of “the Russian party” have been absorbed by the ruling stratum—this goes for instance for Dmitri Rogozin, who for several years became Russia’s representative at NATO. It does not apply to certain neo-Nazi fringe groups that are not players in the political game. From time to time they appear in the news as instigators of riots, but their prospects for attaining real power remain minimal.

russia duginAfter the collapse of the Soviet Union, ultranationalist ideologies were decidedly out of vogue, Barbashin and Thorburn suggest. Still, a few hard-core patriotic elements remained that opposed de-Sovietization and believed — as Putin does today — that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, including the ideologist Alexander Dugin (left):

His earliest claim to fame was a 1991 pamphlet, “The War of the Continents,” in which he described an ongoing geopolitical struggle between the two types of global powers: land powers, or “Eternal Rome,” which are based on the principles of statehood, communality, idealism, and the superiority of the common good, and civilizations of the sea, or “Eternal Carthage,” which are based on individualism, trade, and materialism. In Dugin’s understanding, “Eternal Carthage,” was historically embodied by Athenian democracy and the Dutch and British Empires. Now, it is represented by the United States. “Eternal Rome” is embodied by Russia. For Dugin, the conflict between the two will last until one is destroyed completely — no type of political regime and no amount of trade can stop that. In order for the “good” (Russia) to eventually defeat the “bad” (United States), he wrote, a conservative revolution must take place

Dugin is the preeminent political theorist of the nationalist camp, although his ideological peregrinations have been so rapid and radical that he has had little opportunity to take a seat in the front row of Russian politics, Laqueur writes for World Affairs:

He began his career as a follower of the rabidly anti-Semitic movement Pamyat in the 1980s, but soon left because it was “too primitive and simplistic.” Dugin drew his inspiration from a multitude of sources, very often obscure and obscurantist. He discovered extreme right-wing and neo-fascist thinkers little known in the West, such as Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist, the protagonists of the French, Italian, Belgian, and German extreme right, and also, in a seeming paradox, national Bolshevism….Over the years, Dugin has moved away from neo-fascist and neo-communist fringe groups to more respectable sources. This journey was rewarded by a professorship at Moscow State University, access to the Kremlin, and appointment as an adviser to various committees of the Russian Duma. He may well be the world’s leading expert on (and believer in) conspiracy theories. His message at present can be summarized as follows: Russia’s main enemy is (democratic) liberalism, and its geopolitical and ideological future lies with Asia, not the West.

In the nineteenth century, anti-Westernism was mainly cultural in character. Under Communism it was part of an ideological war to the death, Laqueur writes:

But today? It seems to be the product of a certain intellectual lethargy on the part of President Putin and his generation, who are stranded between two justifications for the state which they now control. The one, what they see sentimentally as the ordered society and global power of communism at its height, is dead. The other, an updated version of the older ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church, Authority, and Nationalism, is still struggling to be born. At present, statism—the belief in the necessity of a central authority and a strong state, coupled with anti-Westernism—is almost all there is. And this will probably not be enough in the longer run.

Defending Hong Kong democracy in ‘global war of ideology’

MARTIN LEETwo of the most stalwart fighters for democracy in the global war of ideology were in Washington last week, hoping for moral support, The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt reports:

They made for an odd couple, though each has spent more than 40 years in the struggle: one is a consummate insider and the other has always battled from the outside.

The latter, lawyer Martin Lee (left) fought the British for more autonomy when they ruled Hong Kong. Since the British left in 1997, he has pressed Beijing to keep its word to allow Hong Kong to preserve its separate system of governance within China — the formula known as “one country, two systems.” …Anson Chan (right), by contrast, rose AnsonchanHKthrough the prestigious Hong Kong civil service to the top appointed position of chief secretary, resigning in 2001 when she felt the chief executive was allowing Beijing to chip away at Hong Kong’s core values: rule of law, a level playing field and freedom of press, speech and association.

