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Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Searching for Stolypin: Democratization and the War against Corruption

Alexei Navalny at the 'Russian March', September 2011

At a time when the conflict over Crimea and skirmishing in Donetsk and Luhansk are driving an ever greater wedge between Ukrainians and Russians, the one political issue that seems to unite both societies is anger with endemic corruption. For the past decade, more or less robust social surveys have put corruption at or near the top of the list of issues that most concern the public in both countries. State dysfunction and social injustice that corrupt practices helped to entrench have undermined economic development in most societies struggling with Soviet legacies. The ways in which graft and bribery have become a feature of everyday life affecting every citizen have fostered deep public grievances against established elites that have a potentially destabilizing impact. 

In Russia, significant levels of public disquiet over the persistence of corruption lingered even as a political equilibrium put in place by Vladimir Putin's power vertical managed to limit the socially disruptive effects of graft between 2000 and 2010. As Vladimir Gel'man has pointed out, with memories of the social collapse of the 1990s still strong during the first Putin presidency the great bulk of the Russian population was willing to accept a degree of elite theft in exchange for a stable order in their everyday lives. The rapid increase in quality of life driven by a growing commodities boom helped to limit the extent to which public annoyance at tales of corruption seeping out from the Kremlin fostered discontent with an emerging authoritarian order. Yet the fact that the police and security services regularly made a show of arresting expendable members of the elite demonstrated the extent to which those ruling Russia were aware that public concern over corruption needed to be regularly assuaged in order to sustain Vladimir Putin's popularity. 

By contrast, until 2010 in Ukraine no one figure was able to entirely dominate the state. The competitive nature of a political system that sat somewhere between oligarchy and democracy survived during the first two decades of Ukraine’s independence despite Leonid Kuchma's moves to consolidate his position in the early 2000s and Viktor Yanukovych's attempt to manipulate the 2004 presidential elections. In both cases a mixture of popular and elite resistance stymied attempts to entrench a power vertical in Kyiv, helping to foster a relatively open society in which nascent activist networks and small enclaves of reformers within civilian and military institutions could lay the basis for reform of the state. Yet a parliament and presidency riven with factional rivalries also made it extremely difficult for reformers to make any headway in a political economy in which oligarchs were constantly fighting for survival. While Putin's power vertical set clear limits on the influence of economic elites, the lack of any equivalent power centre in Ukraine meant that graft, corruption and everyday bribery spiralled out of control in a manner that paved the way for the comeback of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010.

Despite these growing divergences between Ukraine and Russia, the financial crisis that began to unfold in 2008 created a range of social and political shocks that brought ever greater discontent out into the open. With a massive spike in gas and oil prices strengthening the hands of oligarchs more closely aligned with Russia, between 2010 and 2013 Viktor Yanukovich moved to consolidate power to an unprecedented extent. In Russia, the swift recovery in commodity prices enabled Vladimir Putin to invest massive sums in the military while still maintaining the ability to financially outbid any potential rival. Yet in both societies economic pressure after 2010 also heightened public frustration with the persistent impunity of those in control of the state and economy. Uniting the disparate groups involved in the mass protests in Moscow of 2011 and 2012 was anger at how the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency signalled a lack of will to reform a system built on brazen plundering of the Russian economy. While the Russian protest movement failed to attract sufficient support outside of Moscow to threaten the Kremlin, in the following years similar fury at systemic corruption helped fuel the Maidan protests in Kyiv that culminated in the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. 

Since the Putin regime’s manipulation of corrupt networks to achieve strategic goals in Donbas and Crimea a considerable proportion of the political elite in Kyiv now see the war against corruption as crucial to restoring national sovereignty and security. In Russia, the extent to which the Kremlin’s power vertical depends on corrupt deals between the security services and economic elites have led the opposition to primarily focus on anti-corruption activism, often at the expense of other key issues. Moreover, the extent to which key members of the Russian opposition such as Alexei Navalny have built their reputations on anti-corruption campaigning demonstrate how the war against corruption has remained one of the few issues that can still unite a fragmented opposition movement. 

As a consequence, many analysts and activists have come to see a war against corruption as an unproblematic component of any wider democratization process. When providing recommendations for the democratic transformation of both Ukraine and Russia, Western think tanks, scholars and prominent local figures continue to often place the suppression of corrupt practices as the central priority of any reform process. EU and US officials, scholars and analysts at think tanks from the Carnegie Foundation to the Brookings Institution regularly churn out recommendations for anti-corruption measures designed to restore the rule of law in the post-Soviet space. As the military situation in the Donbas region has stabilised, in Ukraine battles over corruption within the national government as well as on a regional level have shaped political debate, often determining the rise and fall of prominent leaders. While in Russia, the remnants of the non-system movement are trying to mobilise public support by emphasising the extent to which the corrupt practices so central to Putin's power vertical are compounding an escalating economic crisis.   

