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Authoritarianism in Russian Politics: State Reformation at stake?

Abu Sufian Shamrat

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Russia’s political development has been mixed since the fall of Soviet Union in 1991. An optimistic burst of activity in the early 1990s pushed the country from Soviet rule toward a greater emphasis on individual rights, but the country is now widely considered to be under authoritarian rule, or at least to be moving decisively toward centralization. At best, Russia can be seen as a “hybrid regime” or “competitive authoritarianism” that blends in some elements of electoral democracy. Russia’s trajectory since 1991 is one in which a democratizing moment has been followed by a return to more centralized power and decision making by a closed set of economic and political elites (Dickovick and Eastwood, 2015: 533). However, the central argument of this study is that the current Russian order is not participatory, democratic, and liberal enough due to personalization and centralization of political and economic powers by the executive body. As a result, the Russian political culture is struggling to construct a democratic fabric for the citizens based on equality, justice, rule of law, freedom, separation of powers, and egalitarian distribution. Institutional reform or re-design in the executive body, especially in the chief executive, would be a great initiative in order to visualize as well as build a democratic and liberal Russian order.

Russian Political Culture and Authoritarianism: Personalism and Centralization in Russian Politics

Historical Legacy of Russian Authoritarianism: Peter the Great, Russia’s first modern ruler, attempted to forcibly modernize the country imposing reforms i.e. “Table of Ranks” on his society centrally in the late seventeenth century. After a long period of Russian authoritarianism, the exile of Tsar due to the Russian Revolution of 1917created a short-lived space for participatory decision-making model under the leadership of Lenin. But after the death of Lenin, the top leaders engaged in a struggle to establish their supremacy over the Bolshevik party as well as over the statecraft. By 1929, Stalin had consolidated his authority purging numerous alleged opponent, often using “show trials” and forced confessions. From cold war to the disintegration of Soviet Union marked several autocratic events damaging the democratic fabric of the Russian Federation. In order to evaluate the changing face of the Russian leadership, four classifications of government could be outlined from the October Revolution of 1917 to the present. William Zimmerman, a research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and writer of the latest book Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin, explains these categories as something akin to a spectrum between democracy and totalitarianism, with varying degrees of authoritarianism between the two extremes. His major contribution to this concept is his focus on the size of the “electorate”, the group able to choose and remove leaders, as a defining characteristic that differentiates between various forms of authoritarianism. For example, the Soviet Union never deviated far from full authoritarianism, because even during the years of Gorbachev’s “glasnost,” leadership was effectively selected by a small group, and structures remained in place to ensure that the leadership would not be ejected. He continues his analysis through the fall of the Soviet Union and into the present, determining that much of Yeltsin’s regime fell under “competitive authoritarianism,” a state closer to democracy than totalitarianism. By the presidential election of 2008, however, the government under Putin had returned to full authoritarianism, because through media control, barriers to competition, and fraud, the power of choice was in the hands of very few (Gerber).

Putinian Model of Russian Authoritarianism: Putin’s United Russia party dominates Russian politics, occupying a majority of seats in the Duma, Russia’s parliament. Effectively able to pass any law, Putin has progressively undermined civil liberties and slowly consolidated power in the hands of the central government. Using a variety of aggressive tactics such as intimidation and slander to silence domestic opposition and solidify his office, Putin has managed to remain in power for over 18 years. His allies have even rewritten the constitution to allow Putin to run for a third (now fourth), extended term as president (Marsh, 2015).Under Putin, Russia has reasserted control over its traditional spheres of influence in the following ways: 1) solidify his own power base; 2) centralize authority; 3) strengthen the state; 4) curb the influence of the business leaders or “oligarchs” who might oppose him and his allies; and 5) resume a more assertive foreign policy (Dickovick and Eastwood, 2015: 530). Due to Putin’s authoritarian activities like revealing the government’s selective targeting of political opponents for prosecution, current Russia is often described as “hybrid” or “competitive authoritarianism” or “managed democracy”.

Personalization of Political Regimes and Dysfunctional Institutions: As a semi-presidential system, both president and prime minister have considerable powers. But in reality, the prime minister is playing a decisive role in the decision-making process of Russia initiating a regime of political personalization. As a result, informal and backstage exercise of power was fundamental here and Putin’s personal authority seems more important than formal powers.

