Hi y'all, from Georgia!
A six-day book tour within a 75 mile radius of Atlanta is winding down. Numbers of Kiwanis Clubs which hosted PEP delegations over the years also hosted me. Other presentations included a Rotary luncheon, a library event, an article in the Newnan newspaper, two TV spots that were taped, and an evening "book reading" for a house full of local residents interested in international affairs, and Russia in particular (after being part of the home hosting teams).
After sharing with you an analysis written this month, I'll touch on a bit of exciting local color of Georgia.
The following article answers a lot of the questions asked of me when traveling in middle America. It is one of the best explanations of Russia's experience with growing a democracy (and America's frustration with it), that I've read. Vlad Sobell, a highly respected Russia analyst who earlier fled Communism as a youth (google him), provides insights we don't get in our US media. Since leaving the USSR, Vlad has been obsessed with political systems around the world, what works, what doesn't, and what it would take to create a workable system. Over the past 30 years he has followed Russia's bumpy efforts to try to democratize and become part of the free world after three and half generations of heavy Communist indoctrination.
The Nature of Russia's Democracy, Putin's Formula, and How Managed Democracy Works
by Vlad Sobell
The Nature of Russia's Democracy
Russia is coming to democracy (or more precisely modernity) from a very different direction compared with most Western countries. Russia was not overthrown or invaded, it was liberated from communism/totalitarianism by its own bootstraps. Thanks to this impulse which was driven by internal democratizing forces from its own people, Russia continues to grow its democratic system slowly up to the present––and will continue to do so. For this reason, we (the West) have no right to lecture or criticize the Russians on their evolving governance. Nothing good comes from it; quite the contrary, it only creates resentment on their side––and the entrenchment of a patronizing mindset on our side.
I believe that Russia already has the beginnings of a genuine democracy, although it works somewhat differently from its Western counterparts (I will comment on this below). We need to free ourselves from the mental box that imagines that concepts (such as democracy) can proceed only in line with the Western model, and/or be supervised and sanctioned by the West. This is a Western illusion which we need to overcome.
It reminds of the Catholic Church's belief that only the Pope has the right to make judgments, pronounce on matters of faith, etc. That is to say in this realm, unless the U.S. and the West pronounces something to be a democracy, it is not a democracy. What has given us the right to make this assumption? How can we be sure that what we consider non-democratic, actually is non-democratic? And, is our conduct consistently democratic?
We also need to remember that Russia (as well as China) has engineered an unexpected explosion of liberalism over the past few years. Russia and China have never before experienced such events. I am speaking now of the development of economic, political and creative freedom both countries are experiencing, as well as consumer prosperity, and an increase in civic freedom (Russia's being considerably more so than China's thus far).
The West tends to overlook these achievements and/or play them down because they have happened without its explicit guidance from the West. I would argue that these explosions represent the most significant wave of liberalization since the French Revolution, with the added (very important) benefit of these achievements being essentially peaceful in nature. The French Revolution certainly was not peaceful (in fact it was a bloodbath), nor was the American Revolution.
Putin's Formula for Managed Democracy
It is good to remember that, apart from their recent and comparatively short-lived totalitarian periods, Russia and China proceed from strong centralist traditions of governance during their long histories. Russia would not have survived as a unified state and as a Eurasian power in its past, had it not been for its strongly centralized state. As for China, the Chinese achieved a unified centralized empire more than 2000 years ago, while Europe remained in a state of perpetual upheaval and fragmentation.
Hence, Russia and China must evolve their own modern (democratic) systems with a gradual loosening of the centralized state, without allowing the state to lose control and risk disintegration during the process. Putin has recentralized the Russian system somewhat because, had he not done so after the 1990s, Russia as a nation could have easily disintegrated during the 2000s.
Having now stabilized the nation and presided over what many observers (even in the West) consider to be an economic miracle (the absolute, as well as per capita GDP has multiplied), Russia is now witnessing a consumer revolution. Claims that this economic growth is purely because of oil revenues are nonsense. Putin now needs to gradually create an environment that permits increased political input (co-optation) from a variety of legitimate forces, while creating barriers to nationalists and other elements which are erratic and unprincipled forces within the country. How this will all play out remains to be seen. But I think Putin and Russia's rational forces will win out––but it will take finesse.