Yet however crucial anti-corruption measures are to the restoration of the rule of law, it is worth asking whether wars on corruption in themselves inevitably lead to democratization. Western as well as local analysts often assume that those prominent political figures fighting for an end to corrupt practices, often at enormous risk to themselves and their families, are also automatically going to push for the democratization. But demands for a "cleansing of society" or a "strong hand" to fight powerful interests that are stealing from the people and subverting the state can also degenerate into a search for the kind of quick solutions that are more likely to be found through authoritarian methods than slower processes of democratic consultation. 

The authoritarian potential of any potential war on corruption can be seen in the historical figures anti-corruption campaigners in both societies have cited as examples. After the collapse of the USSR encouraged a reappraisal of the pre-1917 Tsarist Empire, both conservatives as well as liberals in Russia have often pointed to Pyotr Stolypin as a figure who could provide a model for those trying to rebuild Russia in the 1990s. Until his assassination in 1911, as prime minister and interior minister Stolypin initiated reforms designed to save the Tsarist system in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1904. The apparently progressive nature of measures designed to foster the emergence of a rural middle class and a more responsive state led many Russian reformers to present Stolypin as the kind of figure those rebuilding a new Russia in the 1990s and 2000s should emulate. Yet Stolypin was also notorious for the ruthlessly repressive means he used to impose his own institutional goals. His relentless war on corruption went hand in hand with a campaign against various ideological opponents of the Tsarist system so brutal that the "Stolypin necktie" became a euphemism for the noose used to execute those accused of revolutionary terrorism. A war against corruption building on a cult of Stolypin may help unite those in the security services frustrated with a corrupt status quo with activists close to the opposition. Yet it also hints at a willingness among many anti-corruption activists to entertain an alliance with individuals or groups who could provide the "strong hand" needed to "clean up" their country.

Though some Ukrainian activists also cited Stolypin as a useful model for modern anti-corruption efforts in the 1990s, growing wariness towards Russia dampened enthusiasm for a politician whose main aim was to restore the strength of a Tsarist Empire focused on Moscow. Nevertheless, an authoritarian undercurrent can also be detected in some of the precedents many anti-corruption campaigners have pointed to as successful examples of reform that should be emulated. That some activists have pointed to Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew as an ideal for reformers despite his unflinching contempt for human rights indicates that quite a few anti-corruption warriors in Ukraine may be willing to cut a few democratic corners to achieve their goals. More recently, the popularity of Mikhail Saakashvili after his appointment as Governor Odessa by President Petro Poroshenko is a sign that a broad swathe of the electorate is willing to throw its support behind someone willing to do whatever it takes to fight corruption. That Saakashvili was toppled from the Georgian presidency in 2013 under a cloud of allegations over abuse of executive powers to coerce acceptance of reforms does not seem to unduly bother Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and voters rallying to his standard. 


Tetyana Chornovol at the Battle of Mariupol, September 2014.

Other prominent activists involved in anti-corruption campaigning in Ukraine have become heavily involved with openly authoritarian movements. The paramilitarisation of the Maidan movement under the pressure of brutal police repression in January 2014 drew civil society activists into contact with radical nationalist as well as self-defence units that protected demonstrators from the state. These groups went on to provide the nucleus for the volunteer regiments that spearheaded the attempt by the Ukrainian military to regain control of the Donbas region from increasingly blatant Russian military infiltration. In the process, anti-corruption campaigners helping to coordinate public efforts to supply the military have drawn close to paramilitary groups and other military units. 

A prominent example of this interaction between anti-corruption activists and nationalist volunteer regiments is the former journalist Tetyana Chornovol, who is now an MP in the Verkhovna Rada. Chornovol herself rose to prominence during the Maidan protests for her relentless investigation of the Yanukovych family's illegal assets. In the months after Yanukovych's fall, her husband joined the far right Azov regiment, and was killed in action near Ilovaisk. Following this personal tragedy, Chornovol  joined an Azov unit fighting to defend Mariupol from seizure by Russian and Russian-backed forces in August 2014. This strong personal link along with her continued association with figures connected to the Azov movement indicates how a commitment to fighting corruption can be built as much on an authoritarian understanding of how social transformation should be achieved as it can on a desire to preserve democratic pluralism.

