Ever since Vladimir Putin announced his bid to return to the Russian presidency in the March 2012 election, Soviet déjà vu moments have been coming thick and fast. From Putin’s mooted “Eurasian Union“, through which Russia would formalise its hegemonic pretensions over the former Soviet republics, to positive comparisons between Putin and Soviet Premier Brezhnev, the themes are wearyingly familiar — and sadly, unsurprising.
“Inevitability” is a word that seems to come up, well, inevitably when discussing contemporary Russian politics. It was inevitable that Putin would return as president next year, after a four-year interregnum during which he officially took the role of prime minister while retaining actual control of the government. Yet, as Michael Weiss and I argue in our new report for the Henry Jackson Society, so much of what has become “inevitable” in Russian politics coheres to perversely comforting cultural clichés: a long-suffering society destined for autocracy, in need of a strongman and incapable of self-government.
With less than a year until the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, these assumptions demand renewed scrutiny, and the decision-makers who delivered the status quo must be held to account. After seven decades of totalitarianism, post-communist Russia was always going to experience setbacks in the effort to entrench democratic norms. The explosion of civil society organisations and a vibrant media in the first days of perestroika and during the Yeltsin years showed that the human capital and potential for democratic development was very much present in post-Communist Russia. However, this was undermined by a failure to adequately commit to the crucial task of institution building — particularly in building the rule of law.
For example, the failure to properly disaggregate the KGB and deal with the institutional crimes of the Soviet state in the 1990s not only entrenched a state of cultural denial; it prevented the Russian people from coming to terms with the crimes of the totalitarian regime. Then as now, the West put short-sighted interests ahead of the hard work needed to achieve meaningful reforms, and preferred to turn a blind eye to corruption and practices which corroded the rule of law than to pushing for improved standards in governmental and economic transparency.
A return to Soviet-style premiership fused with mafia-style state capitalism should shame the international community who have acquiesced — and, in the case of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, profited from their links to the Kremlin. From America’s much-vaunted “reset” policy — which trades silence over Russia’s systematic human rights violations for the quixotic promise of cooperation in disarming Iran — to David Cameron’s obsequious overtures to Medvedev during his September trip to Moscow, the West has a perverse preference to appease when it should demand answers. Even as the country prepares for severely restricted Duma elections, and an effectively predetermined presidential election, the US remains committed to rewarding the regime with WTO membership.
At a recent lecture in London, Russia’s leading anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny criticised the West for its complicity in tolerating a culture of state-sponsored corruption. Navalny called on officials to enforce anti-bribery laws against corrupt business interests which operate in their countries, and even described the UK’s embrace of Russian oligarchs as akin to tolerating money laundering. Yet for politicians accustomed to glitzy receptions hosted by the very people of whom Navalny speaks, it is perhaps more comforting to believe the cliché of a society preordained or even happy to accept a fate of perpetual authoritarianism.