Thursday, August 18, 2011


"For most in Europe and the United States, 1991 takes a back seat to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This clearly demonstrates that what mattered to the West, then and now, was the reunification of Europe and of Germany within it. The fate of the Soviet Union itself was not an issue in the Cold War. The sudden collapse of the Soviet empire had to be managed and made permanent, but anything beyond that was deemed too difficult ? and, frankly, unnecessary....

This is the principal meaning of August 1991. It marks the watershed between Soviet Russia and the present-day Russian Federation. Unlike its Communist predecessor, today's Russia is essentially free. Russians enjoy most civil rights. They are free to speak out, to practice the religions they choose, to leave their country and return home. They can own property, engage in business, and keep their money in the currency and place of their choice. This freedom has important caveats. Not everyone has the means to fully enjoy it. Russians are quite free in their private domains, but the public space is not hospitable for most people. Thus, Russia, while demonstrably free, is anything but a democracy. Undivided power is owned by a small corporation. Democratic procedure is imitated rather than practiced. The parliament is a rubber stamp, and the courts of law bow to the authorities.

The Russian Federation 1.0, however, is not your typical authoritarian regime. It is authoritarianism with the consent of the governed. For the time being, most of those holed up in their private domains simply do not want to be bothered and are content to leave governing to the authorities. Many are also dependent on these authorities for various social handouts. The government feels virtually no need to tax individuals and thus no need to be accountable to them. For those who want to know what is going on, and comment on it, the Internet is free. For those who find such a life unbearable or unworthy, the borders are open. Yet, we have also seen cracks in these freedoms. Look more closely, and what looks like an all-powerful state machine is in reality privatized, parceled out to office holders and their clans at all levels. Most people call it corruption, but the word is too weak. Corruption is not a bug in the system; it is its debilitating disease. The state has failed to keep kickbacks and extortions within the limits that those outside the system would find tolerable. If the current trend continues, the system will eventually lose its legitimacy. If this happens, the governed will withdraw their consent in Russia's warped "social contract," and what passes for social and political stability will be gone.

But the death of Soviet communism in August 1991, in some sense, transported Russia back to the pre-revolutionary days. There are a few important lessons to be drawn from 100 years ago. Much like during the Russian Empire, Russia today has a monarchy of sorts, and it has capitalism without democracy. What's more, the State Duma functions with little independent power. There is a poignant plea from the top for "20 years of peace and quiet," but also distinct grumbling from below and a sense that troubled times are on the horizon. Like then, there is still time to do one's best to avert the worst. To the would-be successors of Pyotr Stolypin, building cyber walls against future revolutionary mobs or engaging football fans to win elections is a weak and flawed strategy. The Kremlin needs to focus on growth, development and governance. None of this is possible without tackling corruption at the very top. Once the sobriquet of "the party of swindlers and thieves" is transferred to its nominal leader, it will be too late. Honesty and professionalism is crucial.

To the would-be detractors of the ruling elite, believing that "the worse, the better" and hoping to see the dawn of a brave new world once the books close on the existing one is both naive and dangerous. Rather than creating a small-time nuisance for the authorities, they need to clamor to be part of the decision-making processes and press for their representation. Their slogan could be: 'Turning Consumers Into Citizens!' To those who still reject 1991 ? either because it destroyed communism or led to the dismantlement of the Soviet empire ? it is time to accept the verdict of history as final and redefine their beliefs and goals. There is a place in Russia for both social democracy and vibrant civic nationalism. Indeed, both are sorely missing and should be welcomed. Twenty years after August 1991, what is missing in Russia is a sense of being a nation. Putting a premium on survival or self-enrichment may have been the right strategy in the last two decades, but this strategy has now run its course. There is a price to be paid when society lacks a responsible and accountable government ? from unkempt, stinking stairwells to sinking pleasure boats. We need a new debate on nation-building. There is only one Russia, and it can be either shared or divided. A Soviet Russia is a clear anachronism, United Russia is a status quo model and offers little in terms of modernizing the country, and a liberal Russia is a pipe dream. If Russia remains divided, it may not survive much longer. Conservatives, liberals, socialists and others need to come together as one nation under one flag. Symbolically, the parade of the victorious Russian tricolor marking the defeat of the August putsch has become an official national holiday ? Flag Day on Aug. 22. What Russia needs, 20 years after the putsch, is a republic in the literal sense of the word: a common concern".

Dmitry Trenin, "Building a Republic 20 years after the putsch." The Moscow Times. 16 August 2011.

