Russian propaganda, good and bad
May 1st 2008
Shunning criticism is less good than refuting it
WAS the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 a sinister western plot? Many Russians, particularly those close to the Kremlin, say so, and a new book called “Orange Webs” tries to confirm that view. It is the first piece of work by the new “Institute of Democracy and Co-operation”, which aims to provide Russian answers to the West’s democracy-promotion efforts.
The new institute’s founders say it will open offices in New York and Paris, but to date it does not even have a website. “Orange Webs” has not yet been formally published, though extracts have been quoted on the website of Russia Today, a pro-Kremlin television channel.
But the question of how to deal with the new outfit is already a tricky one. Some Kremlin critics look forward to having new opponents to engage with. Others think that the new venture is so ludicrous that it is better ignored.
That would be a mistake. Weaknesses in Western political systems—whether gerrymandering in America or the scandalous extent of phoney postal voting in Britain—are numerous and deplorable. If outside criticisms are wrong, they can be refuted. If they are true, then they are a spur to action.
Communist propaganda during the cold war encouraged Western leaders to think harder about their decisions. The lack of an overt ideological challenge since then has led to complacency and smugness. It is hard to argue that Western politics has become healthier over the past two decades.
But the real point is a bigger one. The main argument made by the Kremlin so far is not based on the theoretical advantages of “sovereign democracy” (or whatever the current label is). Instead, it is on the practical results.
Put crudely, it goes like this: Russia was not ready for democracy in the 1990s. The result was chaos and looting, perhaps encouraged by the West, which wanted to weaken Russia. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has restored the balance, bringing back stability and self-respect. Growth and living standards have rocketed; most Russians are delighted.
Disproving that involves arguing, among other things, that the prosperity of the past eight years is superficial, and that Mr Putin’s popularity is the result of rigged elections and a controlled media. Reasonable people can disagree about these issues.
But when the Kremlin shifts its attack to issues of “democracy” (ie, political freedom and the rule of law) things may become trickier than its propagandists realise. If the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was really just a stunt pulled by clever outsiders, why have the results proved so durable? Nobody is trying to put the deposed Leonid Kuchma back in power.
Politics may still be chaotic and corrupt, but they are also open and unpredictable and largely settled by the electorate. Contrast that with the mystifying question of the future relationship between Mr Putin and his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, which is being settled by backstairs intrigue rather than the voters’ verdict.
Any attempt to elevate the Russian system is likely to seem highly unconvincing to an outside audience. Alexander Shokhin, a reformer in the 1990s and now an ardent supporter of the Kremlin, told the Financial Times last week that Russia was “an island of stability”, with a “single programme for economic development until 2020”.
By contrast, he said scornfully: “We don't know the name of the next US president, let alone the policies which are going to be developed,” he said. If the new institute criticises open elections and a free press, people will laugh at it. And if it praises them, people will ask: “Why not in Russia too?”
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Russian propaganda, good and bad