Tag Archives: democracy

How many pounds of democracy would you like?

No discussion of the former Soviet Union is complete without talking about the lack or increase of “democracy” and “freedom.” Many Americans, in particular, grow weary of these terms by the time they reach adulthood. I think for my generation, we became burnt out and cynical not just because of the changing economy, but in particular because we experienced eight years of a president whose every speech since 11 September 2001 seemed to consist of few nouns beyond “freedom,” “liberty,” and “democracy.”

The understanding of democracy in Putin’s Russia is naturally more cynical. They call it “sovereign democracy,” as though all those other republics have no sovereignty. I’ve often seen Russian Kremlin supporters say that “democracy is an illusion,” or they take the ultra-literal definition of democracy: “Democracy means rule by the people! Do the people really run things in America?!” Many Americans and Europeans ask that same question, but the reason I find it funny coming from Kremlin supporters is that unlike those Westerners, they’re not proposing a system closer to that literal definition, i.e. anarchism or “true” communism. No, the solution to American or other forms of liberal democracy not being perfect and not allowing more participation is apparently a system that is by definition less democratic.

If you want to hear criticism of liberal democracy, and specifically American democracy which I can thoroughly savage for hours, I’m your man. But after living in Russia so long, and particularly after witnessing the rapid deterioration of the country’s politics post-2012, I’ve come to adopt one very important rule when it comes to critiquing conventional examples of democracies. It is so simple even a child, can grasp it, though it might sail over the head of your average “geopolitics expert”:

If you want to criticize existing forms of democracy, you should be in favor of a system that is arguably more democratic than that system you are criticizing.

Oh America’s two-party system is shit? I agree. What’s your alternative? A system where the whole parliament passes presidential initiatives unanimously and the same guy has run the country for nearly 15 years, only taking a break to switch with his little buddy? No, sorry. You don’t get to criticize.

Granted, there have been countries in history where the lack of certain democratic rights was largely a product of external forces, but I’m sorry that doesn’t describe Russia no matter how paranoid its leaders are about “color revolutions.” Moreover, if a system is legitimately less democratic due to some kind of historical or contextual cause, it doesn’t mean these measures should be advocated or seen as positive. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but those measures ought to be revised and preferably eliminated when the threat is no longer present.

That being said, part of the problem with cynicism towards concepts like democracy is the continual overuse of the term. This is especially a problem among people from traditional liberal democracies, who are unable to fully appreciate many of their rights simply because they have never been fully informed or deprived of them. I know that any time I get in a discussion over the question of personal freedoms with an American, they won’t fully grasp what it’s like to be deprived of certain rights. Most of the time they’ll make some inaccurate comparison or bring up some injustice which is often very real, but they can’t see the difference because they don’t experience what I’m talking about.

Another major problem when it comes to the overuse of terms like democracy and freedom is the lack of any accurate way to measure these things. American think tanks like Freedom House make it seem like democracy is something scientifically measurable and quantifiable, when in fact that is a highly contentious claim. After years of seeing these absurd “freedom ratings,” it seems like someone has finally taken aim at the idea that democracy can be easily quantified. What is more, a recent article from Buzzfeed shows the high costs of “promoting democracy” without actually understanding what that means.

As the Buzzfeed article is about Cuba, it’s very interesting to compare that country with Russia. Cuba had extremely legitimate reasons to oppose US attempts to “spread democracy,” which began with such interesting initiatives as the Bay of Pigs invasion, armed insurgencies, and numerous attempts on the life of Fidel Castro and others. All of this, of course, was accompanied by a cruel blockade of the Latin American country which managed to fight on in spite of the pressure.By contrast, Russia under Putin enjoyed massive investment from Europe and the US, and I know for a fact that in spite of all the capital flight, American and European companies do continue to invest in the country, as inadvisable as that is. The idea that the West is tying to destroy Russia is nothing but a paranoid fantasy, whereas the idea that the US was trying to crush Cuba is an indisputable fact. In any case, I think it’s clear that the US government’s attempts at “promoting democracy,” while possibly having good intentions in many cases, do more harm than good, especially in this age of foreign satellite media that just uses these efforts as proof that democracy is really just a propaganda tool in service to US-run  hegemonic conspiracy.

Obviously liberal democracy is fraught with problems, and people need to use what power they have to resolve those problems, even if it means replacing it with a system that is more democratic, not less. Russia does not provide a viable alternative in this respect. If you want to see a real critique of liberal democracy, one which explains its irreconcilable contradictions, I recommend starting with this lecture:

No Alternative – Khodorkovsky 10 years later

For years I took flak over my unrelenting position on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his ridiculous martyr cult. At one point I was banned from a Khodorkovsky support page simply for asking the page’s admins to explain how Khodorkovsky originally made his fortune. The responses I got from them fit nicely with those I got from everyone else. “Sure he was an oligarch,” they’d say, “But everyone was doing what he did in the 90’s!” Actually, “everyone” was not doing the same thing Khodorkovsky did. Most people were trying to survive, and if everyone had been doing what he did, everyone would be as wrong as he was. “He wanted to transform Russia with transparency and rule of law,” they’d say. I “wanted” to join the French Foreign Legion and design video games. Do I deserve a white kepi and a position at Electronic Arts in spite of the fact that I didn’t actually realize either of those youthful ambitions? No? Then I don’t give a damn what Khodorkovsky supposedly “wanted to do.” “You sound like a Kremlin supporter,” some of them would say. The day that people are forced to concede that Russia’s only choices are Putin and Khodorkovsky is the day that we must all acknowledge the country is irreparably doomed. I’m not convinced that day has come.

