Detecting Putin’s Perestroika Moment

Russian Strongman Vladimir Putin. Grafting an American version of Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle Western democracy?

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! (Ronald Reagan).

By Joe Bartuah

So many American politicians, especially Republicans, often refer to the late President Ronald Reagan as “the great communicator.” On June 12, 1987, Mr. Reagan delivered a challenge-laden speech near the entrance of the Brandenburg Gate in what was then West Berlin, basically urging then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev to actualize his avowed policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), by dismantling the Brandenburg Gate. The infamous gate, which was hastily erected by the Soviet Union in Berlin to separate the defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany) from West Germany in the 1960s, was an embodiment of the stark difference between a free society and an oppressive one; so many Germans died, while desperately trying to make their way to the Western side of the divided city at the time.

Gorbachev: His glasnost and perestroika led to the demise of the Soviet Union. Was the Russian hacking aimed at sowing seeds of “perestroika” in U.S. politics?

A lot of American politicians gleefully refer to Reagan’s quoted statements above as being pivotal to the collapse of the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But as Americans readily applaud Reagan’s memorable statements above, many Russian politicians of the Soviet era probably view such comment with disdain. Of course, loyalists of the defunct Soviet Union and Russians in particular, have reasons to loathe Reagan’s statements, since they apparently believe that his speech marked the beginning of the weakening of their socialist system. In other words, Russian political elites have, all along, generally considered American politicians as prime suspects in orchestrating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Upon reflection, it’s a long story, but an abbreviated encapsulation is necessary in order to contextualize this article. On March 10, 1985, a new leader emerged in the Soviet Union; his name is Mikhail S. Gorbachev. To borrow a political phraseology which is now being incessantly squandered in this day and age, Gorbachev was “a populist politician.” Perhaps a staunch Soviet communist might label Gorbachev as a rebel within the Soviet system, because he took over the USSR and embarked on a smashing spree. His vows to reform or restructure the system made him a darling of the West. His rise to power was eventful. Between November 1982 and March 1985, the Soviet Union lost three presidents: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

As for Brezhnev, he had been in power for 18 years prior to his death, but his 68-year-old successor, Andropov lasted for only 15 months. Now, in the illogical reasoning of the Kremlin’s old guards at the time, they selected 72-year-old Konstantin Chernenko to succeed the 69-year-old Andropov. As fate would have it, in 13 months’ time, Chernenko, too, was dead. It was against this somber backdrop of three presidential mournings in three years that wisdom seemingly prevailed among Soviet political elites. They then tapped Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then a 54-year-old agronomist, as their next leader.

However, following the ascendancy of Gorbachev to the presidency of the USSR, the drama began to unfold; the perennial fear among the Bolshevik veterans for which they had, all along, resisted any preferment for relatively young politicians began to unravel. Apparently Gorbachev didn’t believe in the creed or values of the system over which he presided; glasnost and perestroika were his catch words. With this unprecedented mantra since the advent of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev vowed to open up and reform the Soviet system. He contemptuously referred to the years preceding his ascension to the throne as the “Era of Stagnation”, which he vowed to eradicate.

As a reminder, when the Bolsheviks toppled the Czar in 1917, they identified capitalism as a pathological socio-economic, political problem and proffered Socialism as a sort of panacea for all of humankind’s problems; they therefore resolved to put the last nail on the coffin of capitalism. Incredibly, 68 years later in 1985, one of their own cadres, Comrade Gorbachev was giving a grim diagnosis of their system. It was a shocking reawakening which projected a dilemma within the Soviet hierarchy; the two immediate choices facing Soviet politicians were to (a) either immediately denounce Gorbachev and replace him, or (b) let him carry on his reform, hoping that it would eventually lead to a better USSR. In the end, they opted for the latter and this, too, proved to be consequential. Yes, to every public policy, there are underlying consequences; that is why as a rule of thumb, it must be well thought of, well intended and scrupulously debated before it is formulated and methodically implemented, rather basing policy on the impulsive spasms of an individual.

In his zest for reform, what Mr. Gorbachev was apparently not mindful of was what public policy practitioners often refer to as the “unintended consequence”, which is one of the pitfalls of policy formulation. In the particular case of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, constituting the Warsaw Pact, attempting to reform millennial of czarist absolutism and decades of iron-clad communism was like opening an overflowing dam, or widely opening the gates of a maximum security prison. In the first scenario, one is bound to be inundated by water, or in second scenario, overwhelmed by inmates desperately seeking freedom. Put another way, Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet system, but reforming such a decadent system was an uphill task. As a result, the internal autonomy he flirted with quickly metamorphosed into a flurry of agitations for independence; politicians were eager to utilize the political capital he had inadvertently put at their disposal. After all, the people had been protractedly suppressed and as a result, were impatient to assert themselves.

In the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, which constituted 76 percent of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, a maverick politician, notorious for his consummate alcoholism, emerged as president. First, he pretended to be a Gorbachev loyalist, but later turned out to be one of his fiercest critics. As the criticisms precipitated, Gorbachev on one occasion,  traveled outside of Moscow and communist Generals mounted a coup against him. Boris Yeltsin gallantly helped to thwart the coup, but he emerged much more powerful than Gorbachev who had by then, become a sort of a figure head within the Soviet Union. Gradually, the other 14 Republics that made up the Soviet Union began to break away, declaring their independence. The alcoholic Yeltsin began to politically hop here and there; he scurried to the breakaway Republics and formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with the 14 newly independent states as the new diplomatic instrument to replace the Soviet system.

