Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Dry Run for Russian Democracy

Warning: the first part of this essay may sound like a jubilant hymn to Russia and a paean to Vladimir Putin. Rest assured that I am not expressing opinions here; these are the facts. It just so happens that these facts accentuate the positive. But I have no wish to eliminate the negative, and will get to all of that in due course.

On March 18 Russia held presidential elections. Everybody (with a brain) fully expected Putin to win, but hardly anyone expected him to win this big, or with this high a turnout: 67.47% of the eligible voters turned up at the polls; of them, 76.67%76.69% voted for Putin. In case you are still wondering whether Crimea is part of Russia (trust me, it is) the turnout there was 71.53%, of whom 92% voted for Putin. And in the once separatist republic of Chechnya the turnout was 91.54%. Record turnouts were also observed outside of Russia, among the very large Russian diaspora. Over half of all Russians voted for Putin.

Equally notable was the manner in which the elections were run: the process was public and transparent, using paper ballots counted by hand. Polling places were equipped with video cameras. Ballot-stuffing, which was a problem with previous elections, was detected in a couple of places, and the tainted results were disqualified. While during previous elections people could only vote where they were registered, now they could declare their location and vote wherever they found themselves, even at airports if they happened to be traveling. While the previous presidential elections in Russia were followed by a wave of protests, with numerous people complaining about fraud at the polls, this time these voices were scarcely heard. And while in previous elections opposition candidates got considerable traction among the Western-leaning educated elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, this time the entire country was quite uniformly pro-Putin.

Clearly, the Russians are politically engaged, and clearly the vast majority of them trust and like Putin. It is easy to understand why. During the last decade of the last century Russia came close to being destroyed, but its fortunes turned around dramatically right at the turn of the century. Most Russians can see that their country has made a rapid recovery from its previous setbacks. It is indisputable that Russia is now a far more stable and prosperous country, and Putin can and does take credit for that. Under his watch Russia has withstood the collapse in oil and gas prices, fought off terrorist onslaughts, resisted Western provocations and sanctions, and has decisively won the arms race against the United States (and can now cut its defense spending). Russia has made progress toward regaining its stature as a major world power.

Given his wonderful record and the high level of trust and respect he has earned, Putin could simply rest on his laurels, but that’s not what he plans to do. Instead, he wants to dramatically improve the well-being of all Russians and to have them achieve true greatness. So far, he has managed to fashion Russia into a “normal country”; now he wants to lead it to outright triumph. This, I believe, is what is behind the record turnout and his equally record-setting landslide victory: for once, the Russian people are actually inspired and optimistic about their future. The one pocket of pessimism I have been able to detect is in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet. In the televised images of its post-election meeting the ministers looked very somber and somewhat crestfallen. Those who have been complaining about fifth-columnists within the Kremlin can take heart: perhaps, after Putin’s reinauguration in May, he will ask for their resignations.

So far so good. But to what extent was this election about electoral choice, which is the essence of democracy? Sure, just the exercise of everyone showing up and demonstrating their approval and trust in their fearless leader is a good way to legitimize and bolster the leader’s authority and a great morale-booster. But aren’t the people supposed to decide something by voting—something more important than “I’ve decided to go and vote for Putin”?

And what does a vote for Putin actually mean, in terms of choice? Who picked him to begin with? Well, it turns out that Putin is a happy accident. Boris Yeltsin named him as his successor, and you could quite reasonably joke that Yeltsin was drunk at the time and didn’t remember why he did that. But you could also surmise that Putin was picked for his renowned savvy in money-laundering and offshoring the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs (his previous job back in St. Petersburg) and for his clever use of his KGB connections (from his job before that) to “settle questions.” Remember, this was a time when the endlessly clever people who get paid to sit around and drink coffee over at the Pentagon imagined that “Russian mafia” was an emerging global threat. The oligarchs must have liked Putin, and Yeltsin, in keeping with his “leave no oligarch behind” program, did whatever they wanted him to do.

What they got instead was a pig in a poke. The oligarchs thought that they had recruited another faithful servant who, just like Yeltsin, would keep the state weak and facilitate their shameless plunder. Instead they got a steel-willed technocrat and a true Russian patriot who quickly manifested an awesome power to conjure up creative new ideologies. Instead of subservience, the oligarchs got his “doctrine of equidistance,” according to which money≠power. (An oil baron by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran afoul of it, thinking that he could parlay his wealth into political power, and ended up cooling his heels in prison.) Instead of somebody who would look the other way while they ran roughshod over Russian society, they got his “dictatorship of the law,” a significantly strengthened Russian state, and the once fearsome Russian mafia melted away like hoarfrost after sunrise. And the Russian oligarchy’s plan to seamlessly meld into Western elite society using their expropriated wealth, leaving Russia behind as a withered husk, ran headlong into Putin’s plan to reestablish “multipolarity” and to force other nations, even the United States, to treat Russia as an equal. This resulted in Western sanctions, which sent many oligarchs scurrying back to Russia and repatriating their funds under an amnesty program, lest they be frozen.