Those were dark days indeed, when someone like me would be lumped in with the Putin fan club just because I refused to slavishly admire self-manufactured saviors whose sole claim to moral superiority is their professed opposition to Putin and their suffering at the hands of his regime. Surely Russian prisons are full of individuals who curse Putin’s name; I doubt any of them would make good leadership material. To their credit, however, many of those people probably did far less damage to Russian society than Khodorkovsky ever did. In case I haven’t driven the point home hard enough, I am quite confident that if you threw Vladimir Putin into a small room with a rabid male platypus shot up with methamphetamine, that rare freak of nature would probably show itself to be quite opposed to Putin. Notwithstanding this, I would not support its candidacy to lead Russia or any other country for that matter.

After all these years I feel somewhat vindicated by Julia Ioffe’s recent New Yorker piece all about Khodorkovsky, who was famously released from prison in December of 2013. Ioffe points out how Russia’s liberals and opposition tended to hold their tongue about Khodorkovsky while he was in prison, but now that he’s out they feel more relaxed about criticizing him. Perhaps many of them simply got submerged in his PR and forgot how he acquired his position in the first place. Perhaps now that they have begun actually dealing with him face to face or at least directly without Kremlin interference, they are starting to realize who he actually was before he went to prison. Garbage in, garbage out.

One thing I must praise about Ioffe’s work is that she doesn’t cover for Khodorkovsky in the slightest. Doing what other Russian opposition-supporters used to refuse to do, she carefully details the history of how Khodorkovsky amassed his fortune via fraud and connections in the state, along with his personal philosophy that gleefully put profits ahead of people. It was a worldview that characterized 90’s Russia. While millions suffered, a tiny minority partied. Ioffe’s retelling of this all but forgotten story is concise, clear, and incredibly useful to me ever since I gave away my copy of Marshall I. Goldman’s The Piratization of Russia. My edition was published prior to Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, before he had become such a cause célèbre among Russian liberals and their like-minded supporters abroad. Thus the book contained an interesting passage about Khodorkovsky’s then recently-started PR campaign for transparency and better business practices, noting that it remained to be seen whether he would actually back his words with action. My guess is that if Khodorkovsky somehow achieved power in Russia, something he apparently still openly desires, he would not.

The crowning achievement of Ioffe’s article is that it provides the strongest case against Khodorkovsky as an acceptable alternative to Putin using the ex-oligarch’s own words. What I got from reading about the man, his behavior, and his ideas tells me that not only is he wholly unqualified to lead Russia or any other country, but that there is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t either become another Putin, or at least create the sort of conditions which would open the door to another Putin-like figure in the future. At his core, Khodorkovsky embodies the same toxic mentality of post-Soviet Russia. He is narcissistic almost to the point of psychopathy. While seeking the highest power in Russia, he clearly feels no responsibility or accountability to the Russian people by his own open admission. He clearly does not understand the concepts of democracy, nor does he understand the system of government in the Western countries he so admires. His understanding of the world doesn’t seem to be that much more rational than that of Vladimir Putin, and the way he runs his projects suggests that he can be just as dictatorial.

Clearly the strongest indictment against Khodorkovsky, the one which so eloquently demonstrates his lack of understanding and his potential to become another Putin, can be found in this passage:

“He recalled with fondness an old acquaintance, the unfortunate Kenneth Lay, the late C.E.O. of Enron, who was, in Khodorkovsky’s estimation, a thumbs-up kind of guy. The whistle-blowers in that case outraged him: why did people glorify cowardly spies and traitors, and put them on magazine covers?”

Note the utter lack of irony from a man who asserts that he was innocent of any crime, and who was accused of being a traitor to Russia by the government. This is also a man who is supposed to be a “liberal,” who was for years a figure of admiration for Russia’s “liberals,” and yet he has nothing but kind words for a man whom American liberals rightly scorned.There is a far deeper meaning in this sentence, however.

One paradox of Russia is that supporters of the Kremlin and Russia’s “liberals” both see people like Edward Snowden as traitors to their country. Even the enthusiastically pro-Russian Americans, Canadians, Britons, and other Westerners are traitors in the eyes of both Russian sides. In the eyes of the Kremlin supporters and their media organs such as RT, these are useful traitors, but traitors nonetheless. The “liberals” also see traitors, largely because their unqualified admiration of the West and their misguided belief that all politics should be reduced to an absurd false dichotomy.

