FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

Thoughts on Putin and Trump

Democratic “Interference,” and the Transnational Contest for “Democracy”

One of the biggest stories of the 2016 US Presidential election was the Russian hacking of the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee and of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, with the strategic release of the stolen e-mails — primarily by using Julian Assange’s Wikileaks as a conduit — in order to weaken the Clinton campaign and to bolster the campaign of her rival, now-President Donald Trump. The conventional response among most mainstream media commentators and politicians, whether Democratic or Republican-leaning, has been to express alarm and outrage at the Kremlin’s interference in U.S. elections and then to move on. (The Trump team and its supporters are, of course, another matter entirely. But there is nothing “mainstream” about them. And for obvious reasons of political convenience and ideological affinity, Trump will not and cannot denounce Putin and the Kremlin.) On the left, there have been two main responses. The first, articulated, most predictably and consistently, by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, is a skepticism, bordering on radical empiricism, that there is reasonable proof (which for Greenwald must be definitive and incontrovertible) that the Russian government pursued a strategy of hacking at all.  (See also The New York Times,  The Washington Post, and Vox.) The second is a historical relativization of the significance of the hacking that can easily be summed up thus: who are we to express outrage at such things, since the US has interfered in elections elsewhere scores of times? (See also: LA Times and The Huffington Post)

This second response has obvious merit. The US government historically has very deliberately interfered with elections elsewhere on numerous occasions, many of which involved efforts to undermine perceived “enemies” and to promote “friends” even if they were “our sons-of-a-bitch,” as President Franklin Roosevelt famously said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somozo in the 1930s.  There is a long record of such interventions, especially in the Western hemisphere but indeed throughout the world, which have been well-documented by a range of historians going back to Richard J. Barnet’s classic 1968 Intervention and Revolution: The United States in the Third World, and the many books of William Appelman Williams.

At the same time, ironically, this response of outrage at the conventional US outrage, is no less moralistic and simplistic than the moralistic outrage at Russia it seeks to counter. It is also deeply misleading about what is currently at stake in the Russian hacking scandal: a genuinely transnational and global struggle over the very meaning of “democracy,” that pits a deeply illiberal and indeed authoritarian praxis of “popular sovereignty” — a blend of theory and practice — against a liberal praxis that is deeply flawed, but is also a necessary condition of freedom in the modern world.

What is wrong about the Russian hacking is not that it represents an “interference” in an otherwise pristine, completely free and fair democratic process whereby ordinary Americans determine their own collective destiny as part of an authentic “community of nations.” There is no authentic community of nations. The world is riven by inequality, and the US is a superpower on the world stage, and no innocent republic adhering to a cosmopolitan ideal. And the US is no pristine participatory or liberal democracy. It is a deeply flawed and oligarchic political system.

But it is a liberal or pluralistic democracy nonetheless, even if an attenuated one.  And because it is, it has been targeted by Vladimir Putin and has been damaged by him. And Putin’s persistent exultation is entirely predictable, and explicable.

Putin’s hostility to liberal democracy is not new, and it runs much deeper, historically and ideologically, than the recent Presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While Putin may furnish ideological succor to the US nationalist right with which Trump is connected, and may even have worked to “expose” Clinton and to “expose” flaws in US democracy, what is wrong here is less Putin’s corruption of US elections — which have many sources of corruption — than Putin’s more general agenda of illiberal democracy promotion in Europe and the world more generally, including, but hardly limited to, the US. In the service of this agenda he has engineered a cyber-attack — a deliberate violation of law — with the purpose of undermining liberal democracy in the US. But his broader purpose was to empower the forces of anti-liberalism that he hopes to lead.

That Donald Trump, in league with Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Rex Tillerson, and Paul Manafort, would be considered by Putin to be the preferred US leader, and even an ideological ally, is no surprise. But this is not a simple story about individuals such as Putin and Trump. It is a story about how Putin has long regarded the spread of liberal democracy, in Europe and especially in his own country, as a threat. He has long sought to counter this threat by all means necessary, including the disruption of liberal democracy and the dissemination and promotion of an anti-liberal, and thus authoritarian alternative. That this alternative is spreading in the liberal democratic world, for many reasons not reducible to Putin’s efforts but nonetheless in synergy with Putin’s ideological agenda, is the real danger.

I

Let us begin with these two quotes, each approximately ten years old.

