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Analysis & Opinion
04.12.09 Can “Conservatism” Breed Modernization?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, Andrei Liakhov, Sergei Roy, Srdja Trifkovic, Vladimir Belaeff

At its latest congress in St. Petersburg, the United Russia Party proclaimed “Russian conservatism” as its official guiding ideology, while President Dmitry Medvedev urged the party to “modernize” in order to remain relevant to the president’s modernization agenda. Will United Russia’s pledge of conservatism serve as a platform for Russia’s modernization? Is this newly found ideology a “conservatism of the innovative kind”? Will United Russia be able to serve as Medvedev’s agent of change? Or has the president already hinted that he harbors no such hope?

At the congress, Boris Gryzlov, the head of United Russia’s higher council, stated that "Conservatism is capable of securing the modernization of the country." But this statement sounds somewhat odd, while a careful look at the party’s political platform reveals a doctrine that is geared toward maintaining the status quo, rather than instituting change.

Here is a quote from the party’s program: "The party is guided by the principle of ‘preserve and augment;’ and ‘in creating the new we preserve the best’." Boris Gryzlov also said that "Russian conservatism is an ideology of stability and development, of the constant creative renewal of society without stagnation or revolution. This means reliance on spiritual traditions, our great history, Russian culture, and the interests of the majority of the country's citizens."

This appears to be incongruent with Medvedev’s scolding assessment of the status quo and his call for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s way of life and mentality. “In the 21st century, our country again needs comprehensive modernization.... Instead of muddled actions dictated by nostalgia and prejudices, we will pursue a sensible foreign and domestic policy," Medvedev said in his State of the Nation Address on November 12. “It has to be admitted that in the past years we did not do enough for ourselves to resolve the problems inherited from the past.

We have never broken with our primitive economic structure or demeaning dependence on raw materials. The habit of living on exports continues to hold back innovation-driven development. But we can no longer delay it. We need to start the modernization and technological updating of the entire manufacturing sector. It is my conviction that this is a question of our country's survival in the modern world."

As the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily editorialized, “the fundamental message of Medvedev's reforms is the impossibility of standing still. The message is both political renewal and the rejection of the old methods of managing the economy.” But where does United Russia’s conservatism fit in here?

It is true that conservatism makes sense as the party’s ideology. United Russia’s electorate is indeed conservative and has something to preserve and protect. As the principal player in Russian politics, the United Russia party lacks material incentives to modernize and radically disrupt the status quo that brings its members power and money. So where does Medvedev’s modernization fit in here?

It is true that in other countries, conservative parties and governments were often forces of radical change and modernization (Ronald Reagan’s GOP or Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in the early 1980s, or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet). Conservative ideology, when combined with free markets and a smaller government, does seem to work for modernization. But will it work in Russia?

Will United Russia’s pledge of conservatism serve as a platform for Russia’s modernization? Is this newly found ideology a “conservatism of the innovative kind”? Will United Russia be able to serve as Medvedev’s agent of change? Or has the president already hinted that he harbors no such hope? Could the difference between Medvedev’s platform of modernization and United Russia’s call for “preserving the status quo” be a sign of a growing rift between Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, United Russia’s official leader? Can United Russia’s conservatism breed modernization?

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Director, Center for International Affairs, the Rockford Institute, Rockford, Il:

It may be debatable whether, and to what extent, United Russia is guided by the principle of “preserving and augmenting,” inspired by “the constant creative renewal of society without stagnation or revolution,” and reliant on “spiritual traditions, our great history, Russian culture, etc.” It is clear, however, that the principles themselves are conditio sine qua non of Russia’s very survival, as it faces deep hostility from the postmodern, post-national West, and from a dozen pre-modernly Russophobic Western clients, from Tallinn in the north to Tbilisi in the south. The identity-saving function of those principles is far more important for Russia’s future than their ability to foster economic reform.