As it stands today, Russians of all walks of life generally cannot understand an Edward Snowden, a Martin Luther King Jr., or a John Brown, and this is a huge problem. There are times when one’s country, or at least its government, is morally wrong. Opposing this often means breaking the law. Of course Russian liberals would claim that they totally understand this, pointing inaccurately to Khodorkovsky. But Khodorkovsky did not deliberately break an unjust law. He got rich off of the absence of rule of law, and went to jail over his riches. It was the liberals who transformed him into a hero simply because he was opposed to Putin. Merely being opposed to Putin does not denote any moral superiority. Rest assured the Kremlin and all Moscow’s halls of power are crawling with all sorts of individuals who are secretly opposed to Putin, and a great deal of them may be far worse than him.

Getting back to the point about traitors, if Putin can openly and publicly indulge paranoid fantasies about “fifth columnists” and “national traitors,” judging by Khodorkovsky’s own words there is a good possibility he might do the same. This is a man who reviles corporate whistleblowers. How might he react to dissent in his hypothetical regime?  Can Khodorkovsky and many of his supporters truly grasp the slogan, “Dissent is patriotic?” I have my doubts, especially as so many of them are all too willing to label any Westerner who speaks out against their own societies’ as pro-Kremlin dupes, even when they haven’t a kind word for Putin or his clique. How can they supposedly aspire to our standards of human rights and free speech if they expect us not to use them?

What about the topic of rationality? Ioffe’s article reveals that Khodorkovsky has a very bizarre belief about homosexuality, not much unlike the clearly anti-scientific beliefs of Russia’s right-wing legislators. Khodorkovsky suggested that it is a natural evolutionary mechanism for controlling population growth. This isn’t too far removed from the apparent beliefs of infamous figures such as Yelena Mizulina, who often claims her “family values” crusading is aimed at fighting Russia’s population decline, even if it means forcing people who have no sexual attraction to each other to have children they don’t want.  I’m not trying to say this means Khodorkovsky is a raging homophobe; he may very well not be. What I am saying, however, is that he is by no means the voice of reason Russia sorely needs. That the topic which demonstrates this fact happens to be LGBT issues is peripheral.

Of course some of the most disturbing traits which cast doubt on Khodorkovsky’s qualifications to lead Russia are his lack of basic understanding of American government and the fact that he does not speak or read any language fluently other than Russian. When I point out how many of Russia’s pro-Kremlin “geopolitical experts” and “America experts” can’t speak English, it is a source of amusement. These are people whose entire life revolves around hating America and to a lesser extent, the English language. Khodorkovsky and his followers, however, have near uncritical admiration for the US. The US is often presented as an epitome of what Russia could be, and what it should be. Suffice to say it is very important that these people know what they are talking about. Learning that Khodorkovsky doesn’t is pretty damning for him. Sure, many ordinary Russian liberals don’t get the West either, but they don’t have his influence. Khodorkovsky has the money and drive to cause some serious problems.

Khodorkovsky’s unqualified admiration for the West, rooted in ignorance, is part of a larger problem with Russia’s “liberal opposition” going back to the 90’s, if not the late Soviet era with its “dissidents.” These were not sincere advocates of human rights, democracy, and rule of law, but rather they were a cargo cult that believed shouting these phrases repeatedly would some how make the concepts materialize. I’ve said before how confusing it can be for some foreigners hear how Russian government supporters will openly scoff at the words “freedom” and “democracy,” and I have to remind them that this is due to an association of these terms with the breakdown of society in the 90’s. Everybody associated with that disaster seemed to have those terms on their tongue at the same time. ‘Cum hoc ergo propter hoc’ this belief may be, but it is at least understandable. The sad thing is that so many years later, a leading figure of Russia’s liberals still doesn’t seem to get it.

Russia’s early “democrats” or “liberals” never looked at the West critically. They saw only the good, that much is true, but it often seems they never understood how that good came to be.  That’s why “liberal” figures can’t understand why Americans would protest against their government or its foreign policy. “Our government is so much worse! Look at all the stuff you have!” Indeed, the American government is morally and structurally superior to that of Russia, but it is far from perfect and it took decades of struggle just to get it there. If Russia ever throws off the yoke of its own system and adopts a functioning form of liberal democracy, there will still be massive issues which must be tackled. What exactly did all those advocates of “civil society” expect civil society to do once they unchained it?  Russia’s “liberals” then, as it seems they do now, saw the West’s freedom and prosperity as something they could “get,” not something which had to be earned and relentlessly guarded. This is what they offered in the 90’s, and they failed to deliver. Eventually, a man came along and offered them something else, “stability.” That, of course, was Putin.

This is what I mean when I say that Khodorkovsky seems to embody the same bankrupt mentality that has been strangling post-Soviet Russia from the beginning.  Putin promised to give people order and most of all, “stability.” Nobody had to actually do anything other than give up their choice and rights. Now Khodorkovsky comes along offering “democracy” again, and all the Russian people will have to do is give him the same deference they gave Putin. Nobody has to struggle for anything, nobody has to work to actually make rule of law or democracy a reality. All you need is a cult of one man and a belief that he will hand you everything you want.

