Authors: Matthew Crosston, PhD & Dmitrii Seltser
We have undertaken an inter-regional comparison of seven subjects of the Russian Federation: the Ryazan, Samara, Tambov, and Ulyanovsk oblasts and the Republics of Mordovia, Udmurtia, and Chuvashia.
This approach we feel creates an adequate field for analysis as it encompasses two oblasts each from the Volga and Central Russian regions (these are traditional subjects for comparison in Russia) as well as three national republics with their extraordinarily high political diversity. The principal results of the project have already been published [1, 2]. However, in Russia over the past 10 years, new elections were held.
Electoral procedures for city heads and rural raion administrations in Russia (1991-2015)
|5.||2008-2010||Mixed electoral system|
|6.||2012-2014||Mixed electoral system|
In Russia sub-regional authority was first appointed in 1991 and then elected through five electoral cycles (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008-2010, 2012-2014). Two new electoral cycles have occurred, thus creating a need to continue the research. This article is a report made by the authors in ICCEES IX World Congress, Makuhari, Japan, 3-8 August 2015.
II. The Collision: 1991
Recall the historical context: the autumn of 1991 was the zenith of Yeltsin’s glory as concerns societal support (not popularity, mind you, but glory in the pop-culture movie-star sense). This glory was marked by the ovations from oblast committees, the renaming of newspapers, the removal of Derzhinskii’s statue from Lyubyanka Sqaure and the naked pursuit of the local nomenclature with the shrill question – where were you on August 19? In a word, it was the apotheosis of an emergent anti-communist democratic country. The new authority would be able to begin its reign with great fanfare and, in the sense of obtaining legitimacy, with great effectiveness. The way was open and obvious – if you could win through general, fair, direct, and transparent elections, in direct contradiction to the Soviet experience, you could be infused by the process with a true democratic essence. Such a task seemed wholly attainable.
But if that was the case, why weren’t there such elections? The official explanation always returned first to the danger of a communist retrenchment, of a new August putsch: that the extraordinary circumstances brought the threat of the Russian state’s actual dissolution. These maxims (Don’t let the Russian Federation suffer the same fate of the Soviet Union!) were widely distributed both for public consumption and the scholarly community. Thus, the new Russia missed its chance for constituent elections (i.e., missed its chance for making a real movement to democracy) and began instead a transition to a more ‘culturally appropriate Russian way.’ Ultimately, this was in fact a tremendous mistake by the new authorities, a barrier to the democratization of the country, a blow to the party system, and a main source of the bitter conflict that would emerge between the President and Federal Parliament.
In our view this mistake was largely false and man-made, connected with a critically low-brow and peculiar world-view that was seemingly innate to the post-putsch Russian leadership. The new residents of the Kremlin not only understandably feared the Communist party, but they also didn’t believe in the personal victory they had just achieved and were not ready to fulfill a more responsible governance role. They possessed neither the statesman’s demeanor nor the legislative experience and thus found themselves buried deep in the captivity of decades-long complexes and stereotypes. From this foundation they inevitably positioned themselves like a fortress under siege and treated all around them as if they were enemies, actual or potential.
The Presidium of the Verkhovnii Soviet of the RSFSR, which had just before been a supporter of Yeltsin in opposition to the Soviet Union central government, adopted a decision on September 6, 1991 to allow for the direct election of the heads of regional administrations beginning on November 24, 1991. However the decision was subsequently vetoed: analysts for “Democratic Russia” prognosticated a tremendous defeat for the supporters of the President (at best they felt there might be 10 or 12 victories versus 36 iron-clad defeats). It was this very prognosis, which subsequently proved to be partly mistaken, that served as the basis for the realization of the “executive vertical.” As a result of this dramatic struggle the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies acquiesced to a resolution on November 1, 1991 that effectively placed a moratorium on elections across all administrative levels until December 1, 1992. Thus, in 1991 the new authority de facto rejected constituent elections and began a “democratic” transition in the style of a Byzantine court. The procedure they developed, born from the President’s inner circle, was quite simple: the President would appoint governors while these, in turn, would appoint the heads of sub-regional administrations. In this way, the glow of democratic victory following the August coup led immediately to the very same democrats turning their backs on democracy for the rest of the country moving forward. If Lenin felt he needed a vanguard of the proletariat, Yeltsin’s team apparently felt it needed the exact same for democracy.