Ideological Roots of Russian Competitive Authoritarianism: The roots of “competitive authoritarianism”, called by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, lie in the Cold War competition between the Leninist one-party state and free market liberal democracy. With the triumph of the Soviet Union and the United States in World War II, the two leading examples of these models competed for dominance. After years of economic distortion, political repression and stagnating standards of living, however, the Leninist one-party state began to lose the war of ideas. This ideological erosion drew from diverse sources- from images of sparkling American kitchens to underground human rights movements. The rot eventually spread to the Soviet Union, where the collapse of the Communist Party caused the Soviet Union to fracture into its constituent republics.

With the ideological collapse of the Leninist one-party state, liberal democracy was now widely perceived to be the best system for political and economic modernization.

Seeing the “writing on the Berlin wall,” political elites realized that they needed to appear “liberal” to hold on to power. But these elites refused to accept the concrete effects of liberal, pluralistic politics, including the real possibility of losing power. As a result, they developed intricate systems of “faking” liberal democratic politics in order to legitimize their rule with the appearance of liberal democracy while maintaining their monopoly on power. Levitsky and Way describe this new system as one where “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which fraud, civil liberties violations, and abuse of state and media resources so skew the playing field that the regime cannot be labeled democratic” (Partlett, 2012).

Hybrid Political Culture: Russia’s longstanding conflict with liberalism and modernization provided a hybrid political system to the statehood. Personalization of political and economic authority also framed an autocratic decision-making system. Also, rampant corruption by the political and economic elites heavily destroyed the culture of economic liberalization, rule of law and democratization in Russia. As if to compensate for the high degree of political apathy in domestic policy, a majority of Russians show a certain loyalty to the authorities on foreign policy. This phenomenon can be explained by the following reasons: In Russia, the support systems never developed that would have allowed individuals to become relatively independent of the state; the authorities consider any kind of protest to be revolutionary; instead of the actual vulnerability of the individual to the arbitrary actions of the authorities, propaganda offers Russians the illusion of self-importance, which lends passion to geopolitics; an emphasis on consolidating society in the face of a military threat (Kirilova, 2018).

Command Political Economy: State was responsible for major decisions about investment, production targets, and the social organization of economic life. Due to the “shock therapy” strategy of Russian privatization and the political and economic corruption, the statecraft failed to provide sufficient incentive to entrepreneurial activity and encourages a culture of dependency. All these state guided political economic activities initiated the rise of high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction, a very low birth rate, ethnic tensions and fragile judicial system.

Privatization of the 1990s certainly improved economic efficiency but also created the vast inequality that damaged public perceptions about the program. In this sense, the question whether privatization was on the whole beneficial remains highly contentious. Economic and political power in Russia is still intimately intertwined. Although the oligarchs have been blamed for much of Russia’s troubles, they did not directly slow down the country’s economic growth. On the contrary, oligarch-owned companies are responsible for much of the dramatic increase in output in recent years. The situation in Russia today demonstrates that, in a sense, perception is stronger than reality. Although the economy is in order (GDP per capita increased from 22% of the US level in 2000 to 35% in 2012) and living standards are on the rise, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) remains very low. In fact, capital outflow now stands at about 7% of GDP. That is a stunning figure, given high oil prices, abundant investment opportunities, and the nearly moribund US and European economies, which are the main recipients of Russia’s fleeing capital (Aven, 2013).

Oligarchic Regime and Centralization of Power: The strongest lasting image of the current centralized system of Russia is probably the dysfunctional transfer of economic power and a corrupt network of “oligarchs” and oil and natural gas mafias in which the state developed only weak institutions and lacked a rule of law. The moves to sideline those oligarchs who were critical to Putin’s rule have been part and parcel of a broader centralization of power and control. Putin has reduced the role of parliament, and increased state control over the media.

Institutionalizing Political Culture and the Future Russian Order: Deepening the State Reformation

From the above analysis it clear that the current Russian political order is nothing but a shadow of the historical development of political management, longstanding authoritarianism and one leader dominated public and corporate system. The crises of democratization, political participation, freedom of conscience and press, liberalism, rule of law, institutionalization, just power transfer system, the strong judiciary is a resultant of the expanding executive influence in current Russia. History provides huge evidence that the executive of the Russian statehood sometimes tried to uphold the democratic norms but most of the times backed the authoritarian order. As institutional reform is inevitable for the Russian statecraft, reforming the executive would alter as well as change the Russian narrow political culture for the following reasons:

The culture of liberalism in Russia is not practiced effectively due to the entrenched centralization. Always the chief executive played a decisive role in every sphere of decisions. So re-distribution of power following an institutional re-arrangement would be a vital footstep towards democratic culture for future Russia.

