The events of 2014–15 dispelled many of the illusions that arose in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s return to the global arena as a state demanding the right to interpret the rules of the game (or to undermine them) ruined the post-Cold War hopes that we were beginning a benevolent new chapter in history. The international crisis provoked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russo-Ukrainian war, and soon Kremlin’s Syria foray, also forced the world to confront an unpleasant truth: international institutions are fragile; the liberal democracies are dysfunctional; and the illiberal world, meanwhile, is racing to fill the void.
It seems like an apt time to think about what happened, to ponder why Russia, much as it did in 1917, has once again punctured the world’s complacency, and to understand why the world appears to have no answer to the Russian system of personalized power, which is playing out its desperate struggle for survival in a global arena.
The process of understanding new and confusing realities is inevitably shot through with failures and epiphanies. Failures in this task often take the form of futile efforts to defend illusions, to preserve worn out stereotypes. This kind of intellectual paralysis is precisely what has happened within the Western expert and decision-making community; it has clearly misjudged Russia and its trajectory—at enormous cost. Russian experts, especially in foreign policy, aren’t doing much better (mainly due to their conformism, or to lack of courage).
Our inability to understand Russia’s trajectory and its shift toward the anti-Western model in many ways proceeds from the normative disorientation (and, consequently, the lack of objective criteria for analysis) that prevailed both in Russia and in the West after the end of the Cold War. However, this fact alone does not absolve us, the experts, from taking comfort in this disorientation.
Let’s see where we erred in our expert assessments of Russia’s development. What qualities did we underestimate? What signs did we misinterpret? Only by understanding our misconceptions can we formulate an adequate response to the challenge posed to the world by Russia. The issue today isn’t even past mistakes; the major problem now is the experts’ persistent refusal to acknowledge their errors, as well as their efforts to crystallize a new mythology.
The Normativists: What Do They Stand For?
Today, the expert community both in the West and Russia is retracing the steps that Sovietologists made in the 1980s, when they turned out to be completely unprepared for the disintegration of the global socialist system, revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1989—1991 events spelled disaster for political science and the politicians who acted on advice from Sovietologists. As political science theorist Adam Przeworski wrote “the ‘Autumn of the People’ was a dismal failure of political science. Any retrospective explanation of the fall of communism must not only account for the historical developments but also identify the theoretical assumptions that prevented us from anticipating these developments.”1
In their Anticipations of the Failure of Communism, American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and Hungarian sociologist Gyorgy Bence analyzing why political scientists failed to predict the end of Communism noted that “the scholars sought to explain how the system worked. They took the fact of the USSR’s long-term existence for granted. Thus, they looked for institutions and values that stabilized the polity and society.” Meanwhile, they needed “to emphasize dysfunctional aspects, structures, and behaviors, which might cause a crisis.”2
The expert community learned nothing from the Sovietologists’ failure. Those who for years proffered flawed analyses—and thus misleading (albeit unwittingly) politicians and the public–demonstrated their incompetence yet again in analyzing Russian processes and predicting Russia’s new moves.
Let’s see how Russia experts explain Russian political realities. Despite the differences in their approaches, Russia experts fall into two categories: the “normativists” and the “pragmatists.” The normativists are in favor of a values-based approach to both internal political developments and foreign policy; they also believe in international laws and treaties, rather than the balance of forces and interests, as the basis for international relations. Moreover, the normativists think that in many respects Russia uses its foreign policy as an instrument for survival of the Russian personalized power system.
For their part, the pragmatists don’t care about domestic policy all that much, looking at it as independent from external developments. They believe in the primacy of interests in foreign policy and pay less attention or no attention at all to values; they consider the balance of powers to be the basis for international relations.
Let’s take a look at the normativists, the camp to which I belong. Did we rise to the post-Cold War challenge? Let’s face it: we did not!
We, the normativists, have always been critical of the Russian System, and we turned out to be right about its vector of development. Today we can say: didn’t we warn you that Russia was moving to system of governance that would be more repressive and hostile to the West—one which is bound to lead to its external aggressiveness? But there’s no reason for us, the normativists, to be happy about the accuracy of this prediction. After all, we were unable to present a coherent analysis of the decay of personalized power and its implications. Finally, while we were critical of Western acquiescence to the Russian system, we failed to suggest to the West an alternative foreign policy. Our lamentations and criticism were self-serving and had no serious political implications.
What were the reasons for the normativists’ weakness? Just like the pragmatists, most normativists were disoriented by the Soviet collapse. Many of us began to believe that Yeltsin’s Russia was embarking on a democratic transition. Later on this approach prevented normativists from finally recognizing Russia’s authoritarian evolution.
De-ideologization, which has triumphed among experts and politicians after the fall of Communism, was an even more important factor. Ideology and values no longer mattered. Political demands also played a role here. Acting on the assumption that Russia would be integrated into Europe, Western leaders began to demand the creation of models premised on cooperation with Russia. To a significant extent, business has begun to shape the nature of the dialogue between Russia and the liberal democracies—and business cannot abide values-based discussions.
The normativists have faced a number of methodological problems too. One of the problems was their inability to adopt a dual-track approach incorporating both interests and values. The normativists also hoped that if Russia began to imitate norms and was admitted to Western institutions (the Council of Europe and the G-8), it would eventually adopt these norms in earnest. Besides, the normativists concentrated on democracy promotion in Russia, which was frequently reduced to cooperation between Western institutions and an increasingly authoritarian Russian leadership, as well as Western funding for the mechanisms of Russia’s imitation democracy (a fact the normativists were frequently embarrassed to admit).3 The normativists also failed to take note of another development: the Russian System created a mechanism to lobby for its interests in the West, thus undermining Western liberal principles from within. In other words, while the normativists were trying to teach Russian society democracy, they missed the fact that the Western world had become a safe space for Russian authoritarianism. The normativists were also dealt a blow by the war in Iraq, in the course of which they became associated with a policy of regime change. This complex of reasons explains the normativists’ failure to provide expert support for Western foreign policy. In fact, they are still perceived as human rights defenders, and their activities are described as civil rights advocacy. In Russia, the normativists have never had any impact on foreign policy debate, let alone foreign policy itself.
To be continued…
1Seymour Martin Lipset and Gyorgy Bence, “Anticipations of the Failure of Communism,” Theory and Society (April 1994).
2Lipset and Bence, “Anticipations of the Failure of Communism.”
3See: Lilia Shevtsova, Lonely Power (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010).