And so Putin, for Russia, is just a happy accident. Given that happy accidents are in general far less frequent than unhappy ones, a question arises: How can Russia reliably produce another Putin when the time comes? It is definitely a good thing that Russia has six years to answer this question, because this last presidential election, as well as all the previous ones, has conclusively demonstrated that Russian electoral politics are not the answer—at least not yet. Let’s look at Putin’s “competition” (in quotes because, judging from the results, it was more of an exhibition).

The one who garnered the most votes was Pavel Grudinin, nominated by the Communists (although he wasn’t a member) instead of their perennial presidential candidate and leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is getting rather long in the tooth. Grudinin failed to disclose his foreign bank accounts, or the fact that his son resides abroad, disqualifying him from holding the top secret clearance required of a Russian president. Nevertheless, he managed to get 15% or so of the vote.

Next in line was the nationalist perennial presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is quite formidable, very entertaining, but also rather frightening because he is forever threatening to rain fire and brimstone on Russia’s enemies both foreign and domestic. Nevertheless, he is definitely qualified to serve as president—or to serve on your firing squad, because he is also a good shot, and you can be sure that he won’t accidentally miss all of your vital organs and leave you writhing in pain while you bleed out slowly. You can regard him as Russia’s presidential insurance, giving Russia’s enemies an excellent reason to wish for Putin’s good health, because Zhirinovsky is standing by, ready to make them say “ouch!” a lot.

And then we have a sort of winner, but not of the presidential sort: Xenia Sobchak. She is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, who was the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg, co-author of Russia’s constitution, and Putin’s friend and mentor. She is a fully paid-up member of Russia’s “golden youth” and pretty much does whatever she wants—like run for president. Don’t laugh, she got over 1% of the vote! She has dabbled in reality television, the fashion industry, this and that, is married to an actor, has a year-and-a-half-old son and is rumored to be pregnant.

She made me laugh because she lost Crimea even before she got her name on the ballot by declaring that she does not approve of Crimea being part of Russia. Recall that Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783, was “gifted” to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in violation of the Soviet constitution, and then voted to rejoin Russia in 2014 after the Ukraine’s government was overthrown in violation of the Ukrainian constitution: a rare instance of two constitutional violations canceling each other out.

Her slogan was “against all”: she saw herself as a one-person alternative to the entire Russian political system. Neither she nor her supporters saw the obvious logical flaw with this platform: if she were truly “against all” then, to be consistent, she would have to campaign for people to vote against all—including her. What she meant, of course, was “against all except me.” Now that would have been a wonderful slogan, had she managed to explain what it was that made her so uniquely magic. Instead, she complained bitterly about everyone else. I believe that her presidential campaign was actually a clever merchandising operation. Maybe it had something to do with marketing eyeglass frames: she appeared to switch eyeglasses more often than most women change panties. There were some other kinds of “product placement” going on too.

Everybody else got less than 1%, but I will give them honorable mention anyway. There was the perennial liberal candidate Yavlinsky, who gave his rationale for running again this time (a hopeless cause given Russians’ overwhelmingly unfavorable view of liberalism) as “I just really wanted to talk to some voters.” Then, in no particular order (because I don’t care) came the über-capitalist Titov, the über-Soviet Suraikin and the über-Russian Baburin. Titov ran on a pathetically hilarious slogan of “So, what about Titov?”

All of the candidates save Putin (who intelligently stayed above the fray) participated in several interminable rounds of “debates” whose format precluded all intelligent discussion. All candidates were given a few minutes to spout their programmatic gibberish while others tried to shout them down. At one point they ganged up on poor Xenia so hard that they made her cry. The only time they got to talk to Putin was after the election, when they were all invited to a sort of “thank you for playing” meeting at the Kremlin, and where they all appeared dignified, conciliatory and grateful.

