Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is Russia’s Destiny Autocratic? By Robert Kaplan.

Is Russia’s Destiny Autocratic? By Robert Kaplan. Real Clear World, February 20, 2014.


In 1967, the late British historian Hugh Seton-Watson wrote in his epic account, The Russian Empire, 1801-1917, “If there is one single factor which dominates the course of Russian history, at any rate since the Tatar conquest, it is the principle of autocracy.” He goes on to explain how the nations of Western Europe were formed by a long struggle between “the monarchial power and the social elite.” In England, the elite usually won, and that was a key to the development of parliamentary democracy. But in Russia it was generally agreed that rather than granting special privileges to an elite, “It was better that all should be equal in their subjection to the autocrat.”
This profound anti-democratic tradition of Russian political culture has its roots in geography, or as Seton-Watson prefers to explain it, in military necessity. Between the Arctic ice and the mountains of the Caucasus, and between the North European Plain and the wastes of the Far East, Russia is vast and without physical obstacles to invasion. Invasion of Russia is easy, and was accomplished, albeit with disastrous results, by Napoleon and Hitler, as well as by the armies of the Mongols, Sweden, Lithuania and Poland. As Seton-Watson argues, “Imagine the United States without either the Atlantic or the Pacific, and with several first-rate military powers instead of the Indians,” and you would have a sense of Russia’s security dilemma. Whereas in America the frontier meant opportunity, in Russia, he says, it meant insecurity and oppression.
Because security in Russia has been so fragile, there developed an obsession about it. And that obsession led naturally to repression and autocracy.
Russia’s brief and rare experiments with democracy or quasi-democracy were failed and unhappy ones: Witness the governments of Alexander Kerensky in 1917 that led to the Bolshevik Revolution and of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s that led to Vladimir Putin’s neo-czardom. Truly, Russia’s fare has been autocracy, and given the utter cruelty of czars and communists, Putin is but a mild dictator. When Western pundits and policymakers say they are unhappy with his autocratic arrangement, they are basically making a negative judgment on Russian history. For by Russia’s historical standards, Putin is certainly not all that bad.
Putin now represents an autocrat in crisis, a familiar story in Russia. His problems are, for the most part, unsolvable, like those faced by Russian autocrats before him. And there are many of them.
Controlling the ultimate destiny of Ukraine is of paramount importance to him, for reasons both geographical and historical. Russia grew out of ninth century Kievan Rus, located in present-day Ukraine. Ukraine’s population density (compared to immense tracts of Russia) and geographical position make it a crucial pivot for the Kremlin, if it wants to permanently dominate Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Yet, Putin finds that he cannot wholly control Ukraine or further undermine its sovereignty. There is simply a very substantial element in Ukrainian politics and society that demands a shift closer to Europe and the European Union. Putin has various tools to undermine Ukraine, such as erecting trade barriers and rationing deliveries of natural gas. But it is hard work, and he probably can never achieve an outright victory.
Putin fears the westward, pro-NATO and pro-EU stirrings inside the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova. He fears unrest in former Soviet Central Asia, where reliably autocratic, Soviet-style regimes may soon face increasing turmoil at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists – the very force Putin fears could destabilize Russia itself. Russia needs stability and compliance in its near abroad, and both will be increasingly at risk in Central Asia: Witness Kazakhstan’s recent currency crisis. Putin not only worries about Russia’s possible deteriorating position in world energy markets in the long term, but of the rising demographic weight of Muslims in Russian society over the long term, too.
Putin worries about an American-Iranian rapprochement, given how the estrangement for so long between those two countries has been so convenient to Russia’s interest. Oh, and here’s what Putin really isn’t happy about: internal interference in Russian politics by American, pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations. What the United States considers human rights activity, he considers foreign subversion. And that goes for what American NGOs are doing in Ukraine also.
Putin wants to engage in cynical geopolitical deal making; instead he often gets lectures on morality from the West.
Could Putin actually be toppled? Not likely. The unhappiness with his rule that the Western media fervently wants to believe in is probably manageable, and a really free and fair election today in Russia would probably return him to power. He is only 61 years old and lives a relatively healthy life, unlike Yeltsin, who drank to excess. Sure, Putin is under extreme levels of stress. But you don’t rise to his position in a place like Russia without the ability to handle levels of intrigue and anxiety that would psychologically decimate the average American politician.
The United States has every right to hate Putin for the Snowden affair alone. But, as I’ve indicated, Washington may be dealing with Putin for many years yet. As his dictatorship continues, he is liable to become more embattled, and rather than move toward reform, he is more likely to retreat further into a corrosive, authoritarian model. For that is a Russian historical tendency – something Seton-Watson would have understood. If that is the case, Russian institutions and civil society, such as they exist, will further deteriorate. And with that, a post-Putin Russia, whenever it comes, could be a Russia in some substantial degree of chaos.
Putin is not like Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco, who in his latter years methodically laid the groundwork for a less authoritarian, post-Franco era. He is not like the collegial autocrats of present-day China, who have made their country – with all its problems – a relatively safe and predictable place for foreigners to do business and thus aid the development of the Chinese economy. While Russia, with its high literacy rates and quasi-European culture, cannot be compared with the much less developed Arab world, Putin’s Russia does contain a scent of the thuggery and benightedness that characterized former regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Because Putin is not a modernizer – he is building neither a civil society nor a 21st century knowledge economy – he is leading Russia toward a familiar dead end, from which only chaos or more autocracy can issue.
Russia is not fated to be governed illiberally forever. Geography is being tempered by technology, and individual choice can overcome – or at least partly overcome – the legacy of history. Though one cannot speculate about which future leader or group of leaders can save Russia, one can outline the shape of a less autocratic yet stable power arrangement. And that shape must feature decentralization. Because of Russia’s very vastness – nearly half the longitudes of the earth – democracy in Russia must be a local phenomenon as well as a Moscow phenomenon. The Far East, oriented around Vladivostok, must be able to carve out its own political shape and identity, the same with other parts of Russia. The center must become by stages weaker, even as the whole Federation becomes more vibrant because of the emergence of a rule of law. Such a Russia would draw in a near abroad united by a legacy of Russian language use from Soviet and czarist times. Centralization is not the opposite of anarchy; civil society is. Thus only civil society can save Russia.

