NI Online's Continuing Russia Coverage

December 12, 2007 Topic: Domestic PoliticsElectionsPolitics Region: RussiaEurasia

NI Online's Continuing Russia Coverage

Six Russia-watchers weigh in on the Russian elections, the internal state of the country, and Vladimir Putin's nomination of a successor.

Indeed, it is striking just how similar post-Soviet Russia's developmental path resembles that of post-World War I Germany. Both countries underwent strategic defeats, lost empires, and experienced intense national humiliation. Both countries then experienced extreme economic hardship under the stewardship of weak and corrupt democratic regimes. Both countries blamed democracy and its internal and external supporters for their ills. Both countries turned to hypernationalism, state fetishization and strong-man rule. In both countries strong men seized power-by legitimate means, by the way-and exploited popular willingness to submit to domination to establish their authoritarian regimes.


Although Putin's Russia possesses the defining characteristics of fascism, they have not yet assumed the form of a consolidated, coherent and hence fully-stable political system. These characteristics have emerged haphazardly only in the last few years, and although they may now all be in place, it is not yet clear that they are here to stay. In that sense, Russia today resembles Germany in 1933 or Italy in the mid-1920s. Russia could follow in their footsteps, or it could falter and find its way back to some form of democracy. In particular, Putin's announced departure in 2008 will be a test of just how stable this system is. Russia may therefore be best termed an unconsolidated fascist state. If the system remains as is, or even hardens after Putin leaves the presidency, then one will be able to say that the transition has ended in full-fledged fascism. If the system breaks down, or undergoes significant change in the direction of democracy, then the transition will have proven unsuccessful.


Challenges for Fascist Russia

An unconsolidated fascist Russia faces three challenges.

(1) All fascist states scare their neighbors and provoke them to defend themselves against perceived threats emanating from the behavior and bluster of the fascist states. In that sense, fascist hypernationalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy-effectively creating the very enemies it invoked as the reasons for its justification. As a result, Russia will create ever more suspicious and terrified neighbors the longer it remains fascist or unconsolidated-fascist. Those neighbors will, over time, band together, seek allies, and/or attempt to enhance their security militarily and economically and to view their own Russian-speaking populations as potential fifth columns. Their defensive reactions will only succeed in persuading Russia's ruling elites that continued power enhancement is imperative, both in defense of the fatherland and in defense of their "abandoned brethren" in the non-Russian states. At some point in this vicious circle, tensions can easily translate into armed conflict, especially if pockets of Russians living in the non-Russian states appeal to Russia for "fraternal" assistance.

Strong fascist states, when faced with non-fascist "encirclement", may seek to assert their dominance over their neighbors. Of course, since all states are potential enemies, strong fascist states tend to engage in war and overreach, resulting in ultimate defeat. No state is strong enough to defeat an ever larger coalition of opponents. Weak fascist states-like Russia-can respond to non-fascist encirclement with attempts to increase their own power or with still greater chest-beating. Either way, their neighbors get more terrified, and the cycle continues.

(2) Fascist states are inherently unstable states for three distinct reasons:

· Cults of vigorous leaders cannot be sustained as leaders inevitably grow old or decrepit. A continual rejuvenation of the supreme leader might solve the problem were it not for the fact that fascist leaders do not want to give up power. Sooner or later, therefore, fascist leaders lose their core legitimacy, and when they do, both their followers and the submissive population begin to look for alternative idols. If Putin really leaves the scene and retires to his country estate, he will at least temporarily halt Russia's transition to fascism. If, as most analysts suspect, he continues to pull the strings in some other capacity, he will only accelerate Russia's transition. In any case, Putin, though young today, will not remain young forever. And an old and decrepit leader will not be able to make the case for youth, vigor, and manliness in typical fascist style.

