TCS Daily

Russia's "Official Conservatism"

By Jacob Laksin - June 1, 2004 12:00 AM

MOSCOW -- There is a joke the locals here are especially fond of telling. "Which would you prefer: Superficial American smiles or sincere Russian hatred?" The punch line, as many Russians see it, is that no matter what their outward shows of politeness may suggest, Americans are a cold people, a nation of uncultured robots programmed to trade stocks and down cheeseburgers by the SUV-load. Give Russians their hatred any day!

This joke is typically mentioned whenever visitors grumble about the rudeness of Russians. That is to say, fairly often: It so happens that there are some seriously rude people here. Why, just last week, deep in a swarm of shoving commuters at one of this city's eternally-clogged metro stations, I found myself pining for the rush-hour crush of my native New York. There, at least, folks have the decency to excuse themselves after they dislocate your shoulder and mash your toes in a crazed bid to catch the train. Expect no such courtesy here; you can go a week without so much as a Dobry den!

Still, as the above joke suggests, likening Russia to the U.S. is something of a national pastime here. The fact that these comparisons don't have to be true ensures that they exist in great abundance. Among the more popular of these is the theory that Russian democracy, or what passes for it here, and the Made in the USA version are basically same. After all, aren't American elections, just like Russian elections, widely disputed?

The answer, of course, is: yes and no. We may have a contentious political climate, but no serious comparison can be made between our healthy federalism, bolstered by independent press and courts, and the few frail democratic institutions that survived the chaotic Yeltsin years now to be savaged by President Vladimir Putin.

Try telling that to Russians. Many here are ready to give a pass to the Kremlin's de facto control over all national Russian television. At the same time, Putin's conversion of the Russian Federal Council into a rubber stamp for his increasingly authoritarian policies is greeted with a collective shrug. Ask Russians what they think about America, though, and the wordless citizens turn into instant chatterboxes. Bush? They could go on for hours. Democracy? Let them tell you how it works.

Noticeably absent from these lectures is any mention of the 1 million Russian voters who disappeared from the registers between December and March. Or the scores of regional candidates who have been disqualified from elections on the flimsiest of technicalities. Or the recent restrictions on public demonstrations aimed at curbing free speech. Or the countless other indicators that point to Russia's turn away from democracy in the last few years. And so, lacking the freedom to hold their system to meaningful scrutiny, Russians turn on America.

It hardly helps our reputation in the country that Americans join in this assault. I nearly tossed my piroshkies one morning after reading this piece in the Moscow Times by Alexei Bayer. A Russian-born economist living in New York (well, of course), Bayer's stock-in-trade is branding American conservatives "Stalinists," and making similarly cuckoo comparisons between the United States and the former USSR.

In his latest dispatch from enemy territory, called "Bush Has Put the U.S. 'Back In the U.S.S.R'," Bayer absurdly likens the U.S. immigration policy to that of the Soviet Union, utterly immune to the irony that latter's was intended to keep them prisoners in their own country. Fully aware that he's spouting drivel ("these are facile parallels, of course"), Bayer nonetheless dumps on the U.S. for having an "unhealthy obsession with freedom." Ouch.

Of course, that doesn't stop Bayer from equating Operation Iraqi Freedom with Soviet-style imperialism. For Bayer, the distinction between building a free, pluralistic democracy and imposing communist totalitarianism is one without difference. Iraq, Afghanistan. Whatever. All this, mind you, by way of noting the Bush administration's divorce from reality.

What is needed in Russia today is a sizeable dose of clarity. Fortunately, amid a slew of gross Bayerian distortions, Lilia Shevtosva offers just that. Shevtsova, an expert in Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, has accurately identified Russia's problem. She calls it "official conservatism." Rejecting a nostalgic view of Russian politics though Red-colored glasses, this new conservatism is really a kind of ideological conformism, willing to accept Putin's erosion of democracy as a necessary, even admirable step in stabilizing the country. It is official conservatism, Shevtsova contends, that engenders the popular false analogy between President Bush's Cabinet and its Mr. Hyde version in the Russian government, led by prime minister and Putin flunky Mikhail Fradkov. Here is a piece of her mind:

"This analogy might hold, but only if the position of prime minister were abolished and the government made directly subordinate to the president, and if there were a parliament and courts independent from the president. In the absence of these, we are talking about the typical Russian regime formula, where all levers of power are in the hands of the leader who, however, carries no responsibility for how the country is run."

Perhaps the most important point in her persuasive analysis is that this official conservatism may be the biggest roadblock to democratic progress in Russia. By limiting Russian debate to defenses of a worrying status quo and defensive attacks on American democracy, official conservatives actually impede liberal reform in Russia. Rather than developing liberal alternatives to the Putiniks, Russians have become mired in groupthink.

Obvious enough to those who live within a robust debate, this grim picture of their country is doggedly resisted by many Russians. Still reeling from the 90s aftershocks of the Soviet dissolution, Russians seem to have accepted the authoritarian arithmetic of the Putin regime: A stronger state equals more stability and more economic progress, they say.

We Americans may claim that democracies are also the fastest economic reformers and the most successful economies. We may point out, too, that autocratic states are not necessarily the best draw for foreign investment and spur economic growth. But Russians don't want to talk about places like Myanmar, Pakistan, and Angola; they prefer instead to distract themselves with jokes about America. In a way, this is understandable. In the absence of any prescription for liberal Russian democracy, laughter seems like the best medicine.


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