With the 2017 and 2020 elections on the horizon, Chinese leaders are making increasingly clear they intend to install politicians they can control, an ominous sign for Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms—not to mention the economy, which relies on transparency and the rule of law, the two veteran leaders told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy

U.S. President Barack Obama recently told an audience in Brussels that, though the future belongs to those who support freedom and democracy, “those rules are not self-executing” and “the contest of ideas continues for your generation,” Hiatt observes, yet he also insisted that there is no new Cold War. “After all,” he said, “unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.”

It’s true that “anti-freedom” doesn’t sound like an ideology to most Americans…But the dictators of Russia and China today are making a bid for legitimacy as well as survival, he writes:

They present themselves as guarantors of stability, warding off the confusion and insecurity that follow democratic uprisings. They boast of investing in the future — in highways and fast trains — in ways that pandering elected officials in India or the United States cannot manage. They put their systems forward as an antidote to the empty materialism of capitalist democracies — the pornography, the hedonism, the lack of respect for elders and religious leaders. They claim to stand for community, spirituality and tradition.

…But whether the leaders believe in their stew of xenophobia, phony egalitarianism and traditional (Russian Orthodox or Confucian) values hardly matters. They are fighting a new Cold War against democracy, and the other side is only intermittently on the field.


Isle of Light: A Look Back at Vietnam’s Boat People

vietnam vo van aiWe were sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank in Paris in November 1978 when the news broke that two thousand five hundred and sixty-four Vietnamese were stranded off the coast of Malaysia on a rusty cargo ship, the Hai Hong, writes Vo Van Ai, the founder and chair of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam:

They had fled Vietnam in a desperate attempt to seek freedom and asylum overseas. After sixteen days on the South China seas, buffeted by storms, crushed by the heat, with no more food or water, they had arrived on the shores of Indonesia, then Malaysia, only to be pushed back by the coast guards. They had nowhere to land, and the ship could go no further. Stranded and helpless, starving and totally dehydrated, they were dying before our eyes as they unfurled a makeshift banner in English across the side of the ship: “UN please save us.”

They were not the first to undertake a desperate journey by sea to escape from Vietnam. Since 1975, when the South was “liberated” by Hanoi at the end of the Vietnam War, more than one million people had risked their lives in ramshackle crafts to escape repression. More than half of them had died—drowned, eaten by sharks, or murdered by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand, he writes for World Affairs:

But those who allowed themselves to be swayed by this illusion, who believed that there would be room for them in a country reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under Hanoi’s rule, could not have been more mistaken. The communist authorities immediately divided the South Vietnamese into three categories: reactionary military personnel, reactionary administrative personnel, and reactionary citizens. In brief, the whole population was “reactionary.” In the months following the occupation, a vast network of “reeducation camps”—in reality forced labor camps, similar to the Chinese laogai—were set up throughout the South. Beginning with officers and soldiers from the former South Vietnamese Army, soon followed by writers, artists, academics, journalists, trade unionists, teachers, students, and farmers, people from all walks of life were summoned for “reeducation.” They were told to bring enough clothes and food for two weeks. Many would never return. Others would spend up to twenty years in these camps, released only when their health was broken and they were ready to die.

Although no definitive statistics have ever been published, Hanoi has admitted that more than two and a half million people were detained in reeducation camps between 1975 and 1985. Some one hundred thousand were summarily executed, and hundreds of thousands perished from hunger, exhaustion, and illness in these Vietnamese gulags. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of civilians were forcibly relocated to New Economic Zones where they served as human buffers along the Sino-Vietnamese or Cambodian border. Those who refused to go were arrested for breaching national security.

The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.


Afghan elections ‘vindicate investments and sacrifices’, suggest waning Karzai influence


After enduring Taliban attacks and security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of the weekend’s presidential election, as officials offered solid indications that the vote far exceeded expectations, The New York Times reports:

Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between seven million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.

“This has been the best and most incident-free election in Afghanistan’s modern history and it could set the precedent for a historic, peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Fahim Sadeq, head of the Afghanistan National Participation Organization, an observer group.

