What’s next for Russia and Eastern Europe, and the millennial generation now emerging on the political scene in these nations?
Vladimir Putin’s recent victory of the presidency of Russia posits salient questions about the future of the world’s largest country and the surrounding region later in this century.
Putin has been in a position of power since the 1990s, when he was a part of Yeltsin’s presidential administration. He won the 2000 presidential elections, serving for two terms until 2008, when he then became prime minister at the helm of the United Russia Party. Now he is back in that position after current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev kept the seat warm for four years.
Not a bad development for a career KGB agent.
Russia’s economic recovery in the 2000s would have happened with or without Putin, but allowed him to consolidate this control, rather than affect positive political change in the country.
Simultaneously, the electoral period witnessed the largest protests against the status quo in Russia in recent memory. In the least, these protests are a powerful reminder by the public that they are tired of seeing the same political corpses at the helm of the country for 20 years. For this reason, the end of Putin’s term at the centenary of the October Revolution indicates that Russia’s next century of progress might finally hold some good ideas that are not red in color.
In a brief recap, the official dissolution of the USSR and the dismantling of its client regimes in Eastern Europe was not a transition to democracy. It was the transformation of communist nomenklatura political power to economic power, and along with it, the fatal hollowing out of states and societies. The results are clear: declining populations, stagnant reforms, and a dilapidated human and economic capital. The fact I — as a Eastern European — now live in Canada is a sad testament to this sorry state of affairs.
The years between 2010 and 2020 are going to be a transition towards the natural end of (post) communist handler and loyalist cronyism and its criminal agents in Russia and towards the emergence of a more sophisticated political culture that favors political pluralism a little more. The coming of age of the new generation holds promise that the choice after Putin might be between more than washed out communists on the one hand, and democracy-wash communists on the other. His presidency may be the qualitative end to this status quo.
A notable trend in the political cultures of Eastern Europe and Russia is that of a preference for a strong leader; it explains the tolerance towards Putin for so long and for similar dimwitted marionettes with questionable pasts in the surrounding countries. In order to understand the reason for the slow progress towards democratic political cultures, we have to reflect that over the last century, revolutions, wars, and a controlling police state has created a vacuum in the politico-socio-cultural development. There is no critical mass of individuals to facilitate effective democratic and market reforms; thus the caricatures of states that we are forced to endure.
The saving grace of Russia is that Russian culture is rich and has staying power on the scale of 140 million people, despite its temporary historical imprisonment to communist idiocy. The country that produced Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Lomonosov and Mendeleev can produce a political elite that reflects the sophistication and accomplishments of this culture – but some more years must pass before that can be the case.
The 1990s left a deep trauma in Russia and the East that the West cannot hope to comprehend for simple lack of experience. The wound remains open, despite the years that have passed since. The social bitterness is both justified and an impediment at the same time: my parents’ generation were invested in something that ultimately collapsed and the stresses of the subsequent years are cutting the lives of many of that generation short. The millennium generation is pushing to emigrate and study and work abroad, because the alternative is a waste of a life with a worthless and deteriorating education system and an economic system whose levers are still held by communist loyalists or ex-KGB-esque agents, whose mental capacities make those of a rock look appealing.
My country is a portrait for the mass case in Eastern Europe: Bulgaria declined from a population of 9 million in 1988 to 7 million in 2012, the spot where it was in the mid-1940s – the rate of decline relative to population puts it among the top three in the world, alongside Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and the rest of the ex-Soviet camp. It might be said the practical failure of Marxism-Leninism was planted in 1917 and extended in 1944-45 (the mechanisms are rather gruesome), with negative consequences 70 years down the road.
I will end on an optimistic note that my generation will begin the badly needed transition of a traumatized region, but it will be the next one that hopefully consolidates it. Yet, 50 years are going to be wasted doing it.