I would first ask these people how they understand the concept of democracy. This is a philosophical question, after all, and there is no one clear answer to it. In your country, what is democracy in the direct sense of the term? Democracy is the rule of the people. But what does the rule of the people mean in the modern world, in a huge, multiethnic and multi-religious state? In older days in some parts of the world, in the city states of ancient Greece, for example, or in the Republic of Novgorod (there used to be such a state on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation) the people would gather in the city square and vote directly. This was direct democracy in the most direct sense of the word. But what is democracy in a modern state with a population of millions? In your country, the United States, the president is elected not through direct secret ballot but through a system of electoral colleges. Here in Russia, the president is elected through direct secret ballot by the entire population of the Russian Federation. So whose system is more democratic when it comes to deciding this crucial issue of power, yours or ours? This is a question to which our critics cannot give a direct answer. — Russian President Vladimir Putin, Interview with NBC Television, July 12, 2006

However, what is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within. And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority. Incidentally, Russia — we — are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves. I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world… According to the founding documents, in the humanitarian sphere the OSCE is designed to assist country members in observing international human rights norms at their request. This is an important task. We support this. But this does not mean interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, and especially not imposing a regime that determines how these states should live and develop. It is obvious that such interference does not promote the development of democratic states at all.  On the contrary, it makes them dependent and, as a consequence, politically and economically unstable. We expect that the OSCE be guided by its primary tasks and build relations with sovereign states based on respect, trust and transparency. — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, 10 February 2007 

As these statements make clear, Putin has long had a problem with liberal democracy, which he consistently has regarded as a threat to “Russia,” i.e., his conception of how Russia ought to be governed. Indeed, his entire political career has centered on nationalist resistance to the eastward spread of liberal democracy in the post-1989 period. That this spread has been geopolitical and economic and not merely ideological, and has involved NATO as well as the EU and the OSCE, is without question. That this spread was welcomed by the post-communist regimes in Eastern Europe seeking both to democratize and to open to the West is also without question.

Putin has responded by insisting that Russian-style “democracy” is superior to liberal democracy, and that both the US and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are trying to impose liberal democracy — competitive elections, the autonomy of civil society organizations, media independence, free and fair electoral procedures — on Russia in violation of its sovereignty and its traditions. Indeed, during the period when he made the above statements, he went even further, embracing the idea of “sovereign democracy” put forth by his chief ideologist, Vladislov Surkov, who declared, in an infamous July 2005 speech entitled, ‘How Russia Should Fight International Conspiracies:’

“I would like to say, that our project is a commonplace one. I would name it briefly as a ‘sovereign democracy.’ It is not good to add something to democracy because a third way issue appears. But we are forced to do that because liberal politicians consider the sovereignty issue as not actual. I often hear that democracy is more important than sovereignty. We do not admit it. We think we need both. An independent state is worth fighting for.”

What are the affronts to sovereignty that so troubled Surkov in this speech? One is the supposed danger of “terrorism” in the Caucusus, a reference to struggles for regional autonomy and independence in Chechnya and Georgia. A second involves critics of Russia who voice concern about the independence of Finland and the Baltic states, especially when they appeal to the EU (or, at Putin mentioned, the OSCE, both of which are committed to a strong program of human rights monitoring throughout Europe). The situation of Ukraine is of particular concern to Surkov, who singles out for criticism the role of “our rightist leader Boris Nemtsov” in advising the leaders of the “Orange Revolution.” (Nemtsov was a vocal liberal critic of Putin who was assassinated in 2015 under very mysterious circumstances, one of a substantial number of Putin’s critics to suffer a similar fate.) But Surkov also speaks more broadly about the “danger” associated with “all those orange revolutions, [and] humanitarian institutes activities. It is common knowledge, that Freedom House is headed by Woolsey, who used to be the head of the CIA. It takes an idiot to believe in the humanitarian mission of this establishment. We also should not forget, that specific circles in those countries are also pursuing similar tasks. We have to take this into account in our work.” Here Surkov cuts to the chase: Russia is endangered by “international conspiracies” spearheaded by the US and its CIA, but also by domestic forces seeking to “weaken” Russia, some indeed in league with “foreigners.” His “sovereign democracy” is a political system in which democratic forms of opposition and contestation are subordinated to a nationalist economic and political agenda that keeps at bay “dangerous” influences from outside the Russian sphere of influence.