Former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the two front-runners in Afghanistan’s presidential election, sidelining a candidate viewed as President Hamid Karzai’s favorite, according to partial results tallied by news organizations and one candidate, The Wall Street Journal reports:

A victory for Mr. Abdullah or Mr. Ghani could significantly reduce the influence of Mr. Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Both candidates say they will sign the bilateral security agreement, which is needed to maintain American aid and a limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan once the international coalition’s current mandate expires in December. Mr. Karzai has infuriated Washington by refusing to complete the deal.

Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, said he expected the election to end in a cordial runoff.

“All of the candidates have a deep vested interest in the stability of the Afghan state,” he said. “Though they may rock the boat, they won’t capsize it.”

“I am genuinely encouraged,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who recently visited Kabul. “The high turnout, modest levels of violence, and good performance of the Afghan army and police are all genuine good-news stories,” he said by e-mail yesterday.

The election was a repudiation of the Taliban. Violence in the run-up to the voting backfired, notes Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

“Each attack aimed at discouraging participation seemed to encourage even more people to register. Taliban efforts to intimidate communities at the local level also failed,” he writes for The National Interest. “Even in Pashtun areas in the east and south, turnout was high. With their cause and methods rejected, the armed opposition will undertake needed soul searching,” says Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Afghan electoral institutions performed well. More so than in previous years, the international community operated largely in a supporting role as Afghans took the lead in conducting elections. Although there were reports of ballot shortages in some polling stations, voting, from an administrative standpoint, went remarkably smoothly. …………..Afghan security institutions were effective. Though some stations remained closed for security reasons, Taliban efforts to disrupt voting produced no major security incidents across the country. Afghans’ confidence in security institutions has increased, portending, perhaps, a new level of trust that could suppress the insurgency.

The National Democratic Institute today underlined the need for observers to follow the tallying and complaints process to help ensure the integrity of the April 5 presidential and provincial elections:

Since the margins among the contestants may be slim and a small number of votes may affect the outcome, it is critical that observers follow the tallying and complaints process closely, NDI said. In a preliminary statement, NDI said a final assessment be made only after the electoral institutions had completed their activities.

NDI fielded an observer delegation of 101 Afghan staff members who visited 327 polling stations in 26 provinces. Many of them helped prepare 46,000 candidate and political party polling agents in the lead-up to the elections.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said ballot counting had begun after voting was extended by an hour.

“Out of 7 million, around 35 percent of them were Afghan women, a great signal to practice democracy,” IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani said yesterday in Kabul, adding that the turnout was more than twice that of the 2009 elections.

The fact that the election wasn’t disrupted by violence — only 3 percent of polling stations closed for security reasons — isn’t a guarantee the rest of the electoral process will be smooth, said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysts Network.

“There are still credible reports of fraud from the areas that are difficult to monitor and from where news travels slowly,” said Van Bijlert, co-director of the nonprofit policy group based in Kabul. “And we might still see a very contested count.”

But so far, the election vindicates the large investments and sacrifices of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan,” Khalilzad asserts:

The Afghan people rose to the occasion, creating an environment of hope and expectation. This presents the country, particularly the new President, with an opportunity to build on the positive achievements of the last 12 years. By resisting the temptation for a winner-take-all approach and including the losing candidates and/or their supporters, the new administration can build a national consensus behind the reforms necessary to advance peace building, economic development, the rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts.

Pre-election mission will offer impartial assessment of Ukraine environment

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) will field a pre-election assessment mission for the May 25 presidential election in Ukraine.

Myroslava Gongadze interviews [in Ukrainian] Dr.Nadia Diuk , vice president of programs for Europe, Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean for the National Endowment for Democracy, a member of the pre-election mission to Ukraine . The mission, which will be in Ukraine April 7-11, seeks to demonstrate the interest of the international community in the development of the country’s democratic political process and offer an impartial assessment of the political environment.