Recruiting the heads of City and Raion administration (1991-1992)
Dep. Chair, Soviets
|Chair, Dep.Chair,Exec. Soviets||21||21||15||10||15||13||14||109||54,8|
In more than half of the cases (52%), the heads of administration were recruited directly from the chairs of the city and raion executive committees. The directorate and first secretaries lagged significantly behind, with only 17.6% and 16.6% respectively. The chairs and deputy chairs of the soviets, as well as the deputy chairs of the executive committees, added to the surprisingly impressive success of Soviet apparatchiks (5.1% and 4.6% respectively). In total it worked out that 117 people came to leadership positions in the sub-regions (58.4%) directly from the Soviet nomenclature apparatus. Most importantly, there were no striking inter-regional differences with this percentage, only a few minor exceptions. In Ryazan Oblast, the chairs of the executive committees of the Soviets achieved an extraordinary 75.9%. In Samara Oblast, the divergent result came from the first secretaries with 28.6%. In Udmurtia, the directors were greatly represented with 34.5%.
What accounts for this relative lack of success of the first secretaries? We surmise the continuous rotation of the oblast committee first secretaries (it subsequently came to be commonly known as the cadre meatgrinder), organized by the general secretary across the top echelons of the party hierarchy, created a de facto collapsing interchangeability at the sub-regional level.
Interchangeability of City and Raion First Secretaries of the Communist Party of USSR
The continuous shifting of first secretaries across various locations placed them in a tremendously difficult position. Many who appeared in the sub-regions for the first time were immediately placed in the position of first secretary. For a non-competitive system with a continuous rotation of cadres this would have been almost normal. In a competitive system this made the first secretaries politically doomed. Recall that in March 1990 Gorbachev became the President of the USSR and allowed for the simultaneous holding of dual political office, thereby crudely raising the status of local soviet leaders. The elections for these local soviet deputies in 1990 became a bitter pill for the city and raion first secretaries. They were charged with the difficult task of finding a way to be elected to these local soviets and then subsequently head them. Those who did not succeed were consequently relieved of their right to head the city and raion committees. In the majority of cases where the first secretaries succeeded in becoming the leaders of the local soviets, they usually found themselves in collision with the directors of local industry (for example, in Samara and Ulyanovsk Oblasts and the Republic of Udmurtia.)
Chairs of local Soviets (elections of 1990)
|Region||1st Secretary||Secretary||Chair, 1st Dep. Chair of Exec. Committee||Others (Directorate)||In Sum in the sub-regions|
This collision produced a direct hit on the authority of the first secretaries acting as the new chairs of local soviets and felt like someone was playing a cruel joke on them (in Tambov Oblast and the Republic of Chuvashia, for example). This “contra-elite” worked against the first secretaries/new soviet chairs, blocking all their attempts to penetrate the elite local power structure. Recruiting for the new elite thus came mostly from an old reservoir of power – the old guard Soviet party nomenclature with its preservation of an unadulterated pre-Perestroika rhetoric and access to local insider knowledge. In opposition to this development a democratic movement did try to emerge simultaneously at the local level, but in reality the aforementioned contra-elites had already formed the irrefutable foundation of regional power by 1991.
In the regions, where the successes of the first secretaries had been more humble in 1990, an immediate substitution was consequently made in favor of the chairs of the city and raion executive committees. Thus, the new federal authorities by 1991 had placed a risky political wager on their success. This was most easily symbolized by President Yeltsin’s decree on July 20, 1991, ‘About the dismantling of the party’ (O departizatsii). In the Republic of Mordovia, for example, the local apparatchiks reacted to the decree by being totally demoralized and were subsequently more preoccupied with finding new work. In the Republic of Bashkortastan only 34 city and raion secretaries remained, in Tambov Oblast only 13. In most cases replacements would end up being second secretaries who had no future prospects. These substitutions would succeed in place for only a few weeks at most, while some only managed to work in these positions for just a few days. These people were nearly without authority and wholly unsuited for the role of head of the local administration. The only remaining ‘choice’ to the first secretaries, becoming a source of regional support for the federal center, was not much better.
