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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

How Western plans to fight Putin’s propaganda war could backfire

By Blog Admin, on 26 June 2015

Joanna Szostek, a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow at UCL SSEES, considers the implications of Western proposals to fight Russian propaganda. She argues that injecting Western government money into Russian-language news content could backfire.

An information war is raging in Eastern Europe; at stake are perceptions of the situation in Ukraine. In both Russia and the West, the commentariat claims the other side manipulates gullible minds with propaganda.

Vladimir Putin on Russia Today. Photo: Wiki Commons.

In mid-May, Russian television ran a six-minute report about “battle formations” pitted “against Russia” on the internet and airwaves. By this it meant the volunteer Information Army established by the Ukrainian Information Ministry and the “myth-busters” Brussels hopes to recruit to defend its Eastern Partnership initiative against Russian disinformation.

A week later, the Latvian capital Riga hosted a conference where hundreds of journalists and assorted experts discussed how to counter the “Russian information threat”. EU officials were in attendance, promising tens of millions of euros to support “free media” across the six Eastern Partnership states.

(more…)

Alexei Navalny: Could a politically self-made man make it to the Kremlin?

By Blog Admin, on 7 October 2013

Alexey Navalny

Photo: MItya Aleshkovskiy [CC BY-SA-3.0]

The leading anti-Putin blogger and activist Alexei Navalny was recently handed a five-year jail sentence following a widely criticised trial. But his mix of hard-headed anti-corruption politics and internet-based mobilisation may yet pose a challenge to the Kremlin, writes Ekaterina Besedina

On 8 September 2013 Alexei Navalny officially received 27.2% in the Moscow mayoral election, while the incumbent Sergei Sobyanian – one of President Putin’s closest allies – gained 51.2%. This narrow absolute majority meant that the second round run off expected by Navalny supporters was avoided. The Moscow Electoral Commission subsequently declared Sobyanin mayor. Navalny is still trying to challenge the vote in the courts with evidence of voter fraud and ballot stuffing.

The Kremlin had to demonstrate its power and majority support in Russia. This was one of the reasons why the run off did not happen. But Navalny managed to get on the ballot, win a large percentage of votes, and challenge Sobyanin. Despite the a fraud trial still threatening Navalny with five years jail, he has built up a substantial base of support, proving it possible to build a large scale political campaign without access to federal TV channels.

Navalny, a lawyer and high-profile blogger, is the first Russian politician to be created by the internet. His mayoral campaign was based on the internet, social networks and the enthusiasm of supporters. He started gaining popularity two years ago during major opposition protests, becoming a key figure in a growing movement for change that has a potential to challenge the Kremlin and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. (more…)

New anti-gay laws are a lightening rod for the Putin regime

By Blog Admin, on 19 July 2013

Gay Pride

Photo: Valya Egorshin via Flikr (CC-BY-2.0)

By banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, protecting ‘religious feeling’ and reining in ‘foreign agents’, Vladimir Putin is seeking to entrench Russian traditional values against Western liberalism.  LGBT activists may now need to rethink their tactics, writes Richard Mole.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to tighten his political grip at the expense of the country’s nascent civil society is continuing apace. Following the bill last summer requiring NGOs which receive foreign funding and engage in ‘political activity’ to register as ‘foreign agents’, on 30 June Putin signed into law a bill banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’.

 The bill, which passed in the Russian Duma by 436 votes to 0 (with one abstention), levies fines of 5,000 roubles (£100) on individuals who disseminate information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ among minors or promote ‘the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships’.

The fine is increased to 100,000 roubles (£2,000) if individuals discuss gay-related issues in a positive or neutral manner in the media or on the Internet, and rises to one million roubles (£20,000) for organisations. The inclusion of the phrase ‘among minors’ ensures that practically any public LGBT event will violate the law; just in case, anti-gay protestors at last month’s Gay Pride in St Petersburg were encouraged to bring their children with them to ensure that the law did indeed apply.