This was all good, clean fun (except for making Xenia cry; that was mean) but it doesn’t answer the essential question, which is: How can Russia find another Putin to elect president in six years? One of the most important reasons why the Soviet Union failed was the inability of its political elites to recruit and promote talent, causing it to degenerate into a dour, ossified, senile gerontocracy. This fact is currently very well understood in Russia, and a serious effort is underway to appoint young, promising governors and to put young people with leadership potential into positions of ministerial responsibility. Whether these efforts produce the intended result will become clear six years from now. A lot can happen in the intervening years—both good and bad—but at the moment the project to “make Russia great again” appears to be firing on all cylinders.


rippon said...

Another excellent piece (had me laughing out loud in places).

But I'm puzzled by what you say about Putin's history.

Apparently, if I've understood correctly, he readily colluded with the oligarchs in the looting of Russia's wealth, post-USSR collapse.

But then he turned on them.

Why? Why not simply join the oligarch community - and win yourself a fabulous lifestyle?

Was the collusion his 'master-plan' in protecting his career so that he would subsequently be in a position to sting them?

But if so, how could he even be sure that that position of power would fall to him? Yeltsin could have easily chosen someone(s) else who would stick with the looting program. You say yourself that Putin's rise to power was "just a happy accident".

montana maven said...

How about Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry? She’s super smart. You can see her in action on You Tube.

Unknown said...

Hi Dmitry

>>And so Putin, for Russia, is just a happy accident.

Yes and no. If you carefully analyze what was happening last year of Yeltsin presidency, games with Primakov as prime minister, his atlantic U-turn and most importantly Yeltsin last TV speech.

There was definitely some political plan a realization of failed policies and results by Yeltsin.

Adolf said...

Is Xenia Sobchak the Trump of Russia?

forrest said...

The trouble with a competent autocrat is that he won't produce successors, only imitators. Potential successors would be unlikely to gain high office or remain there if they did -- not necessarily from active hostility towards rival talents; but because potential autocrats don't thrive under close supervision, and because delegation of responsibility is not the sort of thing that ruling autocrats do best.

Next in line would be a champion player of palace intrigues... with matters likely to go further downhill from there. Hopefully the bureaucracy will continue to function.

Does a mafia really go 'poof' when the state turns officially against it? A sacrificial wolf or two gets thrown to the lambs; but one would expect this merely to improve the pack, to make them show some respect when they pick the national pockets. Look at how much better American corruption hides itself in the open, compared to say Mexican corruption.

One-man shows are unstable. One person may comprehend a situation better than his rivals, and thus steer an organization where it needs go -- but they don't typically leave that organization able to navigate on its own.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Yes, I'm intrigued by your comments about VVPutin's earlier career, Dmitry. What do you know that we haven't heard before? Information and links gratefully received. I wouldn't want to have too much of a one-sided fan-boy attitude to Russia's admittedly rather impressive President. BTW, the succession question exercises my mind too. Will they - you, the Russians - find an adequate successor to carry on the good work...?

Peter VE said...

That is really the greatest test of a leader: are you able to develop the next generation of leaders? The US has notably failed in leadership development. Barak Obama especially failed in this regard, destroying support for all the regional Democratic parties and emphasizing central control.
Our local outpost of training for Empire, Brown University, has a copy of the famous statue of Marcus Aurelius. When Brown erected the statue in 1908, the message they meant is obvious: you young men are here to be leaders of Empire, and we also expect you to be scholars. The other lesson of Marcus Aurelius, was unintentional: he was the last of the "Five Good Emperors", who made the foolish mistake of choosing his son as successor.
I wish President Putin the best in developing a worthy successor, and it's good to see that the Russians have learnt the lesson of Commodus and "W" Bush in relegating Xenia Sobchak to less than 1%.

cjf7684 said...

The US had a happy accident too, he was FDR.

Sophocles-unchainedfromalunatic said...

''One-man shows are unstable.'' Maybe, but they change the world and change their country. Let me see now: Peter the Great, Kemal Ataturk, Joseph Tito, FDR, Oliver Cromwell, Queen Elizabeth I, Otto Von Bismarck, Charles de Gualle, George Washington, Simon Bolivar, Nelson Mandela. In Max Weber's terms this were charismatic leaders which uprooted the old and decayed and brought in a new dispensation. However, after a time complacency set in; what Weber called the 'routinization of charisma' ushering in a period of complacent decay. Such is the way of the world.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Great to get to see the other side in the propaganda war. Good questions in the comments, it will be interesting to see the answers. Putin reminds me of Lord Vetinari. Invented by the great Terry Pratchett, he is the ultimate real politiker who is the only one able to maintain a semblance of peace and public order in the city of Ankh Morpork. If you have never read Pratchett yet, try it. Biting and funny social satire disguised as fantasy. Yeah for paper ballots! We still use them too. I have been part of the process and have stayed behind after the polls closed, when scrutineers from 3 parties as well the officials count them one by one. I forget the details but the process made any fraud impossible. There was also a friendly camaraderie among us political opponents. We might be on different sides, but we all honoured the democratic process. Happy spring equinox.