We Are Not Strangers in Our Homeland. By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern.

We are not strangers in our homeland. By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern. Haaretz, March 23, 2007.

Sagi and Stern:

The wheel comes full circle. Not long ago, we sinned by asserting lordship – “There is no Palestinian people.” Over the years this view was shorn from the marketplace of ideas of the Jewish majority in Israel, and we no longer reject the national identity of these others. Now however, leading figures among Israel’s Arab community are paying us back in a similar coin: Several recently published documents laying out their vision for the future call for the annulment of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, from which it follows that they are rejecting a central element of identity of the Jewish people in our generation. This is a strategic move by a substantial portion of the leadership of about a fifth of the country’s citizens, and it should be taken seriously.
We pushed the Arab citizens into an alley with no exit: they are experiencing prolonged discrimination that cannot be justified. Their right to full civil equality is not being realized. Decent Israelis cannot remain silent in the light of the state’s ongoing failure in its treatment of minority group. Moreover, decent Jews cannot ignore their responsibility to protect the national minority from manifestations of racism. We did not make an effort to consolidate civil partnership; we did not create inviting conditions for honorable coexistence. The outcry of the poor Arab, who is discriminated against as a person and who feels excluded and alienated as the member of a minority group, is resonating across the country. It raises doubts about the depth of our true commitment to the values of a “Jewish state” and a “democratic state.”
However, the new initiatives of the Arab leadership in Israel are not making do with a call to rectify the wrongs done to the minority. The central innovation of principle in these documents lies in their categorical assertion that proper equality will not be achieved as long as Israel is a Jewish state. Accordingly, they launch a frontal assault against the state's Jewish character. If the previous generation of Arabs, the “stooped generation,” was content to aspire to civil equality, the present “erect generation” is challenging the right of the majority to maintain a Jewish nation-state.
Conspiracy of elites
The broad context of the “Future Vision” document arises clearly from its opening lines. The reproof sticks out like thorns in one’s eyes: “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe and the West and realized by colonial countries.” The voice that is speaking here is none other than the National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel. These people, Israeli public representatives who live in close proximity to us Jews, believe that the State of Israel is not the realization of generations of Jewish longing to return to Zion, but a conspiracy by elites seeking to impose Western control over the Middle East. “Next year in Jerusalem, As long as deep in the heart . . . My heart is in the East and I am at the ends of the West” – none of these are authentic expressions of the Jewish soul across the generations.
This is historical nonsense. Postcolonial theories cannot transform a full life into a fiction. Even those who feel victimized by the Nakba cannot erase the fact that “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped,” as Israel’s Declaration of Independence states. Israel’s Arabs lose our attention if they refuse to recognize the fact that, as the declaration states, “After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it hroughout their dispersion, and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. We are not strangers in our homeland.”
The Arabs’ visions also offer concrete solutions. They are striving to shape Israel as a multicultural state. However, the Arab leadership is not content with protecting certain public spaces, which are populated largely by members of the Arab minority, as areas in which Arab culture and identity will be embodied. They want much more. They are demanding that all the elements of the Israeli space – sovereignty, territory, norms and symbols – be freed of any specific identity. They are unwilling to make do with the rights accruing to a cultural minority. They want the Jewish majority to narrow its identity and apply it only in sub-state spaces. The state will be a neutral playing field, transparent and hollow, possessing a universal character.
An attempt to fashion a multicultural state of this kind will not succeed. History shows that multiculturalism has blossomed only when it is cultivated in a stable national-political space. The leadership of Israel’s Arabs is seeking what no one had dared call for: for the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens to withdraw their collective identity to outside the public space, which is so vital to realize identity. In the absence of another Jewish state, the import of their demand will be to dwarf and diminish Jewish identity in our generation to its private and community dimensions, just as it was for two thousand years, when we were a people in exile.