“Agents of Influence” for the federal center in the regions
|Region||Name of regional leader||Mini-political bio||Sub-regional politics|
|Industrial director, Chair of Oblast Exec. Committee (1988 – 1990)||The domination of the chair and his recent subordinates|
|Deputy director of “Informatika”, Chair of city soviet (1990)||Support the exec. committee chair and his recent subordinates|
|Chief doctor of Oblast Hospital (1977 – 1991), People’s Deputy of RSFSR (1990)||Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors|
V.V. Malafeev (appointed, 10/24/1991-11/2/1991)
Y.F. Goryachev (appointed)
Director of “Kontaktor”,
First sec. of oblast comm. CPSU (1990), chair of oblast soviet (1990)
|Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors|
(elected President of Mordovia, 12/22/1991)
|Senior scholar of NPO, People’s Deputy (1990)||Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors|
Chair of Supreme Soviet (1990)
Chair SM (1989)
|Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors|
Presidential elections in 1991 did not achieve results
Chair of Supreme Soviet (1991)
Chair of SM (1989)
|Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors|
“Partycrat” Y.F. Goryachev (Ulyanovsk Oblast), industrialist L.P. Bashmakov (Ryazan Oblast), academic V.D. Guslyannikov (Republic of Mordovia), doctor V.D. Babenko (Tambov Oblast), duma deputies V.K. Tubilov, N.E. Mironov (Republic of Udmurtia) and E.A. Kubarev, N.A. Zaitsev (Republic of Chuvashia), all were chosen according to one stark logic: chief support fell on the chairs of the local executive committees as they were the least politically dangerous. If for whatever reason the chairs were inappropriate, then the choice fell on the industrialists. Only in those instances where both chairs and industrialists were not available did they seek out “loyal” first secretaries of the new authority, capable actors of the democratic movement, or people who had fallen out of the nomenclature during the Soviet era. Indeed this process of appointing first secretaries was done only with great reluctance. The only exception to this process seemed to be K.A. Titov in Samara.
It was because of this that the first secretaries only managed to maintain their positions in 15% of the cases. Simultaneously, a small part of their number (less than 10%) did not fall from the nomenclature but simply exited into the oblast structures, as the new heads of local administration needed experienced and young administrators. These first secretaries of the provinces who ended up in the oblast centers were not considered dangerous and therefore acceptable. For example, first secretary of the Kotovsk city committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union O.I. Betin became the first deputy for the head of the Tambov Oblast administration in 1999. Betin would then become Governor of Tambov Oblast and has remained in this position. In this way nearly a quarter of the leaders of the sub-regions were able to preserve a primary spot for themselves in the local organs of power.
III. The Transformation: 1992-2015
The above explains why the events of 1991 did not allow the first secretaries many chances to hold on to their former positions of power. At best, only a few of them were able to hold on to power at the sub-regional level. This collision of appointments happened throughout 1991-1992. It is now necessary to move forward, discussing the developments that have emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union. After this appointing collision, the sub-regions in Russia went through three electoral cycles (the mid-1990s, the late 1990s, and the early 2000s). Each successive cycle further weakened the position of the first secretaries. Each successive election the first secretaries suffered losses of around 50%: the first cycle put an end to their dominant leadership role in the sub-regions; the second cycle displayed the futility in attempting to return to power; and the third cycle basically ended as a total fiasco for the former first secretaries.