"In foreign policy, and in domestic policy alike, the Soviet Government is guided entirely by 'Real Politik'. It is quite true that its calculations are often based upon on entirely false premises, and that it has numerous obsessions. In this connection I need only refer to the entirely disproportionate importance of oil....
As regards its internal position, the Soviet Government is independent of recognition by foreign powers. Whatever opinion may be held of the present Moscow Government, there can be no doubt that it is in point of fact the one and only Government of Russia, and that there does not appear to be any prospect of its being replaced by some alternative Government in the measurable future. It controls the entire political machine. No organized political opposition is allowed, and although there is and will continue to be a great deal of discontent, this discontent is confined to grumbling, and does not show signs of expression in action. It is true that the economic basis on which the Soviet Government rests is not sound and the Government itself recognizes that unless it can run the main branches of industry, which are still directly controlled by the State, at a profit, its position will become weaker.
Adaptability is, however the keynote of Soviet policy."

Peters (Moscow) to Lord Curzon (Foreign Secretary), 5 December 1921. Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, First Series, Volume XX, pp. 957-958.

On the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup d'etat of August 1991, which en faite, lead directly to the downfall of Sovietskaya Vlast, one of the finest scholars of contemporary Russia, Dmitry Trenin offers up, to my mind a very cogent and learned view of the status quo ante of the present-day Russian Federation 1. While one does not have to necessarily agree with every aspect of his analysis, it seems to my mind beyond doubt that the following aspects of his oeuvre are beyond dispute or caveat: i) there is no 'going back' to some semblance of Sovietskaya Vlast, however much some people both in and out of power in Russia would like that idea. Any more than (unfortunately) there is any going back to say Tsarist Russia circa 1916; ii) that twenty years, and nay indeed thirty years does not appear to be enough time for Russia to recover from the criminal insanity of Sovietskaya Vlast. A regime as one of the first Westerners (the German military attache) characterized it in the Spring of 1918 as: 'insanity in power'. Hence the distortions and anomalies that Westerners see in present day Russia, when one compares it to say, Poland or the Baltic States, indeed even to some degree Ukraine 2; iii) that however much the current regime is distorted and indeed dysfunctional in many, many respects, with its corruption, waste, inefficiencies, lack of modernization, lack of responsible government, resulting at times for at least this observer, as making the regimes of say Nikolai Pavlovich (Nicholas I) or Aleksandr Aleksandrovich (Alexander III) seem in comparison as wonderful examples of efficiency, functionality and modernization, that does not obviate the fact that a 'pire ca va, mieux que est' point of view, is not the best or indeed correct answer to Russia's current situation; iv) similarly, any idea that merely assuming that Russia can muddle along in its present state, with an economy which while growing, is not growing at nearly the rate to allow Russia to escape what one observer has described as the 'middle-income trap', sans which, Russia will never join the advanced Western countries either economically or socially. With the end-result being that Russia may revert to a status similar to what it occupied under the Tartar Yoke, with an energy hungry China assuming the role of the Mongols 3. In short, while the Putin-Medvedev regime did a yeoman's service in its initial five years (2000-2005) in power, the past six years have been no more than a muddle. With no fundamental improvements in governance, economic modernization, transparency and many indices of social conditions of the population. Instead, au fond the current government appears to believe it own rhetoric that it is very best regime that Russia has on offer and that anyone else who chooses not to believe this modest claim is politically suspect if not worse. Hence, the rather idiotic and indeed embarrassing harassment of political opponents and semi-opponents by the powers that be on occasion. The upshot is that without a new course in the next five years, Russia can expect societal stalemate and stagnation. With results that Russophiles like myself, would rather not even care to contemplate. As the British academic, David Kerr argued last year, in the Royal Institute of International Affairs house journal, International Affairs:

"As China looms larger on its Asian frontiers, Russia may not only experience pressure on its sphere of autonomy, but may feel increasingly exposed trying to deal with China in a space that requires it to be detached from the West. In essence, China's rise will change the frontiers between East and West, and may force Russia to conclude that its belief that it could stand apart from the West was something of an illusion 4."

1. John Lloyd, "Russia must forget its Imperial aims." The Financial Times.16 August 2011, in This is a review of Trenin's new book which is just out: Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story.

2. For how the Russian intelligentsia and the lay educated (Moskva & Petersburg centered) public views both the Putin-Medvedev regime and both the 'alternatives' in the Baltics & Ukraine, see: Lilia Shestova, "Russia's Liberal Standpoint." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2 August 2011, in

3. For this rather grim prognosis of Russia's possible future, see: David Kerr, "Central Asian and Russian perspectives on China's strategic emergence." International Affairs. (January 2010), pp. 127-152. For China's view of its energy diplomacy in Central Asia and vis-`a-vis Russia, see: Simon Hui Shen, "'Qualitative Energy Diplomacy' in Central Asia: A comparative analysis of The United States, Russia and China." Brookings InstitutionApril 2011, in For the 'middle-income trap', see: George Magnus, "China can yet avoid a middle-income trap." The Financial Times.29 June 2011, in

4. Kerr, op. cit., p. 152 & passim.


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