Unknown said...

I'm curious why you decided not to mention Alexei Navalny. His "unjust" disqualification was the main topic on U.S. corporate news giving proof that Russian democracy is a "sham" and Putin, a "scoundrel".
Was he persecuted or just prosecuted? Do Russians think he was treated unfairly or is this just politics as usual like in the USA? Who got the Navalny votes?

Polistra said...

I'm a little worried by Putin's recent speech boosting high tech and AI. He seems to be conceding the SDI battle instead of bringing back Russia's REAL advantage.

Russia's advantage in all branches of technology is a willingness to stick with mechanical and analog solutions, which are more durable, more adaptable, and NON-HACKABLE.

Russia was ahead of America in Cybernetics during the '50s because Russia was pursuing ANALOG solutions, which are the ONLY way to reach useful machine intelligence. Digital can never get there because digital can't run INSTANTANEOUS feedback loops. (This may sound like a small technical detail, but it's the crucial secret of living intelligence.)

America got ahead of Russia in the '80s with digital because Russia had lost its spirit and stopped working, but the NON-HACKABLE analog solutions will win in the end. It's a predetermined outcome.

The question is who will own the winning methods. Will the West finally rediscover analog, or will Russia will build on its cultural and technical head start?

It sounds like Putin is wanting to catch up to the West's losing methods instead of resuming Russia's winning methods.

JonL said...

Ien, I often think of Lord Vetinari when considering Putin. A great simile, and my favourite Ringworld character.
Succesion of a vital leader is always a worry. It often doesn't end well...

sean o braonain said...

Please explain the paragraph where you suggest that Putin was essentially just another corrupt official in his St Petersburg years. What evidence have you to back up such a comment?

Unknown said...

As usual, simply, efficiently, concisely the BEST ! Bravo again !

herepog2 said...

FDR a fortunate accident? No way!

Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=66 enacted 6/33) was the deal organized by Wall Street to implement the plans that had been made by Bernard Baruch and Gerard Swope, the latter the head of General Electric, in the 1920s.

The object was to waive all antitrust laws and permit trade associations of major corporations to set the federal regulatory trade rules while buying off labor by legalizing and protecting union organizing and requiring good faith bargaining under federal law (these rights were reinstated after the National Industrial Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional in May 1935 by the Supreme Court with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, aka the Wagner Act, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=67 enacted in 7/35) and Social Security etc. In other words, Wall Street got its way--it's version of socialism--and the rest of us got what are now usually called "entitlements."
(See: http://rooseveltinstitute.org/chamber-and-ge-have-plan-restore-business-confidence-and-jobs-1931/ )

Democrat Roosevelt was Wall Street's candidate in 1932 after Hoover-- who was the winning Republican candidate for president in 1928 against Al Smith--refused to implement the form of fascism (Hoover used the word fascism to describe this program in his autobiography) contemplated under The Swope Plan (https://www.garynorth.com/SwopePlan.pdf), consistent with Bernard Baruch--the national industrial czar under Wilson during World War1 --(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Industries_Board ) and his assistant Hugh Johnson's (http://spartacus-educational.com/USARjohnson.htm)
efforts and research in the 1920s. This research paved the way for the implementation of The Swope Plan by means of the NIRA in the 1930s.

Roosevelt agreed to the plan when he ran in 1932 and Wall Street contributions flowed to Roosevelt, the Democrat. Yes, the New Deal was a Wall Street plan enacted under a Democratic Wall Street oligarch. And yes, that was after Wall Street financed both sides of the Russian Revolution and the fascists in Italy and Germany. But I digress.

Baruch's assistant Johnson became the head of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) under Roosevelt. Walter Teagle, the president of Standard Oil, Gerard Swope, the president of General Electric and Louis Kirstein, vice president of William Filene's Sons of Boston (a big department store in Boston) became Johnson's assistants administering the NRA--which in a coupla years was declared unconstitutional by The Supremes. Just a technicality.

See: Antony Sutton's: Wall Street and FDR

Dmitry Orlov said...

rippon -

No, you didn't understand correctly. In the 1990s, Putin had a family to feed in the midst of a collapsed economy. His previous career, working for the Soviet state, had ended. Options were limited. He did whatever he had to, just like everyone else.