First secretaries of the City and Raion Committees of the CPSU – subregional leaders
(<+> = appointment of first secretaries as heads of administration [between elections])
(<-> = removal of first secretaries as heads of administration [between elections])
1st Electoral Cycle
2nd Electoral Cycle
3rd Electoral Cycle
|4rd Electoral Cycle (2008-2010)||5rd Electoral Cycle (2012-2014)|
What accounts for these trends across the electoral cycles? This ‘washing away’ of the party nomenclature out of the local administration system can be explained through a number of circumstances. During the elections of the mid-1990s the first secretaries who remained in power largely conceded to one of two groups: either to the minions of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) or to the local industrialists/businessmen (ironically, these candidates were often overlapping in the sub-regions). During this time the opposition leaders within the CPRF were concentrated mostly in the local legislative organs (the Soviets and Dumas) and were continuously on the attack. For them, the first secretaries – whether they be the heads of administration already or simply candidates for the position – were traitors and opponents to their overall agenda. In Tambov Oblast, for example, during the elections for the head of the Muchkapskoi raion administration in December 1996, the raion committee for the CPRF issued a summons for its members to vote for A.V. Trubnikov as first secretary of the raion committee. Trubnikov was at the time only a farmer and had as the height of his Soviet career a position as instructor of the agricultural divison of the raion committee of the CPSU. As a result, nine candidates ended up being carried to victory across the oblast because of the support of the CPRF. Amongst them were only three former first secretaries (Uvarovo, Staryuryevskii, and Mordvoskii raions). Fascinatingly and contrary to the scholarly literature in the West, the Tambov communists simply ignored the former party nomenclature. The organizational structures of the CPRF instead supported representatives from the powerful industrial elite, who had been almost wholly unconnected to the former nomenclature.
The elections in the late 1990s clearly demonstrated that the only leader capable of mobilizing the popular vote was one that had become part of some clan, namely, one that was pro-presidential. At the local level a peculiar ‘party of power’ arose again and again – formed from the various politico-economic groups that were stable enough to be consolidated around formal and informal leaders. The unity of such structures was established through official coordination, informal connections, coinciding interests on the personal front, and the manipulation of extreme dependence. The elections in the early 2000s only strengthened that trend toward clan development. Unfortunately for them, a place for the first secretaries really was not part of this new power structure. It quickly became clear to them, however, that there were other options, post-USSR, for achieving a more-or-less comfortable standard of living outside the organs of local administration. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that only the less successful first secretaries were ultimately recruited into the organs of local administration. For obvious financial reasons, these administrative positions were clearly on a secondary level in terms of priority. Two other sectors were more ideal and preferred: head in the direction of industrial activity, as captains of new industry emerging with the privatization of state property, or the pursuit of positions within the oblast administrative structures. Regardless of the choice, both of these options were attractive in comparison with local administrations because of their swift opportunities for personal enrichment. And so, where does that leave scholars if they seek to find the footprints of the sub-regions’ original ‘local heroes’? What became of them and what finally were their long-term career trajectories?
IV. The post-Soviet careers of City and Raion first secretaries
The post-Soviet career of city and raion first secretaries evolved along six trajectories:
First trajectory: ‘The Boom – jumping to a new system.’ This trajectory comprised governors, vice-governors, heads of oblast administrative structures, and top managers. It was less than 10% of the overall nomenclature and was marked by an ability to achieve increases in overall authoritative capacity. In 1991-1992 they became the new authority and ultimately the self-interested protectors of the new order. These figures would have likely achieved a comparable status within the Soviet Union with but one significant difference: under the new system they were incomparably better off financially.
Second trajectory: ‘The Preservation – successfully maintaining the continuation of administrative-political activism.’ This trajectory was comprised largely of the heads of oblast and raion administrations and was about 15% of the overall nomenclature. These figures managed to sustain their pre-1991 levels of authority. They did not form a support network for the new powers within the system (as this effort would be politically dangerous) and by the mid-1990s had achieved an administrative distance between themselves and the top trajectory.
Third trajectory: ‘The Quasi-Survival – remaining in the system of administration but suffering a reduction in authority to secondary roles within municipal structures.’ This trajectory comprised the largest percentage of the nomenclature, nearly 35%, and included the deputy heads of city and raion administration, the chairs and deputy chairs of city and raion soviets, and municipal workers who had a higher administrative status pre-1991. These successes did sometimes become significant: across a majority of sub-regions (57.1%) the first secretaries succeeded by 1990 in combining their post with another, usually chair of the local soviets. The dissolution of all local soviets, however, in 1993 ended this opportunity.