The Russian government's response to the recent anti-Putin demonstrations must be interpreted against the following: Russia has, since 1990, achieved something it has never previously experienced; that is a reasonable degree of stability, order, peace and prosperity––and it has come after a century of dreadful sacrifice (Stalin's repressions--with a loss of 20 to 30 million Russians, the Second World War--with a loss of some 26 million Russian citizens, in addition to the mass impoverishment and total collapse of national confidence during the 1990s when Russians had no inborn skills to survive as Communism collapsed). Most Westerners, having long taken peace and prosperity for granted, simply cannot even begin to comprehend the brutality of such events on a nation's psyche.
Putin took power in year 2000––and within a decade Russia emerged as a relatively prosperous and stable society. It should not, therefore, be so difficult to understand why his government and its country-wide supporters recognize the successful formula of a slowly growing but "managed" democracy. Russian political elite know full well that they need to co-opt rather than repress (it's clear that the likes of Dmitry Medvedev and the upper echelons comprehend this). Meanwhile, it is understandable that Russian political elite and the masses are anxious to ensure that this successful formula, which has taken time, sacrifice, and finesse to accomplish, is not set back again.
I do not buy the notion of Putin's "repression." Reaction, yes, but repression, no. The regime rightly understands that a lot of the discontent of recent protesters has been fueled due to outside elements and expectations, since it is clear that Russia's internal conditions are increasingly healthy and on a constructive track. This does not mean that the demonstrations were directly orchestrated by the West; but simply that the protesters "want it all now" (which is premature). This coupled with the West's implicit claim that the Putin regime is "essentially illegitimate," finds a resonance with sections of Russia's younger population who perceive themselves as Western-minded. They apparently believe that their rejection of Putin's legitimacy is a manifestation of their democratic (political) maturity and cultural sophistication: to them it is cool to be anti-Putin; and conversely, it is decidedly un-cool and un-sophisticated to be pro-Putin. As for the demonstrations of 2011/2012, I do not believe they would have occurred were it not for the Arab Spring and the constant barrage that Western media has projected as the "autocratic and primitive Putin regime."
This is not to suggest that Putin's tough responses have been necessarily wise. He could have taken a softer line; however, Putin is not a guy to "mess around with". He (and many Russians) will send strong messages to domestic and external critics of Russia's developing democracy. If the West wants Putin to be more liberal, the first thing it should do is to stop meddling in Russia's internal affairs and lecturing its government. No doubt Putin, et al, are concerned that Russia might become another of the "colored revolutions" which were supported by the West, but which ultimately became nightmares for Georgia, Ukraine, and lesser countries. I am sure that once Putin and his team feels there is no threat of such conduct on the West's part, Russia will relax and its democratizing process will continue.
Moreover, I believe that Putin does understand the benefits of democracy, and that the greater the input from wider sections of society, the better, as he has frequently claimed. He is simply far too intelligent to not to understand this. But being responsible for Russia's stability and having experienced the chaos of the 1990s (unlike we in the West, who have the luxury to pontificate without having to assume that responsibility), he is extremely (perhaps excessively) cautious about the risks of a "free for all". Hence, his suspicions of those who want to hasten Russia's track toward full democracy.
The inability of Russia's "extra-parliamentary" opposition forces (which created the 2011/12 demonstrations) to unite on any topic that resembles a modicum of a coherent political program (or to build a coherent political party) testifies to my theses that, for the present time, a form of semi-centralized government of managed democracy is the only responsible answer for Russia.
I would go as far as to claim that this so-called opposition that recently formed in Russia does not, in fact, want to win power. They would not have any idea what to do with it. What they are/were doing is engaging in a fashionable pastime (being oppositionists) that makes them look exciting and revolutionary in the eyes of some Russians and many Westerners. Unfortunately, at this time, they are not interested in real nitty-gritty political involvement, otherwise they would unite and become a significant political force.
The West needs to realize with whom they are dealing––and stop promoting this racket.
