Putin's copycats

Whether in pro-western or pro-Moscow states, repression and corruption are flourishing among Russia'

A post-Soviet president makes a highly publicised visit to a patriotic youth camp where he denounces the international community for being "amoral" in its stance towards his fight with separatists. Later he moves to clamp down on the opposition and has its main television station pulled off the air. He blames most of his troubles on a London-based oligarch. The president behaves in this slightly paranoid and aggressive manner even though his party dominates parliament and he has marginalised his critics.

This is not Vladimir Putin, but the Georgian president for almost four years who was until recently a darling of the west - Mikhail Saakashvili.

Call it the Putin effect. The three Baltic states long ago moved out of the Soviet shadow and are now members of the EU. Elsewhere, with the partial exception of Ukraine - which though poor and deeply corrupt has at least learned the habit of free elections - the 12 post-Soviet members of the Commonwealth of Independent States are mired in a condition that ranges from outright dictatorship to semi-democracy.

Sixteen years after the end of perestroika, this is a depressing picture. In 1991 western opinion was much too utopian about these newly independent states. The favoured image used to be one of "transition" and even the smallest Anglo-Saxon news story used to refer to countries from Armenia to Tajikistan as being "in transition to democracy and a market economy".

This deterministic image assumed that once the Soviet Union withered away, these societies would naturally blossom into democracies. A very different, quasi-feudal dynamic was actually at play. The nomenklatura, the self-sustaining bureaucratic class that ran the Soviet Union, was very much alive and old party bosses smoothly made the transition to being elected nationalist politicians. Nursultan Nazarbayev, once regarded as a reformist ally of Mikhail Gorbachev, has slowly transformed himself into president-for-life in Kazakhstan, with his family installed in key positions. In Azerbaijan, the communist-era boss Heydar Aliyev became leader and then handed over the presidency to his son.

The first priority was to retain power. When the Armenian opposition tried to dispute the outcome of the 1996 election, the then defence minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, famously put them in their place, saying: "Even if they win 100 per cent of the votes, neither the army nor the National Security Service, nor the ministry of the interior, would recognise these leaders." In the South Caucasus and central Asia, no presidential candidate from the ruling elite has lost an election since 1991. Increasingly, parliaments are stuffed with loyal servants or friendly businessmen.

If in the past it was done rather furtively, Putin has given this novel brand of pseudo-democracy respectability. Two of his advisers have even baptised the new style of government, Gleb Pavlov sky coining the term "managed democracy" and Vladislav Surkov talking about "sovereign democracy".

Putin's genius has been to hollow out the substance of democracy while keeping the shell intact. Russia still has elections, courts, a parliament, a few critical newspapers and a semblance of debate, but in fact the governing regime has established itself in perpetuity. And why give up power and all its benefits? As Stalin's foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov remarked, the trouble with free elections is that you stand a chance of losing them.

At the same time the Russian president has neutralised international criticism by proving a master of what Orhan Pamuk, referring to Turkish politicians' conversations about Europe, has called the "also" line of defence. If Russia's democratic record is criticised, some piece of evidence can always be adduced that western governments "also" do bad things. German police beat some demonstrators, the British police investigated Lord Levy for party donations, the French used to behave badly in Algeria.

Wishful thinking

Geography matters here. In the central Asian republics, where the EU exerts no pull and international condemnation means little, governments can get away with abominations such as the 2005 massacre of hundreds of civilians in the Uzbek town of Andijan. In the western and southern states, "the idea of Europe" means something. In the South Caucasian states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the governments worry about their status in the Council of Europe and Nato, and behave better, but sharing power is not an option.

Georgia has followed this pattern while being the subject of too much western wishful thinking. Ironically, Saakashvili got into deep trouble because he spent too much time on foreign trips proselytising the successes of the Rose Revolution - many Georgians were growing angry with the cronyism and arrogance of the government that he was praising in foreign capitals.

It worked for a time. It sometimes seemed as though if the new Georgia - pro-western, anti-Russian, economically reformist, with a government of thirty-odd ministers - did not exist it would have to be invented. Saakashvili was received at the Oval Office by George W Bush, who two months earlier had paid a special visit to Tbilisi and made a speech eulogising the Rose Revolution on Freedom Square. This April Saakashvili was received in high style in London by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who called Georgia "a beacon of democracy". Nicolas Sarkozy has declared himself a fan.

A year ago I heard a British MP defend Saa kashvili's increasingly undemocratic behaviour by saying: "We must give him time. He is still dealing with the legacy of his authoritarian predecessor." And recall conversations in the mid-1990s about the need to support that predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, who still enjoyed being given many benefits of the doubt he had earned as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister.

In reality, Saakashvili is a reformer, but no democrat. Georgia's state budget has quadrupled, corruption in the security forces has been reduced, government has been restructured. But the judiciary, media and regional governors are all weaker and more subservient than they were under Shevardnadze. Saakashvili's critics call his style of government "democracy for export".

On 7 November, the other Saakashvili revealed himself when he sent in riot police with truncheons, tear gas and water cannon to break up opposition rallies in the centre of Tbilisi. Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, was one of those beaten up. Imedi Tele vision, now co-managed by Rupert Murdoch, which is the main mouthpiece for the opposition, was pulled off air.

The Georgian crisis has at least opened some eyes in Europe. The issue of how to deal with its eastern neighbourhood is surely becoming the EU's biggest foreign policy challenge. How do you exert positive influence in countries where a progressive minority still has an "idea of Europe" when you are unable to offer the one prospect with the power to transform - the hope of eventual EU membership?

Where Georgia leads, others may follow. Weak states with self-serving elites are prone to in stability. We can be certain of two things: that Putin's copycats will not give up power easily; and that if events do force them to come tumbling down, the collapse will bring an awful lot of rubble and chaos with it.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London

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

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself.”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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