For almost two decades, Russia has been trying to rearticulate its goals and define its policies in terms of traditional national interests. The old Soviet dual-track policy of having “normal” relations with the West, on the one hand, while seeking to subvert it, on the other, gave way to naive attempts in the 1990s to forge a “partnership.”

By contrast, the early 1990s witnessed the blossoming of America’s strident attempt to assert its “benevolent global hegemony.” This ambition created an ironic role-reversal, and it precluded any suggestion that Russia has legitimate interests, externally or internally. The justification for the project was as ideological, and the implications were as revolutionary, as anything concocted by Grigory Zinoviev or Leon Trotsky in their heyday.

That a “truly democratic” Russia must be subservient to the “propositionalist” matrix is still axiomatic on both sides of the Atlantic. “Democracy” thus defined has to do with one’s status in the ideological pecking order, rather than the expressed will of the electorate: in line with the Leninist dictum that the moral value of any action is determined by its contribution to the march of history. To wit, Putin’s or Medvedev’s approval ratings are cited as mere “proof” of their populist demagoguery.

The reshaping of Russia’s soul is the final stop. In this respect any gap between the Sorosite “left” and neocon “right,” between Washington and Brussels, is a matter of degree rather than kind. Here is one crusade the Jihadists support with glee. It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.

In this context, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, stated something remarkable a year ago, in an interview with the Russia Today television channel: “There is a new civilization emerging in the Third World that thinks that the white, northern hemisphere has always oppressed it and must therefore fall at its feet now. . . . If the northern civilization wants to protect itself, it must be united: America, the European Union, and Russia. If they are not together, they will be defeated one by one.”

Rogozin’s statement reflects an understanding of the commonalities shared by Europeans and their overseas descendants – an understanding as accurate as it is odious to the Western elite class. It indicates that, in some important ways rooted in the respect for those “conservative principles,” Russia is freer than the West: no American or EU diplomat of his rank would dare make such a statement (even if he shared the sentiment), or hope to remain in his post after making it.

Western multiculturalists oppose any notion of “our” physical or cultural space that does not belong to everyone. They deny that we should have a special affinity for any particular country, nation, or culture, but demand the imposition of our preferences upon the whole world. They celebrate any random m?lange of mutually disconnected multitudes as somehow uniquely “diverse” and therefore virtuous.

Ideologues will deny it, but in the decades to come Europe, Russia, and America will be in similar mortal peril. In the end there will be no grand synthesis, no cross-fertilization, and certainly no peaceful coexistence, between the North and the Third World. There will be “kto kogo” (who gets whom).

The short-term prospects for fostering a sense of unity among Europeans – Eastern, Western, and American – are dim and will remain so for as long as the regimes of all the major states of the West are controlled by an elite class hostile to its own roots and cultural fruits.

Rogozin’s position on the essential dilemma of our time coincides with what I have repeatedly advocated over the past decade: a paradigm shift in the West that would pave the way for a genuine Northern Alliance of Russia, Western Europe and North America, as all three face similar existential threats in the decades ahead. I don’t know if this alliance will materialize. I do know that, if it doesn’t, our civilization will be in peril. To prevent that outcome, it is essential to (re)affirm the principle of “preserve and augment,” to be inspired by “the constant creative renewal of society without stagnation or revolution,” and to rely on the spiritual traditions, history and culture of the extended “Western” family, from Anchorage to Vladivostok.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

The very words "conservative" and "modernization" in the context of Russian politics and society are not readily apparent. Political labels that are widely used in describing politics and policies in many countries simply don't work in Russia. When applied to Russia, such characterizations seem to confuse more than they explain.

In most instances, "conservatives" are those who favor the preservation of the status quo. This definition begs the question: "What is the relevant period to be preserved?" The 1970s? The 1990s? One simply has to guess from context.

For United Russia to assert that Russian conservatism is its official ideology borders on the absurd. To be more accurate, it is absurd. No matter what devices they use, the leaders of United Russia are apparently merely trying to preserve their elite status as the "party of power" – holding onto power does not constitute a formal belief system.

