Putin’s Latest Moves Invoke Russian Tradition, Not Western Standards

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 86

The radical shakeup of Russia’s system of power recently announced by President Vladimir Putin will further inhibit political pluralism. This shift away from democracy and toward more authoritarian practices will likely hinder Russia’s long-term cooperation with the West, independent experts predict.

This Russian retreat has precedent. Almost twenty years ago, Harvard University historian Edward Keenan analyzed medieval Russian political attitudes — “Muscovite political folkways,” in his apt term — and found them to be in stark contrast with those in the contemporary West. Back then, Russia was perceived as Europe’s principal other, mainly because its ruling system was deemed despotic and the tsar’s subjects his slaves.

The beginning of liberalizing reforms following the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union was regarded, both inside and outside Russia, as the latest attempt in the country’s long history to harmonize Russian political traditions and values with those of Europe and the United States. A significant portion of Russian elites view the country as an emerging member of the Western community of “free nations,” and the West, although not without certain reservations, and encouraged Russia’s Westward strategic orientation throughout the 1990s.

With Putin’s advent to power in late 1999, the authoritarian and illiberal trends in Russia’s political life have been growing steadily. At the same time, Moscow continued sending signals about its willingness to pursue cooperation and even partnership with the industrialized West. Western policymakers and diplomats routinely pointed out to the Kremlin leadership that a true partnership is possible only on the basis of mutually shared democratic political principles. In other words, shared strategic goals can grow out of shared values. The Kremlin would usually downplay the existing gap between the two sides’ political ways.

Putin’s plan to revamp Russia’s political system reveals deep-rooted philosophical underpinnings, which are clearly inimical to Western political culture. It is remarkable, however, that this time the ideological divergence between Moscow and the West is not camouflaged but proudly stated by the Kremlin political gurus and President Putin himself.

The central paradigm underlying Putin’s “reform measures” appears to be as follows: present-day Russia is a successor to a great power; it developed its own political traditions and values, distinct from those prevalent in the West, that condition its historical trajectory; and it will continue developing its political system in accordance with these traditions. Therefore, the West will have to cooperate with Putin’s Russia, which is conscious and proud of its “un-Western” political identity.

In a commentary justifying the tightening of the Kremlin’s stranglehold on the country’s political system and published in the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, analyst Igor Toporovsky argues that historically, Russian power, while trying to adhere to European ideas, was “objectively incapable” of acting according to European political patterns. “Due to the peculiarities of our historic development, the genesis of national psychology and national character, Russia has created its own . . . Eurasian model of political behavior,” contends Toporovsky (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 14.)

Obviously, the proposed overhaul of the Russian body politic is largely irrelevant to the tasks of fighting international terrorism. The centralizing measures were likely prepared well in advance. The Kremlin simply seized on the opportune moment to “sell” the reform package to a public shell-shocked by the unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks.

Some influential Moscow analysts have long argued that the main problem poisoning relations between Russia and the West is rooted in what they call an “incomplete recognition” of Russia as an equal world actor. The United States and Europe, these experts assert, tend to see Russia as the legitimate successor to the USSR exclusively in terms of the Soviet debt and nuclear arsenal. But the notion of Russia as a sovereign geopolitical entity, as an independent civilization is being ignored or challenged, they say. Thus, according to the Kremlin’s leading spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, the problem of the West’s double standards regarding Chechen terrorism “is not the cause but the end.” The real cause, Pavlovsky argued in a wide-ranging interview with Russky zhurnal, is the West’s “dual attitude not toward Chechnya, but toward Russia itself.” He accused Westerners of being reluctant to recognize the legitimacy of Russia as a full-blown state — a recognition that would include not only the legitimacy of its state borders but also of Russian values and political traditions (Russ.ru, September 5.)

Significantly, at his September 6 meeting with Western analysts, Putin was particularly eager to convince them that Russia, given its history and traditions, would never become fully “Western.” According to Putin, Russia will build its political system in accordance with its own peculiarities rather than aping Western ways (Izvestiya, September 11).

As the most perceptive commentators note, Putin’s undemocratic assault was to be expected. “Ten years after Yeltsin’s ‘parade of [local] sovereignties,’ Putin decided to return to the centuries-tested system of rule in Russia — a bureaucratic one,” says Andrei Ryabov, a political scientist at the Moscow Carnegie Center (Gazeta, September 14).

But the Kremlin’s resort to the traditional “panacea” for Russia’s ills — centralization of power — is a “lurch in the wrong direction,” liberal commentators argue. According to the well-respected analyst Lilia Shevtsova, the trend toward strengthening authoritarianism will inevitably lead to distancing from the West and, ultimately, to Russia’s isolation (Moskovskie novosti, September 10).