Moreover, states need a unifying national ethos. Without it, a state is liable to become a random federation of communities that will find it difficult to exist as a homogeneous unit. This is even more acute in the Israeli context. The Arab minority is tied to social-cultural communities that exist in the Arab states and it is part of the Palestinian nation, which is in the process of establishing an independent state abutting on Israel. Is it far-fetched to be concerned that the Arab minority is actually interested in a two-state plan: voiding the existing ethos and replacing it, when the time comes, with a different national vision that will integrate into Arab or Islamic visions that are shared by the rest of the Palestinian nation, across the border.
If the State of Israel is voided of identity components, it will lose one of the crucial elements of national resilience which that its continued existence in a hostile arena. Will Israeli youngsters – to whom the whole world is open – respond to a mobilization call that asks them to give up their best years, and sometimes also their very lives, for an organizational framework that does not provide them with meaning? The internal centrifugal forces will make us fall apart from within, and the opportunities that beckon in the global village will hasten the process from without.
Behind the multicultural rhetoric
The suspicion arises that behind the multicultural rhetoric lies the aspiration to liquidate Israel as a political entity. Implicit in it is the ouster of the Jewish nation from the world’s nations. Academic language possessing political charm might turn out to be a weapon in the struggle against the State of Israel. The Arab elite is leading its followers into dangerous realms. They must understand that the members of the Jewish people, including the salient supporters of civil equality for all, will not forgo the realization of their right to self-determination in this space, the cradle of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people has an inalienable right to the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel’s Arab citizens have to demand – and the Jewish majority must agree to – a fair division of the public space between the two groups. The Jewish majority will have the larger part of the realization of identity in this space, and the Arab minority will be left with the smaller part. Any other alternative will undermine, and ultimately void of content, the concepts of identity that underlie multiculturalism.
However, not all the public assets are amenable to division between majority and minority. Thus, for example, the definition of the state’s character as “Jewish,” to which the documents of the Arab vision object, is indivisible. This is the source of the argument that the right of the Arab minority to equality in the public space is infringed upon. Even though this is true, it cannot lead us to hesitate in our insistence on preserving the state’s definition as “Jewish.”
Isaiah Berlin stated that “[equality] is neither more nor less rational than any other ultimate principle.” The basic point of departure of a liberal society is that equality is the primary value that must be applied, but it is possible to depart from this value if there is sufficient cause. Indeed, in Berlin’s view, the majority of social disputes are related to the question of the nature of the sufficient cause to depart from equality.
As we noted, the demand of the Arab minority for civil equality is meritorious because no sufficient cause to justify its rejection is posited against it. In contrast, their demand for equality in the public space, to be achieved by removing the collective identity of more than three-quarters of the country’s citizens from the sovereign space, is intolerable. Posited against it are extremely cogent sufficient causes, above all the discrimination against the Jewish national identity (vis-a-vis either national identities which find expression in a political space, including the Arab identities) and the degeneration it is liable to suffer as a result. To this we must add the concrete concern that the Israeli political state will be disassembled into unconnected sub-units, and the danger that strategic harm will accrue to national resilience.
The Arab public in Israel would do well to direct its energy to a struggle for civil equality, in which it will find many partners among the Jewish people. But continuing to build verbal sandcastles in the form of documents of the vision is pointless. The Jewish people does not intend to divest itself of its aspiration to realize its nationhood in the political space of the State of Israel.