The honeymoon between the political and economic elites also strengthen the executive body where informal institutions and personalities played a key role in nation’s every progress. This relationship provides an invisible support to the chief executive to expand his authoritative order. So, a clear division and distribution between these elite groups might be a milestone for Russia’s future democratization.

Lack of Intra-party democracy, freedom of speech and press, functional parliament, free and fair elections, strong political opposition and rule of law provided an unseen legitimacy to Putin in exercising unlimited power upon these institutions and citizens. So, curbing the unlimited power of the executive body would expand the space for a liberal Russia in near future.

Popular participation, popular control, and popular sovereignty would a curbing point for reforming the Russian statehood where chief executive might have to behave democratically to consolidate his political regime providing an expanding space for the Russian political culture.

Conclusion

The prevalence of personalism in Russian politics is a clear demonstration of how political development and political institutions interact initiating a culture of authoritarianism. All the institutional arrangements are strengthening the illiberal hands of the chief executive. Similarly, the legislature has been reshaped in a way that facilitates central control, while the structure of executive facilitates personalism. In a nutshell, the various features of Russian politics work together to create a top-down system where democratic culture is undermining by the executive.

Abu SufianShamrat, M.S.S. in Political Science from Dhaka University, is an independent researcher in Bangladesh. Shamrat is the highest gold medal awardee in the history of Dhaka University convocations. He writes on political, social, global, as well as strategic issues in the leading national and international dailies and journals i.e. South Asia Journal, Eurasia Review, South Asia Monitor, Hindustan Times Syndication, and so on. He can be reached at: shamrat08du[at]yahoo.com

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St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2018

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2018, one of the annual international platforms that brings together political, industry and business leaders to discuss the most pressing issues affecting global economics, development and finance, will take place on May 24 to 26 in St. Petersburg.

Ahead of the forum, the official website of the President of the Russian Federation has published his welcome greetings to participants, organisers and guests. In his greetings, Putin expressed his confidence that ideas and initiatives to be developed during the forum would facilitate the recovery and growth of the world economy.

“By harnessing the wealth of scientific and technological potential which is rapidly expanding in digital and other areas today, we can improve quality of life and boost stable and harmonious development in all nations and across the world as a whole,” he stressed in his message.

“And it is crucial that we strive towards increasing mutual trust, promoting wide-ranging integration processes, realising large-scale and promising projects. Russia is always open to this kind of partnership and cooperation,” Putin said.

According to RosCongress, the event organiser, about 15,000 guests from more than 140 countries expected to participate in the forum. France, China, India and Japan as guests of the forum will have their own exhibition pavilions on site, which will house a presentation area and a business space for delegations and representatives to interact with business partners from other countries.

Delegations from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Greece, Italy, India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Vietnam, USA, Canada, African countries and others will participate in various business events. BRICS member states (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) have been prominently represented there.

For foreign participants, including Africans, the forum is very useful for networking and discussing business strategies, and serves as an important study platform for deepening knowledge about the economy and possible ways of transacting business in Russia.

Series of official speeches and panel discussions will undoubtedly dominate the three-day event. The special sessions on business and investment opportunities will include the “Russia – Africa Business Dialogue” that has generated increasing interests among Russian and African businesses, international companies, African governments and institutions.

According to Anton Kobyakov, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation and Executive Secretary of the SPIEF Organising Committee, the upcoming forum will hold two special celebrations marking the occasions related to the continent: Africa Day and the 55th anniversary of the African Union.

“Economic cooperation between Russia and Africa has been developing rapidly during recent years. We have seen a positive dynamic in trade with Ethiopia, Cameroon, Angola, Sudan, Zimbabwe and other countries”, says Kobyakov. “I strongly believe that Russian-African cooperation at SPIEF, Russia’s largest forum will stimulate trade and economic ties, as well as investment activity.”

Kobyakov further disclosed that during the event, experts will share best practices and discuss new opportunities for implementing joint projects in the BRICS countries. Sergey Katyrin, the President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation, will moderate the session.

“The paramount task for BRICS is to continue strengthening efforts aimed at solving international issues in the spirit of unity, mutual understanding and trust. The prospects for cooperation and joint efforts of the BRICS member states will be discussed at the SPIEF 2018. I am confident that this will give momentum to further development of a fruitful dialogue on key world issues,” Kobyakov says.

Over the past few years, Russian authorities have made relentless efforts toward raising Russia’s political influence and economic cooperation in some African countries. Thus, discussions at the forthcoming forum will undoubtedly focus on reviewing the past and the present as well as proposing practical and the most effective ways to facilitate investment activities and that might include promising areas such as infrastructure, energy and many other sectors in Africa.