 Activists have argued that the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law legitimises discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals in Russia, citing the cases of two gay men murdered in separate incidents in May. Critics have sought to establish a causal link between the new anti-gay law and anti-gay feeling in Russia. However, this overestimates Putin’s ability to mould public opinion – his anti-Westernism has, after all, failed to dent Russians’ generally positive feelings towards the EU –  and underestimates the pre-existing intolerance towards lesbians and gay men left over from the Soviet period. (more…)

Russia: Back to no future

By Blog Admin, on 18 June 2013

Moscow Russia anti-Putin Graffiti R-EVOLUTION-2

Photo: Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons

With his regime running out of steam, Vladimir Putin is resorting to the rhetoric of the past and traditional values. Marie Mendras sees little future in it. 

The moment of truth for a non-democratic leader is when he needs to revive his fading authority and legitimacy. A snatched electoral victory over a year ago brought Vladimir Putin no new popularity, indeed quite the opposite.

Since his return to the Kremlin, his words and actions have reflected entirely negative emotions, such as fear of his own people, distrust of the elites around him, and a desire to avenge himself on those who have dared oppose him. Much of his energy goes on proving himself right and his critics wrong: he even accuses these of working for foreign powers and endangering national security. Putin has not recovered from the humiliation and scare of last year’s political contest, and is now facing tough economic and social challenges. The choice he has made is to try to restore his authority with a combination of targeted repression, doctrinaire ideology and an increase in control over institutions and companies. This is an unlikely recipe for success.

Weakened legitimacy

Vladimir Putin was re-elected on a controversial vote in March 2012. He could have won his new mandate more honestly, had he accepted the possibility of a second round runoff, but he was determined to win an absolute majority in the first round. He wanted to humiliate the other ‘authorised’ candidates by raising himself high above them, proving that he was the one and only – and a loyal Central Electoral Commission conferred on him a generous 63% of the vote. A year on, all the voters’ associations and NGOs that investigated election fraud are being harassed and some, like the Golos association, might have to close down. Key figures in the movement for free elections are also being prosecuted.

Putin’s election in 2000 and 2004, and Dmitry Medvedev’s election in 2008, were ‘managed’ ballots as well. This time, however, things turned out less manageable than usual. The widespread and vocal public protest of the winter of 2011-12, news of which flew around the country in a few keystrokes, exposed all of the regime’s rottenness and trickery. And the anger of a revitalized civil society was directed at the leader in person, under the ubiquitous slogan: ‘Putin, ukhodi!’ [Putin – out!]. His party fared badly in the parliamentary elections of December 2011, and in Moscow itself its performance was a complete disaster.

Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin built his power and legitimacy on order, rising living standards and Russia’s growing global status. However, he will have more difficulty delivering in all three of these areas in the months and years to come, and he will be held to account for it. (more…)

Remembering the war: 70 years on in the Hero-City of Novorossiisk

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2013

War memorial, Novorossiisk. Photograph by the author

War memorial, Novorossiisk. Photograph by the author

Local war commemoration in Russia persists through the invention of tradition, finds postgraduate student Vicky Davis.

Over the last decade, remembrance of World War II in Russia has become increasingly visible in a state-sponsored revival of the war cult of the Brezhnev era. On significant anniversaries, notably Victory Day, 9th May, Russians celebrate in a series of special events, the most well known of which is the massive military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Honoured veterans don their uniforms and are showered with gifts and privileges, proof of their special status in society. Most people wear the popular symbol of memory introduced in 2005, the George ribbon, and even those staying at home cannot escape the programme of war films and music around that date. The President makes speeches and takes tea with veterans, confident that memory of the war is the one theme that cannot fail to unify the country. It seems that, in Russia, memory of the war has been re‑appropriated as a political tool, just as living witnesses are rapidly disappearing, rendering it increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

It is not surprising that on 2nd February this year President Putin and the world’s press were gathered in the Russian city of Volgograd. Formerly known as Stalingrad, the city was celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat and final surrender of the enemy in 1943 after months of bitter struggle, marking the pivotal point of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Stalingrad was one of the first of the thirteen towns honoured as Hero-Cities of the Soviet Union for their significant role in the war.