Mikhail Gorbachev metaphorically became a General without an army. Now Boris Yeltsin was in the driver’s seat, but he was not sober enough to steer the Russian ship of state to the shore of success. As a result, corruption flourished during his era; at one point, Yeltsin’s own vice president, Alexander Rutskoy labeled Yeltsin’s economic policy as an “economic genocide.” It was amid such socio-economic, political turmoil that Yeltsin, president of the largest country in the world (in terms of geographical territory), was forced to resign and turn over the mantle of power to his anointed successor, Vladimir Putin in December 1999.

The point I’m attempting to drive home here is that in as much as Russian political elites often blame Gorbachev for orchestrating the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, many more Russians strongly believe that the West, especially the United States was complicit in the demise of their system, because their notion is that Western politicians had hypnotized Gorbachev into embarking a perilous reform process. The Russians relished the defunct status of the USSR as a super-power, even if the economic reality was that they didn’t have the necessary economic potency to effectively cater to their sphere of influence.

Because the Russians relish the illusive past, they frequently yearn for a return to the bipolarity of the post-World War II international system, during which they firmly had a sphere of influence. Whether they have the economic capacity at this point in time to dish out some largesse to such sphere of influence is another question. All along, many Russian politicians have been reflecting on what they perceive as a national humiliation in the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR. Apparently, the political elites of Russia have been scavenging for a loophole to exact revenge at Western countries, especially the United States. It seems that they have been wondering as to how to weaken the United States on the international stage, since they believe that the U.S., in collaboration with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, had weakened them as a nation.

That’s one of the reasons why hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers, as well as John Podesta’s email by the Russians to influence the 2016 elections must be thoroughly investigated, not only to determine its impact, but also its short-term and long-term goals. The American people should not let this unprecedented cyber-invasion by the Russians be swept under the proverbial carpet of partisanship, because strategic national interest is at stake. As I see it, the Russians are bent on cunningly weaponizing the West’s own technological innovation in their attempt to undermine Western democracy. Indisputably, GENUINE DEMOCRACY epitomizes the much-talked-about American Exceptionalism; without democracy, the U.S. has no claim to any modicum of exceptionalism.

It’s because of the pluralistic features of its political system that the United States is globally perceived as the foremost sanctuary for people in every nook and cranny of the world who are pathetically suffering from dehumanizing oppression and other forms of subjugation. It’s undeniable that democracy permeates all spheres of human endeavor, because when people are free, they tend to maximize their creativity. Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that the American economy comparatively performs better than the Russian economy? Undeniably, the U.S. society tends to be much more innovative than the Russian society because creativity and entrepreneurship are fueled by freedom, which is the hallmark of American society.

On the other hand, in a society where the rulers tend to espouse brutality, or a “might-makes-right” is the primary modus operandi, when majority of the citizenry is demoralized, the people’s creativity is severely eroded, because people tend to be demoralized. Let’s take for example, a comparative glance at the Russian and American economies. In 2015, Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to the World Bank, was $1.331 trillion, while the United States accumulated more than $18 trillion GDP in the same year. Moreover, Russia’s per capital income in 2015 was $9,092.60 while U.S. per capital income was recorded at $56,115.70 in the same year. So in layman terms, Russia is a military super-power, which perceives itself as being on par with the United States, but the reality is that its economy is not on par with its professed status. For example, the Caribbean island of Barbados had a $15,429.30 per capital income in 2015; that is $6,336.70 more than Russia’s; Singapore’s per capital income of $52,888.70 in 2015 is $43,796.70 more than Russia’s. Besides that, more than 13 percent of Russians currently live in poverty, which means that they live on an equivalent of $139 per month. In short, for all those who are so obsessed about being so cozy with Russia, in spite of its flagrant flouting of international laws over the years, or earning the “respect” of Vladimir Putin, all that glitters is not gold.

With the recent hacking, it is the core of the American society that the Russians are bent on obliterating. And so rather than treating the hacking with antipathy for parochial reasons, all Americans must gallantly guard the country’s democratic pluralism, which is the most conspicuous embodiment of American Exceptionalism with every ounce of patriotism. Whether one is an American or not, whether one is a Republican or Democrat or not, black or white, Asian, Latino or Caucasian, we all must be extremely concerned about the Russian hacking, its repercussion is incalculable; for the moment nobody can actually quantify its ramification, especially its long-term impact. If the Russians succeed in dismantling American democracy by implanting, or grafting an American politician who turns out to be autocratic, humanity will become despondent. This is simply because American democracy gives hope to humanity. When totalitarianism regimes around the world dehumanize their own people for speaking truth to power, it is American democracy that inspires advocates freedom, rule of law and other democratic precepts to persevere. When powerful despots brutally clamp down on opposition, it’s American democracy that gives reasons for optimism. Now, if the Russians succeed in demolishing this unique beacon of hope and optimism, humankind won’t have reasons to hope for an orderly global society, because its impact on the international system would be catastrophic.



Filed in: Analysis

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