Russia Facing Challenges Europe Overcame Decades Ago

11 october 2013

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The greatest strength of the European model in its heyday – the second half of the 20th century – was the ability to synthesize constructive energy and to avoid excesses.

1968, Take two

It’s easy to understand why the recent general elections in Germany attracted so much attention around the world – the future of Europe and the world hinged on the outcome. The result was quite welcome, and not only because Angela Merkel, a skillful politician with considerable influence, held on (few doubted she would), but because of the German electorate’s general mood and its sound and responsible attitude. This is a noteworthy if not a rare event in modern history.

Elections have recently become a huge headache in Europe, which is justifiably proud of its democratic traditions. European governments often fear the electorate will not just vote them out but will support instead some loud populist party – less as a sign of protest than out of boredom and disappointment. The worst part is that these public favorites do not intend to assume responsibility. The most striking example is the Five Star MoVement (M5S), an Italian political party launched by Beppe Grillo, a popular activist, comedian and blogger, which won nearly 25% of the vote in Italy’s recent elections, although Grillo said he would never join the government and that his only message to the nation is that all politicians are swine.

The political palette in Europe has changed noticeably. While traditional political groups such as conservatives, liberals, socialists and the rest are still around, they are often unstable and their fortunes change frequently depending on the overall situation. But there is essentially a two-party system now, with a party of responsibility on one end and a party of protest on the other.

The party of responsibility can include representatives of widely different ideologies, but the difference between the policies of socialists and conservatives is rapidly decreasing. The globalized world has new laws which leave politicians very little room for maneuver. The path to economic prosperity is extremely narrow. Secondary but ideologically loaded issues, such as minority rights, have taken on outsized importance because they allow parties and politicians to clearly express their ideologies. Everything else they do can be described as crisis management. They have no time or energy left for strategy. In fact, it is unclear if strategies are even possible in a world where things keep changing and where nothing is predictable and linear. The most productive periods have been characterized by so-called technical governments, which did not win elections because they were popular but because they were needed to deal with a problem, like in Italy, Greece or Portugal. Such cabinets only last until the next elections, which they never win, but they can use the time to implement unpopular but necessary reforms.

The party of protest is also diverse, with representatives from the left to the right of the political spectrum, and expresses Europeans’ growing dissatisfaction with the present and, most importantly, the absence of a clear picture of the future. Since the 1950s, Europeans have grown up in the belief that tomorrow will be better or, at the very least, not worse than yesterday. That feeling has faded rapidly in the 21st century. Since no one can say for sure what will happen next in this period of unpredictability, victory belongs to those who offer the simplest or the catchiest ideas. The majority of the electorate understands that these extravagant politicians will not do what is required of them, but vote for them anyway to send a message to the establishment.

In all fairness, Europe’s political machinery has so far successfully withstood the pressures of widespread dissatisfaction, which has turned yesterday’s fringe groups into respectable political movements. These parties are brought into the governing fold and quickly become normalized like other parties (the recent example is the ultra-right Freedom Party in Austria), or they are compromised by their cooperation with the political mainstream, as has happened to the hard-right anti-immigration party in the Netherlands. The situation is considerably worse in Britain, where the ruling Conservative Party is taking up the slogans of the ultra-conservative and extremely anti-European UK Independence Party, which has been steadily growing stronger. As a result, Eurosceptics proudly say that the country’s oldest and most respected political organization is actually implementing their program.

One could describe these two movements as the status quo party and the revolution party, but this is not quite correct. The traditional political forces are aware of the need for change and often, though not always, understand what should be done. But their wariness of populist movements, the fear of losing the initiative and the lack of reliable political support force them to opt for band-aid fixes over serious action. This situation perfectly suits those who claim to represent the interests of the disaffected – the longer this situation lasts, the stronger they become.

Numerous political traditions originated in Europe. One is dramatic ideological conflicts that can develop into revolutionary upheavals, clearing the path for social progress. The other is the painstaking search for a consensus among disparate factions in the name of a balanced evolutionary progress. France could be said to  embody the first tradition, and Sweden the second. But now that the world has become unpredictable and all countries without exception are aware of their vulnerability to the pressures of the global environment, there is no alternative to the second tradition.

Russia is living in a different time. Our political system has a different and much shorter history than Europe’s. We don’t have deeply-rooted democratic institutions, and our parties, unlike their European analogues, have no real traditions or infrastructure. This will continue to be true for a long time to come. That said, Russia is caught up in the same ideological and political current as the rest of Europe – not only Central and Eastern European countries to which Russia is usually compared, but also Western European countries.

Russian society is changing, and there should be no expectations of passivity or automatic consolidation. Ideologies are only now blending in Europe; in Russia this period is long past. Politics in Russia was rife with diverse and meaningful ideological concepts in the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. And then the ideologies evened out under the banner of pragmatism.

The current situation in Russia is similar to the one in Europe. No one has any clear and demonstrably correct prescriptions for what to do, and hence the tactic of addressing current issues is clearly taking precedence over the need to develop a strategy. There is a list of issues which Europe resolved long ago but which Russia has been trying to address for centuries, primarily creating an effective government. As for the rest, Russia is wandering in the same dense fog as Europe’s ruling class.

Russia is more vulnerable to challenges than Europe due to the specific features of its history, and so should be treated very cautiously. Russia’s somewhat backward, if not to say downright wild, political landscape is split in two – those who try to rule and those who feed off dissatisfaction. There is no impenetrable wall between these two parts of Russia or Europe, as evidenced by rebels from the German and French green parties becoming part of the administration – Joschka Fischer as German Foreign Minister and Daniel Cohn-Bendit as co-chair of the Spinelli Group in the European Parliament. However, movement from one part to the other requires a push, whereas a clash between them would have fatal consequences.

The greatest strength of the European model in its heyday – the second half of the 20th century – was the ability to synthesize constructive energy and to avoid excesses. This is why Western Europe has survived economic recessions and political crises, including the 1968 upheavals, which forced European countries to make their social contract more inclusive of different social groups and generations. That demanded a compromise between the authorities, which began by dispersing demonstrations and ordering police raids, and the formerly irreconcilable opposition, with its Molotov cocktails. Vladimir Putin spoke about the need for compromise in Russia in his address at the Valdai Club meeting: “All of us – so-called Neo-Slavophiles and Neo-Westernizers, statists and so-called liberals – all of society (…) need(s) to break the habit of only listening to like-minded people, angrily – and even with hatred – rejecting any other point of view from the outset.”

Europe will have to deal with this challenge in much more complicated conditions of the global marketplace compounded by the rapidly growing cultural and religious diversity due to immigration. It is unclear if its political system is up to the task. The recent example of German prudence may mean that Germany has a number of unique qualities compared even with its closest neighbors.

Russia will have to meet challenges that are rooted in different periods of history. Europe and Russia are dealing with similar issues, for example multiculturalism, which both sides are discussing and seeking a solution to, so far unsuccessfully. However, Russia has yet to deal with the problem which Europe successfully resolved in 1968 – expanding the social contract to include new, active segments of society, so that opponents can become catalysts of development. The European experience can be extremely valuable, but only if we analyze it and adapt its lessons to our realities, rather than simply accept a set of political clichés, as many in Russia have done.

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