On the day following the Stalingrad ceremonies, commemorations were also held in Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea, made a Hero-City of the Soviet Union in 1973, long after the end of the war, thanks to the involvement in its liberation of Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader. In turn, Novorossiisk was remembering the seventieth anniversary of the landings onto occupied territory by Soviet troops, who went on to hold the small beach‑head, known as ‘Malaia zemlia’, for seven months prior to the liberation of the town in September 1943. The heroes of this localised campaign are commemorated through an amalgam of memoir, monuments and ritual, rendered particularly paradoxical by the discrepancy between the relative insignificance of the actual campaign as it unfolded at the time and the importance attributed to it retrospectively thanks to Brezhnev’s inflated war memoirs.

As the war in Novorossiisk, and indeed in Russia as a whole, is on the cusp of the transition from living memory to history, my research project analyses the relationship and interaction between different forms of memorialization in the construction and propagation of present‑day inter‑generational remembrance in Novorossiisk. I had planned this year’s trip to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Malaia zemlia landings on the night of 3rd to 4th February, which are commemorated annually in a ceremony unique to the town, ‘Beskozyrka’. In 1968, at the beginning of the Brezhnev era, this ritual was invented to mark the 25th anniversary of the landings by a group of young people in search of romantic adventure and forming the ‘crew’ of an imaginary yacht, the ‘Shkhuna rovesnikov’ (the Schooner of fellows). (more…)

Is culture the new politics in Russia?

By Blog Admin, on 17 April 2013

How far has culture become a frontline in Russian politics? And how does it compare to earlier periods in the country’s history? Artemy Troitsky,  Peter Pomeranstev and Oliver Carroll discuss the nature of art, protest and the absurd in contemporary Russia.

Pussy Riot - Denis Bochkarev 6

Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Carroll:  From Voina to Bykov, Pussy Riot to Moscow hipsterism, culture seems to be playing a very political game in Russia. How can we explain this? Is this something that Russia has seen before? Are we witnessing this Russia’s ‘1968’ moment? And if so, is accompanied by the same kind of generational and political splits that we saw in Europe’s rebellion? Or is it something completely different?

Artemy: If this really is a cultural revolution, then I’m afraid it happening on a very small scale. Compared to the first decade of the 21st century, which was absolutely lethargic and comatose, Russia’s cultural life and political community has started to show some life. But compared to the kind of cultural euphoria Russia experienced in other times — during the so-called shestidesiatniki movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or in late 80s during Perestroika and Glasnost — it’s on a much smaller scale.

The saddest thing of all is that today’s cultural developments are much more elitist, touching a much finer layer of Russian people than either of the earlier cultural thaws (ottepel). The cultural movement back then was simply massive, supported and followed by millions of so-called ordinary Russians. What is happening right now is more a minority movement, largely ignored by the majority of the Russian population. And there is also a strong counter-reaction too. Sure, Glasnost had some some reactionary things like Nina Andreeva writing her letter in Sovetskaia Rossiia, or the Stalinist writers who urged people not to give up on their principals. But they were the tiny minority. Right now it’s us that feel as if we are pushed in the corner.

OC: Peter, you lived in Russia throughout the 2000s, the least political moment of modern Russian history. You were also in Moscow at the end of that decade, which was when the political returned with some vengeance. Do you agree with Artemy that such change is pretty much insignificant, at least when compared to the 1960s and 1980s?

Peter: Everything in Russia is insignificant compared to the 60s and 80s. Everything in Russia seems to have shrunk and become an echo of when it was truly important. I think Artemy is completely right here, but it’s very interesting to look at the detail of what’s happening, because it’s a slightly different type of battle.

 In Soviet times there was a Soviet culture and a dissident culture. Today, things are less distinct. Over the last few days I’ve been meeting some people from Nashi, for example. I was quite surprised to find out their aesthetic is hipster. They love manga movies, they like modern arts, they have actually co-opted a sort of Western style into their language and then completely twisted it and married it to patriotism and quasi-fascism. In the past, the Kremlin was also sponsoring the most radical art projects, like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Territoriya festival. They went out of their way to make sure that there could be no cultural rebellion by co-opting that language and making it part of the system. Making it pointless as well in the process.

