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Russia’s Civil Society: From Democracy Backpedaling to Informal War

By Blog Admin, on 30 July 2016

 

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by Professor Alena Ledeneva

Across Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democracy and civil society in the post-communist era are being diverted by informal ties, networks, practices that hide behind democratic institutions. The main problem with powerful informal obligations to family, friends, colleagues and bosses is that they also compromise the state, governance and civil society, especially where clear boundaries between public and private cannot be drawn. Imagine official positions that take over private lives, or having to choose between being a good bureaucrat and a good brother.

I’ve presented my research into informal practices in my trilogy on Russia: Russia’s Economy of Favours, How Russia Really Works, and Can Russia Modernise. In these three books, I take an ethnographic approach towards studying informal practices at different levels and periods, from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. I view communism, its collapse, and the formation of a new system from the perspective of informal practices, and question the predominant discourses of the state, democracy, and civil society, associated with formal institutions.

There are three strands to my argument.

Firstly, the 1990s’ liberal reforms in Russia were originally thought to allow civil society to emerge and get grounded in already existent networks, yet this was not what happened. It turned out that Russia’s informal networks operate according to the ‘us versus them’ logic that is largely self- or network serving, and thus not conducive to civic values.

Secondly, the double standards widespread under the communist oppressive system continue to operate even after the fall of such a regime. The post-communist vacuum was hard to fill, and after a short blip of enthusiasm for democracy in late 1980s and early 1990s, the informal practices in politics – black PR, kompromat, krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) – have increased people’s cynicism towards the new democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the non-civic nature of informal networks in Russia has also had effects on those in power. On one hand, Putin’s power networks served themselves and reproduced the culture of privileges, which is detrimental to civil society. On the other hand, Putin’s restrictive laws of 2006 and 2011, which, although damaging to existing non-governmental organisations, had the unintended consequence of benefitting civic initiatives emerging ‘bottom-up’. This was illustrated by the Blue Buckets campaign for equality on the roads, and the anti-Putin protests of 2011. The internet has become an important tool for activism, such as the Last Address initiative, whereby people commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges by putting a plaque on their building.

However, since 2012 powerful nationalist propaganda has considerably eroded the atmosphere for bottom-up social initiatives. This was launched by the Kremlin to ensure popular support for the continuing confrontation with the West over the situations in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and now Turkey. The informal war – an undeclared warfare behind the misleading facades – has gone international. This is not surprising, given the decades-long tradition of informal economy and informal politics. The future is even more worrying, as the number of leaders who admire and emulate the Most Powerful Person in the World is only likely to increase.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Stuck in transition?

By Blog Admin, on 20 December 2013

Economic reform in Eastern Europe and the former USSR is stagnating suggests the latest Transition Report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).  However, as debates at a joint EBRD/UCL-SSEES launch event highlight, the responses needed may not be straightforward, reports Randolph Bruno

The idea that some countries are Stuck in Transition – to take the title of the EBRD’s 2013 Transition Report – has resonated for some time in the literature. It is now it is time to take stock and ask whether transition is really over – at least for some countries.

The 2013 EBRD Transition report tries to address this by asking two main questions. Firstly, why has convergence slowed? The standard of living of the best performing countries in Eastern Europe is still around 60-70% of the average for rich Western European countries. Secondly, can economic institutions be improved if there are constraints on political reform– a question which could also be asked in a very similar fashion of Western European countries. As far as the first question is concerned, the data clearly shows an end to the productivity catch-up (moving closer to the EU average) observed at the turn of the millennium.

Why should this be the case? One possible answer is stalled political reform. The up-to- EBRD transition indicators in the Report show political reforms plateau-ing and this is worrying. The attitude of the citizens in transition states shifted in 2006-2010, basically dropping the consensus that the market economy is a good mechanism for allocating resources.

Reforms matter

However, the main element is the increase in the so called Total Factor Productivity – productivity derived from the increase in efficiency not accounted by factors of production such capital and labour. In other words, the injection of new capital or new labour has a very limited impact on productivity whereas new technology and innovation play a major role.

The EBRD downgrades of the top reformers’ rankings are concentrated in the EU countries and with the current policy convergence will slow. However, the other side of the coin is that if economic reforms are improved convergence will improve. On this point the EBRD Transition Report is very clear: keep going with reform –or re-start reform- and this can make a substantial difference. Still more worryingly, in some cases (for example in Belarus) reforms have been reversed. (more…)

Whatever happened to Moldova’sTwitter generation?

By Blog Admin, on 16 September 2013

Moldova celebrates the EU

Photo: Kevin Anderson Kevglobal BY-NC-SA 2.0

Young people spearheaded the 2009 Twitter Revolution in Moldova but are now deeply disillusioned with electoral politics. The country’s future direction in Europe may depend on whether they can be re-engaged, argues Ellie Knott .

It commonly assumed that young people in Moldova are politically uninterested, inactive and inert. However they were among the most active during the 2009 Twitter Revolution against the re-election of the Communist Party.

