Saturday, March 4, 2023

Russian Liberals Committed to Centralism Open the Way for Authoritarianism and Imperialism, Degtyanov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Mar. 2 – Many liberal critics of Putin’s regime “only dream of changing the ‘bad’ tsar’ for a ‘good’ one” but want to maintain a highly centralized system “in which Moscow officials will continue to be the dominant players, Andrey Degtyanov says. Neither they nor their backers recognize this will open the way for a rapid return to authoritarianism and imperialism.

            That becomes obvious, the Russian historian says, if one plays a thought experiment about the future after such a liberal victory and also if one considers what happened in Russia 30 years ago when the nomenklatura in reaction to Gorbachev’s decentralization efforts staged the August 1991 coup and then installed Putin (

            “Let’s assume,” Degtyanov says, that the liberals will win, something all the more likely because “in Russia there is a tradition in which historical changes begin in the capitals. But there are serious doubts that the Moscow opposition of today having taken power will hand it over to freely elected parliaments” either there or in the regions.

            Without radical decentralization and the formation of a new state from below rather than above, something most Muscovite Russian liberals find anathema, they will struggle within themselves over how best to promote “state unity” first moving in a direction like that of Yeltsin and then in the direction of Vladimir Putin.

            That prospect is even more likely given what happened at the end of Gorbachev’s time. The first and last Soviet president “in fact destroyed the empire by attempting to ‘reform’ it into a voluntary agreement of sovereign republics,” something far more likely to allow for democracy in each of them than simple separation.

            Had Gorbachev’s Novo-Ogaryevo process worked, Russia might have become a democracy; but because the nomenklatura feared that might cost it its power, they staged the coup which only superficially failed but in fact meant that a Russian imperial state could reemerge as in fact has happened since.

            Holding the country together on a voluntary basis likely would have had positive consequences not only for the other component parts but also for Russia; but if Moscow and its liberals go down the same path of believing that holding the country together by force is the only way forward, they are unlikely to get either a united country or a democratic one.

            That is something everyone who now supports the Russian liberals who refuse to think about a Russia reconstituted on a voluntary basis should reflect upon. Otherwise, in all too short a time, there will be another Putin and another war in Ukraine all too soon.  

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