This belief in the need to “protect” the sovereignty of Russia in the face of external and especially “Western” and liberal influences has been an overriding commitment of Putin during the eighteen years that he has been the unchallenged leader of the Russian Federation (He has served as Prime Minister from 1999-2000; President from 2000-2008; Prime Minister again from 2008-2012, during which time the President was his protégé Dimitry Medvedev; and President again since 2012). In the name of this commitment, his government has brazenly employed military force. It intervened militarily in 2008 to back separatist forces in the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seeking to break away from Georgia; bombed civilian populations in both the disputed areas and Georgia itself.  After orchestrating the brutal incineration of Grozny in 1999-2000, it has supported, since 2007, the brutal rule of Ramzan Kayrov as Head of the Chechen Republic. It also, responded to the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement of 2014 by seizing and then annexing Crimea and infiltrating  troops and equipment into the Donbas region of far eastern Ukraine in support of separatist forces there.

More important than Putin’s use of deadly force to “protect” the “sovereignty” of Russia in the immediate Russian sphere of influence has been his employment of repressive measures to “inoculate” Russia itself from “contagion” from the “outside influence” of “liberalism.” As Larry Diamond has observed: “Since huge swaths of society rose up in color revolutions in the former Yugoslavia in 2000, in Georgia in 2003, and in Ukraine in 2004-2005 — all to protest electoral fraud and bring about a transition from authoritarianism to democracy — Putin has behaved as if obsessed with fear that the virus of mass democratic mobilization might spread to Russia itself.”

Here are some of the results:

According to Olesya Zakjarova: “In 2015, Russia’s parliament passed another infamous law, this time allowing the government to designate foreign NGOs as “undesirable organizations” and driven out of the country. Seven groups, including the National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, have already been declared undesirable. The regime has further tightened its grip by cracking down on the rights of free assembly and freedom of speech. Unsurprisingly, the main targets of this persecution are organizations that promote human rights or engage in other activities that challenge President Vladimir Putin and his grip on Russian politics. As a result, between 2012 and 2015, the number of civic groups in Russia decreased by 33 percent.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Russia 148th out of 180 countries for its (lack of) respect for press freedom: “What with draconian laws and website blocking, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. Leading independent news outlets have either been brought under control or throttled out of existence. While TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse or just try to maintain quality journalism.”

And according to Freedom House, in Putin’s Russia today: “Opposition politicians and activists are frequently targeted with fabricated criminal cases and other forms of administrative harassment… The government controls, directly or through state-owned companies and friendly business magnates, all of the national television networks and many radio and print outlets, as well as most of the media advertising market. These media effectively serve as venues for Kremlin propaganda… Only a small and shrinking number of radio stations and print outlets with limited reach offer a wide range of viewpoints… The government has consistently reduced the space for freedoms of assembly and association. Overwhelming police responses, the use of force, routine arrests, and harsh fines and prison sentences have discouraged unsanctioned protests, though pro-Kremlin groups are able to demonstrate freely… In February, Putin signed a law that increased the penalties for “extremism,” adding to an array of restrictions that can be used against activists and NGOs.”  It bears emphasis that Freedom House is a Western human rights and democracy promoting organization supported by the US government, and that Freedom House, the National Endowment of Democracy, and a number of NGO’s linked to the Soros Foundation have all been banned from operation in Russia as part of the very effort to “protect Russian sovereignty.”

II

Through such means Putin has sought to “diffusion-proof” his regime, rendering it “immune” to the reception of “dangerous” ideas from “the outside” about human rights, pluralism, dissent, and constitutional government.  At the same time, he has sought to promote and to widely disseminate a counter-ideology centering on the rejection of liberal values as dissolute, weak, hostile to a strong nation, and “alien.” This has led to a vigorous campaign of support for a range of right-wing populist movements, parties, and leaders throughout Europe. In an April 2014 openDemocracy piece on “The Kremlin’s Marriage of Convenience with the European Far-Right,” Anton Shekhovstov charts the ideological affinities and institutional connections between Moscow and a wide range of right-wing groups, including Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei (FPÖ) and Bündnis Zukunft, the Belgian Vlaams Belang and Parti Communautaire National-Européen, the Bulgarian Ataka, the French Front National, the Hungarian Jobbik, the Italian Lega Nord and Fiamma Tricolore, the Polish Samoobrona, the Serbian ‘Dveri’ movement, and the Spanish Plataforma per Catalunya.  As he points out, these groups share with Putin’s regime strong ideological commitments to national sovereignty, authoritarian conservative values regarding gender, sexuality, multiculturalism, and liberal individualism, and hostility toward liberalism more generally. These connections have been documented in a number of reports by risk analysts such as Risk and Forecast, research institutes such as the Bulgarian Center for Strategic and International Studies (in its 2016 report “The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian in Central and Eastern Europe,”) and a range of Western intelligence experts.

