Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Political Disagreements in Russia Again Hardening into ‘Irreconcilable Divides,’ Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 8 – Political debates in Russia in recent times have been ‘transformed from discussions into irreconcilable clashes, in which opponents do not listen to each other and do not want to” and in which there are ever more example of “confrontational ‘barricades’ thinking,” according to sociologist Larisa Nikovskaya.

            The specialist on public politics and civil society at the Moscow Institute of Sociology says that in contrast to a few years ago, “an atmosphere of ‘the search for enemies,’ ‘composition of lists,’ and harsh divisions between ‘one’s own’ and ‘the others’” has emerged in Russia today (ng.ru/ideas/2016-11-07/9_6852_barricades.html).

            Many observers thought this trend was related to the recent parliamentary elections, Nikovskaya continues, but “’these phenomena have not disappeared” since that time. The reasons “lie deeper” and reflect the reappearance of a sense that Russian society must again “define itself” on the most fundamental issues.

            These include answers to questions like “what are the national interests of Russia, what should be the social project for the future, and what should be the place and role of Russia in a transformed world order,” the sociologist says.  And underlying even these is the question of what Russia should do to escape its current crisis and resume stable development.

            Surveys conducted by the Institute of Sociology, Nikovskaya says, show that Russian society is divided “into two large groups, those with a statist and great power orientation and those with a liberal one … focused above all on political freedom, new reforms, a change in the powers that be, and union with Western countries.”

            The former consist of about 59 percent of the population, the latter about eight percent, and the remainder – 33 percent – finding themselves shifting between the one and the other or having mixed views. And it is “completely obvious” that the first two groups have very different preferred scenarios.

            “Thus, for example, social justice is interpreted by the representatives of the statist-great power group as a return to national traditions, Orthodoxy, to an understanding of Russia as a power uniting various peoples and influencing all political processes in the world and by the liberal direction via the ideas of human rights, democracy, and rapprochement with the West.”

            And it is equally obvious that for liberals, “the path which Russia has proceeded on for the last ten years is a dead end (68 percent) and an equal share are certain that over recent years, the country has fallen ever further behind the leading world powers economically,” the sociologist says.

            The dominance of the statist-great power position has been quite stable over time, Nikovskaya says.  This pattern reflects what many see as the failure of the liberal project in the 1990s and thus “to a significant extent” is “instrumental” in that it is the result of the appearance of “a political-ideological vacuum.”

            Historically, both of these positions have existed and have become sharper during periods of crisis.  In the absence of a crisis, the two are able to speak to each other; but when a crisis occurs, there has tended to be an alteration from one to the other and back again with each side completely rejecting the other.

            That is what has happened in Russia over the last 30 years, the sociologist argues, robut it may be possible that as the crisis ebbs, the two will be able to find bridges between them once again, although the current problems in the Russian political system have been deepened by the crisis in Ukraine, which has raised the issue of Russia’s relationship to Europe to new heights.

            From the late 1980s to 2000, the liberal position outnumbered the statist one two to one in the population. Since 2000, that is, since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, their relative position has been reversed, although the very latest polls suggest that most Russians, including the statists, do not reject following in a European direction.

            “Russian reality is literally filled up with dilemmas of the type of authoritarianism versus democracy, civil society versus corporatism, federalism versus unitarism, the market versus state supervision of the economy, post-industrialism versus raw material enclave of the world economy, and opposition versus partnership in the international arena,” she says.

            To overcome these antinomies in a civilized manner will be impossible “without the presence of a system of institutions capable of viewing [Russian] society not only ‘from the top down’ or ‘the bottom up’ but also as a whole, in the unity of its multiplicity” and in which both liberals and statists will find ways to cooperate.

            And “that means [Russians] must learn to live and work in conditions of constantly appearing antinomies and, by making use of the positive and functional potential of such conflicts, transform their constant cognitive choice into a source of strengthening the vitality of society.”  That, Nikovskaya says, is no easy task.

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