What I’ve been seeing the last eighteen months in terms of culture and in terms of language is an attempt by the opposition to create a mini world for itself, a place where it is not contaminated by the meddling of the Kremlin. And I think that’s incredible and quite inspiring. It’s not a battle of us against them, it’s a battle between manipulation and integrity, and a search for a new language. So it is a much more subtle war then it was in the 1960s and 1980s, when it was almost a Napoleonic war. This is more like the Cold War, with some skirmishes around the edges, spies meeting each other in the culture wars. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, just much more subtle and playful.

A: I think some of the things Peter is saying refer to the previous decade, not necessarily today. During the 2000s there was an obvious and quite successful pact with the regime: ‘We guarantee you a certain degree of stability and prosperity; you can buy your Korean car and go on holiday to Egypt’. In the business community it was, as Mr Putin himself put it, ‘pizdit’, no ne pizdet’’ (‘steal as much as you want, but keep your mouth shut‘). And a similar kind of pact was signed with the cultural elite: do whatever you want, any kind of artistic experiment, sex, drugs, violence… You want to make movies that make Quentin Tarantino look like the Muppet Show? Go for it… And again the cultural elite said ‘Yeah that’s fine, that’s fantastic’. (more…)

Russia for the Russians – a putative policy

By Blog Admin, on 11 April 2013

RM12-112

Photo: RiMarkin via Flikr. License CC BY-SA 3.0

There have been tensions between native Russians and ethnic minorities since the Tartar Yoke of the 13th century. Successive rulers either tried to keep an uneasy peace or fanned the flames of division. Frederica Prina discusses the Russian government’s latest strategies for creating an identity that embraces all of Russia’s citizens. 

One would not normally, perhaps, describe the President of Russia as ‘anti-Russian,’ but this is how not a few people described him, waving their banners, on the annual ‘Russian March’ that took place on National Unity Day, 4 November 2012. Some 6,000 Russian nationalists, from Moderate to Far Right, gathered in central Moscow. Alexander Belov, the leader of the (banned) ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’, was cheered when he called President Putin an, ‘Enemy.’ In what way, an enemy, on National Unity Day?

Taken to extremes, Russian nationalists would like to keep Russia only for the Russians; they think that the Russian Government has not done enough to establish a Russian nation state. Given Russia’s turbulent history, as a multi-ethnic Romanov empire and a multi-ethnic Soviet Union, such caution is understandable. In the same way that creating a Russian citizen out of an ethnic imperial melting pot defeated many a Romanov, so the Soviets, while they aimed for the creation of a homo sovieticus (whose ethnic consciousness would be overridden by Communism), settled for managing the ethnic diversity they had inherited.

Ethnic diversity management

What we might call ‘ethnic diversity management’ was incorporated into Soviet policy. It included the establishment of titular republics (Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia…) where ethnic minorities were temporarily ‘assigned’ until, that is, they became model Soviet citizens. The American sociologist Rogers Brubaker described it as an, ‘irony of history’ that what should have been a temporary arrangement, however, turned into the consolidation of ethnic differences. And what of the Russians in the USSR? How were they assigned? That was never determined, perhaps because it was not thought necessary, or could it have been that the Soviets thought that it was much too difficult to define ‘Russianness?’ One might say that there was a marginalisation even at the Russian centre of the USSR; and that marginalisation included Russian Orthodoxy, hitherto a bastion of Russian national identity.

Thus it was that, during the Soviet period, a citizen of the USSR was neither wholly ethnic, nor wholly Soviet. The national consciousness of the USSR’s many ethnic groups was never extinguished; and historic Russian identity – whatever had survived the Romanovs – was an ill-defined concept.  (more…)

Boris Berezovsky: An unwanted ‘wanted man’

By Blog Admin, on 25 March 2013

Boris Berezovsky

Photo: AJC1 via Flickr License CC BY-SA 2.0

Alena Ledeneva looks back on the career of the controversial Russian oligarch.

Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was born on 23 January 1946 and died on 23 March 2013.  Although hated by many Russians, Berezovsky was also one of the most politically important, exposed and most widely written about figures in Russia of the 1990s. For many he was a symbol of that era.

 Berezovsky’s rise to become one of Russia’s richest men has been chronicled in both journalistic and fictionalised accounts. Godfather of the Kremlin by Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist murdered in Moscow in 2004, Bol’shaya paika (‘The Big Slice’) a novel by Yuli Dubov, Berezovsky’s business partner and friend – who like him received political asylum in the United Kingdom – are among the most interesting.  The film Oligarkh (Tycoon) also features a main character very like Berezovsky.

 After graduating in 1968, Berezovsky worked at various research institutes to become a senior fellow and a head of department at the Institute of Management of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His energy, creative spirit and talent for working through the Soviet system served him well and helped shape his success in the post-communist era.

 In 1989, Berezovsky and Samat Zhaboev organized a joint stock company LogoVaz, which specialised in selling and servicing cars. In four years Logovaz became one of the leading Russian private businesses with a turnover of US$250 million in 1993. Berezovsky became  the chairman of the LogoVaz Board in 1994.

Despite the dangers of Russia’s post-communist business environment – he survived an assassination attempt in June 1994 in which his driver died – Berezovsky moved on to acquire media and oil interests.  In January 1995 he participated in setting up the ORT television channel joining its board of directors and in September 1996 he was elected to board of the Siberian oil company Sibneft. Berezovsky’s financial schemes – of the kind I examine in more detail in How Russia Really Works  – were also the inspiration for a post-communist genre of literature often known as ‘economic thrillers’. (more…)

‘Sistema’: How Putin’s Russia is governed

By Blog Admin, on 11 March 2013

Another day of Moscow (3067405533)

Photo: Andrew Kuznetsov via WikiMedia Commons

 The power of informal networks and the weakness of formal institutions in Russia have been widely noted. But the nature of the informal deals and personalised loyalties that Russian leaders use to mobilise support and maintain control has proved harder to grasp.  

In her new book Alena Ledeneva picks out four key types of networks that make up Vladimir Putin’s system of governance – what she terms sistema. Putin’s sistema is a complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective. However, in the long-term it impedes Russia’s  modernisation.

Sistema in contemporary Russia is a shorthand term for a ‘system of governance’ that usually refers to open secrets or governance matters not-to-be-named. The term itself is elusive. Outsiders find it too general to mean anything in particular. Insiders are not ordinarily bothered with definitions of sistema – they intuitively know it when they experience the ‘system made me to it’ pressure. One of them explains the unarticulated nature of sistema by the lack of distance of insiders from it:

This is not a system that you can choose to join or not – you fall into it from the moment you are born. There are of course also mechanisms to recruit, to discipline and to help reproduce it. In the Soviet Union there was more or less a consolidated state, whereas now it is impossible to disentangle the state from a network of private interests. Modern clans are complex. It is not always clear who is behind which interests.

It is these non-transparent interests and non-hierarchical, network-based aspects of governance that are missing in the most conceptions of Russia’s systems of governance. Even when informal influence, connections, clans, cliques, clusters and other types of informal alliances within the elites are identified, the social networks that generate ‘informal power’ are not seen as intrinsic to the concept of governance.

 Moreover, it is often assumed that power networks shadow formal positions of power so that a ‘map’ of a pyramid of informal ties and influences can be produced. This is not how informal power operates. There is not much regularity about it. Besides, networks that channel informal influence function in an ambivalent fashion – they both support and subvert the existing governance model.

Personalised power networks enable leaders at all levels to mobilise and to control, yet they also lock politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen into informal deals, mediated interests and personalised loyalties. This is the ‘modernisation trap of informality’: one cannot use the potential of informal networks without triggering their negative long-term consequences for institutional development. (more…)