To observe this is not to attribute to Putin’s Russia a profound malevolence nor to reduce the serious crises facing liberal democratic parties and liberal democracy itself — as a mode of governing nation-states and as a mode of organizing international political and economic relations — to the machinations of Putin. As Ivan Krastev, one of sharpest critical observers of these things, has noted, such a reductionism promotes a “paranoia” of Putin, and it reproduces the worst elements of Cold War Manichean thinking. As he writes:

It’s hard to underestimate the extent of Russia’s anti-American paranoia. Russia’s leaders take it as an article of faith that the mass protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 were orchestrated from abroad, and that Ukraine’s Euro-Maidan revolution in 2013 and 2014 was generated with Western resources and inspiration. Even the declining price of oil is, to them, a C.I.A. plot… But it requires an astounding level of exaggeration to believe that Russian interference will decide the election, or that Russia would even try to. The Kremlin’s actions are more akin to a black-arts version of the ‘democracy promotion’ that the United States undertakes in countries like Russia, funding liberal NGOs as a way of challenging Mr. Putin’s monopoly on power. Annoying, and concerning, but hardly a threat. What is disturbing with the ‘blame Putin’ stance endorsed by serious Western politicians, analysts and news media outlets is that it makes the Russian leader appear omnipotent while making the rest of us seem impotent. Casting blame in Moscow’s direction prevents us from productively discussing the grave problems we face as societies, and simplistically reduces the uncertainties and risks of an increasingly interdependent world to the great powers rivalry. It neither helps us better understand Russia and the nature of its government, nor makes it easier for us to have effective policy vis-à-vis Moscow.

Krastev wrote these words in August 2016. The possibility that Russian activity tipped the balance of the November election in the US to Trump seems much less exaggerated today in light of recent US intelligence reports. Nonetheless, Krastev is correct: both the crisis of liberal democracy and the antagonism between the US and Russia are political phenomena with complex causes, and the demonization of Putin helps us to understand neither.

At the same time, while demonization is a mistake, so too is delusion. And when Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor the Kremlin-connected Russia in Global Affairs, declares that “Putin is giving America a taste of its own medicine: Aiming to spread democracy, the U.S. has meddled in foreign countries’ politics for decades. Russia just returned the favor,” he is going way too far beyond the bounds of credulity. One reason is because Putin sought not simply to influence US politics, but to organize a cyber-espionage campaign designed to systematically leak information; it is not the propaganda of Russia Today that is in question, it is the hacking of the servers of the Democratic National Committee and the leaking of information to Wikileaks. But the more important reason is that the goals of Russian “meddling” are very different from the goals of US “meddling” associated with “democracy promotion.” Krastev, who does not deny this difference, thus says it better: “The Kremlin’s actions are more akin to a black-arts version of the ‘democracy promotion’ that the United States undertakes in countries like Russia, funding liberal NGOs as a way of challenging Mr. Putin’s monopoly on power.”

There is a big difference, ethically and politically, between funding liberal NGOs in Russia that challenge the authoritarianism of the Putin regime, or liberal NGOs that challenge authoritarianism in Belarus or Hungary or anywhere else in the former Soviet bloc, on the one hand, and the funding and support of neo-fascist or right-wing populist parties in Austria or Hungary or France on the other. Western “democracy promotion” organizations provide financial, logistical, and organizational support to a wide range of groups seeking to expand press freedom and human rights, and not to groups seeking to limit these things. Western “democracy promotion” has a complicated history to be sure, and this is a political history linked to the agendas and ideological dispositions of the states and organizations involved. Such democracy promotion is hardly “innocent.” And it surely prefers the support of liberal democrats to support for more radical democrats. But one thing is beyond question. While such “democracy promotion” includes organizations supported by the United States — such as National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, United States Institute for Peace — it also includes organizations supported by a range of other civil society organizations in other countries, such as the German Social Democratic Party’s Friedrich-Ebert Siftung and the German Christian Democratic Party’s Konrad Adenaeur-Siftung, and a range of Helsinki Committees; the extensive network of locally-based NGOs supported by George Soros and his Open Society Institute, but also the Central European University that he helped to finance (Soros has been the object of vicious, anti-semitic campaigns throughout Eastern Europe and Russia) and a  range of other more official efforts, such as Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and its Department of Democracy, Human Rights, and Gender Equality.

When Putin opposes Western democracy promotion, he is opposing not simply US-supported organizations, but a much broader range of efforts, all of which have the same broad goal — supporting diverse and autonomous civil societies in which the institutions of “polyarchy” play an important role. Human Rights Watch currently lists 105 groups that are registered as “foreign agents” under Russian law and remain targeted for monitoring and harassment by the Putin regime. Among them are “Golos” (The Association of NGOs in Defense of Voter Rights), “Memorial” Human Rights Center, Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms (which was shut down in May 2015), Freedom of Information Foundation, Agora International Human Rights Association (shut down in 2015), Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies (shut down in 2015),  Side By Side LGBT International Film Festival, and a wide range of civil rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights, consumer rights, and ecology organizations.