The other indicator that Khodorkovsky is cut from the same cotton-padded material as Putin is his utter lack of accountability for his past actions. He feels absolutely no responsibility to the people of Russia. Now Russian citizens are supposed to grant this man power over them? What is to stop him from becoming another Putin? What is to stop him from musing about Pushkin and bears eating berries in the forest at a press conference fifteen years after he somehow gains power in Russia? I think what a lot of people fail to see when Putin rambles on about his fantastical view of the world is that he’s sees things that way because he’s insulated and isolated from reality. He has never truly been held accountable for his actions in power and he’s never really had to face their consequences. He feels no responsibility to Russia’s citizenry whatsoever, and his utter lack of a coherent plan in the face of the looming economic meltdown is proof of that. Now here we have Mikhail Khodorkovsky in this interview, demonstrating quite clearly that he has the same psychopathic lack of accountability for his actions. It wouldn’t be long before such a man sitting in Putin’s chair might begin to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

I often tell leftists in the US that Russia is no alternative to the society we have there. Likewise Khodorkovsky is no alternative to Putin. What is more, he seems bent on financing and directing a revolution from abroad, one which will clearly do little more than get a lot of otherwise well-meaning people harassed, jailed, or worse. Of course Khodorkovsky won’t feel pity for them. He owes apologies to no one, even those who go to prison naively supporting his cause. For that reason alone his cause should fail. I only hope it does not drag too many of Russia’s last independent-minded people down with it.

Get some Democracy

Let me be blunt. Russians, on the whole, don’t understand democracy. I’m not being unfair to Russians; most ordinary people around the world don’t understand it. American political scientists don’t fully understand it. The problem in Russia however is that nobody has a clue what it means, including the so-called “liberals” who advocate it.

Most Westerners are sick of hearing people use the word democracy without qualifying it or putting it in concrete terms. In Russia however, democracy is talked about as though it were some sort of product. Liberals and oppositionists think Russia should definitely get democracy, AKA the thing Europe and America have.  Supporters of the status quo remember how “democrats” appeared in the late 80’s and 90’s and then really horrible things happened throughout the former Soviet Union, ergo these things must certainly be linked. To them, “democracy” equates to chaos. In any case, neither side actually understands democracy.

Functioning liberal democracy does not remove problems like poverty or corruption. All it does is open the way to finding solutions to those problems. The ability to hold politicians and leaders accountable, to whatever small extent, has a profound impact on society. Even the more radical form of democracy I personally advocate does not make problems disappear; I simply believe that it would grant the majority of people far more ability to find solutions to their problems than even the most progressive capitalist democracies currently in existence.  Russian oppositionists who want to be taken seriously and accepted by their fellow citizens need to learn this point very quickly. Nowadays it’s common for some regime supporter to find a story about some injustice in Europe or the US and say, “Look! There’s your democracy! Do you still think it’s better in America?”  Most of the time these injustices, when they are real, have nothing to do with democracy of lack thereof. The existence of homeless people in America doesn’t mean democracy doesn’t exist or function. It just means there is a limit to what liberal democracy can accomplish. As hard as it seems these days, America’s limited, but otherwise functioning democratic system means that people can organize to do something about homelessness, at least on a local level, and they won’t have to overthrow the government to do it.

These days it is common to hear people complain about the role of money in politics. Indeed, this is a serious issue and we should at no time ignore it. At the same time, we’d do well to remember that in the late 19th century and in some cases into the 20th, the American and British political systems were far more corrupt. America had its political “machines” like Tammany Hall, and in Britain seats in parliament could be bought literally as opposed to figuratively like in modern times. As Americans are choices are extremely limited, but we know politicians actually care about our concerns to some extent if only because they spend so much money on campaigning, polling, and other activities aimed at attracting voters. The very fact that they need to raise so much money and so carefully tailor their campaign, coupled with the constant fear of making a fatal “gaffe” on the campaign trail, demonstrates that on some level there is a measure of accountability.

I realize that might not console many Americans these days, but in Russia little details make a huge difference. Putin does not have to worry about polls or campaign funds. His opponents can be jailed if not intimidated and threatened. Wheres we can predict exactly when and how Barack Obama will leave office in 2017, we have no idea when Putin will leave power and under what conditions. Most likely he has indeed ensured that nobody can replace him, which means the country will face a dire crisis when he does inevitably leave no matter the manner in which he does so.  George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was one of the most egregious examples of horrible American foreign policies in recent history, yet this invasion was preceded by months of deliberation and discussion. As bad as things got, Americans threw the Republicans out of congress in 2006 and out of the White House in 2008. Imagine if Bush could give himself a third term!

By contrast Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and poorly veiled proxy war in the Donbass were both conducted without any warning and on a whim. Opponents of this policy have faced intimidation, and even politicians and individuals investigating the mysterious deaths of Russian soldiers have been labeled “foreign agents,” arrested, and in the case of the former, assaulted by unknown attackers.  The Russian government made it a criminal offense for Russian citizens to publish anything advocating those same things which the pro-Russian citizens of the Crimea and Donbass demanded- greater federalization or autonomy. There is no party that Russians can vote for to reverse these policies; many of these measures had near unanimous support save for one member of parliament who is now under threat of arrest or possibly worse due to following his conscience.