The phrase "to preserve and augment" when used without specifics is a meaningless slogan. The statement "in creating the new, we preserve the best" constitutes merely words without any discernible meaning. It is not always desirable to maintain social and political stability. For example, if the existing system is "unjust," and fails to provide the relevant population with a comfortable standard of living, efforts to prevent societal and political change, including through the use of violence, are not desirable.

In my view, Russia faces an existential crisis. The situation in the Caucasus demonstrates that the state's territorial integrity is in jeopardy. Is it desirable to maintain the status quo? A large share of the Russian population is living in poverty -- is this a situation that the state should perpetuate? Such "status quo" situations are merely steps on the path to change and there is no guarantee that change will be an improvement.

Boris Gryzlov calls for greater reliance on Russian traditions, culture and history, which presumably would benefit "the majority of the country's citizens." Even assuming that it is possible to reach agreement as to what constitutes Russian "traditions," "culture" and "history," which I doubt, one wonders whether Gryzlov is familiar with the phrase the "tyranny of the majority." Has he ever read the Federalist Papers? It is a mistake to assume a consistency of views among those people who allegedly constitute the majority that Gryzlov apparently seeks to defend.

Modernization of the Russian state, the Russian economy, and Russian society are interdependent. They can only be accomplished effectively if there is a consensus with respect to the manner in which decisions are made and implemented.

Russia cannot modernize unless the state is willing to protect private property, provide a safety net for all members of society, and make officials accountable for upholding an agreed set of rules. These principles were followed by president Reagan and prime minister Thatcher, who were always careful not to fight against the will of the majority at all costs. While seemingly ideological, they were not radicals, though they did change the direction of their countries and permanently changed the political discourse.

Currently, much of the nostalgia for the Soviet times reveals the extent of the Russian population's amnesia. President Medvedev does not seem to suffer from this condition. Nonetheless, in the not too distant future the point will be reached where he cannot continue to use speeches as a means of testing public opinion without being regarded as a transitional figure.

Medvedev has procrastinated enough -- he has diagnosed that which afflicts Russian society, but unless he takes action he will probably face Nikita Khruschev's fate and Russia will enter a new period of stagnation reminiscent of the Leonid Brezhnev years.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Terms like “conservatism,” “free markets,” “overhaul,” “modernization,” “smaller government” are among the most imprecise in discourse about topics which by definition have a very diffuse meaning.

“Conservatism” does not always and everywhere mean “preservation of the status quo.” In Russia, the monarchy of Alexander II, by definition a conservative institution, modernized Russia in 1856 to 1881 with a very comprehensive packet of progressive reforms (the abolition of serfdom, updated municipal democracy, democratization of justice, civil service and education, elimination of advance censorship, etcetera). The clue to the success of this productive and peaceful modernization was its non-revolutionary substance, and the readiness of reformers to build thoughtfully and patiently. The program was executed over 25 years, and only the assassination of Alexander II by Jacobin terrorists stopped the process until the appearance of Sergey Witte and later Fyodor Stolypin. Lesson learned: Alexander II needed to institutionalize more extensively the system of “conservative liberalism” that guided his vision.
In America, “conservatism” and “smaller government” have meanings that relate to a very specific locus and time.

One should remember that Ronald Reagan’s “smaller government” paradigm applied only to U.S. federal institutions, which could be affected by the president of the United States. But American society is profoundly impacted by thick layers of 50 state and tens of thousands of municipal governments, in addition to federal agencies, so president Reagan’s “smaller government” was more of a campaign slogan than a truly realizable objective. As for “conservatism” in the American interpretation, the term nowadays is indeed semantically closer to “congealment” and maybe even “reaction.” This is specific to the current situation in America. But why must one assume that American semantics must apply to Russia and to Russia’s political vocabulary? Russia is definitely not America, and unlike words like “water,” “conservatism” does not have a precise and static meaning.

