The modern Russian paradox

Ironies behind the elite’s confused thinking

Russia is no longer a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill would say. Even its most incomprehensible zigzags have a certain logic. One needs not only patience, but a sense of irony to understand what lies behind Russia's paradoxes.

Using elections to undermine democracy

These parliamentary elections aren't an election at all, but a referendum on confidence in the outgoing president. The authorities openly admit that manifestos and policies have no meaning at all and Russians have only to say "Yes" or "No" to Putin ( better "Yes"), as he heads the party list of the Kremlin's United Russia. At the same time, Putin has refused to join United Russia and declared that his party lacks ideology and attracts "all kinds of crooks". It would be hard to find a more effective way to discredit the parliament and multiparty system.

President Putin against the presidency

Putin and his loyalists are trying desperately to find a formula that would allow him to leave and stay. By getting support for a party that he does not intend to join, he hopes to get extra leverage over the presidential elections to be held in March 2008. Thereby he would influence the new presidency, which he is not allowed to stand for. The idea is to raise him above society as the highest moral authority, a mix of Deng Xiaoping and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For this to happen, the next president would have to be a weakling ready to implement Putin's agenda. There is, however, no tradition of splitting power.

The uncertainty of certainty

In its search for certainty, the elite has cracked down on pluralism and competition. The result is that the certainties are even less fixed. Neither Putin nor Russia itself can know what will happen after March 2008. The horizon stops after the presidential elections. Nobody knows what will happen to all the reforms suspended or reversed during Putin's time. If he manufactures a way of staying in the Kremlin, he will only increase the uncertainty because he will become a hostage of his subordinates. At the same time, "Putin Forever" would mean a return to the Soviet tradition that ended in the USSR's ignominious collapse. He understands the threat, but he apparently fears even more what may happen if he vacates the driver's seat.

This unstable stability

The ruling team has closed Boris Yeltsin's chapter of chaos and convulsions. On the surface, Putin's Russia is stable. But the drivers of this stability are the oil price, Putin's approval ratings and a lack of alternatives. This leaves the stability fragile. A plunge in oil prices in 1986 triggered the collapse of the USSR. When it happened again in 1998, it shattered the economy. Putin's high personal ratings are linked specifically to the energy boom; they are not transferable to a new leader. The more the elite seeks to strengthen stability by centralising power, the more it undermines it. Removing opportunities for expressing views and dissent within official institutions forces the opposition on to the streets. Finally, the infighting among the ruling class for property and influence, and the bitter rivalry among the security services, could any moment bring down this house of cards.

Russia confronts the west

Russia was not expected to be back. It was believed to be a country in terminal decline and/or a junior partner of the west. Revisionist Russia demanding to play on its terms became quite an unpleasant surprise for the world. Does that mean that Russia is ready for confrontation with the west? Not at all.

The elite would like to have it both ways: on the one hand, to be part of the west and personally integrated into it, with its homes, schools and bank accounts; on the other, to isolate society back home from western influence. The icon for the elite - even if it does not admit it - is Roman Abramovich, governor of Chukotka and owner of Chelsea, commuting as he does between Moscow and London. The goal of the ruling class is to enjoy western standards of life. At the same time it uses anti-western rhetoric to create a siege mentality in Russia and close it off from outside influences, because this elite does not know how to rule an open society.

Cold War rhetoric is one thing, but the elite fears a return of the Cold War itself. There is one problem, however, with this attempt to ski in opposite directions (to choose an increasingly popular pastime). The elite could lose control over developments, and once the genie of nationalism is let out of the bottle it is difficult to put back.

The success of failure

There are two laws that govern the post-communist reality. One is the law of unintended consequences. Here is one final example of how this law works: the Kremlin's bullish attempts to make Gazprom the only gas supplier to Europe only forced the EU finally to start working on a common energy strategy.

Another law is the law of failure. When a liberal opposition is weak and not ready to take power, society may have to head in a wrong direction before recognising that it leads to a dead end. Only after hitting the wall does it start looking for another way out of its predicament. A leader has to fail spectacularly to demonstrate that the trajectory taken was wrong. Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to reform the USSR in the 1980s proved that it cannot be reformed. Yeltsin's attempt to create capitalism with the help of oligarchs in the 1990s proved that this way was wrong, too.

Putin's destiny may be to confirm that Russia cannot be modernised from above. Russia will need his failure to start looking for a democratic government and build a state that will accept constraints. This remains a long way off, and in the meantime Russians will pay a price for getting rid of the paradoxes that bedevil their country.

Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times