Staunton, December 19 – Most political leaders contrast their own positive achievements with the failures of their predecessors, but Vladimir Putin’s constant refrain about how bad the 1990s were in contrast to the period of his rule has become dangerous for Russian society, according to Olga Manilova of the Higher School of Economics.
Speaking to the Yeltsin Center, she reports on her examination of Putin’s statements as recorded by the Kremlin website and says that his negative comments about the 1990s outweigh the positive by 43-48 percent to 11-18 percent since 2000 (znak.com/2019-12-19/kak_rossiyskaya_propaganda_ispolzuet_obraz_lihih_90_h_i_pochemu_eto_vredno_dlya_strany).
Worse, Manilova continues, Putin’s demonization of the 1990s has intensified with time, sending a message that any changes proposed by anyone but the leader risk sending the country back to the 1990s and thus making it far harder for anyone who proposes a change in direction to gain a hearing.
This has led to paralysis, she argues and to “the freest possible society, albeit one free even from law, order and morality. That suits many because this is profitable for them.” But it means that those who are excluded find it difficult if not impossible to gain a hearing lest they be accused of wanting to go back to the bad old days of the 1990s.
That approach served the Kremlin well as long as oil prices were high and it could point to a rising standard of living. Now, however, it doesn’t work nearly as well; and many are asking more pointed questions about the past and how terrible it really was. As they get more answers, the Kremlin’s message is ever less effective.
But there is an even bigger problem with Putin’s portrayal of the 1990s as all bad and his reign as all good. It lays the foundation for his attacks on democracy and freedom. As he has put it, the introduction of the principles and norms of democracy must not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people.”
What that means, of course, is that for him, democracy can and should be sacrificed to save the state and promote a higher standard of living.
What is especially unfortunate, the sociologist suggests, is that many opposition politicians have not been willing to challenge the “bad 1990s – good Putin era” narrative, preferring instead to focus on defending their roles in both rather than realizing that by not challenging Putin’s Manichean vision, they put themselves at extreme disadvantage.
But at present, Manilova says, one can say that “discourse about the 1990s emanating both from the state and from the opposition has grown stale for many compatriots.” Things they had accepted as necessary, like a strong state, for example, have come to be seen as yet another form of hyper-centralization and “stability” as just another word for “stagnation.”
The 1990s need to be rescued from this ideological straightjacket and assessed not all or nothing but in terms of what was done that was worth doing and what mistakes were made. Until that happens, there is little chance that Russia and Russians will be able to move forward, the sociologist suggests.