Reform doses differ for China and Russia

2012-03-14Asia Times

I would like to thank The Economist, si parva licet compenere magnis, for the article "How to rig an election", [1] expounding on all Vladimir Putin did in recent months to win last week's presidential vote in Russia.

The Economist explains that Putin's actions are not pulled from the old bag of tricks used by dictators, like beating your opponents into silence or lining up voters and making sure they cast pre-stamped ballots. His methods are more modern. "You can have an election that looks all right on the outside but guarantees the result you want," argues the newspaper. "And nobody will be able to object. The secret is to obey the rules "having first written them yourself".

It all started with television and went on to gerrymandering, The Economist writes, and here we modestly start to be confused. In fact, the use (and abuse) of television in elections is an important issue in mature democracies. Some decades ago, Ronald Reagan was accused of winning his presidency because he was an actor able to manipulate his image on television, [2] and more recently, in Italy Silvio Berlusconi has been under attack for his overwhelming control of the medium. Yet neither leader was accused of rigging elections.

Similarly, gerrymandering was born in the cradle of modern democracy, America, as according to a standard definition the word came from "the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts + salamander, from the supposed similarity between a salamander and the shape of a new voting district on a map drawn when he was in office (1812), the creation of which was felt to favor his party: the map (with claws, wings, and fangs added), was published in the Boston Weekly Messenger, with the title The Gerry-Mander." And the political instrument has not been forgotten in the West, as just two years ago Bill Mundell produced a documentary on gerrymandering in America. [3]

All this is not to say that elections in America or Russia are the same, that Russia is a model of democracy and America is not, or anything like that. This is to say that in order to hold on to power, Putin uses instruments that were developed in a democratic system to play within certain rules. This is surely not beautiful, but perhaps it is better than no elections at all or thugs checking on ballot boxes with long sticks, as happened until a few years ago in many parts of some democratic countries.

Things in Russia and with Putin's elections are far from perfect, but there are signs of improvement just because Putin is playing with the democratic systems' old bag of tricks and not with that of dictatorships. As here in China the Great Helmsman almost said, "Democracy is not a tea party" (or was is it, it is not the Tea Party?), it takes quite a few bumps to get to a full-fledged system; or as the forefathers of Western civilization in Rome almost said, "Democracy was not built in a day."

Russia has no democratic tradition to speak of. Two centuries ago, when the US was gerrymandering with democracy, immense novelist Gogol was telling the tragic-comic story of a person buying and selling "souls" in a country where the majority of the population were serfs, that is de facto still in slavery, and only a tiny minority of aristocrats and their minions were free. The system changed in reality only with the Communist Revolution in 1917, which substituted the serfdom of the majority of the population for the enslavement of the totality of the population.

Glimpses of freedom could be seen in Russia only in the 1980s with Mikhail Gorbachev's famous reforms, and those were just these: glimpses fading into costly illusions, as Moscow lost its empire by pursuing a dream of socialist amendments. No matter how unjust the Soviet empire, its loss - like sometimes the loss of a sibling who is cruel but still shares our blood - is still important in Russia.

In a country with no democratic tradition to speak of but with a strong imperial sentiment, Putin harks back to the Russian Empire, by for instance protecting and fostering the Orthodox Church; he signals he is not giving up on all of the Soviet empire by holding on to the nuclear arsenal, by playing with the strategic weapons of oil and pipelines, and by teaching a lesson to unruly Georgia in 2008.

All of this, the hold on tradition and empire, buys more consent in Russia - or any country - than television or gerrymandering. After all, if Putin won in the first round, which was not certain, and it is still an indication of the some degree of support he has in the country. Moreover, are we so sure that his challengers once in power would be so much better than him? Communists were worse than the Czar, and Putin was chosen by a person, Boris Yeltsin, whom the Americans supported against Gorbachev. Russia, like all nations, has a historical logic of its own pushing leaders in one direction almost independently from their own will.

The real issue seems to be, can Russia change its destiny and stop being a geopolitical threat? Can it give up on the old and dangerous idea of a Czarist or Soviet empire? It is not an issue of name, but of substance.

Present Russia is hardly adequate for an imperial role. It has oil, old-fashioned weapons, and plutocrats who have grown to resemble the old Czarist aristocracy. But it lacks the necessary engine of a modern empire: a vibrant economy, like that of China or India, but also those of South Korea, Vietnam, and Brazil. [4] Without real economic muscle, the political projection is bound to stay weak, and arrogance or military posturing could be used to compensate for the imbalance between the two, economic weakness and political ambition.

Russia, for its ambitions but also for its healthy political development, needs to groom a class of small and medium entrepreneurs. The power of the modern aristocracy - which, like that of the old one, is sickly enmeshed with the gears and trappings of state bureaucracy - must be drastically cut and reformed. Without this, the whole Russian edifice could crumble as it did in the past.

It is on these structural weaknesses that the Middle Eastern fever for "Jasmine revolutions" has spread to Russia. It may be part of a complex American plot to undermine enemy regimes, but just like a normal flu, the Jasmine revolution attacks and kills only weakened bodies. Nobody could dream of living in a bubble, safe from all contagious viruses; then strengthening the body - that is, reforming oneself - is the best immunity against the threat of revolutions now - or ever.

In this regard, the fact that, despite the examples of Egypt and Syria, Putin chose democratic tricks rather than outright repression, seems a sign pointing in a good direction. He saved himself and the world from the flames of a revolution. The fact that he won the elections and demonstrations seems to confirm it. After learning in politics, can Putin move on and push for economic reforms? This remains to be seen. This should be the new root to expand and strengthen the democratic system in Russia, as capitalism was the basis of democracy in the West.

These reforms are already late, and thus very urgent, but they touch on entrenched interests surrounding the president.

Here the destiny of Russia once again crosses that of China. As Russia needs greater economic reforms and then political improvements, China needs the opposite: political reforms and then economic restructuring. Two weeks ago, a thick paper released by the World Bank called for drastic economic restructuring while also attacking the excessive power and monopolies of state owned enterprises (SOEs). [5] It was very strongly worded and cosigned by the China Commission for Reform of the State. In his speech on March 5 at the National People's Congress (NPC, China's parliament), Premier Wen Jiabao mentioned the word reform 70 times. [6] He has been very vocal in calling for political reforms in recent years.

Now, as in the 1980s, when both countries were just beginning to tinker with reforms, perhaps we have to see who gets the formula right. But besides the formula, both countries need reforms and, being incorrigibly optimistic, one can say that the two countries are both giving out some of the right signals. As now winters fades and spring approaches, we shall see if it is just a seasonal change or something of more substance in China and Russia.

1. How to rig an election (, The Economist, March 3, 2012
2. See, for instance, The Primetime Presidency of Ronald Reagan: The Era of the Television Presidency (1988), by Robert Denton.
3. See here (
4. Why the EU needs Russia (, by Francesco Sisci and Anna Zafesova, La Stampa August 3, 2008.
5. See here ( for World Bank report.
6. See here (  (2012-03-14 Asia Times)


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