Homemade Israel-Bashers. By Amnon Rubinstein.

Homemade Israel-bashers. By Amnon Rubinstein. Jerusalem Post, February 27, 2008.


Shortly after I began teaching at Columbia University, I was taken aback to hear that the Iranian ruler Ahmadinejad had been invited to speak on campus. There was hardly any time to organize a protest against the event. Despite this, three kipot-wearing students from Hillel House worked day and night to distribute posters and pamphlets featuring a choice selection of the guest’s hate-filled, genocidal invective. They organized a demonstration in front of the hall where the Iranian president was to speak, and all without any outside help. I spoke at the demonstration, where I discovered that almost all the participants present were local Orthodox Jewish students. The number of secular Israeli students could be counted on the fingers of one hand – with fingers to spare. Inside the hall sat an Israeli student who applauded Ahmadinejad. I asked another Israeli who witnessed this behavior to tell me about her. I asked: How can she applaud someone that wants to exterminate her? His matter of fact reply: “She’s known to be a leftist.” In other words, “leftists” applaud a tyrant, a Nazi, a persecutor of minorities, oppressor of women, stoner of “adulterers,” and executioner of homosexuals. If he protests the oppression of the Palestinians, then he must clearly be a member of the “left” and should therefore be cheered. Later, I encountered other Israeli academicians at Columbia who added more fuel to the fire of hatred against Israel – all belonged to what is known as the radical Left.
WHEN THE semester ended, my wife and I were invited to a Shabbat meal on Friday night prepared by the organizers of the demonstration. I am a professed and impassioned secular Jew. My Judaism is national and cultural. I believe that my approach is in no way inferior to the Orthodox or haredi one. It contains neither temptations of paradise, the punishment of hell, nor the revival of the dead. It is filled with a rich, multifaceted and wondrous Jewish-Hebrew culture. I also believe that secular humanism is the right answer for us as individuals and as a nation. But if I had to choose between the kipa-wearing Jews at Columbia and the representatives of what is known in Israel as the radical Left – I know where my heart is. That is the entire story. No, it is the end of the story. It is also the end of the story of the anti-Israeli squadrons in the Israeli academia.
FOR SOME time, I have been waiting for a hysterical outburst from this direction, one that would bring their claims to such an absurd point, that they would be finished. I always believed that their “post-intelligent” anti-Israeli claptrap would eventually climax in an paroxysm of extremist mumbo-jumbo lunacy, after which there would no longer be anything to argue about. They’d be exposed. Ben-Dror Yemini provided me with just that evidence (Ma’ariv, January 11), in an article in which he tells of a research project carried out by graduate student Tal Nizan at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research question was: How is it that, contrary to the accepted practice among other occupation armies, the Zionist occupation army does not rape? The researcher had two explanations: First, IDF soldiers do not rape Palestinian women because for them, these women have been dehumanized, and “consequently, a sexual act cannot be carried out with someone that is perceived as less than human.” Second, the soldiers refrained from raping the Palestinian women in the service of a higher, demographic goal, because the rape could cause pregnancies that would subsequently increase the numbers of our enemies. In other words, not only are there no rapes, there are no condoms either. The significant aspect is not this surreal research project. It is not unusual. Incitement against Israel can be found on the lowest level in some of the social science departments in Israel’s universities. A well-known philosopher in Tel Aviv University called Israel the dustbin of Europe – and students, as we know, are influenced by their teachers, even when the latter are seized by a frenzy of hatred toward the state that provides their livelihood, and at the expense of which, thanks to their attacks on it, they make their names. The interesting thing is that this “research” project won a prize from a sociology association, with a number of distinguished professors voting in favor of granting the researcher a prize. It would be interesting to hear how these professors propose that Israel amend this serious flaw, that IDF soldiers are not serial rapists. Does that fact that female tourists are not raped mean that they too have been dehumanized? These professors are wrong. It's not true that there is no rape. There is – the rape of the academia, of science and of the students forced to listen to these professors’ drivel.