Saturday, March 3, 2012

Putin's mistake: playing tsar and taking Russians for granted...sound familiar?

By Anya Schmemann, CFR.org, from CNN website, March 2, 2012

Editor's Note: Anya Schmemann is director of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Anya Schmemann, CFR.org
Since the outburst of Russian disapproval in December over reported fraud in the parliamentary elections, Putin has shored up his base, activated his impressive political machine, reminded Russians of the chaos of the 90s, and pulled out the well-worn “foreign interference” card. He has kept his opponents marginalized and divided, and they have been largely invisible.
While Putin cruises to victory, much on the surface of Russian politics looks the same as it was. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that nothing has changed. The shifts occurring deep within Russian society may take time to alter the political landscape, but they are fundamental and will have far-reaching consequences.
Although he remains powerful, Putin’s aura of invincibility has been punctured and his legitimacy seriously undermined. For their part, Russians are learning how to be active participants in their own polity.
Across Russia, people of all ages, backgrounds, and income levels joined demonstrations, commented on blogs and in social media, and have made their voices heard. While the numbers in the streets have been remarkable, most striking has been a fundamental change in attitude.
At a recent demonstration, one participant noted that Russians were trying to remember what it was like to be citizens and not subjects. He said (as quoted in the Washington Post), “I hope that year by year our Russian people will make themselves masters of their own fate.”
Russians have very little experience with “citizenship” in the Western sense. Under the Russian monarchy, they were subjects of the tsar and were only awarded some of the rights of citizens in the 1860s. Efforts to shape a modern concept of Russian citizenship came to an abrupt halt with the Russian revolution.
Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians have been citizens in name, but have not had much opportunity - or desire - to exercise their rights as citizens.
Citizenship, in the classical definition of the concept, confers rights as well as responsibilities on both the government and the people. The state exists for the benefit of its citizens and must respect their political, civil, and social rights. For their part, citizens should be actively involved in civic and government affairs.
Putin’s miscalculation was to play tsar and take the Russian people’s support for granted. When he cavalierly announced that he planned to be president again, he awakened in many Russians a sense of righteous indignation.
Many of the demonstrators say that while they do not want a revolution, they do want a more accountable and responsive government. They seek an end to corruption, cronyism, and repressiveness. Like all citizens everywhere, they want to know that they matter.
Putin will win this election and will likely serve his six-year term. He may even win the next term. But the Russian people have demonstrated that they are ready to challenge the status quo and that they are finally yearning to be involved citizens.
Tsar Vladimir will find, as have many monarchs and strongmen in world history, that a country with active citizens is not so easily manipulated.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Anya Schmemann.
"Putin’s miscalculation was to play tsar and take the Russian people’s support for granted."
Is this sentence, quoted from above, not one that we could apply to many current situations around the world, where a leader makes a (mis)calculation "to play tsar" and "to take the people's support for granted"...and learn only too late that it was, in fact, a MIS-calculation.
It could apply to the Libyan dictator, the Syrian dictator, the Russian dictator, the Yemeni dictator, the Tunisian dictator, and without doubt several smaller "dictators" particularly in African countries, one of whom is currently standing trial in the Hague.
It is still a stretch to use the phrase, "play tsar" in application to the Canadian Prime Minister, especially when compared with other "real" dictators.
However, context really does matter, and in the Canadian context, there are any number of moves which qualify as unilateral, without consult, without even listening to the people that have emerged from Ottawa since the government received its majority.
One interpretation of this developing political dynamic, of people taking power back from perceived dictators, is that social media have made it much easier, given the ease with which people from disparate locations, within a country, can speak, easily, and inexpensively, with those of like mind and form a time and place to meet, to air grievances and to potentially grow into a full-fledged movement.
Another, complementing view is that globalization has resulted in the displacement of thousands, perhaps millions of workers, many of them highly educated, who want to work, earn a decent living and raise a family. Unfortunately, that dream has become "out of reach" for too many, living in political systems that are unresponsive to their needs.
Of course, the availability of 24-7 wall-to-wall global news coverage also means that whatever happens in the streets of Moscow is instantly relayed around the world, making global politics now more "part of the neighbourhood" than ever.
So the phrase, "all politics is local" from the former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress, Tip O'Neill, now literally applies to the whole globe.
Tsars, we can only hope, represent a time period that we have left behind, regardless of their language, their culture and their nationality.
People demanding that they be taken seriously, we can only hope, will claim their rightful place in the body politic of both their respective nation and the world. There are, however, still too many ways to subvert the democratic process, including the voting process itself, and those ways are extremely tempting to those whose need for power trumps their ideals for their country. And that is not a Russian phenomenon, nor an American nor an African, nor an Asian characteristic. It is a human trait.
And, if politics is ever going to minimize the impact of that personal need for power, it will have to find ways to counter the collective thrust of personal ambition for power, and not for "the national interest."
Some of those ways to impede the influence of personal power neurosis have already been devised and implemented. Certainly, campaign finance reform is one of those impediments, and it needs shoring up in every country in the world, including those neophyte democracies who can only benefit from the negative experience of many of us in the so-called developed world.
Let's join with the Russian people, in relegating "tsars" to the ash-heap of history, in all countries, for all time. And let's also join them in demanding that elections in all countries be open, fair, accountable and just, not only in fact but in appearance. And perhaps, the world movement of "people" that is ordinary people, will eventually achieve what the Russian people, among others, consider their right....to be taken seriously, and never again taken for granted.
And there is a page there for Mr. Harper to read, as well...soon!

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