Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How "Democracy" Works, Nowadays....

It ain't just for Russia, anymore. Phenomenal review that extends the thesis of this book to the West, where this crap reigns. Who are the dangerous postmodernists, again? A few professors? I wonder.

From TLS, 08/05/05:

It never happened
Kate Brown
05 August 2005


Potemkin politics and post-Soviet democracy

VIRTUAL POLITICS. Faking democracy in the post-Soviet world. Andrew Wilson. 332pp. Yale University Press. £20 (US $40). - 0 300 09545 7.

Reading Andrew Wilson's Virtual Politics: Faking democracy in the post-Soviet world, I began to doubt whether Machiavelli's Prince would have lasted one day in contemporary Moscow. Wilson describes a political realm in post- Soviet countries where nothing is as it appears to be. Rival parties on the left and right end up as mere fictions, virtual representations flickering across television screens with fake addresses, phone numbers, staff and following. Muck-raking journalists are really hired "hatchets" contracted by political technologists to smear rivals. Academic research and political exit polling are manufactured for the highest bidder. People amassed in rallies turn out to be paid extras. Even historical events are performed for future textbooks.

The political coups of 1991 and 1993 which together unseated Mikhail Gorbachev, led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ended the Cold War and established Boris Yeltsin as President of an independent Russia with an executive-heavy constitution were apparently staged dramaturgiya. Acts of terror, such as the nightmarish 2003 siege of the Moscow Dubrovka Theatre, were fabricated by security forces for political purposes. After the show, the coup-plotters and surviving terrorists were quietly allowed to go free, until their next performance in a new drama.

Wilson's contention is that democracy in the post-Soviet states has been staged to cover up the wholesale theft of state property and the general commodification of politics. Vladimir Putin's recent abbreviation of democratic institutions, then, is only the outward manifestation of a command-style governance that has dominated in Russia for centuries. Stepping into the debate over whether the post-Soviet states are semi- authoritarian or semi-democratic, Wilson argues they are neither. Instead the countries of the former Soviet Union are sites of "virtual politics", where authority is invented and "political technologists perform the basic mythology of the state".

From the start, Wilson asserts, democracy in Russia never had a chance. In Poland, an electrician took over the reins of state from the Communist Party. In Czechoslovakia, an ex-con poet moved into Prague Castle. In Russia, however, instead of outsiders, it was the apparatchiks, successful party functionaries, who created the "opposition" in the waning years of the USSR. Wilson credits Aleksander Yakovlev with founding the complement of liberal and pro-Western activities and parties, while Yegor Ligachev countered with conservative and nationalist groups. Neither man struggled to see his convictions enacted into law and governance. Rather, both laboured to create for an unwitting populace and gullible Western observers an illusion of a multi-party system. Wilson notes: "The representation of late Soviet politics as a struggle between reformers and die-hards, democrats and authoritarians, good guys and bad, was the greatest illusion of all . . . .

Gorbachev preferred artificial attempts to create a rigged contest between a 'party of the future' and 'the party of the past'".

Of course, there is nothing new in liberal democracies about politicians lying with indifference and fabricating images. Post-Soviet politics differ, Wilson argues, because of the totality of deception. He quotes the Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Polokhalo: "Western observers are looking for attributes of, or departures from, normal democratic procedure. But our elections are different. The big falsification is the falsification of the whole electoral process, the falsification of almost all the participants in that process. There are no real political subjects, no real independent political actors". Western commentators, Wilson claims, who speak of democracy-building in post-Soviet states, have it terribly wrong. His aim is to elucidate the "black arts of political manipulation" to expose the charade.

To enter this realm of black arts the dilettante requires a whole new vocabulary.

