Left Alliance: Seminar on Change in Russia

The Russia network of the Finnish opposition party, Left Alliance, organised a seminar in May 2008 on Russia after the presidential handover. The seminar sought to find answers to the question, whether there will be any change in Russia under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

The moderator of the discussion, veteran MP Esko-Juhani Tennilä, introduced the guest speakers, both long-time researchers of Russia at Helsinki University: Arto Luukkanen from the Renvall Institute and Tapani Kaakkuriniemi from the Aleksanteri Institute. An audio recording [in Finnish, 64MB] of the seminar was made available on Left Alliance’s web site.

MP Tennilä opened the discussion with a diplomatic question: “Finnish expertees on Russia is facing a real challenge. […] Do we really know what is happening in our neighbouring country?” I cannot but second this question and stress its urgency, not only for Finland.

In Tennilä’s opinion, Russia is well on its way to returning to normalcy. While traveling through Russia as part of the delegation of the Finnish Parliament’s Comittee for the Future, Tennilä was convinced that Russia’s political parties are shaping up. He stressed the need for a credible leftist alternative in Russian politics.

Tennilä then turned to the question of interparty relations between Finland and Russia. He lamented the fact that Finnish political parties seem to have no relations to any political party in Russia, except for Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s National Coalition, which has long-time relations with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

In Tennilä’s words, [the lack of interparty relations] is something that needs to be rectified, “so that we would at least know what is really happening in Russia.” He went on to criticise the fact that the Left Alliance is mostly dealing with marginal groups, given that the picture one gets is not always accurate. “We need more contacts, more information,” Tennilä concluded.

Arto Luukkanen [.ppt] from the Renvall Institute took the floor, bringing into question, whether Russian studies was focused on Russia as it really is or the way we all want it to be. Luukkanen is a University Lecturer in Russian and East European Studies at the Renvall Institute, focusing on Russian politico-cultural and religious history.

Luukkanen stated flat out that “Russia is a democracy: the parliament and the president are chosen through elections.” In his words, democracy works “per se”, but Russian democracy is “not exactly the same as what we think of it in the West.” In effect, he was repeating the argument about Russia’s “Third Way.”

Luukkanen took a short look at how the Russian polity had developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his words, there was a “brotherhood” that had the task of maintaning the empire, keeping the federation together — the FSB, which feared the collapse of Russia herself. This brotherhood gained power under Vladimir Putin.

The goal of Putin’s policies was, in Luukkanen’s words, a “functioning classical capitalistic system.” To achieve this objective, the presidential administration undertook authoritarian reforms, including regaining control of Russia’s regions. The idea was to prevent the collapse of the Russian Federation, Luukkanen said.

Luukkanen recalled the words of Zhao Ziyang, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party during the popular unrest at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, who said that “political reforms must proceed hand in hand with economic reforms.” This is not what has happened either in China or in Russia, however.

In both countries, the power elite (in Russia, the “securocracy”) has concentrated all power and money to itself. Luukkanen pointed out that real, lasting change in the way a society functions requires that thousands and thousands of people take an active part in making that change happen.

The result of the concentration of power is a regime that is fearful of the general populace, which feels the urge to tighten its grip ever further, and which tries to export its problems, Luukkanen said. He pointed out that the popular support that the regime in Kremlin enjoys is not genuine, but manufactured.

Be it as it may, Luukkanen believes newly-elected president Dmitry Medvedev is really trying to reform Russia. He thinks that Medvedev still has some ideals left and a willingness to push for reform. Luukkanen has written quite extensively about Medvedev and reforms (e.g. for the Pan-Europe Institute).

Luukkanen believes Medvedev and Putin are playing “good cop, bad cop.” In his words, Russia cannot be reformed without state authority; reform has to be state-led, if it is ever going to happen. The great reforms of Czar Alexander II turned Russia from a patrimonial country that was the property of one man into a state that works in the interest of all Russians, Luukkanen stated.

In concluding his presentation, Luukkanen expressed his confidence in the Russian people, especially the middle class, and its ability to change the country for the better. He stressed that Russians are not predestined to live in squalor and misery. One may ask, however, does he think that Russians are predestined to suffer under authoritarianism?

Tapani Kaakkuriniemi [.ppt], lecturer and researcher at Helsinki University’s Aleksanteri Institute and Director of the institute’s master’s programme network, began his presentation by looking at the state of Russian studies in Europe. In the Baltic States and Poland, there is little neutral, matter-of-fact expertees on Russia, he said. This is something that Finland should focus on.

Looking at Russia’s party political system, Kaakkuriniemi pointed out that political parties in Russia do not sit well on the traditional left-right axis. In fact, the division into Left and Right does not exist in Russia, he stated. Even the ruling United Russia party is like the French “Comité du salut publique” — not a party but a coalition of the power elite.

Political parties in Russia are still very much leader-focused, Kaakkuriniemi said. Parties do not engage actively in mobilising the populace and brining in new rank-and-file members. Management structures are vertical. There is a clear distinction — a rift line — between parties of power and actual opposition parties, he explained.

Pressed for time, Kakkuriniemi cut his presentation short. Commenting on human rights issues, he said Russia faces several problems related to the right to vote, freedom to congregate, freedom to organise, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and the question of alternative instead of military service.

However, having recounted all these basic societal and political problems, Kaakkuriniemi went on to pose the question: What are the criteria by which one should judge Russia? How about the universal criteria as defined, for instance, in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and any other international convention Russia has ratified?

At the risk of seeming egocentric, let me quote my own commentary on the subject:

It seems that Finns have stressed Russia’s uniqueness for so long that we have begun to believe in it ourselves. The end result of this is that the average Finn has a very hazy knowledge of our eastern neighbour; even those who have visited Russia only see what they want to see.

Many are simply unable to regard Russia with common sense, according to the same human standards that we regard other states and cultures. […] By stressing Russia’s uniqueness, we are, in fact, lending support to the development of authoritarianism that lies behind the troubles Russia is facing today.

Kerkko Paananen

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