“Don’t Rock the Boat!”

15 april 2013

Five Reasons Why the Opposition Should Not Topple the Putin Regime

Nikolay Spasskiy is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: We do not live in an abstract civil society, but in specific economic, legal, cultural, and ideological conditions, with the state as the foundation. When the state falls apart, chaos follows, however briefly. Any chaos is worse than state order, except for rare cases when the government carries out genocide against its own people.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW

I wanted to express my opinions about this topic a year ago, when the Russian opposition was persistent in its warnings that it would not recognize the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. However, I did not feel like it. Subsequently, the effects of the opposition protests quickly faded.

Yet time has shown that the topic is still relevant. In December 2012, in a document called “Far-Reaching Political Reform: the Major Demand of the Democratic Opposition,” the opposition movement once again argued that Russia’s current government is illegitimate. In effect, a statement like this implies that the current regime could be overthrown and dismantled by any means possible. Once federal officials are perceived as illegitimate, there is no need to be scrupulous about how to achieve your goal.

So, it seems there is a point to explaining my position after all.

To begin with, what is this all about? We do not live in an abstract civil society, but in specific economic, legal, cultural, and ideological conditions, with the state as the foundation. When the state falls apart, chaos follows, however briefly. Any chaos is worse than state order, except for rare cases, of course, when the government carries out genocide against its own people; i.e. exterminating the nation.

For people of my generation, who remember thousands of World War II veterans reuniting each year on May 9 to commemorate Victory Day in Moscow’s Gorky Park and in hundreds of cities across Russia, the victory in World War II is something very personal. Genocide to me is synonymous with the Generalplan Ost (the secret Nazi German plan for the colonization of Central and Eastern Europe), which envisaged the settlement of ethnic Germans in the European part of the Soviet Union and the extermination of 30 million people living in those territories. I do hold it is not correct to use the term ‘genocide’ in relation to every mass atrocity, but this a marginal note…

We live in an era of rapid change, more positive than not. Despite the financial and economic turmoil of the past few years with which the world is still struggling, the general welfare of people is steadily improving. The world has not experienced any major wars in the past 67 years. With any luck, I hope to live the rest of my life without experiencing the horrors of war that my parents suffered. Moreover, I hope that my daughter, too, will live her life in comfort.

I am not saying, though, that all is peace and quiet – far from it. The people of Chechnya, Karabakh, or the Ferghana Valley would hardly share my optimism, let alone those who live in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the African Great Lakes region (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, parts of the Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania). Today’s world order shows numerous signs of real and potential rifts and cracks: geopolitical rivalry, inter-state disputes, economic competition, shortages of resources, revolutions in communications, technology, and food supply, terrorism, religious radicalism, nuclear proliferation, man-made disasters, and natural calamities. This combination creates an entire system of threats fraught with the collapse of our current relative prosperity and calm.

Some may think that in today’s world of comfort, especially in that part of the world commonly referred to as the “golden billion,” it is possible to manage without a strong state. Previously, in the era of wars and revolutions, that would have been extremely dangerous. Now the risks are quite acceptable.

I argue that this assumption is fundamentally wrong. Today a strong and well-operating state is essential for everyone, and to a far greater extent that it used to be. Too few safe havens are left where someone can hide from society and live alone in peace and with nature.

So we should be cautious with “the unbearable lightness of being” in our attitude towards the state; otherwise we might simply lose it. The state we have today may be clumsy and ineffective, but it is ours. The Russian nation will not likely survive another dismantling of the state structure – the third in the past century.  Russia will not endure, in the modern sense of dismantling, as a nation that claims a civilizing role, manages a tremendous expanse of land, and serves as a major pillar of world order.

Of course, the concept that allows for the illegitimacy of one’s own government is not a Russian invention. Such concepts did not emerge in Russia and are not recent. World history has seen instances in which a radically minded minority, angry over the status quo in its own country, rose up in revolt against the state machinery and fought to overthrow the government. Russia is not an exception.

But our case has two notable distinctions. First, in was Russia where the Bolsheviks fueled public debate about the government’s defeat in the First World War and propelled that doctrine to unheard of heights in terms of systemic and sophisticated arguments. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn described the 1915 Zimmerwald Peace Conference in most dramatic terms.

Second, in strategic terms, Russia is potentially more vulnerable than other leading powers for a number of reasons: the country’s shrinking population and radical changes in its makeup; stalled modernization; lack of real progress in developing the country’s eastern regions; the economy’s overdependence on energy exports; and the lingering effects of the shock therapy economic reforms in the 1990s.