Getting back to the point, Russians don’t need “democracy” so much as they need concrete concepts like rule of law and separation of powers. Democracy is far too abstract and the situation in Russia demands concrete solutions.  The phony democracy Russia has today, once called ‘sovereign democracy’ by Putin, only proves that anyone can ape the typical liberal democratic system by having multiple parties and elections. Hell, on paper Russia’s electoral politics may appear more democratic and progressive than those of the United States. What Russia doesn’t have is a strong constitution, impartial, independent courts, consistent application of the law, limitations on executive power, and so on.

The beauty of such concrete concepts in contrast to the more ambiguous and problematic term “democracy” is that these things can be quantified. Separation and limitations on power can be readily observed. Just look at Obama’s near-constant struggle against the Republicans in congress. Even before they managed to gain their current majority they were still able to force a shutdown of the federal government. Obama’s proposed “public option” for healthcare reform was jettisoned due to Republican opposition. The last time we saw that kind of opposition to a Russian president was in 1993, and the spat was decided with tanks and bullets.  The fact that Democrats and Republicans both serve the same class in America doesn’t change the fact that this opposition exists, and as bad as it is now, imagine what would happen if the US had a president for life who never had to worry about any opposition from congress.

Independent courts and rule of law can be measured as well. When people are consistently prosecuted for violating the law, as opposed to just opponents and critics of the regime, you have some measure of rule of law. Another side of that coin is that it should be physically possible to live within the bounds of the law. In Russia not only small business owners but even individual workers are forced to skirt the law just to get by. This means everyone has some dirt on them and thus they can be smacked down should they become a problem. In countries where rule of law functions, following the law is actually economically viable and achievable for most people.

Accountability can be measured as well. State-owned industries can be made transparent, and it is possible to verify if someone is siphoning state funds into their personal accounts. HINT: Look for state employees with massive houses, yachts, etc. If state funds are earmarked for schools, roads, hospitals, etc., we can actually get in a car and see if these things are being built.  If they are not, the money can be tracked down and somebody can be put in prison for a long time. There is absolutely no reason why state owned enterprises must inevitably lead to corruption. That is certainly not the case in Norway, a country which Russia could easily imitate, or at least could have imitated, based on its wealth in natural resources.

In conclusion, as long as Russian oppositionists speak about “democracy” without fully understanding it or without being able to articulate concrete solutions to Russia’s political problems, they will remain unpopular and ineffective. Just as Russia’s jingoistic “geopolitical experts” love pontificating on America without having spent any time there and in some cases without even being able to speak English, Russia’s “democrats” rarely display a firm grasp of the concepts they supposedly support. In this way, they present “democracy” as a mirror image of the Putin supporters’ revived Russian empire. This is to say that the abstract idea is offered up as a sort of panacea which, when somehow achieved, will solve Russia’s problems. Russia doesn’t need abstract ideas but concrete ones. These concrete ideas form the foundations of a functioning democracy. Without that foundation, any attempt to transform Russia into a functioning democracy will most likely fail as they did in the 1990’s.

Litmus test of Democracy

I once heard a Team Russia fanatic from Britain dismiss the difference between British and Russian democracy by claiming that British elections are totally predictable. Well yes, perhaps with thorough research and good polling they are, but they are predictable for entirely different reasons than Russian elections.  Russian elections are predictable because it is a corrupt system that carefully restricts who can run and where power is merely handed back and forth between two men at the top. British elections, like many others in functioning liberal democratic states, are predictable because there is this thing called rule of law. Allow me to explain.

This is the litmus test, and to do it I’m going to use the worst, most backward form of liberal democracy in the industrialized world, that being the electoral system of the United States. I haven’t been following US politics very closely and therefore cannot make predictions about the election in 2016. I’m pretty sure Hillary will get her party’s nomination, and I have no doubt this will be largely due to her and her husband’s connections and influence within the Democratic party. The Republicans will most likely put forth some flag-waving, Bible-thumping moron, and while I cannot predict his name I can tell you his campaign will consist of calling for lower taxes, claiming that Americans who want to start small businesses are unable to due to high taxes, and in between he will throw in all the buzzwords about family values, freedom of religion, and of course, personal responsibility.

We will all have to suffer through every minute of the campaign season, as the media relentlessly informs us of every single “gaffe” each candidate makes. Then in November the polls will open up, people will vote, and according to our backward and intentionally less democratic system, the person with the most electoral votes will become president the following January. I don’t know who that person will be, but I know how they will get to the White House.

Now here’s the test- When will Putin leave the presidency? How will he leave? Who will come after him? Nobody in Russia has a clue. Many analysts have their predictions but none of them can say for sure. What is clear is that Putin cannot go abroad, as he is surely wont to do if the life choices of his two daughters are any indication. He also cannot enjoy the many houses he has had built in Russia as a private citizen. If he does not retain control over the country’s military, police, and intelligence organs, he would be vulnerable. He knows that anyone taking power after him could potentially use him as a scapegoat and have him arrested on charges. The only way to prevent that is to remain in control of the state’s organs of force.  So while he might hand off power to his most trusted associate once more, he will still have to retain the office of the prime minister.