This is not to say that some of the sentiments of Russia's traveled and educated urban class are not genuine and admirable, they are; but the way most of them go about their political business is not serious. Being the developing middle class in the country, they should be well aware of this and shift their conduct to new strategies and attempts at program development. If they are Western-minded, why don't they act like Western opposition movements and produce credible, loyal opposition-style parties that would seriously challenge the Kremlin––above all, practically and intellectually? Shouting out slogans in English in street demonstrations for the benefit of Western cameras is hardly the example of respectable democratic conduct.
How Putin's "Managed Democracy" Works
Finally, Putin has created a managed democracy where the degree of political freedom (anti-regime) is managed by him (that is, by his team). Like a central banker he raises or lowers the interest rate (the extent of freedom of demonstrators) depending on the conditions on the ground. The rate was raised last year (and arguably rightly so) in response to the street demonstrations that caught him and many other Russians off guard.
Putin's own legitimacy derives from his having been elected three times as president by overwhelming majorities, and from the fact that he is submitted to regular independent polls (which are de facto referendums). Those claiming this system is undemocratic or illegitimate would have to convincingly prove that Russian elections were rigged to such an extent, as to have yielded the election of a presumably wholly-disliked figure (Putin), to the exclusion of some other popularly respected figure (which to date hasn't come forward).
While Russia's elections have been far from clean (which country has completely clean elections?), Putin is where he is, not due to electoral fraud or manipulation of the process, but due to the fact that the country has achieved unpredicted solid gains across many sectors under his leadership.
Finally, inasmuch as the Western economic crisis has been caused by the abuse of democratic freedoms (unbridled populism, etc.), we should entertain the possibility that Putin's managed democracy may, in fact, be a superior model for Russia. It is better able to check the effects of unbridled populism, the power of the oligarchy (which in the West also purchases votes), and it is considerably more effective in strategic thinking and decision-making for the nation.
BACK TO GEORGIA!
CCI fabulous supporter, Don Chapman, organized and drove me from one meeting to another, sometimes three events in a morning. Yes, 6:45 am, 10 am, and noon! The books had all been sold by the third day, and we were praying for a shipment in time for that evening––it did.
Audience responses were terrific:
Having been told my book was published too late, since Russia is supposedly now a post-prime country (with the latest spotlight being on China), I was prepared for disinterest in the book. Not so, at least for the tours to date. Size and rapt attention of audiences, book sales, Q&A questions, and referrals to Governors suggesting presentations to District Conferences, tell me that interest in Russia and the themes of the book are still much in demand. As result of the NW Ohio tour, and I'll keynote District 6505 Rotary Conference in May. Thanks to Grant Wilkins, former Rotary International Board member, I will present at Colorado's District 6504 Rotary Conference at Vail in April.
The home "evening presentations" followed by discussions have been warmly received by a wide range of community participants. They provide plenty of time to ask good questions, share experiences and ideas, and enjoy each other's contributions.
Newnan, the hub of the Georgia tour, is a prosperous southern town south of Atlanta. Sherman's army never burned this lovely little place during the Civil War, so refurbished magnificent antebellum homes line many of the downtown streets. I never tired of driving through their city.
Newnan also has up-to-date accomplishments: I was taken to their Central Educational Center (CEC), a National Model School for "Seamless Education and Work Force Development," where I saw amazing advances in technical/business/and ethics education. High school students prepare for college, technical and academic educations at CEC. Billed as the first such school in the nation, it is the brainchild of former banker Mark Whitmore. We visited CEC's TV training center where production cameras, sets, lights, makeup, and instructions were all carried out by high school students. One guided me to the set with explanations, another followed with permission documents to sign, another applied makeup, another adjusted my microphone with instructions––all with an air of professionalism. Meanwhile, cameras were being adjusted by teenagers, they checked our seating, and announced to Whitmore that they were ready to shoot.
On cue, Whitmore himself sat down in the interview chair and began by quietly asking students for instructions ... how to sit, turn, cameras, etc. Watching this youthful interaction was amazing. They were modest, well-trained, and confident––and they were predominantly young people of color. CEC operates a Newnan TV channel that provides day-long educational programs, taped interviews, entertainment, cooking/healthy lifestyle classes, town news, PR for Newnan events, etc. The Impossible Ideas interview went smoothly and without a glitch.
Next to Northern California and Southwestern Oregon! All the best to you, Sharon Tennison