We are not in a position to stage another experiment to fundamentally reorganize our country. I am told a handful of marginal protesters is not a reason to panic. I am not panicking. Remember that the Bolshevist party had 24,000 members in February 1917, but in just several short months it managed to shake the world.

I will present my main arguments about why we should be very cautious in calling for the defeat of our government. It does not matter what sort of defeat that might be, or in what exact areas – in policies towards Syria or in attempts to breathe new life into domestic car manufacturers.

A SHORT HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Reason number one: experience shows that any violent collapse of an imperfect state (no matter what form the violence may take) for the sake of improvement almost always spells disaster for the people of that country. This includes the overthrow of an administration you may not like, aimed at establishing a different type of government, either your own or representing your interests.

There are many examples.

I am enchanted by the history of Byzantium and I am no exception. Byzantium has thrilled many people – from English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) to American military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak (b. 1942). And its history is very didactic. In terms of human passion, Byzantine history is certainly far more tragic than Goethe’s Faust. But the Byzantine Empire fell in 1204, not on May 29, 1453.

At that time, Byzantium was the scene of a dramatic power struggle, something quite common in the empire’s one-thousand-year history. Alexios III had gained the upper hand in the battle for power. The opposition, which had supported Prince Alexios, the son of the overthrown and blinded Emperor Isaac II Angelos, decided to fight back. Alexios contacted the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, the leader of a group of crusaders who were about to sail for Egypt, and promised them a fortune if they agreed to help him retake the throne. Dandolo was a blind, ninety-year-old man. A legend says that earlier, when he was a Venetian ambassador, Dandolo visited Constantinople and the Byzantines blinded him.

The crusaders returned the throne to Isaac Angelos. Then they set up camp, waiting for Prince Alexios and his father to pay them for their services. Clashes between the Greeks and the Romans took place periodically. The father and his son, who had brought a foreign army to the city’s walls, were looked on with hate and disgust.

Simmering anger grew into outright revolt. Isaac, ousted from the throne once again, died of grief, and his son was imprisoned and eventually killed.

In the ensuring anarchy, the crusaders, who had not been paid, stormed Constantinople. The city fell on April 13, 1204.

Those events are well described in history texts and historical novels.

Fyodor Uspensky says in his version: “Those three days of pillaging amid raging fires are beyond description. Even after many years, when life took its usual course, the Greeks were still unable to recall the scenes they had been through without horror. Crusaders rushed in all directions to collect their trophies. Shops, private homes, churches, and the Emperor’s palaces were thoroughly searched and looted, and defenseless civilians were subjected to beatings… The Latins’ barbaric attitude towards works of art, libraries, and Byzantine holy shrines deserves special mention. When they burst into a church, the crusaders would grab sacred objects and vestments, force open reliquaries with the relics of saints, steal church jars and cups, break and crush precious monuments, and burn manuscripts. Many made fortunes in those days, and their descendants would, for many centuries, take special pride in the antiquities stolen in Constantinople. Bishops and abbots would later narrate in detail to future generations what shrines they had laid their hands on in Constantinople and how.”

What Alexios Angelos and his clique actually accomplished was the collapse and partitioning of the greatest empire in history (in terms of its uninterrupted existence). It took 57 years to piece together the tiny fragments into one state again, but the result was a different state.

Byzantium no longer existed as a superpower and global empire, but it would still achieve sporadic military successes (for instance, under Manuel II Palaeologus). The empire’s diplomatic practices were unparalleled in world history in terms of intensity, sophistication, and productiveness. The empire displayed a surprising ability to achieve an intellectual and spiritual revival. It was for good reason that the Byzantine intellectual tradition proved to be a source for the Renaissance movement in Europe, although this fact was ignored for many centuries. But Byzantium, which had for centuries protected Europe from eastern invasions, was now weak, humiliated, and no longer able to cope with that mission. Had it not been for the Fourth Crusade, the Ottoman Empire’s forces would probably have never gotten as far as Vienna. World history would have followed a different course.

Now, back to our story.

In Russia, the Time of Troubles is the most deplorable example of a foreign factor involved in internal skirmishes. This is something very close to us and easy to understand, since we remember the main sequence of events from primary school. I will merely point out a brief passage from an old chronicle narrated by nineteenth-century Russian historian Nikolai Kostomarov.