So there you have it. The litmus test of democracy. As much as American democracy sucks, I know what will happen in the years prior to 2016, I know how the next president will be elected, and then I know that president will serve four to eight years depending on whether or not they get reelected. In Russia, you can keep claiming that Putin is popular and people want him, but the fact is that nobody can explain how he will leave office, when, or what comes next. Many of his staunchest advocates assure us that chaos and collapse would follow the loss of a Putin presidency. Really? Why would that happen? Seems like a function democracy would be able to go from candidate to candidate without collapsing into ruin.  Furthermore, one could easily argue that the reason why many Russians “support” Putin is simply because they are aware of how helpless they are. In fact many, including among his supporters, flat out admit that they are afraid of what comes next. Why would you be afraid? We have shitty presidents in the US all the time, but at the end of the day you know the maximum they will ever serve is eight years before they get replaced by some other dipshit in a suit.

Russia fails the litmus test of democracy. When you’re an industrial country and you make the American democratic system look amazing by comparison, you have truly fucked up. And yes, I personally don’t consider any existing country to be truly democratic, but that doesn’t mean it’s a black and white system where you’re either democratic or not.  Some people point to China as a successful state without a liberal democratic system. Yeah well the key word is successful. China in 20 years has got results which Russia can’t even hope to match at this rate. Moreover, there is a lot more accountability in China when someone is busted for corruption, and from the look of it China has more spontaneous, organic protest movements, i.e. civil society.  Whatever we call the Russian system, it is neither democratic, nor does it get results.

Good Analysis or Concern Trolling? YOU be the judge!

A concern troll visits sites of an opposing ideology and offers advice on how they could “improve” things, either in their tactical use of rhetoric, site rules, or with more philosophical consistency.

So recently I was reading this article from Charles Turner about the issue of various people on both sides of the political spectrum turning a blind eye to the actions of the side they support, be it Maidan or what is perceived to be the “pro-Russian” resistance.  I have some points of contention with the analysis, but I think it has just enough unique features that it deserves serious consideration. Most of what we read on the conflict is so ridiculously one-sided that articles like this deserve credit at least for being different.

First off, however, let me say I hate the first textwall of a paragraph. I get what the author was going for, but this just didn’t work.  If you need to use a historical analogy to preface the point your article is going to make, either make it short or make it exciting.  After this start, it seems the author unfairly targets “left liberals”(as though they are the same), claiming that they are being reluctant to criticize Russia in this matter because they are afraid of sounding like they are taking up Washington’s line.  He compares this to their behavior on Syria as well. I have a few problems with this.

First, he doesn’t really identify which “left liberals” he’s talking about. When it comes to liberals, based on my own experience the opposite has been true, at least on this matter of Ukraine. As is typical for Western liberals, who so love living vicariously through any protest movement without knowing what it’s about or who is involved, I saw mostly support from them.  When I posted in one left but ultimately more liberal group about the need to support anti-fascists in Ukraine, people who were supposedly supporters of non-sectarian anti-fascism suddenly wanted to have a debate about which country is truly supporting fascism. In other words, the typical Maidan apologist’s Fascism Negation Principle, which states that the existence of fascists in one country negates the presence of fascists in their rival country.  To the sane world, this is known as a “tu quoque” fallacy, which is unfortunately a fundamental part of any discourse on Eastern Europe.

When it comes to the more radical leftist circles in which I inhabit online, this actually is a justified gripe. It’s easy to express disgust and revulsion at nationalists who praise Stepan Bandera and whitewash the history of the UPA, but many of them seem to find it hard to condemn a government which happily appropriates Soviet symbols, the most relevant in this case being Victory Day, of course. Russia, more than any other former Soviet country, wants to be seen as the heir to the USSR’s victory over fascism. Unfortunately fascist and far-right wing ideologies dominate Russian politics, to the point where the figure you see condemning fascism in Ukraine may hold beliefs which are more or less identical to that of Praviy Sektor or Svoboda. Also the blanket term anti-imperialism is often thrown about, and as the author of the piece suggests, they often liken it to the situation in Syria. The problem with playing the anti-imperialism card here is that the situation is different from the case of Syria or Libya. In those situations, two regimes, all shortcomings aside, were defending their own territory against insurgent movements. Say what you want about Assad, but his regime promotes tolerance among the different religious groups in his country, whereas the foreign-backed rebels are predominately Salafist fanatics who have demonstrated that they have no compunction against murdering even children who do not abide by their strict rules.  Leftists in the West are easily able to watch RT and hear condemnations of fascism, and they see Soviet symbols used by Russians, but they are unable to read Russian and have no firsthand knowledge of Russian politics. If they did, they’d be shocked by some of the things one can hear from many Russian “Communists.”

