Kremlin propaganda and Russia’s regression

The Kremlin is addressing Russia’s economic problems by dusting off Soviet-era propaganda and policies, says Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The resulting paranoia and intolerance are bound to yield a toxic harvest when the regime falters or loses control, he writes.

The 2008–09 financial crisis demonstrated that gas and oil exports could no longer serve as Russia’s engine of economic progress. Russia needed to dramatically change its investment climate through deep institutional reforms that would boost economic liberty, expand the rule of law and property rights, diminish corruption, and create more political choices for its citizens. Yet the Kremlin has chosen to address these challenges with authoritarian consolidation, buying short-term stability at the expense of the country’s longer-term prosperity and progress.

Elements of the Kremlin’s massive propaganda campaign include militarized patriotism and patriotic education; a selective recovery of Soviet symbols and ideals; the ultraconservative Russian Orthodox Church as the moral foundation of the regime; the promotion of a culture of subservience; and the intimidation, stigmatization, and repression of civil society and its vanguard, nongovernmental organizations. Leading independent Russian experts have called this strategy a “conservative turn” and a “reactionary wave.”

Yet instead of producing the consolidation and unity expected by the Kremlin, this campaign may yield polarization, radicalism, and violence that will prevent the country’s peaceful and inclusive transition to a more dignified version of citizenship.

As a political culture of citizenship emerges in Russia — a culture characterized by the resentment of and protest against despotism — the regime is betting on its opposite: the traditional culture of subservience. The campaign is aimed at the political mobilization of the more conservative and paternalistic segments of the electorate. According to Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s oldest and most authoritative independent polling organization, the Kremlin’s goal, at least initially, may not have been to establish a permanent traditional and religious consciousness. Instead, the Kremlin seeks to discredit civil society and its liberal and democratic values, including the idea of inalienable rights, personal dignity, and the desacralized notion of a state — that is, the state as an instrument of society set up with the consent of the citizen, rather than “an unchallengeable entity from God.”

Unique Civilization and Soviet Ideological Tropes

Just as the Soviet Union declared itself the world’s trailblazer on the road to Communist paradise, Russia is now professing to be a unique civilization with exclusive predestination. Such a definition implies the abandonment of the “European choice,” a strategic direction for the country which, until now, the post-Soviet Russian leaders, including Putin, repeatedly affirmed. The Kremlin has moved from mimicking democracy to outright rejecting Western values; anti-Westernism has thus become a pillar of the new reactionary political culture.

Although no one advocates a return to the state’s complete ownership of the economy or to totalitarian politics (at least not yet), the political sociologist Alexei Makarkin sees a return to “an amended and corrected USSR” where ideology, culture, and society are concerned.

Besieged Fortress and America the Enemy

Among the values that the regime seeks to inculcate is another Soviet ideologeme: portraying the country as a fortress besieged by virulent enemies. The deployment of this ideological stereotype of the Cold War era has several objectives: to rally around the flag in the face of the potential loss of sovereignty and to soften the blow in advance of severe economic complications by enabling Russian leadership to point a finger at foreign malfeasants. Perhaps most important, however, is that the alleged external hostility perpetuates the pretense of an endangered society that only Putin’s skillful and courageous leadership can protect.

As the Soviet Union’s enemy number one, the United States was a logical choice to cast as the prime target of the propaganda campaign. A signal for a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign was given from the top in 2011 when Putin accused the U.S. Department of State of playing the lead in organizing the first protests against the falsification of the Duma election results. This was followed by media attacks on and harassment of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul. Then, in fall 2012, the Kremlin ordered the expulsion of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

At some point, the authorities themselves might be scared by what they have allowed to “crawl up through the floorboards: the clerical, the nationalist, the jingoist,” says Boris Makarenko, a professor at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics and the chairman of the board of the Center for Political Technologies.

But by then, they may not be able to reverse the process. Assiduously sown by the Kremlin, the dragon’s teeth of demagoguery, paranoia, xenophobia, anti-Westernism, intolerance, and obscurantism are bound to yield a toxic harvest when the regime falters or loses control outright. In the worst case, as in the ancient Greek legend of the Golden Fleece, the campaign may yield massive violence that will be an enormous setback for a peaceful and inclusive transition to a more dignified version of Russian citizenship.

Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the director of Russian Studies at AEI.