The following example shows what can happen when a country is no longer considered legitimate: “It was an evil time of God’s wrath, such an evil time that people no longer cherished salvation for themselves; nearly all the Russian land had turned barren and was deserted; and the elders called those evil times the cruel years, as the misfortune that afflicted the Russian land has been unheard of since the beginning of the world: the wrath of God on people, famine, earth tremors, pestilence, frosts killed all fruit; wild beasts devoured people, people devoured people; and all people fell into great captivity! Zygmunt, King of Poland, ordered that the entire state of Muscovy be put to fire and sword and that the divine beauty of the Russian land be razed to the ground, as we would not recognize his unbaptized son, Wladyslaw, as king in Moscow… But Our Lord, as the very same chronicle says, heeded the prayer of His flock, who had appealed to Him aloud with all their might, to be relieved of misfortunes so dreadful, and He sent one of His angels to restore peace to all the land and lift the heavy burden from all of His people.”

On too many occasions in history, bloody cataclysms accompanying the collapse of successful states, mass extermination of civilians, and destruction of prosperous cities, began with a simple power struggle and the delegitimation of the government.

It looked like the Peloponnesian War would end with the total defeat of Athens, when Alcibiades, the commander of the Athenian army, defected to Sparta, since he was facing trial at home. In 1310, Prince Vasily brought Tatar troops from the Golden Horde to oust his uncle, Svyatoslav Glebovich, who had seized the city of Bryansk. Although the people of Bryansk had agreed to extradite Prince Svyatoslav before the battle, the Tatars carried out a terrible massacre.

The anarchist coup in Barcelona in May 1937 during the civil war in Spain helped forces led by Francisco Franco take the Basque country and largely contributed to the fall of the Spanish Republic. An attempted government coup from the top in South Yemen in January 1986 and the brief civil war that followed caused so much harm to the country’s economy and politics that several years later, in 1989, South Yemen agreed to unite with its arch enemy North Yemen.

Those are enough historical allusions. Let us move on.

CORRUPTION AND OTHER “BIRTHMARKS”

Reason number two: whatever complaints one may have against the current Russian government, they are not very different from complaints in Western Europe or North America, places dear to the hearts of Russian intellectuals.

State power, as such, is not a very pleasant thing because it employs various forms of violence. Yet there is no way around violence. The government’s mission is not only to establish rules for the co-existence of people that are acceptable to the majority and to make sure that those rules are observed, but also, to a growing extent, to offer society a certain package of basic infrastructural services.

I will not talk about democracy here, since much has been said about that already. Democracy has become a catchword. Instead, let us take a better look at corruption – an indicative issue as well.

In basic terms, corruption is a means to redistribute material wealth. Under certain historical circumstances corruption may even play a positive role. A far more important question is this: does society produce anything or not? Does it make machine tools, clothes, smartphones, software, etc. that are in demand? Are the material or cultural products of that society competitive on world markets? Is that society ready for renewal? Is it able to generate scientific, technological, and spiritual progress?

Here is just one example. According to universally accepted estimates, anywhere between one quarter to one third of Italy’s GDP is manufactured in the shadow economic sector. This was the case in the 1980s and it is true today. Meanwhile, the country’s overall position has undergone cosmic changes. In the 1980s, Italy was on the rise and was one of the world’s leading economies. Now Italy is in a deep systemic crisis. Why?

In the 1980s, Italy manufactured a large amount of competitive products – cars, machine tools, helicopters, and computers. Today Italian industry produces clothing, furniture and little else.

According to the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, which is an authoritative analytical center in this field, in 2007 (the last surveyed year), the shadow economy accounted for 40.6% of Russian GDP, compared to 8.4% in the U.S., 26.8% in Italy, 46.8% in Ukraine, and 53% in Nigeria. Clearly, Russia’s position in this ranking is not good, but it is not corruption as such that is the root of the problem.

Adjusted for the size of GDP, the shadow economy in the U.S. in absolute terms is twice that of Russia – $1.1 trillion compared to $524 billion. But the U.S. is still the workshop of the world and a manufacturer of innovations. U.S. universities boast about two hundred Nobel Prize winners. The U.S. offers university education to 760,000 foreign students (including 194,000 from China, 100,000 from India, and 5,000 from Russia). In 2012, the U.S. built 601 airliners (Europe constructed 588, China 37, and Russia 23). The U.S. has 250 supercomputers (China has 72, Japan 32, and Russia 8).

Corruption is a terrible disease and we must fight it mercilessly. Yet our main systemic weakness is that we do not produce key modern and competitive goods and services. This says it all in terms of both hard and soft power.