Young people also formed a crucial part of the electorate: 18-29 year olds are the base electorate of the two of the three parties in the previous Alliance for European Integration (AIE), and the recently formed Pro-European Coalition, comprising 43% of Liberal Democrat Party’s (PLDM) votes and 41% of the Liberal Party’s (PL) votes. To hold on to power in next year’s parliamentary elections, for at least two of the three parties in the Pro-European coalition, ensuring that young people vote – and that they vote for them – will be fundamental to their continuing success.

Young people often describe the change of government in 2009, which saw the AIE displace the Communists, as a turning point for Moldovan politics. It inspired them and encouraged them to believe that things would be different. Many concede that since the ‘democratic’ parties took power the situation has improved, particularly in terms of personal and media freedom and Moldova’s progress with EU integration. But this initial positivity has been often dampened. Several interviewees described how they had stopped following the political situation in the media of late because as one put it  ‘the more I watched news, the sadder I got’. They often spoke of the ‘drama’ and ‘theatrics’ of Moldovan politics, the constant fighting between politicians and how lying and stealing are running rife. (more…)

What drives the rise of Europe’s new anti-establishment parties?

By Blog Admin, on 2 September 2013

A new breed of protest party is being propolled to success in Central and Eastern Europe by a mix of economic hardship, rising corruption and ossified party establishments find Seán Hanley and Allan Sikk.

The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.

 But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.

  Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012).

 In a new paper we explore what these parties, which we term anti-establishment reform parties, have in common and what drives their success. (more…)

Czech Republic: A challenge to parliamentary democracy?

By Blog Admin, on 3 July 2013

Miloš Zeman March 2013

Photo: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 3.0

Last month, the Czech Republic’s prime minister Petr Nečas resigned after his chief of staff was charged with corruption. Following the collapse of the Nečas government,  President Miloš Zeman, appointed a technocratic caretaker administration over the heads of the country’s main parties.  Zeman’s move may pose a fundamental challenge to the parliamentary character of Czech democracy, writes Seán Hanley.

The collapse of the centre-right government of Czech prime minister Petr Nečas last month came as little surprise. His coalition had struggled on for more than a year without a parliamentary majority trying to push through an unpopular package of reforms and austerity measures that divided even its own MPs. Nor, in hindsight, was it surprising that Nečas was forced to resign in a corruption scandal. Although by reputation a geekish ‘Mr Clean’, Nečas’s efforts to root out corruption in his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and in wider political life proved patchy and ineffectual.

The main talking points were how close the arrests came to Nečas – the main accused is his former chef de cabinet Jana Nagyová – and why Czech police and prosecutors had only now got their act together after years of suspicious inaction. Commentators speculated that the anti-corruption probe could open out into a Central European version of Italy’s Clean Hands operation in the early 1990s that brought down the whole party-political establishment.

Most commentators assumed, however, that in the interim the coalition would limp on until scheduled elections in 2014 under the Civic Democrats’ stopgap leader Miroslava Němcová, or that the deadlock would be broken by a cross-party vote to dissolve parliament. Attention shifted to the familiar ritual of party delegations being called in for talks with the president, who constitutionally appoints the prime minister and informally plays a brokering role in government formation.

At this point, however, the country’s recently elected president Miloš Zeman tore up the political script. (more…)

Protests that toppled Bulgaria’s government are part of Europe’s wider crisis

By Blog Admin, on 24 February 2013

Simeon Dyankov Satanah

Photo: Иван via WikiMedia Commons

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov submitted his government’s resignation last Wednesday following a week of angry demonstrations over high electricity prices, corruption and declining living standards.  The  protests and their aftermath form part of a bigger European crisis, says Eric Gordy.

The main difference between public disorder in Bulgaria and everywhere else in Europe is that in Bulgaria the government responded. Although the immediate catalyst for protests was the state’s failure to control growth in the price of electricity, the core causes are shared in every European state: dissatisfaction resulting from the forced dismantling of social support services brought on by the European debt crisis, and a sense that policymakers are orienting their activity not to the needs of the public but to the service of large European banks.

These forces are accompanied by the perception that national governments have neither the capacity nor the will to address the consequences of a fiscal and social policy that are widely seen as imbalanced against the public interest. In Greece, Hungary and Italy the contribution of public dissatisfaction to the rise of antidemocratic movements of the extreme right is already apparent.

While conservative political leaders in the EU, particularly from Germany and the UK (and until last year, France) have largely been successful in pushing for a shift of priorities to debt service and “austerity,” the consequences of this should concern everybody in Europe. In the period after the end of the First World War, there was a similar euphoric and triumphalist announcement that liberal democracy could declare its inevitable victory across the continent.

Inattention to the responsibilities of states to their publics on the part of that generation of liberal democratic elites led to a rapid and general decay of constitutional systems and an accelerating tendency of governments to neglect of social responsibilities.

If we take one lesson from the failures of democratic order in the 1920s and 1930s, it should be that governments that fail to address social needs will be challenged by forces, some of them extremist ones, that promise to do so.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.

This post was first published in the comment section of the  UCL European Institute and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.