This is an extract from a longer article. RTWT

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The real privacy problem? Democracy is at risk

As Web companies and government agencies analyze ever more information about our lives, it’s tempting to respond by passing new privacy laws or creating mechanisms that pay us for our data. Instead, we need a civic solution, because democracy is at risk, says Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

Most proposals for enhancing our privacy treat it as an end in itself. Instead we need to be talking about how to best stimulate democracy—a balancing act that laws or market mechanisms can’t achieve alone, he writes in MIT’s Technology Review.

For some contemporary thinkers, such as the French historian and philosopher Marcel Gauchet, democracies risk falling victim to their own success: having instituted a legal regime of rights that allow citizens to pursue their own private interests without any reference to what’s good for the public, they stand to exhaust the very resources that have allowed them to flourish.

When all citizens demand their rights but are unaware of their responsibilities, the political questions that have defined democratic life over centuries – How should we live together? What is in the public interest, and how do I balance my own interest with it? – are subsumed into legal, economic, or administrative domains. “The political” and “the public” no longer register as domains at all; laws, markets, and technologies displace debate and contestation as preferred, less messy solutions.

But a democracy without engaged citizens doesn’t sound much like a democracy—and might not survive as one. This was obvious to Thomas Jefferson, who, while wanting every citizen to be “a participator in the government of affairs,” also believed that civic participation involves a constant tension between public and private life.

Intellectually, at least, it’s clear what needs to be done: we must confront the question not only in the economic and legal dimensions but also in a political one, linking the future of privacy with the future of democracy in a way that refuses to reduce privacy either to markets or to laws.

First, we must politicize the debate about privacy and information sharing. Articulating the existence—and the profound political consequences—of the invisible barbed wire would be a good start. We must scrutinize data-intensive problem solving and expose its occasionally antidemocratic character. At times we should accept more risk, imperfection, improvisation, and inefficiency in the name of keeping the democratic spirit alive.

Second, we must learn how to sabotage the system—perhaps by refusing to self-track at all. If refusing to record our calorie intake or our whereabouts is the only way to get policy makers to address the structural causes of problems like obesity or climate change—and not just tinker with their symptoms through nudging—information boycotts might be justifiable. Refusing to make money off your own data might be as political an act as refusing to drive a car or eat meat. Privacy can then reëmerge as a political instrument for keeping the spirit of democracy alive: we want private spaces because we still believe in our ability to reflect on what ails the world and find a way to fix it, and we’d rather not surrender this capacity to algorithms and feedback loops.

Third, we need more provocative digital services. It’s not enough for a website to prompt us to decide who should see our data. Instead it should reawaken our own imaginations. Designed right, sites would not nudge citizens to either guard or share their private information but would reveal the hidden political dimensions to various acts of information sharing. ….

Finally, we have to abandon fixed preconceptions about how our digital services work and interconnect. Otherwise, we’ll fall victim to the same logic that has constrained the imagination of so many well-­meaning privacy advocates who think that defending the “right to privacy”—not fighting to preserve democracy—is what should drive public policy. While many Internet activists would surely argue otherwise, what happens to the Internet is of only secondary importance. Just as with privacy, it’s the fate of democracy itself that should be our primary goal.

Evgeny Morozov is the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.

This extract is taken from a considerably longer article. RTWT

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A day in the life of Mikhail Khodorkovsky: ten years a prisoner


KhodorkovskyCan Russia’s “managed” democracy evolve into something more “real”? Or will it require a new revolution?

“I’d like to believe in the path of reforms,” says jailed dissident and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

“There are people in Putin’s circle who are attempting to get a civic dialogue going, as we can see from Moscow and Yekaterinburg [where opposition candidates were allowed to participate in mayoral elections in September],” he tells The Financial Times. “But the siloviki [hardliners around Vladimir Putin] are more influential for now.”

“Putin doesn’t have much time left – five to 10 years, maximum. Any powerful crisis, given the current state of state institutions and dialogue with society, could result in the bounds of the current system being breached,” he tells the FT’s Neil Buckley.

Irreversible degeneration

“When a regime that has unknowingly entered a stage of irreversible degeneration, and is highly reluctant to give its opponents the space for real political competition, the only hope for change lies in the success of a broad-based, peaceful protest movement,” Khodorkovsky writes for The New York Times, marking the tenth anniversary of his imprisonment:

Such a movement does exist in Russia, and its goal is to force the rational part of the ruling elite to negotiate over the direction and speed of necessary reforms. Not just to listen condescendingly, but to actually negotiate and undertake the agreed-upon actions.