PRESENT THREATS

Reason number three, which has been said a million times, is that the world is going through profound and rapid changes. I see no sense in dwelling at length on the content of this change. There are things that should be discussed either in depth or not discussed at all.

Besides, as the saying goes, the truth is in the eyes of the beholder: the same events and processes can be viewed from diametrically opposite points of view. American journalist and author Tom Friedman believes that the crucial fact in understanding today’s world lies in the appearance on the Indian market of a domestically produced tablet with all the basic functions, at a price point of just $30. Friedman believes this is confirmation of the trend towards greater progress and prosperity for all of humanity.

By contrast, American journalist Nicholas Kristof writes about soaring child prostitution and violence against women and children in general, especially in war-torn regions; death rates in the millions, devastating famine, and large-scale slave trade and slave ownership.

Let us take just one aspect of the problem, the way we have done thus far in this article.

Some of Russia’s gloating critics make sinister prophecies that the regime will fall apart precisely like the Gaddafi and Mubarak regimes collapsed. Stylistically, this is cruel mockery, while in terms of content it is juggling facts. The differences are too great between our societies and the respective historical contexts.

However, the problem does exist. Friedman believes that the simultaneous crash of the supra-nation state in Europe and the nation state in the Middle East was the central international event of the early 2010s. An amazingly keen observer, Friedman accurately identified a fundamental trend – the growing weakness of traditional state institutions (in countries with different natures, political regimes, and socio-economic systems) in the face of unconventional challenges.

What sort of challenges are these? Let us take Europe, which is closer to us and easier to understand. In the forefront we see dramatic changes in the age, ethnic, and religious composition of the population. Moreover, the gap is increasing between peoples’ ability and readiness to produce things to improve the general welfare and quality of life they all expect to enjoy.

This basic problem is aggravated by many accompanying circumstances, including the weak protection of the financial and economic systems of even strong countries from external shocks. The spread in Treasury yield is indicative. It was precisely a surge in this spread (rumors abounded that the surge was not accidental at all) that triggered Berlusconi’s fall.

Or take non-traditional protest movements – anti-globalist campaigns as a general phenomenon that rocked the world in Seattle fourteen years ago – and the recent manifestation of protest actions under the slogan “Occupy Wall Street.” In the Arab world, something like that happened after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia. There are movements built on the network marketing principle, without coordinating centers and without party membership cards or membership dues that act in a wave-like fashion. Indeed, it is possible to try to neutralize such a movement by bringing tanks onto central streets, but such moves will not be very effective. Not responding is not good, either. Lack of action will lead to a paralysis of government and public functions, and eventual chaos. So, the question is: What is to be done?

But let me reiterate that all these issues are accompanying circumstances or collateral damage. The root problem lies in the fact that today’s citizens, above all young people, in countries of various, sometimes very different, levels of development, want to get from the state a degree of material and cultural benefits that is not provided for by the labor of that country’s population. And this is a problem that will last for decades. One law or international treaty will be unable to resolve it overnight. This is a problem for all of society in each individual country. In fact, it is a problem everyone faces.

Since a single global government does not exist yet and is unlikely to emerge in the near future, individual national governments will have to create organizational frameworks in order to address this problem. Also, they will have to be responsible to their citizens for the success or failure of their policies. This must be done individually, not collectively.

What I said above applies to Russia, as well, which is an integral part of the industrialized West, regardless of whatever one might feel about that. The sole difference is that, for the people of Russia, this existential problem is harsher, because it is exacerbated by the country’s other unresolved problems inherited from previous historical periods, which have piled up for decades. In Russia’s case, the country’s unfinished structural reforms, an under-reformed civil society, and a persisting psychological “lost super-power” complex aggravate the situation.

CHALLENGES FROM THE FUTURE

In 1901, the world had eight great powers – the U.S., the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, France, Italy (with reservations), the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Japan. Only the U.S. survived the century without any major social upheavals, without redrawing its geographical map, and without major losses (relatively, of course) in wars. The United Kingdom was not as successful, but it managed to emerge relatively unscathed (although not in terms of territory). The six other countries experienced revolutions, civil wars, large-scale fighting in their own territories, reprisals, and concentration camps. Japan was even attacked twice with atomic bombs. As a result, these countries suffered millions of casualties.

It was impossible to foresee such catastrophes during the Belle Гpoque in the early 20th century.

Or take the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century France, a country that had barely recovered from a decade of war, emerged as a major power that united all of continental Europe for the first time since Charlemagne. France reformed the entire constitutional order in Europe according to its own taste, and many countries still use civil legislation based on the Napoleonic Code. France laid firm claim to world domination. Then, after only a few years, soldiers from four foreign powers were stationed in French villages and towns.

