Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Janus Look
Does Russia need a Strong Man?

Sam Vaknin

Because I would not stop for death,
He kindly stopped for me:
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality.

(Emily Dickinson)

She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody
there to shoot her every minute of her life.

(Flannery O'Connor - "A Good Man is Hard to Find")     

So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.

(Winston Churchill)     

-Seven Deadly Sins-

Commerce without ethics;
Pleasure without conscience;
Politics without principle;
Knowledge without character;
Science without humanity;
Wealth without work;
Worship without sacrifice.

(Words of Mahatma Gandhi inscribed at his Samadhi [grave])     

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have
those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

(Mark Twain)     

The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let's see. Don't tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything, unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.

(Homer Simpson)     

Even the most careful and informed perusal of Western policy papers and official announcements leaves one baffled. What is it the West prefers? Does it plump for an affable though ineffectual and constantly inebriated Yeltsin-style leader or would it rather have a thinly disguised authoritarian like Vladimir Putin?

The dilemma seems to be between anarchic democracy and authoritarian rule of law and order. The former agrees with get-rich-quick tycoons and bleeding-heart liberals - the latter with foreign investors and weapons dealers (often one and the same). In Russia, what is good for business often goes against the grain of old-fashioned liberalism.

Or so the common wisdom goes. The eternally raging debate is reminiscent of the bogus "Asian values" intellectual construct. Asians, it was claimed, are "not built" for Western-style democracy which is incompatible with their values and way of life. They are more amenable to avuncular authoritarian guidance coupled with sustained economic growth. It took a bursting bubble of gargantuan proportions to debunk that myth. The same has been conveniently said about Africans (by the most rapacious African dictators, needless to add) - and about the Russians.

A weakness for strong men

Russians need a "Strong Man" such as Stalin - the man of iron, recently reappraised and praised by Putin in a speech in St. Petersburg. They are an unruly lot, prone to vodka and petty crime. They fall easy prey to felony organized from the top or to the grassroots home-made variety of Cosa Nostra. They are disorganized and emotionally labile. They are in dire need of micro-management and cruel deterrent leadership.

This pet theory of kremlinologists and Kremlin-dwellers is enthusiastically endorsed by businessmen subjected to the vagaries of the Wild East that Russia has become. The restoration of property rights and a semblance of law and order at whatever bloody cost is likely to be welcomed by the long suffering populace itself. Nostalgia for Stalin is rife.

Western governments, publicly committed as they are to human rights and civil society, make polite noises whenever the "Strong Man" thesis is advanced. The Russian people - goes the feeble opposition - are perfectly capable of maintaining a functioning, law-abiding democracy. That this is not the current case is the result of "transition" - that fabled, all-explaining beast. It is a tad more difficult to reason why lawful democracy has never occurred in Russia in the preceding millennium - but this is conveniently ignored. The history of Russia seems to have started in 1991.

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The truth is more prosaic and rather sad. Democracy and law are to no Russian's liking. They contravene the vested interests of one and all. Venal politicians, gold-chained mobsters, sunglassed, square-jawed FSB (Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti - Federal Security Service) agents, Georgian and Chechen pimps and smugglers, money-laundering banks, import-export enterprises (importing illicit goods and exporting hard currency and stolen art) - all share a common vision of an increasingly savage territory.

The urban parasites: the moneychangers, the small-time traders, the club operators, the hookers - all thrive on lawlessness. The law enforcement officers - policemen, judges, lawyers - fattened by bribes and confiscated property have vested capital in the disintegration of the social fabric.

The government - a crime organization with its armed forces - competes with other criminals on turf and traffic. The media is owned by the former or the latter and is an instrument in furthering crime or covering up for it. Thus, journalists are propagators of the very plague they are supposed to cure.

Everyone on the make

The West would do well to realize that the interests of individuals and those of society are incompatible in Russia. The more dysfunctional the hospitals - the more bribes collected by nurses and doctors to provide decent care. The more clogged up the courts - the richer judges get by juggling schedules. The more burdened and dilapidated the universities - the more cash and sex substitute for learning. The more bloodied the streets - the higher the price of private protection afforded by policemen and criminals alike.

Even the humblest citizen engages in daily misdemeanors, in petty theft, in forgery and tax evasion, in egregious deceit and double accounting. He cheats his employer, she cheats her husband, they cheat their neighbor. Malfeasance and corruption are all-pervasive, they permeate the membranes of every social cell and cannot be gotten rid of unless the body is. They are a way of life, a state of mind, a reflex, an instinct, an intuition, a language, the grammar and the syntax of a mass pathology, a life deformed.

A Strong Man in government will only monopolize crime, as Stalin did. He will extinguish all private competition in the pursuit of subornation and illegality. He will both legalize and legitimize reality and accept that which is inevitable in Russia, this vast, perverted continent. Crime is order of a kind, it is a law unto itself and it is often the most democratic of institutions. To everything there is a price and place, to everyone according to his needs, justice is swift and often irrevocable. The tariffs of subornation are well-known, the territories demarcated, the equilibrium maintained.

It is a precarious social order - but order all the same. It is the law of lawlessness - but all the same a law. It is a co-optition (co-operation and competition) inside an oligopoly. The people are both consumers and producers of the perversity that is Russia in the 21st century - and Putin can only go along with it as have all his predecessors in the last one thousand years.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 27 March 2000

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Sam Vaknin's articles for Central Europe Review are archived here.

Sam Vaknin's Website is here.



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