Fourth trajectory: ‘The Exchange – voluntarily transitioning away from political authority toward economic opportunities.’ This trajectory was the second largest category (25%) and was comprised of the managers/directors of industry. A large number of industrial managers came into the party organs by answering the “Gorbachev summons” during the second half of the 1980s, as Gorbachev sought to produce a swift transformation of party cadres. This status gave them a significant advantage when the privatization of industry and agriculture began. These managers and directors eagerly returned to what was for them a more comfortable and habitual role of activity and quickly established for themselves an enviable standard of living.
Fifth trajectory: ‘The Orthodox – resisting the new system.’ Comprising only 10% of the overall nomenclature, this group was mostly made up of the first secretaries of the official raion and city branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. They successfully clung to their orthodox rhetoric and became ideological fighters against the new system. In the first half of the 1990s this trend was actually rather popular. The calculation to pursue this course of action paid off in the success of G.A. Zyuganov as a potential candidate for Russian Federation President and in their own personal success as the most believable and trusted heads of local administration. In the present day such opposition to the authority of V.V. Putin is not only futile but almost masochistic. Today this trajectory is basically closed.
Sixth trajectory: ‘The Exit – retiring into the pension system.’ This age group, who were mainly the most elderly first secretaries of the local Communist Party branches, made up only 5% of the total nomenclature. For the most part they put in for retirement immediately after the failed coup attempt in 1991.
This presentation has elaborated six trajectories which explain the general mutation and flow of authority and power of the sub-regional party nomenclature after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While this article certainly provides proof of the fusion between municipal service and business, it also shows the subtlety and diversity of options from which the late-stage Soviet nomenclature was able to choose. Clearly some options for lines of authority dominated over others. What should be emphasized, however, is how closely those choices ultimately gave foreshadowing for some of the most significant problems and flaws that would occur throughout the 1990s and beyond as Russia tried to complete its transition to democracy and a free-market economy. The poor choices and frustrations of the sub-regional nomenclature were often ultimately mirrored in poor choices and frustrations within the transition at the federal level.
Thus, the chain of power in Russia evolved in the following manner:
1991 – Manager with work experience in Soviet organs (so-called «the Soviet nomenclature»).
1996 – Manager Nomenclature of the Soviet era.
2000 – Non-nomenclature Managers, placed by clans.
2004 – Non-nomenclature Managers plus other persons, also placed by clans.
2008-2010 – Peoples from outside, Varangians (Businessmen and Intelligence officers).
2012-2014 – Varangians somewhat transformed into a new type, but still close to the governors.
Matthew Crosston, PhD
Bellevue University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Professor of Political Science
Miller Endowed Chair for Industrial and International Security,
Director – The ISIS Program: International Security and Intelligence Studies
Tambov State University named after G.R. Derzhavin, Tambov, Russia
Doctor of Political Science, Professor of Foreign Affairs and Political Science
Did Russia-China Relations Successfully Pass the “COVID,” “Hong Kong,” “India” and “Belarus” Tests?
Russia-China relations have been steadily improving since at least 2013, when the leaders of both countries presented a joint statement calling for deepening bilateral relations of “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” This formula has been modified with an addition of the “new era,” signifying both countries recognising new global challenges and the changing geopolitical environment. COVID-19 has largely contributed to the intensification of certain trends, including antagonism with the U.S. and the pursuit of more robust bilateral ties.
If before both countries would challenge and combat U.S. hostility (economic sanctions, political pressure, adversary rhetoric, etc.) mainly on their own, they are now more inclined to align and coordinate actions to elaborate more coherent voices towards the West. In late July, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the U.S. could not drive a wedge between Russia and China by expecting Moscow to join its anti-China alliance. Rather, Russia views further improvement of relations with China as a major factor that will contribute to stability in global politics.
In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, amid the virus outbreak, bilateral support between Russia and China became a safe fortress for “political viruses.” During a telephone conversation in July, Putin and Xi stressed that the agenda for the strategic partnership in Russia-China relations was materialised during the pandemic in the form of mutual help provided at a critical moment.