Also, there was the unification of Germany. Twenty-five small German states combined to form the German Empire, while Austria was transformed into the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Italy was united again through a series of wars and largely as a consequence of German victories. The U.S. experienced a violent civil war. Japan made an unexpected modernization leap out of nowhere. Yet the nineteenth century was possibly one of the calmest and easiest eras in human history.

The eighteenth century witnessed a revolution in France, a war of independence in North America, and Russia’s emergence from a chain of bloody wars as one of the largest and strongest world powers. By contrast, Sweden lost its power and Poland disappeared from the political map of Europe. The century also includes the Seven Years’ War, with its estimated two million deaths (a prototype for World War I) and the final elimination of the Turkish threat. It was a gallant century indeed: the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Casanova, and Cagliostro.

The seventeenth century was more troubling: the Thirty Years’ War left up to eight million dead; the Peace of Westphalia created the nation state; and the dynastical system collapsed in Europe. Russia experienced the Time of Troubles.

Let us stop here.

The meaning of all this is the following: historical forecasts are necessary and justified. There have been many and some are quite remarkable. Take the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s reports in the Global Trends series, for instance. The latest issue is called Alternative Worlds. It contains much food for thought, but nothing more than that. One has to be honest: humanity has not yet mastered the art of forecasting its own future, even in relatively recent historical terms. Ever aware of this, we must act accordingly: first and foremost, by not taking too many risks without any real need and not rocking the boat.

A BIT OF PHILOSOPHY BEFORE THE CURTAIN FALLS

Although I received my doctorate degree from a philosophy department, I am not a philosopher. Since I prefer to avoid discussing matters about which I have no idea, I will confine myself to a few basic statements I simply cannot do without.

The most fundamental issues to humanity in the twenty-first century are related neither to the rise of China nor to the evolution of political Islam. Both are important questions, but not epoch-making ones. The fateful questions for human civilization, for its future, and for the path of development human society will follow are different.

I can see at least two such questions, and I offer my apologies for the clumsy wording: Is a human being as a social animal inclined to do good? And does the “amount” of human kindness tend to increase as historical progress continues?

Why am I asking these questions in the context of this discussion? It is all very simple. Imagine that the human being is kind by nature. If each person is placed in the right environment, including receiving the proper education, then, in principle, human society should be able to do without an external regulator like the state. Similarly, let us imagine that the amount of good in the world is growing. In that case, in the modern post-industrial era the amount of kindness should be greater than it was under classic capitalism. Markedly, there was more general benefit under classic capitalism than under feudalism.

With this assumption, if this trend is extrapolated into the future, sooner or later we should get a society of humans where “kind” human nature will ultimately display itself and prevail. Countries will be made redundant. People will live without borders or states, and without the machineries of compulsion and deterrence, because there will be no one to be compelled or deterred. The very concept of violence will vanish.

That is a breathtaking prospect! If it is realistic, the trend can be accelerated. In that case, any special piety towards the institution of state in modern times is out of place. And if not…

Everything depends on our answers to the two questions above. I have no unambiguous opinion on that score. Honestly. To answer in the negative one needs a set of irrefutable arguments, which are lacking. Besides, a negative answer would be a vicious target for the entire development of humanity, consonant with Blade Runner-type futuristic thrillers. Not to mention some very personal reasons – my wife made me promise not to come up with gloomy historical predictions.

But there are no visible solid reasons for firm optimism either. The burdens of Auschwitz, Cambodia, and Rwanda are too much.

This uncertainty is yet another reason why humanity is still unable to do without strong states. The problems of building a modern state – one that is effective and enlightened, that relies on civil society, and that is oriented towards tapping the individual’s creative potential – are not reason enough to ruin the states we have already.

In Tsarist Russia the state functioned relatively smoothly, despite widespread corruption and an ineffective bureaucracy. Some glittering prospects were on the horizon. According to many forecasts, by the middle of the twentieth century Russia would have become the global leader in terms of economic development. If only the Bolsheviks had not appeared and subsequently dragged us into the October Revolution…

*  *  *

The Russian state today is far better than its critics (no small wonder!) and most Russians think, however odd this may seem.

Nobody will give us a different country. Suicidal Internationale-style speculations – “first we shall raze it to the ground, and only then…” – need to stop. And hard, unrewarding, and, sometimes unpleasant, work should begin to improve the country that we have today. This must be done both for the sake of our children and for us.

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