Anti-imperialism doesn’t cut it here because in the Russian government and in Russia in general there is a very pro-imperialist sentiment which is in some ways far worse than that of the US or Europe when it comes to Ukraine. Both the EU and US clearly don’t give a shit about what regime dominates Ukraine so long as it is profitable to their interests, which is why they so readily turn a blind eye to the nature of the Maidan regime. Russian attitudes, on the other hand, are very different. The idea of an independent Ukraine is anathema to them. This is why they cheer on the Crimean annexation and hope that the new Donbass Republic(or whatever the fuck they’re calling it now) will be annexed by Russia. For a people who largely say they look favorably on the USSR, they are happy to piss all over its nationalities policy, drafter by Stalin and implemented both by himself and Lenin previously. Even when talking about the Ukrainian SSR, it is characterized as a “gift” that Moscow gave Ukrainians, and whenever Ukrainians fail to express sufficient gratitude the venom at “khokhly”(derogatory for Ukrainian) flows freely. This is why for me, as sad as it was to watch, it was no mystery at all why so many Maidan supporters were in fact Russian speakers, some of whom swelled the ranks of the extreme right.  Ukrainian nationalists offer a fairy tale history, but it’s a flattering fairy tale. Russia’s post-Soviet fairy tale history is insulting and chauvinistic, with Moscow as the protagonist who plays Prometheus to all the former Soviet republics.  So to sum up this point, yes there is the issue of American and European imperialism, but Russian imperialism is not only a factor in this conflict, but it is also one which fanned the flames of Ukrainian nationalism in the first place. What is more, it is weakening the country and making it damned near impossible to create a Ukrainian anti-Maidan, the only thing which could ever decisively defeat the nationalists permanently.

Getting back to the article, the author really shines when he gives his assessment of Tim Snyder’s fawning praise of Maidan with this satirical yet quite accurate passage.

From the other side there is not so much blind eye turning as dewy-eyed romanticism, led by the Yale historian Tim Snyder: where Putin saw only extremists in Maidan square, Snyder implies that Ukraine is already ready to join the EU because the leader of a group of frightening looking men in combat fatigues is really a gay hairdresser from the Donbas, while the new deputy minister for whatever is a Jewish transvestite whose mother was a disabled German preacher.

Right on the money. As far as I know, Snyder was not present at Maidan, yet he was eager to tell his audience about the vast diversity of the Maidan movement. He even went so far to tell us that maidan is an Arabic word. To me it came off sounding like the typical white-guy defense when being called out for racism. “What me, racist? But I once dated a Chinese girl! I have many black friends! My housekeeper is from Ecuador!” Snyder carefully downplayed the role of nationalist extremists, ignoring the fact that a memorial march for Stepan Bandera took place during Maidan and it garnered no criticism from the rest of the pro-EU Rainbow Coalition which apparently existed in Snyder’s mind.  He also forgot to mention that the widely used chant “Glory to Ukraine” and its response “Glory to the Heroes” was in fact invented by the OUN(Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). With this kind of open, brazen, and violent nationalist behavior, how could Russian-speaking Ukrainians not look upon these events with horror and believe that they may be at risk? Bottom line- I don’t give a shit if Synder is a professor at Yale. A PhD is not a license to re-write history or peddle bullshit about the present. And Tim, if you’re reading this, did you know that Bandera is a Spanish word?

As the author Turner moves on with his piece, he agrees with Snyder that Russia is afraid of having “democracy” on its doorstep.  The idea is that if Ukraine joins the EU, something which wasn’t even on the table, it will acquire this “democracy” and then this will threaten the Russian regime. There are a couple problems with this though. The first is that for all its problems, Ukraine was pretty democratic compared to Russia, and this hasn’t made much of an impact. Sure there was election fraud in 2004, but the Orange Revolution overturned that and then fixed all of Ukraine’s problems. Oh…Wait…No. The Orange Revolution was pretty much a total failure, during which president Yushchenko’s approach to solving Ukraine’s problems consisted of virtually nothing other than trying to get Ukraine in NATO and rewriting history to whitewash and glorify the UPA. It’s worth noting in passing, however, that the Orange Revolution was not seen as so threatening to the East that it seriously considered separatism. The difference between the methods of that failed “revolution” and Maidan may account for this, for while nationalists were present in the Orange movement, their participation was nowhere near as blatant as it was with Maidan.  Getting back to this point, Yushchenko was then ousted once again by Yanukovych in an election which European observers called fair.  Russia has yet to achieve this level of liberal democracy.

The second point which derives from the previous one, is that liberal democracy alone is not enough to be threatening to the Kremlin regime. There also needs to be prosperity, something which the EU Association Agreement was unlikely to bring in the short term, and which is probably out of the question now, both for what’s left of Ukraine and the Eastern separatist region.  Latvia and Estonia are both actual EU members which border Russia, yet neither impress Russians the way countries like Germany, Spain, the US, or Sweden do.  That being said, if Ukraine had a functioning liberal democracy and maybe the economic success of say, the Czech Republic, that would indeed be threatening to the Kremlin even without EU or NATO membership.  What you would have is a massive population of Russians and people who Russians see as Russians or “brother peoples,” living under very different conditions than themselves.  I realize the reader may not be able to comprehend the significance of this but it is crucial and I will attempt to explain.