Then he found himself, almost by accident, in a position of great authority, and he used it intelligently and to great effect. That included restoring the rule of law (a work in progress), reigning in the oligarchs and demolishing most of the mafia, among other things.

Unknown -

I agree that Yeltsin had realized that he had failed before he picked Putin, and his choice reflects his recognition of his failure.

forrest -

I doubt that your crystal ball is any good when it comes to a huge and incredibly complex country on the other side of the planet.

Rhisiart -

What I pointed out was by no means an attempt to pass judgment. During the 1990s everyone did whatever they had to in order to survive.

Dave Brown -

Alexei Navalny is a Color Revolution candidate, a student of Gene Sharp's ideology of spreading "Western values" through "nonviolence" (in the course of which millions die of violence and despair). He can't be a candidate for public office by virtue of being a convicted felon. He had managed to subvert a small percentage of Russia's youth by spreading around some money he got from abroad, but now that's over.

Polistra -

Analogue doesn't scale. Take that from me as a digital/analogue engineer. The only analogue left is sensors and actuators; everything else is digital. If you want a digital solution that's nonhackable, don't stick it on the internet.

James McDonnell -

I already answered your question, but your leap to judgment is your own. During the 1990s in Russia corruption wasn't a problem, it was the only solution because the legal ways of doing things had all stopped working. Don't judge people by what they have to do to survive; judge them by what they do when they have the freedom to act as they want to.

Phelix'Phalanx said...

I stumbled on this quip I was preparing to use on an earlier post of yours and thought it might be worth saving for a more illustrative example of its point brilliantly related to your discussion of what democracy really is and is it safe to leave your kids to play in.

"I submit that most would define a democracy as a political system whereby the population is able to express its will by making meaningful choices that arise from a sort of free market of ideas, and then counting up those choices through some community ritual such as making a tick mark on some recording instrument, then calling this some universally relevant manner of expressing “will”.

I would propose that this fallacy is the foundation of all those political technologies that “empower and protect special interests at the expense of the rest of society”".

You seem to have a knack for picking my brain...note to self, find new locksmith...but are we still on the same wavelength?

I never promised to keep you posted on the Feline Trapeze act, being what training cats involves this time of year, it's hard enough to make promises much less honor them, but these guardians who rescued what for me is "the pearl of great price" from certain destruction by a proxy army of rabid anti-environmentalist Norway Rats would certainly and unfairly upstage the hosts intention for today's topic...unless otherwise invited...kind thought's however are always welcome...war is hell...


Daniehl said...

I'm absolutely thrilled with your right-on view of Putin because it has the correct hut feeling. Following your lead I too have observed Vlad's calmnedd in the face of international mainstream braying. He has especially kept Russia out of entanglements and continues to move Russia forward in prestige and international leaferdhip.

Greg Simay said...

I think I understand why Putin showed himself doing manly things, aside from the fact that he could pull it off, being the real deal. He was trying to inspire Russian youth, many of whom had grown up in dire circumstances. It was as if he were saying to some young boy or girl, "Pay no attention to that vodka-soaked adult snoring on the couch. Look at me! This is the sort of adult you are meant to become!" I was in Moscow in '94, when the Mafiya was very much present, going to and fro from the Gostanaya Ukrania, and alcoholism was a serious problem. Raising the morale of the next generation must've been a daunting challenge.

JeanDavid said...

"Digital can never get there because digital can't run INSTANTANEOUS feedback loops."

Nor can analog systems. There is always a delay between then the output of a system (or subsystem) is measured, compared with the input, and the result of the comparison used to control the system's output, be it analog or digital. The stability of a feedback system is reduced as the gain of the system is increased and as the delay in the feedback loop is increased. Proper design can result in stable, or very nearly stable, systems. I have seen systems designed with too much delay. But a problem systems engineers must always face is that the delay cannot be reduced to zero. It is just that in digital systems, the delay is more easily seen.

Edward said...

The same question probably applies more urgently to the United States.

Jean-Paul Printemps said...


Was not Medvedev an heir apparent at one time?

One cannot help but wonder if you yourself have a knack for politics. Perhaps affairs of state weighing on your shoulders would soften your harsh broad-brush approach!

Maybe Russia needs someone like Sanders, who in the last presidential election encouraged his youthful supporters to seek public office at the local level. America, too, has a dearth of viable alternatives to the elite hand-picked by CFR, hence Trump.