A just-published report by Russia’s premier political analyst, Lilia Shevtsova, has important implications for the post-Soviet states in general and Ukraine in particular. Titled “Russia XXI: The Logic of Suicide and Rebirth,” the report was released by the Moscow Carnegie Center in January 2013. Shevtsova, who together with democratic reformer Grigory Yavlinsky shares the distinction of having been born and raised in the West Ukrainian city of Lviv, chairs the center’s Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program and is the author of, among many other books, Putin’s Russia and Russia—Lost in Transition. When Shevtsova speaks, Western policymakers and academics listen—and post-Soviet dictators should listen.
The “Russia XXI” report has good news for democrats and well-wishers of Russia: Vladimir Putin’s days as Russia’s dictator are numbered. According to Shevtsova, “The Russian system is beginning to decay. It cannot sustain the crumbling status quo, nor can it be certain of finding a new incarnation for itself. The only real questions are what stage of decay the system is in, whether the agony of its demise has already started, and, if so, how long it will last. To be sure, the system still has some resources, if not to revive itself, then to draw out its death, and that survival instinct could take a nasty, even bloody, form.”
That last sentence suggests that the demise of Putin’s fascistoid regime could take on nasty forms with profoundly deleterious consequences for Russia and Russians:
The system no longer has adequate resources to manage society through means of mass coercion and force; the resources required for that are being quickly depleted. By opting for harsher management instruments, the regime will significantly truncate its own support base. By suppressing the relatively moderate opposition, which is trying to express itself openly and constitutionally, and by rejecting constitutional rights and freedoms, the Kremlin itself will breed a radical and destructive opposition that will act clandestinely and opt for violent methods. It is the Kremlin that is shoving these differences of opinion and opposing viewpoints into a revolutionary niche.
In its attack on pluralism, the regime is not only radicalizing the conflict and accelerating the political cycle, it is also reducing the chances of reaching an agreement between the opposition and a part of the ruling elite. As it tries to shift responsibility for the use of force to all of the elite, the Kremlin impairs the chances for the formation of a pragmatic wing ready for a peaceful exit from the Russian system.
No less serious is the fact that the current ruling elite, feeling that is has been cornered and apparently beginning to understand the nature of the challenges, has started to consciously pursue a policy that will deepen the degradation of society, preserve its atomization, and provoke ethnic and social hatreds. This is the goal of the Kremlin’s propaganda and policy: to prevent society’s consolidation against the authorities and to provoke conflicts and tensions that make the authorities the arbitrator. If this policy is successful, Russia is doomed.
In order to forestall such a dire outcome, says Shevtsova, it is imperative for the democratic opposition to get its act together as soon as possible:
The agenda for the upcoming political season contains a few objectives. One of them is consolidating the opposition and formulating an agenda that is responsive to the challenges posed by a more repressive regime. Another objective is integrating political and socioeconomic demands. Yet another is uniting all of the opposition factions and the moderates within the system ready for change under the banner of universal democratic demands and the peaceful transformation of the system.
The fast-paced events of the day and the degradation of the system may call for some ad hoc changes to the agenda, but one objective remains paramount under any circumstances: the pledge by all participants in the political process to renounce personalized power and to step down from positions of power in case of electoral defeat. This has never happened in Russian history. If Russia finally manages to do it, it will have reached its “end of history” and the beginning of a new one.
Note that Shevtsova’s analysis could be applied, word for word, to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and a number of other dysfunctional post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Just as these regimes emerged from similar political and economic circumstances that may loosely be termed the “Soviet and post-Soviet legacy,” so, too, these regimes are likely to break down, collapse, or crack up for the same reasons, the primary one being their systemic unsustainability. Moreover, just as these regimes emerged pretty much at the same time, so, too, they are likely to vanish at the same time. Indeed, one can easily imagine that the collapse of any one of them—and especially of Putin’s regime—will immediately have spillover effects in the others, producing a chain reaction of regime breakdowns similar to the collapse of communism that swept East Central Europe in the course of six months in 1989. Domino theory redux, anyone?
As Shevtsova warns us, Russia’s collapse could be peaceful and lead to democratic consolidation or it could be bloody and spell Russia’s doom. Exactly the same outcomes face post-Yanukovych Ukraine, post-Lukashenko Belarus, and post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan. It is conceivable that we’ll witness, within the next five or so years, a wave of democratic transitions in the entire post-Soviet space or a wave of bloody breakdowns. The former scenario would be wonderful, but, as Shevtsova says, it can happen if and only if the democrats prepare for it accordingly. The latter scenario—breakdown—would be a disaster for everyone concerned. Its consequences—instability, economic collapse, refugees, bloodshed—would definitely spill over into East Central Europe and, despite the iron curtain set up by the Schengen-zone countries, into the core of the European Union as well. Smart Western policymakers might consider asking themselves whether they’re doing enough to prevent that doomsday scenario from happening. The wrong way to proceed is to try to prop up doomed regimes, even if they export gas. The right way is to start working with the democratic oppositions in preparation for the day the dictators disappear.
It’s too late for the regimes in Russia, Belarus, and, probably, Kazakhstan to change: they’ve been around for too long and they’re too entrenched. It may not be too late for the significantly younger and less entrenched Yanukovych regime to try to change its spots and avoid an ignominious end. All Yanukovych need do is free Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko, sell his palatial estates outside Kyiv, tell his son Sasha to go back to dentistry, fire the thuggish Minister of Education Dmitri Tabachnik, and retire before the 2015 presidential elections. Oh, and read Shevtsova’s excellent report now, when he could learn a thing or two about survival—and not several years from now, when he’s in the slammer or on the lam.
Photo Credit: premier.gov.ru