By Mike Haynes
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Back in the Ex-USSR

This article is over 16 years, 11 months old
Review of 'Virtual Politics', Andrew Wilson, Yale University Press £20
Issue 299

‘Mr President. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you have been re-elected. The bad news is that nobody voted for you.’ Andrew Wilson says such jokes reflect the cynicism of life in Russia and the former USSR. A fake democracy has been created in a world of ‘virtual politics’.

This is a fascinating, if overlong, account of a real phenomenon. The Putin regime declares that it is a ‘managed democracy’. Wilson goes further. Almost everything that appears to happen in the former USSR is a facade, created by the old and new elites. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine seems to have occurred too late to make enough of an appearance, but while Wilson hopes that it will make a difference, he is cautious about suggesting how far events will slip from elite control.

Elections are subject to administrative pressure, some electors are directly leaned on, and counts are manipulated and turnout unconvincingly fixed. Between elections politics is staged. Real opposition groups are denied registration, pseudo-oppositions created, built up and split to manage the choice, dummy candidates appear, events are staged, black PR is everywhere, and compromising material – kompromat – held ready to bring potential troublemakers into line. The natural attraction of the centre creates opportunist moves to ‘parties of power’, which are assisted by the manipulation of factions, sleeper politicians brought to life to disrupt, and outright bribery. Not for nothing is one of Moscow’s main political agencies called Nikkolo-M, after Machiavelli.

There are several positive aspects in the argument that lies beneath the detail. Wilson stresses the continuity of power. He argues that locals had talents of their own and were often well ahead of their western advisers. His healthy scepticism about the world of appearances leads him to argue that Putin’s power should not be overestimated. Originally a creature of the Yeltsin clan and the oligarchs, Putin has become more powerful. Yet behind the scenes there are still deals aplenty with the oligarchs. Khodorkovsky languishes in jail more as a sacrificial lamb than a sign of a full confrontation with the whole group who manipulate much of the politics of the new Russia.

But Wilson’s arguments often take such an extreme form that they undermine confidence in what he is trying to do. It will be irritating to readers of this magazine that he misattributes much of the political fixing to an alleged ‘Bolshevik tradition’. But set this aside and you will still be struck by how little comparative analysis there is. Wilson claims that the scale of fixing is unique in the former USSR. Perhaps so, but since he doesn’t have a comparative framework we cannot really tell. He seems uninterested in and naive about what goes on elsewhere. For example, was the KGB (and are its successors) really greater in reach and audacity than the CIA?

Part of the trouble is that it is hard to distinguish evidence from gossip. Wilson says he has not ‘included every conspiracy theory’ but has depended on stories with more than ‘a single source… [which] …seemed plausible or that fitted in a general pattern’. But this suggests a gullibility that risks spoiling some serious points.

There is a telling example of his suspect approach. The two most serious and nasty allegations of virtual politics relate to Putin’s succession. The aim was to protect the Yeltsin clan and the wider group of oligarchs. A leader was needed who appeared young and strong. Putin was young, but was he strong? An opportunity immediately arose for Putin to show his mettle. The second Chechnya war began, and there was an apparent terrorist attack on a block of flats in Moscow that killed over 200.

So did the authorities fix both events, as is often alleged? Wilson’s confident stories of threats, bribes, theft and influence suddenly evaporate. ‘It would be rash to say yes – both for lack of evidence and because it might be dangerous to probe too far.’ Such coyness in Moscow or Kiev might be understandable, though some courageous commentators continue to make the case against the authorities. Here it suggests serious questions about the way that Wilson has sifted through the evidence of conspiracies and manipulation that the book recounts.

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