When people ask me about my visits to Kyiv, I would often say that to the untrained eye, it might feel as though they were in Russia but with different flags and a different language on the signs. People not schooled in Russian language might not notice the difference at all.  Different money, different symbols, different flags, but in many ways Russian and with nearly everyone around you speaking Russian constantly. I have never been to Minsk in Belarus, but every Russian who has been there tells me how impressed they were at how clean and orderly everything is. The only thing that keeps Belarus from being a threat to Russia for this reason is that yes, Lukashenko has been there for so long, and the country is unfortunately totally dependent on Russia. But what if Ukraine were both successful and democratic in the liberal sense?  Russians would go to this “other” Russia and see people like themselves leading better lives. They would see real opposition in the country’s parliament, not revolving around nationalist rhetoric but actual disagreement over policies. They would see citizens more freely protesting about various issues and there’d be less inclination to believe that many of these organizations are just government fronts. Then the question would arise. If these Russians in Ukraine can live this way, why can’t we? Maybe Russians actually don’t need a strong leader to tell them what to do. Maybe they don’t need to settle for poverty and “spiritual values” while their politicians and spiritual leaders cruise around in foreign-built luxury cars and reside in massive palatial compounds isolated from the lowly people.

Of course that scenario is unlikely to happen now. In fact it is the Ukrainian nationalists and Maidan which first fucked that dog.  By clothing their struggle in nationalist symbolism and rhetoric, it ruined any chance to create a progressive Ukrainian movement which was resolutely in favor of Ukrainian independence and uniqueness, yet inclusive of all ethnic groups.  Yes, I realize that Maidan supporters swear up and down that their movement was not anti-Russian, but I have yet to have met the Maidan supporter who freely condemns Bandera, the UPA or OUN, or the inclusion of these symbols and themes in their movement.  Almost from the beginning, Maidan was characterized from both within and without as a movement against Russia, that is to say Russia versus Ukraine.  It was heavily influenced by people who don’t see Russians, or those Ukrainians who do not conform to their nationalist ideology, as true citizens of Ukraine. Being excluded, many of those people did the most logical thing. Having been labeled Russian and indeed “Moskali,” they threw in their lot with Russia.  Had the opposition done things differently, excluding instead the nationalists as outdated dead-enders who long since expended their chances to do anything positive for Ukraine with no success whatsoever, Ukraine might be solidly unified today, including the Crimea.  Russia would not be able to touch it.

In my final thoughts on this article, I have to say that leftists can and should take sides on this issue, and our side should be resolutely anti-fascist. In no way does this mean we should or have to take Russia’s side. It is the fanatics of Maidan and Team Russia who want to force us to do just that, and we must consistently refuse.  Unfortunately, there is nothing which can be done about the Russian government right now, and this is not our fault. The Western nations and particularly the Obama administration have bumbled around so much as to severely hamper Russia’s opposition movement and hand Putin the highest approval he has had in years, if not his whole career. We as leftists must not let our disgust with Kremlin politics allow us to support a regime which came to power under highly questionable circumstances, willfully associates with far-right extremists and apologizes for them, crushes dissent with conventional military forces, and sits back while armed fascist thugs murder people with firebombs.  Nor should we act like racism against Russians is somehow acceptable. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget that there are significant groups among the anti-government resistance in Ukraine which do not support the Kremlin or annexation. In fact from the poll I’ve seen, a majority of people in Southeast Ukraine do not want to be a part of Russia any more than they want to be dictated to by Kyiv’s current regime.  In short, leftists need to take a principled line. That’s easier said than done, but I have a general rule of thumb which works pretty well for this.  Basically, if the Maidan supporters think you’re pro-Putin and the Team Russia supporters think you’re a Maidan-loving liberal sack of shit, you may be doing something right.

As for my final verdict on Turner’s piece? In some ways I feel it’s close to concern trolling, in this case causing leftists to second guess their positions on this matter while generally leaning closer to the EU side.  Then again, it is often a sad fact that leftists and liberals will frequently second guess themselves and agonize over whether they are doing the right thing, something which isn’t a problem for the right. In other words, Turner probably is totally sincere but like many liberals(assuming he identifies as such), he’s having trouble dealing with the realization that Maidan was nothing but a big shit sandwich that totally squandered any positive aspect it could have had.  He definitely makes some key points which are unheard of in Western Maidan coverage, and he took a courageous stand against Snyder’s bullshit, which itself came off as concern trolling.  Snyder’s popular article tells us to take a look at Maidan through the “haze of propaganda,” but when we read it we find that all the propaganda comes from Russia’s side, and as it turns out the real fascists are only in Russia! That, my friends, is serious concern trolling.  So aside from that slog through the opening paragraph, I think Turner did good work. Even where I disagree, I see merit in his points, and that’s about as much as you can ask for during this international cluster fuck.