On her part, Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of African Studies and a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics said in an interview with me that Russia and Africa needed each other – “Russia is a vast market not only for African minerals, but for various other goods and products produced by African countries.”

Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in the interview.

The revival of Russia-African relations have be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russian-Africa relations have be addressed more vigorously. These include, in particular, the lack of knowledge or information in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

“What seems to irk the Russians, in particular, is that very few initiatives go beyond the symbolism, pomp and circumstance of high level opening moves. It is also still not clear how South Africa sees Russia’s willingness (and intention) to step up its role in Africa, especially with China becoming more visible and assertive on the continent,” said Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria, in South Africa.

Today, Russian influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal. Given its global status, Russia has to be more active in Africa, as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, but Russia is partially absent and playing a negligible role, according to the views of the retired  diplomat who served previously as South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation.

“Russia, of course, is not satisfied with this state of affairs. At present diplomacy dominates its approach: plethora of agreements entered into with South Africa and various other states in Africa, official visits from Moscow proliferate apace, but the outcomes remain hardly discernible,” he said.

“The Kremlin has revived its interest on the African continent and it will be realistic to expect that the spade work it is putting in now will at some stage show more tangible results,” Professor Olivier wrote in an email query from Pretoria, South Africa.

Last June 2017, the African representatives including heads of state, deputy president, ministers or their deputies, entrepreneurs and diplomats came to the St. Petersburg forum from Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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Social protection for Filipino workers in the Russian Federation

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano

The Philippines and Russia get closer to signing an agreement that would protect Filipino workers in the Russian Federation. As the number of migrant Filipino workers increases, Moscow and Manila are busy negotiating a bilateral labour agreement that could allow thousands more overseas workers into various sectors of the Russian economy.

On May 15, formal discussions were held by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano in Moscow.

Sergey Lavrov noted: “We are interested in ensuring that Filipino workers, who work in the Russian Federation, are socially protected. Many of them were here through private companies, often without the necessary licenses.”

“All this does not provide social protection for Filipino citizens working in the Russian Federation. With the conclusion of the agreement, the beginning of preparation of which we have agreed today, we will solve these issues. We have such agreements with a number of other countries, including ASEAN member States,” he promisingly added.

Earlier, a Regional Migration Specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Regional Office for Asia-Pacific in Bangkok (Thailand), explained in an interview with me that a comprehensive labour agreement between Russia and the Philippines could be positive, if it established procedures and standards for the recruitment, employment and subsequent return of migrant workers.

According to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Russia officially registered nearly 15, 000. Consequently, such an agreement (could) guarantee the labour rights of migrant workers and eliminate or limit recruitment costs. It will further provide Filipino workers with access to emerging labour market there.

The Federal Migration Service (FMS) office in Moscow has also explained that “official” Filipino workers are entering the country on tourist or business visas, assisted by middlemen and local licensed agencies that often act as migrants’ direct employers and channel them straight into labour market.

The Philippine government has been negotiating for better regulations and working conditions for its citizens for the past several years with little or no conclusive results.

In March 2012, for instance, the then Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Albert Del Rosario held an official discussion in Moscow with Minister Sergey Lavrov on the possibility of sealing a bilateral labour agreement.

Besides, a string of events and conferences over the years have highlighted renewed interests in developing the market of overseas Filipino workers, who are believed to be one of many solutions to Russia’s human resource needs.

Many experts believe that economic modernisation in Russia depends heavily on skilled foreign labour, limited to certain specific sectors like domestic work, finance, and construction.

The fact that Russia willingly entered into the negotiations implies not only that it has an urgent need for the services of foreign workers but also that it is fully aware of the benefits of such an agreement.

Experts have pointed to the Philippine government’s success in deploying its workforce abroad, in many foreign countries. About 10 percent of The Philippines’ population of 90 million people works abroad, with regular remittances accounting for up to 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Some estimates put the total contribution to the Philippine economy by specialists working abroad at $50 billion last year.

The Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Rome (Italy), explained to me that the Philippine government has an official policy of deploying Filipino workers only to countries that guarantee protection and promotion of their rights, welfare and interests.

Under a recently enacted law, the Philippine government banned its nationals from seeking employment in countries that do not guarantee the rights and welfare of foreign workers, or whose local labour and social legislation does not cover migrant workers.

Quite recent, the Philippines government and the Kuwaiti government signed an agreement on the recruitment, use and protection of Filipino workers after a diplomatic row over abuse and inhuman treatment of working Filipinos.