Medvedev’s call for modernization is perceived by some as a call for a kind of revolutionary change. This impression appears to be due to a prejudiced parsing of the message. There is no dispute that the Soviet legacy of Russia is in many areas grievously behind the times (not surprising, considering that Marxism was obsolescent, as far back as 100 years ago). There is a compelling need for a sustained, intelligent and well-executed program of upgrading many areas of the Russian economy and governance. However, the message in “Forward, Russia!” does not signify a proposal that contradicts conservatism, when one keeps in mind that the current modernization strategy proposes a timeline of 15 to 20 years (commensurate with the timeline of Alexander’s reforms, mentioned above.)

Regarding the Russian electorate, it should be noted that in all societies the mass of citizens is conservative. Revolutions are tools of politicized, numerically small social groups. A political organization seeking wide support will emphasize conservatism, especially if the society is in the process of improving well-being. In this context, Gryzlov’s announcement of “conservatism” as the platform of United Russia is quite appropriate. After the 1990s it will be a long time before a platform of “great upheavals” will have significant political traction in Russia.

Does this “conservatism” contradict or doom “modernization” in Russia? Not necessarily, as the example of Alexander II proves. In fact, conservatism, if defined and applied appropriately, can provide the very necessary reality check to the many wilder-eyed schemes that surface from time to time. True, that those who quote Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” paradigm may be disappointed, but Russia’s 20th century experience demonstrates that it is much more difficult to build than to destroy. “Creative destruction” is not really a suitable model for Russia’s modernization.

Sergei Roy, Editor,

At its latest congress, the United Russia party opted for an ideology described as the Russian version of conservatism. Its leaders explained the gist of it in the following terms: the party is all for the modernization of the country, but a modernization that proceeds against the background of political stability and without revolutions or Maoist “great leaps.” The party thus professes an ideology of the golden mean, one that combines badly needed change with stability and what prosperity has been achieved.

Undoubtedly this sort of talk will go down well with an electorate that still has vivid memories of radical liberals having a go at modernizing the country the monetarist way in the 1990s, with the resultant rack and ruin throughout the land. Indeed, the octogenarian section of this electorate has even more vivid memories of the Stalinist, far-from-conservative modernization of the 1930s, memories they have passed on to later generations.

With both repressive and liberal types of modernization discarded as unacceptable to the majority, the only type left is the conservative one. There are simply no other versions available, so United Russia’s choice was more or less preordained.

Party functionaries quote to good effect examples of conservative modernization carried out by Adenauer’s Christian Democrats in Germany, Gaullists in France, Thatcherite Tories in the UK, Reaganites in the United States, etc. It would be pleasant, of course, to hear of instances of conservative modernization in Russia in epochs more recent than those of Alexander III or Nicholas II but, alas, there aren’t any, which makes one wonder whether recent Western modernization experiences are at all applicable to Russia, where the turbulent 20th century has left us Russians in a situation that hardly compares with those in the abovementioned or any other countries.

Indeed, I have little quarrel with the ideology of conservative modernization per se, as an ideology in the abstract, on paper (except for the style of United Russia party documents, written in indigestible Bureaucratese). What I have trouble with is the way the ideology applies to life in the raw, and whether it applies at all.

In each specific case, the question inevitably arises: what do we go for, change or stability? And we soon find that having an ideology that allows for either or both does not help at all, that it is not much better than a rhetorical exercise.

Consider one such specific case. Russia is now on the eve of what is known as the second wave of privatization, which promises to bring some $80 billion to the state coffers and thus reduce the budget deficit somewhat and even ease social pressures in the country badly hit by the world crisis. Good or bad? Surely that is good both in terms of social stability (a nice exercise in conservatism) and of modernization, since privatized companies are supposed to be better suited to modernization, being driven to it by competition.

