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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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Did Russia-China Relations Successfully Pass the “COVID,” “Hong Kong,” “India” and “Belarus” Tests?

Danil Bochkov

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image credit: kremlin.ru

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

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Legitimate soft power or malign influence?

Celine Emma la Cour

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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.

Litterature:

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

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Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus

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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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