TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Russia and the West:Vodka-Cola

The recent acknowledgment that the US runs a network of secret prisons where terrorist suspects have been held outside any legal regime produces a sense of déjà vu for those familiar with Russian society. At the beginning of his tenure, the Russian president made a very similar statement about his resolve to fight terrorists everywhere—including in the dark of Russian public toilets. The effect of déjà vu is strengthened when one looks at a number of other aspects of social, political and economic life in Russia and the US.

We become more and more similar—for worse or for better?

One of the basic indicators of social “health,” the level of generalized trust shows negative trends both in Russia and the US. While about a half of Americans in the early 1970s believed that most personally unknown people can be trusted, their number shrank below 40% in the 1990s to reach the current low of 31.5% in 2002. The intensity of communitarian life, this social fabric of civil society, has decreased accordingly.

Very similar trends have been observed in Russia since the late 1980s, i.e., since the start of reforms that aimed at opening the society towards the outside world. While more than a half of Russians were of opinion that most people can be trusted in 1989, this number has sharply declined by more than a half toward the end of the 1990s.

Violent clashes between ethnic Russians and people from the Caucasus and Central Asia have recently taken the form of mass unrests. Apparently, the surge of racial violence observed in Russia has no parallels in American society. Yet a careful look into the composition of the US prison population suggests that the lack of racial conflicts in overt forms can be attributed to modifications in policies of racial segregation rather than to finding a sustainable solution to racial problems. First, the US and Russia have the highest number of detainees per 100,000 of the national population: 701 and 606 respectively. Second, the number Afro-Americans and Latinos among those who are behind bars in the US is disproportionately high: these two groups form an absolute majority of the US prison population whereas they are still a minority outside the prison walls.

Additional parallels can be found in the political processes. Russia has become a textbook example of abuses of political technologies as a substitute for negotiations, the search for compromise, debates and other “old-fashioned” political activities. Even opposition parties in this country emerge as a result of “designer projects” carried out by political technologists working for those vested in power.

Political technologies play an increasingly important role in the US, a country once considered a model of full-fledged democracy. The decline of American community and the deterioration of the “associative fabric” create favorable conditions for substituting political technologies for political participation and representation. The 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections were rich in examples of the spread of political technologies and the “black PR”; 527-groups were involved, in particular, in discrediting the presidential nominee from the opposition.

Tactics aimed at disqualifying votes and voters illustrate the idea of using administrative resources to secure the office. In Russia they took more blatant forms (e.g., turning heating and lights in flats on and off at will), while in the US they imply the exclusion of unwanted—from the point of view of those vested in power—voters from casting ballots by reducing the number of polling stations, complicating the procedure of registering, etc.

Common negative trends also touch the economy in both countries. Concerns with the issues of the respect for the law and business ethics usually come in mind when speaking about the Russian economy. For example, more than a half of potential foreign investors into the Russian economy share the belief that it is extremely difficult to conduct business in Russia without compromising international legal and ethical standards of doing business. However, recent corporate scandals related to Enron and WorldCom that have undermined trust in American corporations persuade that the drift into extra-legality characterizes not only Russia, but rather has a global dimension.

Globalization via mutual contamination

Are the above described common tendencies something more than simple face similarities? Are there common mechanisms producing similar negative effects in Russia and the West? Most probably, the sketched “constellation” of problems results from processes at the national and the international, global levels: some of them are country-specific; the others touch any country participating in global exchanges in their present form.

The idea of negative convergence, or mutual contamination as a by-product of increasing contacts between the two institutional systems, was initially put forward by Ch. Levinson in 1977. Not all evidence found by this author looked convincing at that time, yet the recent developments suggest reconsidering the value of his central metaphor: a distasteful blend of vodka and cola as the symbol of globalization via mutual contamination.

Since the start of the 1990s Russia has been considered chiefly as a recipient of Western monetary aid; economic policies; and political institutions. In what sense can one speak of Russia as a “donor” of institutional models and behavioral practices? Foreign companies operating in Russia, in order to be competitive, must adapt to local conditions and play according to the same rules of the game as local companies. A company that does pay attention to all legal requirements and business ethics finds itself in a disadvantageous position compared with companies that exercise more “degrees of freedom.” According to the latest Corruption Perception Index released by Transparency International, Russia has a very low score: 2.4 on a 10-point scale.

In the political sphere, Russia embodies a particular model of power, vsevalstie. It means non-constrained and self-justifying power that transforms into an end-in-itself. Why may Western leaders be interested in imitating the model of vsevlastie? This model puts persons vested in power in a very comfortable position: they do not need to find legitimate reasons for their initiatives, to deal with a strong opposition, etc. In short, they can impose their will at will. Some Western leaders may believe that in order to achieve top-priority aims suggested by their political agenda (e.g., to fight terrorism) it would be better to lessen constraints and increase the room for maneuvering. Their Russian counterparts act in this highly desirable context. It is not by coincidence that former leaders of Germany (Gerhard Schröder) and Italy (Silvio Berlusconi), known for their close personal relationships with Vladimir Putin, ended by reproducing some of his behavioral patterns and by defending the imperfections of the Russian political system. (The “strange” similarity inspired the Italian Nobel prize winner, novelist Dario Fo, to write a piece L’anomalo bicefalo about a fictitious situation of transplanting the Russian President’s brain to the then Italian Prime Minister). The problem, however, consists in the danger of transforming power as a means to achieve other ends into an end-in-itself as soon as the constraints put on those invested in power are lessened.

Under which conditions could Western leaders actually imitate the desired model of power? The lack of adequate institutional frameworks at the global level, combined with the increased globalization of political, social and economic processes creates conditions favorable for being seduced by the “discreet charm” of vsevlastie. At the global level, political leaders face very few constraints that could put limits on their desire to learn how to increase the room for discretionary behavior.

The end of history?

The proposed outlook could produce two types of misinterpretation. First, Russia and the US have not yet converged to the same situation characterized by anything but a constellation of common problems. This is a potentially long and multi-stage process, and the two countries move towards the point of negative convergence from different starting positions at different speed. Civil society has never been strong and autonomous in Russia, whereas it produced a “skeleton” of democratic institutions in the American case. Like corals that leave the physical structure after their death, civil society can leave democratic institutions after its eventual collapse. Such institutions inherited from the past as the free press make a difference; they significantly reduce the speed of negative convergence. After all, the free press in the US greatly contributed to making the existence of secret prisons public. In Russia such “explosive” topics have far less chances to reach the public domain.

Second, these lines should not be read as an invitation to re-erect the “iron curtain” between the countries. There is no way back to a complete isolation of either country. The offered arguments rather invite the reader to acknowledge the existence of a growing set of common problems. Solutions to these problems—because of their mere nature—can be found only by common efforts. The existing institutions need rebuilding and redesigning, and an extra layer at the global level ought to appear. So, we are probably far from the end of history not only in Russia, but in the West too.

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