It therefore implies that The Philippines and Russian authorities have to work on effective ways to establish and improve the bilateral legal framework for mutual benefit for both countries. *This special report from Kester Kenn Klomegah, an independent researcher and policy consultant, in Moscow.

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The Russian strategy towards North Africa

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As John Mearsheimer quote “The ideal situation for any state is to experience sharp economic growth while its rivals’ economies grow slowly or hardly at all”. Russia paves the way to tighten its economic and military cooperation’s with Egypt as one of the main North African allies so far.

Russian keen interest in Africa, particularly North Africa, began in the 18th century, with benefits and incentives in the Mediterranean bowl as part of an expansion strategy that was based on economic, political and military estimation.

Africa changed between east and west in terms of alliances which helped form its, economic, cultural, political and militarily balance. Like now, after changes in the status of relationships among alliances, and after structures of the region shifted with a picture that is different to the previous one that had seen over the era of the alliances of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, Russia is back again after the removal of the Americans. This time, Russia came to the region with the notion of regional rivalry, after a long time, which could make it a key actor until the US resets its position. Russia has put all its power and influence on playing a role in which it would take back its position in North Africa towards enlarging and deepening the economic and investment cooperation as well mutual relations that back to the 1960s.

Due to this, Russia has taken many steps that show its mutual incentive and awareness in North Africa with the main interest in Egypt. This came after the decline of Egyptian-American relations, so Russia and Egypt signed many political agreements, including one of the important agreement which is modernized Egyptian air defense system. This step is advised a Russian warning to the Americans that it is on its way to subjoin one of its significant allies in the region, which used to experienced strategic and military cooperation depend on mutual interests. American vessels used to be the first one when crossing the Suez Canal and could use its air zone in interchange for annual military aid equivalent to $1.3 billion in 2013, which America froze in protest upon the displace of the first democratic regime in Egypt that came after the January 25th Revolution and the coup d’état against legitimacy.

The objective of Russian return to the region is not incomparably limited to economic arbitrations; there are mainly arms contracts, security exchange in fighting terrorism and upgrading trade process. Other than Egypt, there are also other promising destinations which began with diplomatic visits, such as Morocco and Algeria. The significant aspect of returning of Russia to North Africa at this time is the lack of any ideological agenda in the new agreements and cooperation plans.

Currently, Russia embarks to Egypt; the foremost step reaches several targets. Basically, Egypt is seen as geo-strategic access and convenient gateway through Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa where the natural resources wealth of uranium, gold, oil and maritime exist. These natural resources might be a rational reason for future dispute between Russia and America, especially after US withdrawal from North Africa, but only after having strengthened its presence in sub-Saharan Africa and safeguards Maritime roads for Gulf oil through the region.

As long as the two superpowers competing, North Africa is the free land of future investment that requires an agreement between the Russia and America, especially as other powers, such as China, are present and access Africa from its center. China was involved and engaged in exploring and manufacturing Sudan’s oil, before the division of the state of South Sudan in 2011. Today China is growing its activities after most oil fields became part of South Sudan. In addition to the new state, China has other markets in central Africa and the east. It only collaborates and participates in economic and trade sectors and infrastructure construction in Sudan.

The Russian president Putin embark to Cairo last Monday after a concise and unpublished visit to a Russian military air base in Syria. The air base has offered the main ledge for the air campaign Russia has undertaken since September 2015 under the backing of Syrian President Basher Assad.

Egypt’s constantly close ties with Russia get back to the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt became a close Russian ally at the height of the cold war. Therefore, Egypt changed sides in the 1970s under the late President Anwar Sadat, who replaced Moscow with Washington as his country’s chief economic and military backer following the signing of a U.S.-fund peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Egypt has since become an important successor of American. aid. Under el-Sisi, Egypt has been able to sustain close relations with both Russia and the United States.

In term of Military Cooperation, Sisi and Putin also tackled about Syria and mutual rejection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that has sparked protests across the region and from European capitals as well. The high-level Russian visit comes after the U.S. government in August decided to deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and to delay another $195 million because of its full failure to make progress on human rights and democratic norms.

Russia started a military operation to back and support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, and there are clues Moscow is keen to enlarge its military existence in the region.

To sum, Russia chose Egypt for its geopolitical and strategically partner combining three continents. Therefore, let’s see how Russia could maintain its presence in the region showing off its ability to promote economic interests, especially with African partners. So will Africa be for Russia alone?

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