17 November 2017

In Russia, a Social Contract Built on Bravado

The understanding of the social contract seems to be shifting around the world. But for Russia, at least, the phenomenon is nothing new. The country has tried any number of variations on the social contract over the more than 1,000 years of its history. Leaders traditionally have resorted to autocratic rule to keep the unwieldy nation together, periodically introducing institutions, such as the secret police forces of Ivan the Terrible and Czar Alexander III, or reforms — like Alexander II's measure to emancipate the serfs — to maintain order. Over the past century, Russia's social contract has endured one experiment after another as the Russian Revolution, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet system transformed the country. The system has undergone so many permutations that today it is all but obsolete, and no rule is too fundamental to break.

The Soviet Social(ist) Contract

The past 100 years have been a rollercoaster for Russia. The Bolsheviks came to power championing equality and a better life for workers and peasants. In turn, they expected the support and acquiescence of the Soviet people as they embarked on the economically and politically demanding task of building a new society. Josef Stalin changed the rules when he took control of the country, dispensing almost entirely with personal rights in the name of developing the Soviet Union. After Stalin's death, Nikita Khrushchev offered a new social contract that purported to relax the repressive rule of the previous two decades. The Soviet government gave citizens back some of the rights Stalin had stripped away and pursued policies to increase security, guarantee a basic standard of living for the population and maintain peace in exchange for the public's compliance.

Khrushchev's promise of peace was fundamental to the new social contract. As traumatic as Stalin's infamous purges were for the Soviet people, the harrowing events of World War II — in which more than 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians died — quickly overshadowed them. The memory of the war was still fresh, and it weighed heavily on nearly every family in the Soviet Union. My grandmother would often say, "No matter what, the main thing is to avoid a war." And no matter how many tanks and missiles the Soviet Union produced, its leaders held fast to that conviction, even when the Cold War reached its hottest points. The public was well aware of the danger of a nuclear strike. Yet Soviet leaders were cautious to avoid incendiary threats, though a state propagandist might mention that the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal was deep enough to turn any country into a pile of dust. (Today, by contrast, the threats are more brazen; Dmitri Kiselyov, whom President Vladimir Putin named as head of one of Russia's state-run news agencies, proclaimed on national television in 2014 that his country could turn the United States to "radioactive ash.")

A New System Emerges

By the late 1980s, the Soviet government had exhausted its social contract. Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, introduced the liberalizing policies of perestroika and glasnost in a last-ditch effort to keep the massive state together, but the reforms proved to be too little too late. The Soviet Union collapsed.

The ensuing chaos was as liberating as it was terrifying. In the 1990s, the Russian state had neither the will nor the ability to uphold its previous social contract. The Russian people, meanwhile, felt a growing desire for freedom and economic independence. The 1993 Constitution struck a compromise between the old and new elite, describing Russia as both a liberal and a social state that simultaneously maintained the separation of powers and bestowed its president with practically boundless authority. Two social contracts vied for dominance in the emerging country, one that promised social services in exchange for the public's support and one that offered freedom.

The Gangster's Rule for Governing

Neither side won. And so, as it entered the 21st century, Russia introduced a new model that would provide its citizens a reliable standard of living so long as they paid their taxes. Professor Alexander Auzan described the setup in an article about social contracts in Russia:

"Taxes are payment for social goods. But the saying, 'pay taxes and sleep well' is the typical motto of a stationary bandit who understands taxes as rent: You pay us rent and we leave you alone.'"

What Auzan outlines is a gangster's rule, but a rule nonetheless.

At some point, people started to ask what their taxes were getting them. The justice and safety they were theoretically paying for, after all, were in practice a privilege of the social and political elite. But for many Russians, even the prospect of security was worth the price, as long as the threat of attacks like the Beslan school siege and the Moscow Metro bombing loomed over the country. Skyrocketing oil prices, moreover, gave the government economic leverage over the public: Provided citizens agreed to sign over their political rights to the country's leaders, the administration would guarantee their financial security and prosperity. In this way, Putin's government bought the loyalty and support of the Russian people.

Since 2008, the situation in Russia has evolved, not only economically but also geopolitically. The same year that the global financial crisis hit, Russia went to war with the neighboring republic of Georgia. The timing was perfect. The United States was preoccupied with its own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Europe — dependent as it was on Russian energy exports — wasn't prepared to challenge the country in its traditional sphere of influence. Though the conflict lasted only a matter of days, it was enough to re-establish Russia as a world power. When the country, emboldened by its success in Georgia, annexed Crimea a few years later, its actions came as a shock to the rest of the world. Even so, the move was a logical next step in Russia's brash new strategy for dealing with the international system. The country's newfound power was intoxicating for its leaders.
Because We Can

For the Russian people, the idea of belonging to a great power was equally intoxicating. By standing up to the West, Putin framed himself as the only world leader who would dare to challenge the United States' ascendancy. He even gained the respect of some Western libertarians, who saw him as a brave individual, unafraid to buck the global economic system, its overregulated banks and its greedy governments, regardless of the authoritarian measures he favored at home. Defying the global trends toward tolerance, human rights — including rights for women and members of the LGBTQ community — and freedom of expression, Russian authorities have instead played by their own rules, sanctions and international opinion be damned. The political firestorm surrounding Russia's alleged electoral meddling has only reinforced this strategy by confirming the country's status as a dominant power and fueling the administration's machismo. For years, the Russian government and its propaganda machine have worked to foster among their public a hatred and aggression toward the rest of the world. Having acted out that hostility on the international stage, the Putin administration now can sit back and watch the United States rage.

At some point, however, bravado may not be enough to ensure the Russian public's continued loyalty, and tax payments. A survey from independent pollster the Levada Center conducted in April revealed that 53 percent of respondents claimed to be fulfilling their obligations to the state, compared with 39 percent in 2001. But in a poll conducted the previous month, 31 percent of respondents said they received so little from the state that they felt they owed it nothing, and 32 percent said they could demand much more.

Putin's administration has demonstrated that the social contract no longer serves as the basis of a government's legitimacy. (Furthermore, the reconsideration of social contracts around the world suggests that Russia's disrespect for long-standing rules and conventions may be spreading like a virus.) A growing number of Russians are catching on to the one-sidedness of the current social contract under which they pay into a system that gives them little or nothing in return. And though Putin's macroeconomic policies have managed to keep economic disaster at bay despite the burden of sanctions, low oil prices and capital flight, his administration hasn't undertaken the structural reforms necessary to sustain the country in the long run. Gone are the days when the government could build a social contract on the promise of prosperity.

Still, as long as state-run outlets dominate the media, as long as Russia opposes the United States and decries the Western notion of tolerance, and as long as Russians can cover their expenses with risky but readily available microloans, the arrangement will endure. Opinion polls suggest that most Russians are delighted their country and their president are exerting international influence. The government and state-run media will continue to seize on Russia's national pride and geopolitical bluster — along with the discord plaguing Western powers such as the United Kingdom, European Union and United States — as next year's presidential election approaches.

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