China and Russia have recently demonstrated the historical legacy of their close relations through the publication of a co-authored report by Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. The report unambiguously states that all countries must combine their efforts to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, terrorism, world pandemics, economic downturns, etc. These concerns are all focal points in which Russia and China have achieved mutual understanding.
Notably, even during the very vague political gridlock of the Belarusian leadership in the aftermath of the August presidential elections, China and Russia immediately demonstrated their support to the re-elected president Lukashenko. While President Putin congratulated the Belarusian president with a telegram, President Xi-Jinping opted for a personal phone call, during which he reassured Mr Lukashenko of China’s strong commitment to “push forward Chinese-Belarusian comprehensive strategic partnership.” Such profound political signals did not go unnoticed in Minsk, which has expressed gratitude to Russia and China for their support during these challenging times. China’s position on Belarus is important for Russia, as Moscow regards Belarus as its closest and most faithful ally. Belarus is now moving towards a higher level of political and economic integration with Russia, becoming a “Union State.”
As a signal of recognition and respect for Chinese core interests, Russia extended its support to China over Hong Kong, which came under the global spotlight following the introduction of the National Security Law in June. In a very crucial moment for China, when it received widespread criticism from all other major powers, Russia bluntly stressed that “the situation in Hong Kong as a purely internal matter of China,” thus fending off all speculation on the city’s juridical status.
China and Russia have recently vowed to strengthen their coordination on international platforms, which was seen in early July in the UN during their opposition to the extension of cross-border aid in Syria. The opposition to the U.S. initiative in June within the UN Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran following the break-up of the 2015 nuclear deal was another display of harmonised action. Multiple international issues were touched upon during the meeting between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers on September 11. Both countries reaffirmed the “closeness of their views on effective solutions to them,” and stressed that “the destructive character of Washington’s actions undermines global strategic stability.” Overall, the meeting once again confirmed the shared views of Russia and China in both the multilateral and bilateral dimensions.
The Russia-India-China format has made significant progress after a period of relatively little activity. The latest gathering of the RIC group took place in June. At that time, Moscow highlighted that India-China border conflicts were to be solved based on bilateral agreements only. Recently, Moscow has initiated negotiations between the defence ministers of India and China in order to find conflict mitigation solutions. As a result, Chinese and Indian officials met for the first time since the border dispute in May.
By organising peace talks involving China and India, Russia is playing a critical role in regional affairs. The upcoming meeting of the respective ministers of foreign affairs reinforces this statement. Meanwhile, the U.S. has repeatedly pitched its own candidacy as an intermediary, with the most recent attempt in early September. Russian media positioned the Moscow-hosted China-India meeting on September 10 as a rare foreign policy success. During their “frank and constructive” discussion in Moscow, India and China reached an important agreement to deescalate border tensions which are not in “the interest of either side.”
Economically, Sino-Russian cooperation experienced a COVID-19 blow, with trade volume falling by 5,6 per cent in June, amounting to USD 50 billion. Although it may have a tangible impact on the annual statistics, moving the 2019-set milestone for 2024 away from the predicted USD 200 billion in trade follows the global trend of economic contraction, with consumer demand in free fall. For example, the overall volume of Chinese foreign trade from January to June dropped by 6,6 per cent. However, this trade contraction reflects more about global trade dynamics at the moment than changes in Russia-China relations.
As a recent sign of combined efforts to contain U.S. global ambitions, Russia and China were able to decrease U.S. dollar transaction for trade to its historical minimum – from 51 per cent in 2019 to 46 per cent in 2020. The same trend for intensified bilateral cooperation can also be seen in the energy sphere. Following the successful launch of “Power of Siberia” last December, the Russian state energy giant “Gazprom” is embracing a new audacious initiative, the “Power of Siberia-2” gas pipeline. The project will connect Russia, China and Mongolia. On behalf of the President of Russia, Gazprom started the design and survey work on the project in May.
Energy cooperation remains a crucial element of bilateral relations. Fresh statistics show that in July, Russia once again secured its position as the largest importer of oil to China, with a 30 per cent spike. This amounted to 7.38 million tons (compared to 2019). In April, Russia took over Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil supplier, delivering 7.2 million tons. This is 18 per cent more than in 2019.
