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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Struggle For Politics

Washington, 21 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Many post-Soviet countries are finding it extraordinarily difficult to overcome a deep-seated hostility they inherited from communist times to any political struggle rooted in interests rather than ideology.

But unless they are able to do so, many of them may find it almost impossible to develop as civil societies with democratic political systems. And instead, they may slip backwards on both counts.

As Michael Urban points out in his recent book, "The Rebirth of Politics in Russia," the Soviet system was profoundly "anti-political." That is, the communists did everything they could to prevent the emergence and clash of interest groups typical of civil society.

Instead, the communist party operated on the basis of a fundamentally corrupt system of clan-like organizations within the party nomenklatura, the system of appointments that allowed party leaders to coopt and control interests that would normally compete.

And even the dissident movement that arose to oppose the communist system, and to which many post-Soviet democrats trace their origins, did not so much challenge this anti-political attitude as to form a mirror image of it.

Denied the possibility of reaching out to interest groups by Soviet repression, the dissident movement tended to attack the system as a whole rather than advance the interests of a specific constituency.

And consequently, both the communists and the dissidents pursued a kind of either/or politics on the grand scale, one that was often emotionally satisfying to those who practiced it but seldom led to the kind of less exciting compromises that allow a political system to develop.

When the Soviet system collapsed, many assumed that politics there would rapidly evolve toward one based on interest groups and in which political parties reflect specific constituencies. But that has not happened.

As in Soviet times, few political figures have yet been able to reach out to specific interest group constituencies. And consequently, they have continued to rely on global rhetoric rather than the delivery of results to advance themselves.

And many presidents in these countries have played on the anti-political attitudes of the population to present all political choices in equally stark black-or-white terms and to build their own power at the expense of often fractious parliaments.

Some presidents in the post-communist countries have come to rely on clan structures that are analogous to those that existed in Soviet times.

While not based on a formal system of appointments as the nomenklatura was, the emerging clan system in many post-Soviet states does have a number of features in common with its communist predecessor.

It is based on personal ties rather than constituencies. It is not answerable to the public. And it is openly hostile to the representation of interests through political parties that seek to find agreements through compromise.

In those post-Soviet countries where the clan system is especially strong, civil society remains weak, and politics in the normal sense of representing interests and constituencies remains largely impossible.

Moreover, in those countries where the clans dominate political life, many people are increasingly cynical about the possibilities of democratic, interest-group based politics. Instead, those who stay focused on politics often follow those with ideological agendas.

And such developments have led many in these countries and abroad to doubt whether a genuine democratic politics will ever emerge.

But despite the problems that those struggling for politics in this sense now face, there are three reasons for optimism.

First, in many of these countries society is becoming ever more diverse and that diversity is demanding representation even if few political leaders have either the understanding or the skills to respond.

Second, the problems facing the entire political class are now so great that presidents and parliaments often are forced to cooperate and compromise, a pattern that will also help to institutionalize a more normal politics.

And third, in many of these countries competitive elections are leading to a new class of politician, one that seeks to represent constituencies rather than wants to express a commitment to one or another set of ideas.

Consequently, the struggle for politics in the post-Soviet states is likely to generate some victories as well as produce some defeats in the years ahead.