I have spent a good deal of time recently writing the third edition of my textbook Contemporary Russia. The temptation with a second, third, (presumably fourth or even – heaven forfend – fifth) edition is to simply update rather than re-write. Succumbing to that temptation would not only short-change the reader a little, but it wouldn’t do justice to the subject.
The last edition of Contemporary Russia was written just after Dmitrii Medvedev had become Russia’s president in 2008, offering a younger and apparently more liberal face as head of state in the world’s largest country. Five years on, it’s not an update that’s needed but a re-write. It’s hardly going out on a limb, to note that the politics of contemporary Russia scarcely reflect a more liberal face in a week where the Russian state tried a dead-man and found him guilty, and, in a typical trial of its type, sentenced a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, Aleksei Navalny, to five years in a penal colony. For corruption. At the same time though, the vagaries of Russia’s domestic politics and the regime’s attempts to manage ‘democracy’, became almost immediately apparent in the unprecedented decision to release Navalny pending appeal.
I’ve blogged elsewhere about the critical juncture marking this turn back to a more authoritarian stance – namely the ‘castling’ whereby Medvedev and Putin swapped prime-ministerial and presidential titles – and argued there that this move diverted Russia from the developmental path that Putin himself had set. I’ve written too about the flawed electoral procedures which played their part in allowing such a move.
Too often, however, critical analysis of Russian politics becomes enmeshed in a complex of perceptions. It is rebuffed with assertions that Putin still retains a deal of genuine popularity amongst the Russian people as a whole, that excessive criticism from foreigners who don’t live in Russia can be irksome and counter-productive, and that the West is itself far from perfect. I agree with all of these statements. What I increasingly fail to see is their relevance when it comes to critical assessments of Russian politics today.
So Putin retains genuine popularity. According to polls, endorsement of Putin dipped below 50% at the beginning of 2011 and has hovered around the 40% mark ever since. That’s not bad in comparative terms for a third-term president. But popularity can be overrated as a justification, especially in an electorally authoritarian state where its democratic force remains contingent on the manouevres of the political managers. A more normative evaluation of the Russian regime in Putin’s third term cannot but condemn the overarching combination of an assumed right to rule and a shoddily venal understanding of the purpose of power which seems prevalent amongst too many of Russia’s political élite.
Aleksei Navalny and his allies have devoted huge effort to exposing corruption in Russian politics and business, from seemingly minor issues like the penchant of parliamentarians and others to disdainfully gain academic titles through plagiarism, to Navalny’s pre-sentencing blog post, making detailed allegations about vast property and off-shore financial holdings of a close Putin ally.
Of course I’m aware that I look on from outside, and that for most Russians the quota of carping from abroad has been overfulfilled long ago. I’m aware too that Russia is by no means unique in having corruptible and unprincipled politicians. Again though, if popularity is neither here nor there from a normative perspective, then neither too are blame displacement and comparative self-justification. When having had a belly full of criticism for its human rights record last year, the Russian government’s response was to produce reports of its own criticising human rights abuses in Europe and the United States. As if the point about human rights is that bad things happen in other countries too.
How does pointing to abuses abroad help to address those at home? Where are the principled politicians with higher visions standing by to usurp the tedious tit-for-tat point-scorers and doyens of self-interest? Yes, I could say similar things about political leadership in my own country, but that doesn’t invalidate criticism of the same in Russia.
Dr Edwin Bacon is reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck