Modest Kolerov: Putin: The School of Consensus and the War of the Majority

27 января 2010  13:05 Отправить по email

The History of Politics

The history of politics in Russia is surrounded by thousands of myths, the two most common of which are of the country’s innate collectivism and authoritarianism. Commentators on Russia find it difficult to resist alluding to primitive ideas regarding the historical lack of freedom in Russia, but easy to produce propaganda based on Russophobia or Russophilia. In fact, however, it is impossible to characterize Russian politics in such simple terms. The history of Russia is much more complicated than these myths suggest, for a number of reasons. First, fierce ideological, corporate, personal and  economic battles have always been present in both the public politics and public governance of Russia. Second, mass public politics historically only appeared in Russia around the time of the first bourgeois revolution. Third, even when activities in the public political sphere were severely restricted, as in the Stalinist Soviet Union, Russia never actually managed to eliminate political struggle altogether, as was ably demonstrated by the plots by Beria and Malenkov to kill the dying Stalin as he was preparing to sacrifice them in yet another bloody purge. Fourth, the struggle for power and resources throughout Russian history can be seen as a fight for unity among the majority. Because of Russia’s extreme social, ethnic, religious and economic diversity, even mass government terror had to be selective.

The History of Consensus

The creation of a stable majority in Russia has always been a difficult task. Only twice in Russia’s 20th-century history did social consensus result in an electoral majority: first during the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917, and second during the first Russian presidential elections in June 1991. In 15 1917, 80 per cent of voters opted for the radical socialist parties; in 1991, 57 per cent voted for Yeltsin. But these electoral majorities were not principally of an institutional nature; their ethos was transitory and revolutionary. The institutions that they were intended to legitimize, and helped create, proved ephemeral. The Constituent Assembly of 1917 disappeared with the onset of civil war; the embryonic institutional arrangements created in June 1991 were quickly made redundant by the attempted coup, the dissolution of the USSR and Yeltsin’s victory in the Russian civil war of the early 1990s. Even when politics in Russia has involved mass  movements, and even during revolutionary periods, there was no real nationwide consensus in the political sphere. In some periods the demand for personal and national security came first, in others the demand for social justice; but the two were never effectively combined. The demand for social justice predominated in both 1917 and 1991. After the revolution in 1917, when the peasant classes formed the majority of the population, the demand for radical social liberation was expressed outside the realm of existing national institutions, during the Black Repartition of 1918, when Russian villages swallowed all available land and turned in on themselves. But the Black Repartition was not implemented in the form originally proposed by the Socialist Revolutionary party in 1917; the slogan was exploited by the Bolsheviks and implemented in a different and ultimately unsustainable form – mass private production under conditions of political dictatorship. In 1991, the initial popular demand was for a new form of mass ownership (“consumer ownership”) and for the free privatization of housing. Once again, this temporary moment of social consensus was ultimately utopian. It was eventually superseded by another social reality, another economic dictatorship of new monopolistic owners – this time in the form of the “oligarchs”. In both 1917 and 1991, the social consensus undermined the security consensus and the integrity of the government (if, in fact, it ever had any) because the majority chose utopian equality rather than security. This was not because the majority didn’t need security, but because the secret to security was thought to lie in social welfare. In other words, the government should turn its back on all areas of private-social interests. The result was the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917 and the Soviet Union in 1991, followed in both cases by a civil war. On the other hand, despite the civil war fought by Soviet communists against mass private property (and against its spread by Nazi collaborators), the security consensus predominated after 1941 and provided the key to the Soviet victory in World War II. But “military communism” – in other words, the mobilization of all human and natural resources to maximize industrial production – also predominated over the limited social gains of the period.

The Majority Today

The secret of Putin’s success is twofold. First, he has created, for the first time in Russian history, an all-national consensus that is based not on utopian hopes but on a stable institutional majority.  Second, he is the first Russian leader to represent both a social and a security consensus. The arrival of Putin in power in 1999 was unique for being the first social and security consensus in Russian history that was implemented in accordance with the wishes of the majority. In 1999, the country faced potential collapse. All previous attempts at instituting governance based on nationwide electoral legitimacy in Russia had run their course and liberal government had gone bankrupt. Russia faced an external threat in the form of NATO’s military campaign against Yugoslavia and an internal threat in the form of the attack by the de facto independent Chechnya on Dagestan – in other words, on Russia itself. The demand for security was real and required not mere rhetoric but practical, effective self-defence. The demand for the social justice that was destroyed by the liberal oligarchs in the 1990s also required strong action in the field of social policy. Russia could have once again  followed a path of “non-consensual elections” in the void between government capitulation and social utopianism. However, society’s instinct for effective government, as well as people’s personal experiences of 1917 and 1991, made the majority turn away from such a potentially fraught course. The dilemma of “Freedom without Russia” or “Russia without Freedom” is ascribed to the important Russian thinker and symbolist poet Zinaida Gippius. Because of her antipathy to the communist government, she chose the former option and went into exile in 1920. But the long civil war in the 1990s proved Gippius’s dilemma to be a false choice: without Russia (in other words, without a secure and united government) there could be no freedom (in other words, the union of the personal and private rights protected by the government). In the Russia of 1999, the security consensus had to be put into practice in its extreme form: national self-preservation. Constitutional rights, which in any case were poorly guaranteed on an institutional level, and, in the form of the 1993 constitution, no longer promised to meet utopian goals, were therefore seen as less important. The task facing Putin was not just to meet the hopes of the new “dual consensus”, but also to implement it as the head of a democratic and legal government. In fact, Putin’s road to implementing the will of the consensus majority was a long one. With only 53 per cent of the vote in 2000, Putin was not in possession of a political “blank cheque”. The nature of his rise to power meant that he had a limited mandate. In fact, he would later say that he was merely a “hired manager”. In order to function once again as a real active subject, the Russian state needed both to establish true national security and to liquidate all would-be substitutes for national institutions – for example, liberal monopolists, regional feudalists and self-regulating mafias. Putin’s success in this respect gave him a consensual majority of 71 per cent by the time of his second election in 2004 (since then his personal approval rating has settled at about 70-75 per cent). It is therefore possible to say that, for the first time in Russian history, the  implementation of the national consensus was achieved not through the revolutionary application of utopian ideas, but through a firmly institutionalized majority.

The Majority Tomorrow

The battle of the majority to implement this national consensus through the legitimization and empowerment of their leader is ongoing. There are still many opportunists who are looking to take advantage of the situation by promoting individual interests under the cloak of consensus or the slogan “for all the good against all the bad”. Yet the ideas, principles and habits that the Russian  majority picked up during the course of their 20th-century experiences –civil war; the fight for survival; mobilization and the need for security; the eras of Tsar Nicholas II, Stalin the dictator, the gerontocracy of Brezhnev, and Yeltsin the populist – mean that it will not allow its sovereignty to be destroyed again. The conditions imposed on Putin by the majority have an institutional nature. The majority still keeps a critical eye on the continuing skirmishes between national institutions and their would-be substitutes. The majority expects Putin to protect national interests in the sphere of state security, but has also 18 assigned him the “technical task” of establishing more stable state institutions. The task of delivering social justice from corporate or regional oligarchs is also accompanied by another technical task, namely bringing an end to the era of self-sufficient party-corporate institutions. Society demands more, but the enemies of the Putin majority still lack the foundation on which to create a viable alternative. Leftists, socialists and communists offer to resurrect an archaic consensus of utopian justice through a fight against poverty and government economic monopoly. But the “alternative consensus” they aim for no longer exists and will not exist again for the foreseeable future. Even at their most practical, liberals lack a coherent plan for the future, except for return to an oligarch-based system of economic monopoly. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not address institutional issues; their main claim is simply to participate in the bureaucratic political monopoly. The biggest threat to the consensual majority comes from the bureaucratic monopoly in politics and the economy. The liberal oligarchs of the 1990s have been replaced in the 2000s by government  corporations; 40 per cent of Russia’s GDP is not accounted for in government statistics, which ignore small businesses. The unique dual majority created at the beginning of 2000 was unprecedented in Russian history and helped avoid a damaging course toward national “suicide” like those that Russia experienced in 1917 and 1991. For the first time in Russian history, an institution of true national leadership has been created. Now this leadership faces the task of establishing its consensual power within durable systems of compromise and contested public-state institutions.

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