For example, kompromat consists of dredging up compromising material on opponents to discredit them publicly. Kompromat can be placed in a "poisoned sandwich", a positive news piece contaminated by a nagging bit of slander. Kompromat can alternatively be aired by the satirically dubbed "General Prosecutor", who, while staging a "war on corruption", really works as a PR agent airing allegations against rivals just before elections. The Prosecutor's allegations need not be grounded in evidence and are quietly dropped after the damage at the polls is done. The "conveyor belt" involves hiding a falsehood in a general parade of truth. The "toss" is a "news" story pitched onto the internet and picked up by mainstream media. Of course, if a player has the funds, he or she can simply publish a whole bogus newspaper or political poster allegedly ascribed to the rival party and designed to make the rival look like an anti-Semite, a raging nationalist, or hard-core Communist. "Clones" are politicians who are hired to take up the campaign promises of a rival in order to steal votes. "Clones" differ from "doubles", who are candidates that run with nearly the same name as the rival so as to confuse the electorate and dilute the vote. "Administrative resources" describes a range of activities in a politician's toolkit, from ballot stuffing, selective taxation and prosecution, and just plain threats employed to command local bureaucrats to get out and/or obstruct the vote. Secret agents infiltrate rival parties to "cut short" or "disrupt" the enemy camp by creating ideological disputes between members and thereby discrediting the organization in the eyes of the rank and file. Of course, one can set up a whole sham party designed as a bogey, such as a Communist or extreme nationalist party, to scare moderate voters or win support from the West. Often the election is so sewn up by the ruling elite that the biggest problem political technologists encounter is in finding a "credible loser" to run against the predetermined winner, such as Putin in 2004.

The infamous, hyper-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky is one such project.

According to Wilson, Zhirinovsky is a particularly gifted actor-politician, scripted and repeatedly recast to meet the needs of a given electoral cycle. The mad, hair-pulling, brawling nationalist of later incarnations made his first appearance on the political scene as a calm, rational, liberal democrat. In 1990-91, the ruling Communist Party secretly established Zhirinovsky's Liberal- Democratic Party. This "fake liberal" party was created to cull votes from real democratic parties rising in opposition to the Communist Party. Wilson whispers of Zhirinovsky's KGB connections and laundered funds from the Communist Party, yet offers little conclusive evidence. Later, in 1993 when "liberal democrats" like Yeltsin were in power, Wilson contends that Zhirinovsky became useful to the Kremlin as a "controllable maverick". Nervous about the rise of the nationalist right, the Kremlin backed Zhirinovsky, who obligingly transformed into a splendid froth-at-the-mouth nationalist, whose party, once in parliament, agreeably voted the Yeltsin ticket. In 1999 and 2000, Zhirinovsky had another makeover, working as a hired "hatchet" to discredit the opposition so that the powers-that-be did not have to muck about in the common political sty.

Political technology does not come cheap. The price tag in Russia to stage an election runs to 1 to 2 billion dollars (as compared to 300 to 500 million in US Presidential elections). In fact, one of the few features that the post-Soviet political parties - parties without programmes, without ideals, sometimes without even a following - have in common are their sources of income. Oligarchs stack up tens of millions of dollars behind both candidates and parties. Often the same oligarchs back a number of outwardly rival parties. As the common wisdom goes, the only thing better than one's own personal party are two personal parties. After elections, platforms are discarded, parties disappear, and parliamentarians vote for the interests that funded their campaigns.

Wilson traces the tradition of virtual, or Potemkin, politics in Russia all the way to Ivan the Terrible, but credits most of the legacy of the black arts to the Soviet period. He glibly notes, "Local political culture owes more to Dzerzhinskii than to de Tocqueville, more to the Cheka than to Chekhov". Certainly, historians know that a simple change of regime does not wholly transform society. Bolshevik Communism owed a great deal to Tsarist Russia, just as, Wilson points out, post-Soviet "democracies" are indebted to the cynicism of late Soviet Communism.

However, to run together centuries of Russian political life into an unbroken line of political manipulation by cynical, authoritarian leaders, who are nonetheless venerated by a passive populace, is to replay the old argument about the frailty of Russian civil society, casting about on an infinite horizon of Asiatic backwardness. This trope plays well to "knowing" Western audiences. Western audiences "know" two things: the superiority of democracy over Communism, and the failure of democracy in post-socialist countries, despite all Cold War-era assurances to the contrary.

As these two truths run head on at full steam, comforting explanations are sought to elucidate why democratic processes in post-Soviet states have bulldozed a path to social inequity, the merchandising of the media, and the fire sale of public property to a handful of oligarchs. To situate the contemporary failure of Russian democracy, however, in the political backwardness of the past, can only be accomplished by skipping over a complex history of local and regional traditions of self-rule (such as the noble Duma, the Cossack hosts, the tsarist zemstvo, the peasant commune, and Jewish Kahal). This history greatly complicates the straightforward narrative of centuries of monolithic power leading to the (inevitable) failure of democracy in post- Soviet states.