· Popular humiliation and the willingness to submit to unconditional authority are weak foundations on which to build states. Sooner or later, Russians will not feel humiliated and, when that happens-as it surely will, once their prosperity and exposure to the world and its blandishment increases-they will be far less inclined to accept leader cults and authoritarian rule by shadowy siloviki. To be sure, Russian political culture may be authoritarian, and it will sustain fascism. But strategic sectors of Russia society-the middle class, the educated elites, and the young-will increasingly reject that culture and prove to be a source of new thinking about Russia's politics.

· Fascist regimes are invariably fragmented. Extreme centralization of power in a supreme leader is supposed to ensure elite coordination and submission; instead, as in Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, it inclines elites to compete for the leader's favor, to amass resources, to build empires, and not to cooperate with their colleagues-turned-competitors. Fascist regimes are thus brittle, and when supreme leaders falter-as they inevitably do-or leave the scene, successor elites engage in cutthroat competition to assume the mantle of authority. In so doing, however, they not only weaken the regime, but they also expose the system as less then the imposing monolith that they project to the submissive population.

(3) Transitional states-like Russia-are especially unstable, because transition, whether to or from democracy or to or from fascism, is an inherently unstable process. The next two years will be especially difficult for Russia, as it copes with a genuinely post-Putin political system or with a seemingly post-Putin system still run by Putin. Either way, Russian politics will be exceedingly unsettled. If Putin really leaves, Russians will have to determine who, if anyone, can replace him as a charismatic, strong, and vigorous leader. If no such person can be found, many of the attributes of Russia's transitionally fascist system will begin to wither away. If, alternatively, Putin remains the puppet-master, then some tensions will inevitably arise between him, as the de facto leader, and his successor, the de jure leader. That will inevitably affect the effectiveness of the system and its capacity to retain popular support.

In sum, a fascist Russia faces the very serious risk of breakdown in the not too distant future. Overreach could stretch the resources of the state and result either in humiliating military defeat or in a progressive decay of its institutions. Leadership cults usually only work as long as the founding leaders-the unquestionably charismatic founders and "law givers"-are still vigorous. Humiliated populations will eventually abandon humiliation for more satisfactory forms of self-identification. Intra-elite infighting saps the system of its strength and undermines its image. And transitions are intrinsically destabilizing periods. Russia's sad fate may be that it will confront some combination of all these risks in the next few years.


Challenges for the World

Whatever happens in Russia, the rest of the world is in for a rough ride. At worst, Russia will become a consolidated fascist state-and the possibility of expansionism and overreach will become all too real. At best, Russia will become an unstable transitionally fascist state-and the potential for a complete breakdown of the system will become a near-term reality. How, then, should the rest of the world respond?

First of all, by recognizing that Putin's Russia is not a democracy, but an authoritarian fascist state. Just calling Russia by the right name immediately suggests that complacency is inappropriate.

Second, by recognizing that Russia is, and will long remain, too weak a military power to be a serious threat to the world. Russia's armed forces are still decrepit, and its nuclear weapons, though fearful, are useless as an instrument of foreign policy. But Russia can exert leverage over its neighbors and much of the world by virtue of its possession of enormous energy resources. Pursuing lesser energy dependence on Russia would not only reduce that leverage; it would also deprive Russia of the resources for possible military build-ups.

Third, by recognizing that the Russian people's current self-abnegation is necessarily temporary and that, sooner or later, significant elements will seek self-empowerment and self-rule. That segment of Russian society should be supported, encouraged and nurtured-and the easiest and most effective way of doing that is by integrating Russia into the world and exposing it to all forms of global processes.

Fourth, by recognizing that a fully fascist or unstable Russia is an immediate threat to its neighbors-the non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Their nerves should be soothed, and their security should be supported. Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Central Asian states all have good reason to be wary of Russia. Repeated Russian invasions, brutal attempts at colonization, and Russia's unwillingness to reject its Stalinist past would be reason enough to be suspicious. Add to that Russia's slide toward fascism and the continued unwillingness of the Western European states to recognize that there is cause for alarm-and it is no surprise that Russia's non-Russian neighbors feel as if they were being treated primarily as inconvenient obstacles to steady deliveries of Russian oil and gas.