Russia-China relations represent a “strategic partnership,” which means that the two countries view themselves as partners on strategic issues. Indeed, on a majority of topics, be it global governance, world economic structure, geopolitics or security, Russia and China are on the same page. Many of them are of strategic significance pertaining to both sides. Both countries enjoy fruitful cooperation on multilateral platforms such as BRICS, SCO and the UN.
Nevertheless, despite their flawless facade, Russia-China relations have a weak spot – their difference in strategic and national interests. This is normal for global powers. For example, Beijing can never compromise its core national interests such as the South China Sea (SCS), Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet, even to please its tried and tested partner, Moscow. This explains why China has repeatedly pressured Vietnam to halt all oil extraction activities in the SCS over the last two years. This has resulted in Vietnam suspending business cooperation in the SCS with the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft. On the other hand, Russia will never put its core interests at risk (especially concerning territorial integrity), irrespective of Beijing’s rhetoric concerning Russian Far East territories.
As long as Russia and China base their partnership on coinciding strategic interests and avoid any ubiquitous and provocative moves – their relations are likely to remain in the current burgeoning state or under the best circumstances can even be elevated to a higher level. Overall, during the first half of the year, relations between China and Russia were challenged several times. Despite some small cracks, like decreasing trade and frictions regarding energy projects in the South China Sea, their flawless mutual propaganda remains untarnished. As long as they can maintain a close and mutually beneficial bilateral tie, they should be able to endure any future challenges with ease.
From our partner RIAC
Legitimate soft power or malign influence?
The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.
There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.
For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.
The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.
In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.
From state to people
I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.
Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?
Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.
Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).
Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.
Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.
From digital to physical
In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.
A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.
Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.
Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.
Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?
Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.
A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.
In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.
Good image can be threatening
Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).
In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.
Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.
Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.
Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77
Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363
Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160
Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471
Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus
The world has been rivetted by the largest protests in Belarus’ history over the course of the past month. Dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, its President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus ever since winning the country’s first and only democratic election in 1994. But is this the end for Lukashenko? Certainly, some have already dubbed this as another “Color Revolution” moment in reference to similar civil society “People’s Power” protests that were able to bring down post-Soviet governments from Kyrgyzstan to Serbia, and most recently the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych in Belarus’ multiethnic southern neighbor Ukraine in 2014. But that will not happen in Belarus. This article does not mean to be callous but frank. The stark reality is that Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country that is vital to Russia’s national security interests. It will never surrender that to the opposition in Minsk or the West and NATO.
First, culturally Belarus is overwhelmingly Russian. Belarus’ population of 9.5 million people, 84% are ethnic Belarussians and 70% are native Russian speakers, Belarus’ only official language. Unlike Ukraine or the Baltic countries, Belarus lacks a strong ethnic base to sustain a pro-European political movement. Moscow will never abandon these Russians either, if needed it will intervene militarily under the guise of securing their rights, as it has done already in Eastern Ukraine. Such a maneuver would lead to a devastating conflict, with serious regional implications, and could begin a cascade of interventions to protect Russian speaking minorities on its borders.
Moreover, Belarus’ location situated right on Russia’s western frontier makes it is too strategically important for Moscow to allow it to join the fold of NATO. The Belarussian steppe is an invasion and counterattack route that quickly conveys invading European armies to the gates of Moscow, or Russian forces into Western Europe. Belarus was the first to fall during Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and it is in Belarus during Operation Bagration that the Red Army opened the road to Berlin. Today, Belarus’ existence within Russia’s political orbit is vital to provide it a buffer with NATO’s Eastern frontier. Without it, NATO could deploy forces just about 200 miles from Moscow. Thus, for Russia, any political change is a strategic threat. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea to, in part, protect its naval station at Sevastopol, after theUkrainians overthrew their pro-Russian leader Yanukovych, then it will do the same and more to Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s ouster.