Yet, for all Wilson's political realism, his treatment of the electoral melee in Ukraine in 2004 is curiously idealistic. This was an electoral drama which included two run-off elections, the poisonous disfiguring of the rival candidate, the legacy of the murder of a crusading journalist, the planting of radical nationalists in the rival camp, and the active backing of Viktor Yanukovych by Ukraine's powerful Russian neighbour - all, of course, par for the course, according to Wilson's depiction of virtual politics. But inexplicably in Wilson's account, Viktor Yushchenko, former Prime Minister under Leonid Kuchma and once Chairman of the Central Bank, has no electoral fraud attached to his name; he has not smeared or attacked a rival, nor bought or been purchased by any shady forces. In fact, in the midst of this littered playing field, Yushchenko's supporters sailed forth into the polling booths and, in a true show of democracy, elected the sole candidate who worked tirelessly to lower taxes and rout out corruption.

This rendering of the Orange Revolution raises questions. How can Yushchenko, or any politician, step from the stinking pitch of Ukrainian politics immaculate in cricket white? Who paid for the Orange Revolution banners, T-shirts, tents and meals handed out freely? Who made up the slick stickers and campaign slogans? In the rest of his book, Wilson carefully deconstructs the authenticity of political mobilization in post-Soviet states, yet the reader is expected to believe in the untampered spontaneity of the Orange Revolution. Is this not an exception to the rule which requires explanation? Unfortunately, Wilson fails to tackle these questions, as he breezily sums up the 2004 Ukrainian elections as a story of a "media revolt" galvanizing a "civil society that shadows the cheats", bolstered by "decisive intervention from the West".

The Guardian's senior foreign correspondent Jonathan Steele finds that this intervention from the West, namely a subtle and sophisticated American involvement in Ukrainian elections, was indeed decisive ("Ukraine's Untold Story", The Nation, December 20, 2004, pp4-6). Steele describes US diplomats and political non- profit organizations backed by the Republican and Democratic Parties bankrolling civic groups, described as non-partisan, but fronting for Yushchenko. US political technologists devised pithy campaign slogans, flashy logos, rock concerts and rallies, all skilfully projected as grass-roots organization. Most importantly, US interests financed exit polls, disseminated in opposition media, which immediately positioned a "truth" about the election results. When official results differed, crowds poured into the streets, prepared for civil disobedience, to intimidate police, parliament and courts. The same pattern for this "postmodern coup d'etat", Steele argues, worked in Serbia to defeat Milosevic, and in Georgia to oust Shevardnadze, but failed to eject Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. The Western press censured Russia's involvement in Ukraine's elections. And rightly so. The diffusion of foreign funds in domestic elections is illegal in the United States and most European countries.

Steele has been criticized by analysts for sounding dangerously close to the vitriolic ravings of Lyudmyla Yanukovych about American felt boots on Kiev's Maidan Square, and drugged oranges imported from the West. Steele's questioning of foreign involvement, however, raises important questions about Virtual Politics. Wilson draws a line between what he sees as a surfeit of (illegitimate) political representation by indigenous powerful oligarchs and a dearth of (legitimate) political intervention by powerful foreign entities. Are politics only virtual when they are dreamed up by post-Soviet oligarchs? Is foreign intervention a ticket to cleaner democracy? In 1961, Daniel J. Boorstin published The Image, about the manufacture of "pseudo-events" for political purposes in the United States. Boorstin's book reads like a training manual for Kremlin political technologists. It is not surprising that Western advisers would have perfected the arts of political technology for export. More puzzling is the fact that Wilson overlooks this aspect of the Orange Revolution.

In the end, Wilson's fascinating narrative spins the reader into a profoundly disturbing postmodern nightmare. It is hard to know what is real and what are shadows flickering on the wall, because his account so thoroughly discredits the "truth" as a category of political (and human) action that one begins to wonder how he came to discern sincerity from mendacity, and how he himself avoided falling prey to political technology of one kind or another. Andrew Wilson does not explain how he chose some sources and discredited others. The internet sites on which he relies are the very kinds of sources he decries as spreading disinformation. He quotes with sincerity high-priced political technologists, the same wizards of deception whom he credits as wholly fictionalizing post-Soviet political landscapes. He often leaves charges as "alleged" without trying to determine the veracity of the claim. As a consequence, the reader, steeped in the vocabulary of virtual politics, is left wondering . . . was that a toss, a smear, a poisoned sandwich?

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