Unfortunately, there is never such a thing as peaceful protest without victims. Today there are many, many political activists and sympathizers in jail or on their way. This includes not just the 27 activists arrested during a recent, enormous protest in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, but dozens of other lower-profile cases as well.

“But the opposition will achieve victory if it can turn each case around and put the regime on trial,” he contends. “Society, especially the youth, is keenly aware of the difference between words and deeds.”

Putinism is authoritarian state capitalism based around one leader, Khodorkovsky tells the FT’s Buckley in a must-read interview :

It’s an attempt to control society and the state apparatus through kompromat [“dirt” about a person used to keep them in line], and through arbitrary law enforcement. It’s the consistent annihilation of the substance of independent state and civic institutions. It’s an attempt to run a huge country in “manual mode”. That’s no way to build a modern country.

What do you say to those who suggest the roots of Putinism lie in the 1990s; that the way the “oligarchs” abused the political and judicial system in part paved the way for today’s system?

The so-called oligarchs never had a fraction of the power over the judicial and law enforcement system that Putin’s circle has today….Until the beginning of the 2000s we were building a democratic state, with all its early-stage shortcomings. The US in the 1930s to the 1950s provides some very similar examples. From 2001 on – and especially after the Yukos affair began – an analogy to early fascist Spain is closer: “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.” The fork in the road is obvious…..

chechen-199x300The origins of the Putin regime can be found in 1993, when the Chechen war started, when separation of powers was eliminated and the president received dictatorial powers. …..That doesn’t mean that privatisation could not have been conducted more fairly, in the interests of a greater number of citizens. …. The idea of capitalism in Russia is alive and well today but, as for liberal democracy, they have indeed made a bogeyman out of it, ascribing to it all the costs of poor-quality authoritarian governance. Explaining this to people will take a lot of work on our part.

What should the opposition do if it achieves its goals? Khodorkovsky asks in The Times.

“Above all it must remember that, once victory is achieved, it is very important not only to overcome the desire to seek revenge against yesterday’s persecutors, but also to give them an opportunity to participate in determining the country’s course,” he argues:

Second, it must recognize the need to compromise in the struggle for change. Historical experience teaches us that society has been able to get itself out of a tailspin with minimal losses only in those places where reformers found the strength and courage to reach a consensus with their opponents. The opposition must be influential! Without this there can be no democracy!

How do you believe the next handover of power will occur? the FT’s Buckley asks :

Of course I’d like it if Vladimir Putin were to gradually divide presidential power between an honestly elected parliament, an independent judiciary and a coalition government, and a new president became a compromise figure, not an authoritarian one, the guarantor of citizens’ rights. The likelihood that events will develop that way is sadly not high. More realistic, after Putin leaves, is a brief period of rule by the new “heir”, and then an inevitable political crisis and a “relaunch” of how the country is run, a shift to a constituent assembly.

We’ve seen a clampdown on opposition and civil society since Putin returned as president. Will people just submit, or will it lead eventually to a new explosion?

It’s possible – though not very likely – that Vladimir Putin will keep the screws tightened until the end of his rule…. though I think he’ll leave earlier than that. However, as the quality of the administrative class declines, the protest potential that has already built up – and this tendency is growing among the youth – makes a political crisis practically inevitable. The “purging” of the political “field”, the curtailing of social mobility, the ageing of Putin and his entourage, the inner circle’s way of running things by arbitrating constant conflicts between them, the refusal to engage in dialogue with society, all create a powerful breeding ground for politicians and radicals from outside the current system.

navalnyDespite his conviction, do you believe Alexei Navalny could be a future Russian leader?

There’s no doubt Alexei Navalny has the ambitions and charisma of a leader. However, if he wants to base himself on the independently thinking part of society, then as well as building up management experience, he’ll definitely have to demonstrate he refuses simply to perpetuate authoritarian-type leadership. But that’s not at all easy….

How can Europe and the US usefully respond to what’s happening in Russia?

I’m convinced the current regime’s legitimacy in many ways rests upon its recognition by the west. I think the west should recognize only state institutions that really do exist, and clearly renounce simulacra like the dependent courts and the pseudo-parliament. But in conversations – with the president, his administration, state corporations – it’s imperative to strive for recognition of all European values, or at least a part, as the basis for co-operation.


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