As long as the European Union provides the prospect of even a partial integration process, there remain strong institutional incentives for Ukrainian activists and state reformers to frame their war against corruption in democratic terms. Having a battle over the reform of the Ukrainian state play out in an open debate in the media and parliament will also strengthen public understanding and elite acknowledgement that corruption is a symptom rather than a cause of a political crisis driven by deeply entrenched social injustice. As Mikhail Minakov and Vitaly Portnikov have pointed out, the potential risks of EU disengagement from a society in which there are no simple solutions to structural dysfunction are clear. In an environment in which old civilian elites are discrediting themselves and the power and prestige of the military is on the rise, there is a strong risk that the fury of Maidan activists at the survival of corrupt practices could reinforce authoritarian rather than democratic trends in Ukrainian society. 

While in Ukraine a public consensus in favour of an (often ill-defined) Europeanisation process provides an incentive to channel the war against corruption towards democratic ends, it is not clear whether similar external or internal pressures exist in Russia to prevent activists from being tantalised by the false promise of authoritarian solutions. Undoubtedly there are many key figures within the system and non-system Russian opposition who make great sacrifices in the hope of building a more open society. But the assassination of Boris Nemtsov removed a leading figure that still had the authority to sustain a commitment towards democratic goals among those frustrated with the status quo . With Nemtsov gone it remains unclear whether what remains of the Russian non-system opposition can produce a leader that can ensure that anti-corruption work remains part of a wider democratic project rather than becoming enmeshed with the authoritarian agendas of nationalist movements or factions within the state. 

Perhaps that most prominent Russian opposition activist to have flirted with the authoritarian agenda of the nationalist Right is Alexei Navalny. As a prominent opposition activist, Navalny has been very successful at using anti-corruption activism as a springboard towards building a national political profile. Most recently, Navalny played a central role in implicating Prosecutor General Yury Chaika in vast protection rackets that effectively turn the state prosecution service into a business partner of major organized crime groups. Throughout Navalny has had to overcome enormous pressure from the Russian state. Yet Navalny has also courted the support of Russian radical nationalists, even attending the so-called 'Russian March' in 2011, a notorious annual gathering of the Far Right in Moscow. In the process he has become difficult to pin down ideologically, at times espousing a national conservatism that would not seem out of place in the Lithuanian or Polish parliaments, at others indulging in the kind of opportunistic populism that would make Ukraine's Oleh Lyashko proud. This ideological ambiguity coupled with cooperation with deeply authoritarian radical nationalists is an indication of how prominent anti-corruption campaigners such as Navalny will not necessarily prove reliable supporters of any messy democratic Russian experiment that may follow a collapse of Putin's power vertical.

For democracy is not necessarily an inevitable outcome of any revolutionary moment that may unfold if the Putin regime is unable to reverse Russia's downward economic trajectory. The deeply corrupt relationships between the security services and business elites that provide the structural foundation for Putin's power vertical make both highly exposed to any public backlash that could emerge if Russia experiences internal destabilization. But there are other state institutions that have not been as weakened by the predatorial instincts of the Putin regime. In the last decade the military in particular has become ever more central to national life, profiting from rapidly expanding budgets while enjoying ever greater social prestige as celebration of the army becomes entrenched in cultural institutions and school curricula. With the personalized nature of Vladimir Putin's rule hollowing out a whole range of other state and political institutions, after his fall the military may be the only truly national institution able to act as a unifying force. 

In this context, over the next decade those Russian activists fighting the war against corruption may be faced with a difficult set of choices. They could embrace a democratic transition that will involve complex political deals with many powerful figures who had prospered under the previous regime. Such a scenario would also put clear limits on the extent to which any crackdown against corrupt elites can ignore property law and human rights. Or they could work together with military leaders and radical nationalists willing to use all means available to crush business and security service networks that have stolen Russia's future for the last twenty years. The tendency of many Russian activists to see corruption as the primary cause of Russia's ills, rather than as a symptom of deeper social and economic injustice, is a worrying sign that a significant proportion of Russia's opposition may very well be tempted by men in uniform who promise to do whatever it takes.

While the EU still has a wide range of incentives to ensure that anti-corruption warriors in Ukraine respect democratic norms, it is difficult to see how European states can influence the fateful choices activists fighting the war against corruption in Russia may have to make in coming years. A concerted effort to embed anti-corruption measures into a wider democratization process could help weaken the ability of established elites to manipulate economic reforms to their advantage. Such a success could mark a crucial step towards building the foundations for a more stable and just society. Yet in the chaos of the next Russian revolution it is entirely possible that rather than finding its Havel or Walesa, Russia's opposition may simply choose to fall in behind a Stolypin instead.

1 comment:

  1. 1904? very funny! Как и "война Столыпина против коррупции".