Putin’s “dark arts” version of Western “democracy promotion” thus boils down to a suppression of the activity of Russian civil society groups seeking to democratize their society, on the one hand; and the promotion of anti-liberal groups that oppose human rights, GLBT rights, immigrant rights, the rights of ethnic minorities, and the rights of women on the other.

There is thus a huge and rather obvious difference between supporting groups dedicated to the legacies of individuals such as Olaf Palme and Konrad Adenaeur, on the one hand and supporting the heirs of Mussolini and Hitler on the other. And those who liken what Putin is doing to what the US and other Western supporters of “democracy promotion” are doing miss this entirely. In both cases, there is a kind of activity, involvement, and support for like-minded groups across borders. But only for Putin, and for his nationalist allies in other countries, do such civic connections involve “interference” and meddling. For supporters of Western “democracy promotion,” these sorts of activities are better viewed as transnational solidarity with citizen activists, journalists, legal professionals, academics, and political elites in places where an autonomous civil society is under threat. And the response of Putin and his allies is to act in solidarity with those who threaten it.

III

The Russian cyber campaign against the Democratic Party, and in favor of Donald Trump’s candidacy, represents a frightening disruption of and interference in the US electoral process. If suspicions that there were contacts between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign about such efforts turn out to be true, the interference would be more glaring, and might even be considered a conspiracy to disrupt the Presidential election. This is serious, though it is extremely unlikely at this point that such knowledge would have any bearing on the occupant of the White House.

But more serious is the fact that there is an ideological affinity between Putin and Trump that leads them to praise and to mutually support each other. Putin cracks down on political opposition and intimidates or closes down independent media, and Trump praises Putin as a “strong” and “effective” leader. Trump declares that he will “make American great again” by closing borders and deporting “undesirable aliens” and by denouncing and taming the media, and Putin talks favorably about Trump’s boldness and his vision (“It’s not our job to judge his qualities, that’s a job for American voters, but he’s the absolute leader in the presidential race”) and proceeds to denounce Trump’s political and journalistic critics, and embrace the ideological affinities between the new Republican administration and his own regime (“It means that a significant part of the American people have the same perception about how the world should be developing… It is good that people support us in this, in terms of traditional values.”)

While the election of Donald Trump signals a troubling level of Russian investment in domestic US politics, what is most dangerous here is simply the mutual complicity of Trump and Putin, along with a wide range of other nationalist leaders throughout Europe, in a loose transnational movement that is hostile to core elements of liberal democracy. This is not so much a question of “foreign interference” as it is a question of overlapping and mutually reinforcing ideological commitments. The danger here, as Masha Gessen made clear in her widely-discussed essay “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” is the dismantling of liberal democracy itself. But as Gessen has also insisted, it would be a huge mistake to believe “that Trump is some sort of a foreign agent rather than a home-grown demagogue.” Trump may have been buoyed by Putin. But his ascendancy to the Presidency is the product of America’s dysfunctional political system, and he rose to power with the organized support of millions of Americans who voted for, and thus offered political support to, what he stands for. Trump’s victory was not caused by Putin any more than the rise of Nigel Farage or Marine LePen or Viktor Orban was caused by Putin. In each case, it is a particular liberal democracy and its deficiencies that has been placed into question by the rise of anti-liberal forces, even if it is of course true that the states in question are part of a broader world and that their EU connections are particularly important. And in each case, it is the organized activity of domestic citizen groups and political parties that will be the first line of defense against such authoritarian leaders.

At the same time, these anti-liberal leaders furnish ideological and political support to one another, and share a broadly common agenda. And up until now, for many years the symbolic leader of this group has been Putin. It now appears that he has been joined by Trump. What is at stake here is not a geopolitical struggle so much as an ideological one. At stake is the future of Ukraine, and the Baltic states, and Europe more generally, but also the future of the US and indeed of Russia itself. Will the future be closed borders and authoritarianism and the blunt use of force to expel or to dominate vulnerable populations? Or will it be the relatively free flow of goods and peoples across borders, and political pluralism, and liberal democracy? This remains an open question. And just as the ascendancy of the new nationalists had been transnational, transatlantic, and global, so too will the defense of liberal democracy require transnational, transatlantic, and global forms of mutual support and solidarity.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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