Additionally, a stable Belarus is vital to Russia’s core economic interests. It is through Belarus that major oil and gas pipelines transit from Russia to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Baltic States. At least 10% of Europe’s oil needs come through the Druzhba pipeline in southern Belarus. And although Russia has also worked to diversify its avenues to export gas directly to the energy consuming countries of Europe, including with the construction of the Nordstream II and Turkstream pipelines, Belarus’ central location will always remain important as the most direct route to transport gas to Europe. In fact, Russia is already in a contentious dispute with Ukraine over gas pipelines, and it will not stand to also lose Belarus as a stable gas corridor.
And if that was not enough, one must remember Belarus is institutionally tied to Russia. It was at a hunting lodge in the Belarussian forest that in 1991, the leaders of the Soviet Union’s three Slavic republics: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine came together to formally end the Soviet Union by declaring their independence together in the Belzahevy Accords. Five years later, Belarus then reversed its separation from Russia when it formed a Commonwealth in 1996, and finally the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” or simply the “Union State” in 1999. This experiment in reestablishing the Soviet Union as a unitary political entity includes Schengen Area-style freedom of movement and a single executive that until a recent constitutional referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked prepared to strengthen and assume the leadership of in order to stay in power. Now, Putin has raised the possibility of further integration as an antidote to the current protests. Belarus’ fate is thus closely tied to Russia’s own future as a nation state.
Notably, Belarus is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian led security alliance of regional states including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the CSTO countries, Belarus can request an international (albeit Russian-led) “Collective Rapid Reaction Force,” to intervene and stabilize the country. As an elected leader, Lukashenko would be well within his rights to request the CSTO to intervene, and Russia already noted weeks ago that it forces remained ready in “reserve” at Belarus’ request. This would be an entirely legal use of military force to quell the domestic unrest and secure Lukashenko’s rule.
Lukashenko is the human embodiment of Russia’s interests in Belarus. He has made possible the expansion of Russia’s influence in the country since his election in 1994 and has had the unenviable task of placating Russia, balancing Europe and preserving his own independence, to some degree, from Moscow. He is the only ruler modern Belarusians have ever known, and the only one who can be trusted to steward the interests of Moscow and ethnolinguistic Russians. He is therefore the lynchpin of any strategy to preserve Russia’s interests in the country. Whether Moscow likes it or not, Lukashenko is irreplaceable. Frankly, sanctions will not convince him to retire, but only remind him that to fail, to lose power, will lead to his demise, and possibly his imprisonment or death for only Russia can affect the situation on the ground in Belarus.
Most of all, Lukashenko is the only one trusted by the military. As noted by Belarus’ Soviet-era leader Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarussian army is manned and led by Lukashenko loyalists, it is one of the largest military force per-capita for its population, and its general staff leadership are well paid for their service to the state. Their fates are inexorably tied: a large, well-paid, ethnically homogenous military and their patron leader President Lukashenko. It is highly unlikely they will defect to the opposition, but even if so, that will only lead to a civil war and a Russian intervention. The presence of Lukashenko loyalists in the military ensures buttressed by the Russian speaking population ensures he will always have a strong power base in the country.
There may be a tendency in the West to think the Belarussian opposition will win. This belief is what guided overwhelming international support for Juan Guido in Venezuela to take power from the government of Nicholas Maduro. But Maduro held firm, knowing his allies in the military will decide his and the country’s future. They stayed in lockstep with the government, and despite massive opposition protests and the defection of much of Maduro’s political base, his government did not yield. They mortgaged the country’s future to survive –but survive they did.
The US especially must learn from Venezuela, or for that matter the rest of the interventions on its diplomatic resume. It is not a simple matter of course to remove governments even when the population is resoundingly opposed to their rule. Unless NATO, the US, and Europe plan on supporting a military opposition against Russia (which nobody is proposing), risking a direct confrontation with Moscow as well, there is little to no chance of changing the rulers in Minsk.
Of course, for the West, it still makes sense to support the opposition vocally, even if their defeat is inevitable. At the very least, it is a chance to draw attention to a crisis on Russia’s doorstep, at most, it will grant it an ally in a revolutionary Belarussian government –for all of five minutes that is, before Russian soldiers duly force it from office and restore Lukashenko to power. Belarus is in Russia’s backyard. The West should not forget that as it watches events unfold in Minsk.
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