That is the official, ideologically anointed view, but does it bear scrutiny? Not in my book. Take one such mega-company that is slated for privatization, Rosnano, headed by Anatoly Chubais, the guy who was behind the first, scandalously fraudulent wave of privatization. Created only recently, it is not yet a company in the proper sense, as it has not produced anything except talk to date. It is just a state-owned concern filled with state funds, and privatizing it in the name of modernization and/or conservatism means little else than Chubais and I don’t know who else laying their hands on a sizable chunk of the taxpayers’ money. To me, this looks like liberal privatization, take two. Take one, by the way, was described by some as the scam of the century, and I don’t see much difference here.
Having a fine-sounding ideology like conservatism is real nice, of course. Sadly, when the chips are down, another and much older ideology prevails: each man for himself, and God alone for all.

Andrei Liakhov, Partner, Withersworldwide LLC, London:

United Russia is a party of the nomenclature, much in the same way the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union was, save that it does not aspire to change the world. As such, its prime ideology and goal is survival of the nomenclature in its current form in power for as long as possible. This explains its selection of conservatism as its ideology of record.

However, its survival totally depends on its usefulness to, currently, the Duumvirate. It follows from that that the party will have to implement every policy which the Duumvirate deems appropriate. Given the nature of the party, it will always have a tendency to maintain the status quo. Thus any Duumvirate reform program will be implemented in the classic "one step forward two steps back" mode, which excludes any revolutionary/catastrophic change. There always will be a possibility that the most radical part of such reform program will get watered down by the party to the extent it will lose its initial purpose and drive.

This also means that the party will always vote for the evolutionary measures which will ensure its survival and the maximum degree of stability, the way the party understands it.

Although strikingly open when it comes to the assessment of the current situation, Medvedev’s recent speeches provide very little in terms of a reform program. Medvedev rarely (unlike Putin) goes beyond stating the obvious, like "we want to build a modern developed society with a strong, socially-conscious state." Such statements are fine for the headlines and the Western audience, but contain very little to build a concrete action plan on. It would seem that Medvedev is almost looking to the party to come up with such an action plan. The biggest problem he would be facing if he was to leave preparation of such an action plan to the party would be the danger that in its inbuilt tendency not to change at any cost, the party could consciously or unconsciously sabotage his policies. To prevent this from happening, the other part of the Duumvirate was assigned to supervise the party and "kick its butt into shape."

This seems to follow the scenario of other conservative reformers like Thatcher and Pinochet, where the party machine was used firstly to implement new economic policies, and once these were launched, the experience accumulated in pursuing them was used to achieve certain, clearly defined but relatively limited political goals. The difference with Thatcherism is that in Russia, the scale of political reform required to create a modern society exceeds any political tasks set for and/or achieved by the Thatcher, Reagan and/or other Western conservative reformers of the late 1970s to early 1980s.

It would seem from everything Medvedev said recently that he sees United Russia and its leader as one of the cornerstones of his reform program, however it is also clear that United Russia is incapable of being the only (or the principal) agent of change. That is clearly understood by the Duumvirate, and the fact that Putin is not a party member is probably the strongest indication of that understanding. It leaves Putin as a party whip quite a lot of room to push the party into doing what is required by the Duumvirate, and he can use other levers to pursue these policies, even contrary to the party's position, wherever the Duumvirate thinks the party may be an obstacle to change.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Just because a party calls itself conservative does not mean that it was or is such. The George Bush Senior administration was conservative, but his son's two terms were reactionary if not radical.

United Russia is a conservative party and as the Kremlin's lapdog, is incapable of modernizing the system. Unless someone grabs the system by the scruff of the neck like Mikhail Gorbachev did (and it took years to do it), this current political system is incapable of reform. What drives it is what drove Brezhnev's stagnation: greed and desire to hold onto power at all costs. Conservatism is sadly not Russia's answer, and the party can talk all it wants, but it is sabotaging all hopes for genuine modernization.
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