Today I’d like to recommend this article by Anna Borshchevskaya. While I’m not exactly endorsing her views, I think her piece opens the door to a very important discussion on Russian politics and the influence of the West. In terms of flaws, I would say that Borshchevskaya’s main problem is her utter denial that Western money plays any role in regime changes whatsoever. She presents this as a conspiracy theory, in spite of the fact that she herself has experience working for political think tanks. Having pointed this out, I still think the article makes a very important point about responsibility for mass movements and how the Russian government is completely oblivious to how such movements develop.
As the author points out, and as I concur, Putin and the Russian government seem to believe that mass protest movements are conjured up by the West and their NGOs. They cannot imagine that large groups of people would spontaneously organize demonstrations against their government. To give you an idea of how widespread this belief is, I have seen how the Russians have been duped by their own media into believing that Maidan protesters were literally paid, individually, to protest. Alleged amounts varied from $18 to $25 per person, based on exchange rates around the time of Maidan.
The idea that these protesters must have been paid is nothing but projection coming from the Russian side. Paying people to come to political rallies is a very old practice in post-Soviet Russia, the ruling United Russia party being the biggest practitioner. Young students and elderly people tend to be the recipients. It is also a well known fact that the Kremlin has an army of trolls, again most likely young students, who are paid to comment on articles. This includes a large number of English speaking trolls who pretend to be British or American, but it is likely that an even larger number of paid comment trolls is arrayed for battle on the Russian-speaking internet. So when you see Russians who talk about an information war and actually believe that the US Army has a unit of Russian-speaking soldiers who sit on computers and write anti-government comments on Vkontakte all day, the psychological projection is apparent. But like in Inception, to understand this phenomenon we must go even deeper.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and many former Soviet Republics have been plagued with crass consumerism. In the “Wild 90’s,” money could get you anything, from an editorial in a newspaper attacking a political opponent, to your own private army of thugs to muscle in on someone’s business. While Putin’s regime did manage to end some of the most egregious practices of those days, this 90’s mentality has never really been examined and dealt with. It is still very much alive today. Principles do not exist; everyone has a price and for many people it’s not particularly high. If you ask most Russians about various politicians or political movements, most of the time they are skeptical even of movements or people which align with their own personal views. I’ve known many people who seem to like Navalny, for example, but simultaneously suspect that he might be working for the government. Consumerism and low-living standards combine to create a society where people can be bought off for far lower amounts of money or gifts.
There are several negative effects of this system. The first is that it acts as a disincentive to improve conditions for the population as a whole, because the better they live, the less inclined they will be to come to political rallies or post thousands of comments for paltry sums of money. As it stands now, there are plenty of poor students and pensioners to be bought at low prices, so why improve their lives and lose that? Here we have a bizarre paradox where a government at least subconsciously understands that they can better attract support by keeping people poor rather than improving their lives. Of course that kind of support is an illusion and ultimately it is not sustainable.
Another negative effect of this system is that it discourages any kind of political organizing. Nobody can be sure which groups are genuine grass roots movements and which are simply government fronts. Even organizations which are supposedly anti-regime could be fronts. The point of such organizations does not necessarily need to be about garnering support for the government; they are effective so long as they keep tabs on politically-inclined individuals and manage their activities.
The other negative effect concerns the political class. After so many years of manipulation by money and gifts, they lose all connection to political reality. That’s why they look at Maidan and conclude that someone must be paying all those people to turn out. Why else would anyone protest against their government? Once again it creates another disincentive to improve living standards, because people only protest for or against a regime if someone pays them. There is no free will. After 2012, the best bet for Putin would have been to liberalize politics. He would have undermined a lot of his critics by providing more political freedom and showing that he had nothing to fear from dissent. He wouldn’t be in much danger either, because it could take years for a genuinely coherent and cohesive opposition movement to develop. Of course what Putin actually did was virtually the opposite; he cracked down on opponents, or at least allowed subordinates to crack down on them, thus showing both fear and weakness, as well as securing his image as a tyrant. This seems like a boneheaded decision, but from Putin’s perspective it makes sense. These people couldn’t have any legitimate grievance against his government. They must have been paid. That or they’ve been duped via “information warfare.”
As I said before, the main failure of the author’s article is that it pretends as though American or European NGOs have no influence on these mass movements. This is spurious, considering how many of these movements just happen to be very West-leaning, often having an uncritical attitude towards the EU and US, especially their economic systems. However, it would be a mistake to believe that these movements are conjured out of thin air by these NGOs. Many of these Western NGOs exist to fight very specific social ills which have little to do with the political system. If you work with an organization fighting against women trafficking for example, your attitude towards an apathetic and corrupt government will not be positive. Here you are volunteering or working for a group which must secure funding from abroad because your own government doesn’t want to provide any funding or resources to deal with that particular social problem. Many times, the government is largely responsible for the problem. A far better way to limit foreign-funded NGO activity in one’s country is to provide government funding to such organizations, if not create such organizations in the first place. This deprives foreign think tanks of potential footholds based in real grievances. Of course the Russian solution to simply label them “foreign agents.”
As for NGOs which do focus on politics, I believe the main danger is that they spread the myth that democracies can be built simply by changing governments and the use of buzzwords like “civil society.” These organizations preach about human rights above all, but usually lurking beneath the surface is a neo-liberal economic agenda, or at least no economic policy opposed to neo-liberalism. Many “human rights” revolutions have overthrown governments, and while failing to bring the promised human rights and dignity about which they spoke, they certainly brought privatization. Real grass-roots movements in countries like Russia need to be keenly aware of this. Things such as freedom of speech and legal rights are not synonymous with privatization and market-based solutions; in fact these are often opposed to one another. “Civil society” is nothing more than an empty buzzword which totally ignores the vast difference in resources and organizational capability between ordinary citizens and the rich elite. According to this view, the Koch Brothers and various labor unions or anarchist collectives supposedly have the same ability to organize for their interests.
I think the greatest need in Russian society is an end to “alliance politics,” the practice of siding with any movement or government which opposes your opponent. A Russian opposition movement should be critical of America’s “market solutions” and Europe’s austerity. It should scour the world and history to find policies which got or still get results, not those which are simply “Western” or “Russian.” The concept of pro-Russian and anti-Russian must be divorced from flags, fantasy, and abstract ideas and instead based on what obtains actual, positive results for the greatest majority of Russian citizens, of all nationalities. Putin’s system, while it did have some concrete accomplishments in its early days, simply fails to deliver those results. It is currently driving the country to disaster. On the other hand, oligarchs like Prokhorov are unlikely to bring about anything positive for the masses. Fringe elements such as Dugin or Limonov would best be served by the caring staff of a mental health institution.
Coming back to the article, one point the author makes which definitely deserves to be highlighted is in her conclusion. As she writes, Putin’s fantasy about the West causing all of Russia’s problems is, at least for the moment, holding pretty strong with most people. However, it will not endure for much longer. There’s only so many little acts of protest you can label as “Orange revolutions.” Paid shills like Kirby or Sleboda can only dupe those Russians who don’t have much capacity to travel. While the population may still largely blame its plight on the West, this does not mean they will side with the government indefinitely. Either they will overthrow it because they realize the truth, that the country’s problems are the fault of the regime, or they will decide that the regime was not patriotic enough, that its corruption made the country weak in the face of the Western onslaught. Either way, the regime falls. It’s just a matter of time.