The Western media’s coverage of the recent Russian elections and the protests against President Vladimir Putin was seriously distorted, demonstrating that Westerners are once again looking for a liberalization movement that doesn’t reflect the broader reality.
When I was a journalist and covered mass meetings, on no occasion did I or any of my colleagues ever choose the prettiest girl in the crowd to interview. On the contrary, our consistent prejudice was in favor of grandparents of both sexes, preferably bearded.
Television teams were especially firm—I mean self-denying—in this regard. Among the beautiful girls we didn’t interview, we took particular care not to interview educated girls who could express moving thoughts about democracy and freedom in good English. When we felt obliged to do informal opinion polls on the street (what British journalists call “vox pops”) we never said “Let’s go to the upper-class shopping mall round the corner from the hotel—there’s quite a nice bar.” No, obedient to our iron sense of duty, we always drove for an hour to a working-class suburb and stood in the snow or the sun for however long it took to form an impression of the inarticulate views of the mass of the population.
When our editors demanded stories which conformed to the prejudices of Western audiences rather than realities on the ground in the countries we were covering, we always told them where to get off. And no Western journalist ever, ever took their impressions of another society from pro-Western intellectuals they met at dinner parties. Cross my heart and hope to go back to working for Rupert Murdoch.
And if you believe any of that, you probably believe that the liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov won the Russian presidential election.
Of course, there have always been Western journalists who have worked terribly hard, and sometimes risked their lives or their health, to form more accurate impressions. Nonetheless, all too often there has been a pattern of unconscious, instinctive misrepresentation of protests in different parts of the world, linked to the belief—which might be called either naively progressive or simply human—that if the present regime is bad, something better must take its place.
Even more striking than Russia in this regard was the coverage of the Egyptian Revolution, where a protest movement—which, to judge by most of the Western media, was dominated by liberals—somehow produced an election in which not only the Muslim Brotherhood came first, but second place was taken by a Salafist movement that the overwhelming majority of Western journalists never even mentioned.
The results of the Russian elections also show that even if you subtract a few percent from Putin’s rigging (independent polling organizations suggest that his real vote may have been around 55 percent rather than the official 63 percent), he not only won the elections by a convincing margin, but the overwhelming majority of the Russian electorate also voted for candidates reflecting (with varying degrees of sincerity) some mixture of nationalism, Soviet nostalgia and socialism.
That does not mean that Russian liberals are irrelevant to the future of the country; on the contrary, they are extremely important. But their importance does not lie in the area of democracy. When it comes to protests against a given regime, their education as well as their ability to state an articulate case and dominate the Internet give them a tremendous ability to undermine, insult and embarrass the rulers in ways which damage their prestige. But that does not mean they can actually win elections or form governments—in the United States, let alone Egypt or Russia. In Russia, the awful memories of the 1990s are now added to by the picture of a Western economic order in deep crisis. No Russian group identified unconditionally with Western economic and political ideas can possibly gain majority support in these circumstances.
Liberal elites are essential, however, for any reformist government. This is especially true in a country like Russia, where so much remains to be done to produce a reasonably honest, decent and well-functioning modern state. So far, a considerable proportion of these elements has chosen to support the existing administration, whether because these individuals too believed that order had to be restored after the anarchy of the 1990s; or they saw support for the regime as the only chance of bringing about positive change; or hoped that President Dmitri Medvedev might emerge as a genuine reformist successor to Putin. If such elements now abandon the Putin administration completely, then not only will any chance genuine reforms be wrecked, but much of Putin’s ability to administer Russian capitalism effectively will be damaged.
Putin’s administration is not going to fall. The only way that could happen is in the context of a disastrous collapse of the world economy, dragging Russia down with it—something which is hardly to be desired from any point of view. Barring this or something altogether unforeseen, he will complete his next six years in office. Hopefully, however, the latest protests will have encouraged him to return to some of the genuine reformism of his first years in power or to choose a successor who will pursue such reforms.
Whatever happens, liberalization in Russia will be a slow and incremental process. It will also not lead to any significant change in the basic patterns of Russian foreign and security policy. To judge by the elections and every opinion poll in this area, the overwhelming mass of the Russian establishment and Russian people approve of Putin’s foreign-policy record. If Western governments want to pursue reasonably good relations with Russia, this is the reality with which they will have to work. For the foreseeable future, like it or not, what we see is what we will get.
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. In the 1990s, he worked as a correspondent for The Times (London) in the former Soviet Union and Russia, and he is author of several books on that region. His latest book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, appeared last month in an updated paperback edition.
Image: Freedom House