Saturday, August 08, 2009

The New Cold War

When Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia, he was certainly not a well-hailed individual.

Previously, Putin had served as an advisor for the Mayor of St Petersburg. Despite a potentially career-breaking scandal, Putin continued to climb through the upper echelons of the Mayor's office before moving on to Moscow after an unsuccessful attempt to win the Mayor's office for himself.

In 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin as a deputy Prime Minister of Russia and, later on in the very day of this appointment, made him Prime Minister. Within four months, Putin would be President.

Putin ensured continued political successes by uniting a broad collection of small political parties -- post-Soviet Russian politics have been marked by the spread of tiny political parties supported by wealthy sponsors -- into the formidable United Russia party. While never formally becoming a member of the party, he did take full advantage of it.

With support of individuals such as Dmitri Medvedev, Putin wielded Presidential and legislative power with an iron fist. Political rivals and critics in the business world were ruthlessly marginalized.

When the Russian Constitution disqualified Putin from continuing his reign as President (the Russian Constitution limits Presidents to serving two consecutive terms), Putin hand-picked Medvedev to succeed him.

Underlying the Medvedev/Putin regime is an ideology that has come to be described as Sovereign Democracy.

This ideology of "sovereign democracy" is built on a foundation of historical revisonism, xenophobia, anti-westernism, Russian exceptionalism, and political relativism.

Vladimir Putin is widely famed for his comments describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century. Political and historical relativism have been at the heart of Putin's efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of the Soviet Union, comparing historical atrocities committed in the Soviet Union with historical deeds of other countries that often have little or no equivalence.

The idea is rather simple: whereas the governments of other countries have encouraged citizens to address past wrongdoings, Putin has insisted that Russia will never be made to feel ashamed of its past.

Putin's political organization has kept an arm's length distance from organizations that treat many of Russia's geographically closer adversaries -- such as Georgia -- in a xenophobic manner. Racial tensions are routinely stirred up by youth organizations that have come to be widely referred to as the Putin Youth -- an obvious, if sensational, play on the Hitler youth of Nazi Germany.

Putin has also consolidated his power by forever portraying Western countries as belligerent hypocrites. Putin and his party have interpreted the expansion of NATO into the former Eastern Bloc as an act of aggression against Russia, and they have not hesitated to share this idea with the Russian people.

The ideology of "Sovereign democracy" also stands on a notion of Russian exceptionalism that predates the Russian Czars. This notion is the ancient belief that Moscow is the "third Rome" that will stand as the last outpost and defender of the message of Jesus Christ. This idea permeated the Czarist period of Russian history. In fact, "Czar" is actually Russian shorthand for "Caesar".

Like with American foreign policy, this idea of Russian exceptionalism -- like American exceptionalism heavily influenced by religion, in this case the Russian Orthodox Church -- has led to an aggressive foreign policy. However, while the purpose of the aggressive American foreign policy tends to be the promotion of Americanized democracy, the purpose of an aggressive foreign policy is to eliminate the threats posed to Russia.

The Russian ideology of "sovereign democracy" has strengthened a political environment in which political processes exist not to decide who holds power, but to maintain incumbent's grip on power, and justify it.

Russia is not the only country in which this idea of "sovereign democracy" is being used to horde political power.

Leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have also adapted this notion of "sovereign democracy" within their own countries, and countries like Iran seem to be moving in the same direction.

As authors such as Edward Lucas have noted, Russia's economic and military strong-arm tactics are increasingly posing a potential threat to the Western World. He isn't alone in issuing this warning.

Gary Kasparov has also issued a dire warning about Vladimir Putin's iron grip on Russia. It is a warning that should not be ignored.

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