Staunton, August 19 – Two centuries ago, Madame de Stael observed that Russia was an autocracy mitigated by the occasional assassination. Now, 24 years to the day after the failed August 1991 coup that accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union, it is clear that Russia has not moved beyond the putsch as the chief means of leadership change.
Twenty-four years after that putsch, Dmitry Shagiakhmetov writes, a whole generation has grown up with doesn’t remember those events; and “a new generation of bosses has appeared in the Kremlin.” But despite that, the Russian opposition politician and commentator says, Russia has not managed to escape the vicious circle of dictatorship and putsches.
In a commentary on Kasparov.ru today, he rights that the circle is once again closing and “Russia is confidently heading toward its latest version” of the same kind of leadership change that the coup plotters in 1991 sought to impose, having like the Bourbons learned nothing from the mistake and stupidities of the past (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=55D358C88973A).
Both the Russian people and the Russian elites are trapped in this vicious circle, and both will have to work long and hard to escape it. So far, however, the people have deferred to the elites most of the time rather than insisting on genuine democracy and freedom and consequently the elites have little reason not to rule in the way that they do.
But such rule inevitably produces splits within the elite, and those divisions offer occasional opportunities for the population to break through. But all too often, the population settles back down in its place, and the elites settle back down in theirs, continuing the pattern of the past rather than breaking with it as some hope and others fear.
“The main lesson of all the Maidans, putsches, and revolutions is this,” Shagiakhmetov says. When the people wins a victory, “its leaders must not wrong away. They must not celebrate the victory.” Instead, they must “remember every day several simple demands which the public square made.”
“The authorities must be sane,” he says. “They must not flaunt their wealth if there are hungry people in the land.” Moreover, the authorities “must be subordinate to society and not forget their place.” That is impossible “without free media, without real courts subordinate only to the Law.”
And that means in the current context, he says, that Russia must “get rid not of Putin but Putinism,” the latest incarnation of the cycle of dictatorships and putsches. Otherwise, the commentator warns, “there will be yet another generation of dragons.”
Escaping that will be hard and require a lot of work, Shagiakhmetov says. People will make mistakes and have to correct them, and they will have to keep their eyes on the main goals and not be distracted by trifles, something that those in power are always only too happy to throw up as a way of maintaining their power.
After the August 1991 putsch, however, “this again did not happen” with Russians. “Perhaps it will happen in Ukraine. There are chances. But there is no other way forward except to try and try again. And only by so doing will it be possible to realize the dreams of a normal country.”
And “only then,” he concludes, “will all the victims and all the efforts be not in vain.”
Among the other comments on this anniversary, one is perhaps especially instructive because it focuses not on the elite divides of 1991 but on those of 1916. Again, on Kasparov.ru, Yevgeny Ikhlov argues that the arguments within the elites now resemble those which took place in the months before the 1917 revolutions (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=55D361293D54B).
The Moscow commentator makes his point by suggesting an exchange between “moderates” then and now and the “hardliners” again then and now.
The moderates said and say: “You idiots, you are provoking a revolution, ‘senseless and unlimited. You are destroying not only yourselves but the entire civilized stratum!”
The hardliners reply: “You cretins, you are rocking the boat by your play with populist pseudo-revelations and outrageous criticism! What are you playing at with all your childish talk about coats, watches and yachts?! You are destroying not only us but also yourselves, you ‘Russian Europeans,’ and you haven’t figures out that the people will take into account not only our palaces but your cottages!”
The moderates in turn respond that they only want those in power to behave in a less challenging fashion and ask the hardliners to take note of the fact that they “are trying not to repeat the errors of the intelligentsia of 1917 and 1989!”
To which the hardliners reply: “you babblers don’t understand that the entire legitimacy of the powers rests on the Putin myth ;” and that if it is undermined, everything will be swept away. “Our president has not gone made.” What he says about the situation in the country is the only thing that can be said: “only such séances of psychotherapy on television saved the country last fall from complete panic.”
Such exchanges of moderates and hardliners within the elite are entirely plausible, and they are yet another reason why 24 years after August 1991, Russia still is talking about the possibility of coups and has not found a way to survive without the occasional putsch or without the authoritarian regimes in between such events.
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