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Strong Leader, Weak State

“We have to admit that we failed to recognize the complexity and danger of the processes going on in our country and the world as a whole,” Mr. Putin said, who spoke for 10 minutes, standing alone in front of Russia’s flag and a wood-paneled backdrop. “At any rate, we failed to react to them adequately. We demonstrated our weakness, and the weak are beaten.”

Mr. Putin did not enumerate Russia’s failings, but he echoed a feeling of helplessness and fear that has shaken the country, demanding, as many here have, that security and law-enforcement agencies work more efficiently to counter the threat of terrorism. He also suggested that Russian society itself needed to develop to succeed in the fight.

“Events in other countries prove that terrorists meet the most effective rebuff where they confront not only the power of the state, but also an organized and united civil society,” he said.~ The New York Times [1]

Mr. Putin has frequently met with little but scorn in the Western media, because he is reputed to not only be a strongman but a sort of neo-Stalinist dictator and would-be “totalitarian.” These last charges are ridiculous and inaccurate, not least because the Russian government could not begin to impose its will in such a fashion even in the central regions of Russia. Yet the last several years have demonstrated fairly clearly why Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism, whatever its flaws, has been both welcomed and needed in a country where state institutions are all but non-existent: where the state is pitifully weak and ineffective, the man in charge of government must and will act in ways that would regarded as autocratic in American circumstances, but which are the minimum necessary to prevent social and political fragmentation in his country.

Yet Mr. Putin now seems to be encouraging and calling for the strengthening of civil society. I submit that he has not given up supporting a strong, authoritarian-style government, but now sees civil society as an ally in increasing the power of the government vis-a-vis separatists and terrorists. Two things emerge from this: the cultivation of civil society is vital to the tremendous voluntary mobilisation of a population in times of crisis, and civil society is also the vehicle by which the people are incorporated into the state generally and it is the way in which they are made subservient to the goals of the government. In other words, civil society may indeed make a state more resilient and secure, but it also sacrifices liberty from government.

This is because a civil society conditions a people to believe that its interests and the interests of its government are generally one and the same, even when they may not be. Thus ordinary people identify with “our” troops, even when those soldiers are engaged in a mission unauthorised by any representative and sometimes without the knowledge of the people–the presumption, which the Founders did not share, is that “we” are all on the same side, aiming at the same goals and seeking the same common good.

The resilient response of Americans or Spaniards following the gruesome terrorist attacks on their countries stems from the frankly ideological conviction that those attacks were not only somehow an attack on all people in the country, but that those attacks were an attempt to cripple or wound a certain understanding of the national way of life. It is significant that the major attacks in the United States and Spain targeted centralisations of power and wealth on the one hand and timed the other to disrupt national elections, whereas the attacks in Russia, even those in Moscow, have all been aimed at vulnerable targets of opportunity with no particular political symbolism or timing evident in them.

In spite of official federalism in the United States and a conscious decentralisation of government in Spain, both America and Spain remain far more consolidated and centralised psychologically and socially than Russia has been, and Russian government has not developed in a similar fashion because the Russian character does not readily submit to authorities but must be compelled, precisely because Russians are far more dedicated to personal freedom in a way that western Europeans and Americans have never properly understood. However, in an era where states are already vulnerable to transnational threats of a relatively new kind, civil society can serve as an additional layer of protection, and also an additional buffer to absorb responsibility and blame. President Putin has begun to learn, perhaps, that he may be as strong and resourceful a leader as might want to be, but that his sole rule exposes him to considerable blame when things go awry.

Because Americans have come to identify so strongly with their own government, in a pernicious way the very strength of American civil society allows the government to avoid facing its responsibilities and failed policies. We can see this in the nonsensical claim that the American government did not bring attacks down upon us through its foolhardy interventionism in the Near East. “They hate us for our freedom,” we were told again and again, and the frightening thing is that most Americans believe this at some level, because the genuinely patriotic majority has been taught to think of our government and the “expansion” of liberty as being two sides of the same coin. As untrustworthy as Americans believe the government to be generally, in every specific instance most Americans are only too happy to trust the government. We can also see the government’s shifting or evasion of responsibility when no one in a position of authority, save George Tenet, was removed from office after 9/11 (and Tenet only went years later for other reasons), and again no individual has been blamed for the intelligence “failures” (read distortions) leading to the Iraq war.

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But back to Russia for a moment. Most observers of Russia are well aware that Russian state institutions and civil society are relatively weak. We can see this weakness in the ready recognition by ordinary Russians that their government has failed them after the disastrous siege in Beslan in North Ossetia. Of course, the government has failed, just as the American government failed so completely on September 11. The difference seems to be that Americans refuse to punish, indeed cannot even conceive of punishing, the administration on whose watch the attacks occurred, while the Russians may finally have grown weary of ongoing pronouncements of success from Moscow. President Putin has accomplished a great deal in his time in office, but the failure of the government can be no one else’s but his own. Frankly, such a government, even a weak one, inevitably possesses more integrity than our own, where unprecedented failures may be attributed to “process” and “groupthink” and “government culture.”

The other vitally important difference between Chechen terrorism and the terrorism our country suffered is this: the second phase of the Chechen war was absolutely not chosen by the Russian government, Chechnya is as much an integral part of Russia as any part of the present-day United States is to our own country, and therefore far more important to Russia than anything for which Americans are fighting and dying today, and there is an existing and viable alternative to Chechen terrorism in Chechnya in the recent relatively free and fair elections. In contrast, the terrorist attacks against our country were precipitated by the senseless interventions in the affairs of nations in conflicts that were not our direct concern, and Americans have nothing essential or vital at stake in perpetuating or broadening this conflict. The fact that our civil society has completely failed to recognise or seriously entertain this interpretation, except at the political margins, demonstrates the real dangers and problems of cultivating a vibrant civil society, which is the cultivation of a conformist and servile mentality.

Russian liberals (people who are usually either oligarchs or their running dogs, plus a bevy of social democratic stooges working in the interests of the EU and US) berate the Russian government for hampering the development of civil society, which has usually meant squelching their self-interested policy prescriptions and prosecuting their criminal behaviour in the private sector. The standard code for strengthening civil society usually involves some invocation of “freedom,” but I hope that I have shown that there is actually less freedom from government in a strong civil society than in a weak one. More important than the actions of the Russian government in hampering the development of civil society is the disenchantment of most Russians with these prominent proponents of civil society (whom they regard properly as crooks and opportunists for the most part) and the individualist qualities, if you will, of the Russian character. Russians are undoubtedly tired of the chronic insecurity in their country, but the changes that would need to be made to transform popular attitudes to fashion a strong civil society will take decades to take hold, assuming that this is the route that Russians wish to take. Until then, we will unfortunately see more of this seesaw between mindless Chechen violence and Russian retaliation.