Ken Jowitt Offers New Perspective on Russian Politics
By Monica Friedlander, College of Letters and Science
In a recent lecture on Russian politics, Professor Emeritus of Political Science Ken Jowitt challenged the Western world to shed its outdated and simplistic view of world powers as divided into autocracies and Western-style democracies. With the bipolarism of the Cold War long gone, he said, it is incumbent upon us to look at Russia without either assuming the worst or harboring unrealistic hopes of reshaping it in our image.
“It is good to know exactly who and what you’re dealing with, instead of working with the romantic view that there are one hundred million democrats in Russia waiting for the Putin regime to fail and create a Jeffersonian democracy, because it’s not an option,” Jowitt said in an animated, heavily attended talk sponsored earlier this month by the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.
An expert in comparative politics and post-Communist societies, Jowitt has taught political science at Berkeley for 37 years. He is the Robson Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Berkeley and the Pres and Maurine Hotchkis Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s also a sought-after speaker worldwide.
Russia today, Jowitt said, is neither autocratic nor imperialistic. It is neither Communist nor accepting of Western democracy. And though its ruling elite may not be Stalinist in the sense of wielding absolute power, it is openly defiant, even offensive in its policy and rhetoric, both internally and externally. All of this makes old political stereotypes obsolete.
Jowitt described Vladimir Putin — the de facto leader of Russia even after having ceded the presidency and assumed the formal title of prime minister — as a vulgar, ruthless politician “with less charisma than this podium.” But he is adept at solidifying his dominance of Russian politics and defining Russia as a great sovereign power whose foreign policy is based on crude self-interest and defiance of the West.
“When you create a new identity in the absence of institutions, personality becomes especially important,” Jowitt explained. “And the cult of personality around Putin is a function of making it clear to the outside and the inside that there’s a new name in town and it’s not democracy and it’s not Yeltsin.”
For the first time since the French Revolution, Jowitt said, the world has only one prevailing ideology: the Western liberal capitalist democracy. And unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who tried to mimic the West, Putin feels threatened by it and is determined to keep it at bay. If he feels provoked by NATO’s expansion to or near Russian borders, Putin will push back — as he did when Russia invaded Georgia last year.
But such behavior in itself does not make Russia imperialistic. “Last year Putin could have occupied all of Georgia,” Jowitt said. “We’re talking about a state that could not have stood for four more days. And Russia could bring Ukraine to its knees right now.”
But it does not, Jowitt said, because Putin’s focus is on political and economic stability, not costly military aggression.
Jowitt described Putin as the ultimate ruthless pragmatist. “What’s the deal? Who wins? Who loses? It’s pure interest,” he said. “If Russia’s interest and yours coincide, fantastic. And if they don’t coincide, they can be hostile or violent, so it’s better [for us] to recognize and accommodate them to avoid violence.”
Putin’s antagonistic stance, however, is born out of a “high state of anxiety,” not a desire for world domination. Jowitt repeatedly compared him to a rebellious teenager:
“Putin and his Russian elite are in their junior-high-school phase. Their behavior is sullen, rude, even combative. They are seen wearing black-leather jackets at rock concerts, hurling hurtful, despicable insults at the United States, claiming that the United States is no better than Stalin and the Nazis.”
At home Putin acts the same way, Jowitt said. “He distances himself from ordinary politicians by likening ordinary politicians to tampon salesmen.”
Putin’s state of mind must be understood from the standpoint of a regime still unsettled in its attempts to establish its identity, Jowitt said, fearful that its new power will be undermined from either inside or outside.
Jowitt attributes this anxiety to three major factors: the pro-democracy movements in former Soviet republics (the “color revolutions” in states like Ukraine and Georgia); the international movement toward globalization; and the flood of “arrogant, self confident American democracy and market advisors” who descended on Russia in the 1990s preaching liberal capitalist ideology to a fragile, emerging democracy.
The response? “Surprise, surprise! A lot of Russians weren’t interested.”
That’s something that the U.S. never understood, Jowitt said. Americans, he explained, have always subscribed to the view best described by Thomas Paine’s revolutionary words, “We have the power to begin the world all over again.” But, Jowitt said, “Note that he didn’t not include the words ‘in our image.’ This comes up over and over again – Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, George Bush. We don’t take into account that there’s no social, political, or economic critical mass and no desire for western liberal democracy [in Russia today].”
Instead, quite the opposite may be true, Jowitt cautioned. Far from becoming more democratic, Russia could fall prey to what he described as “rage-filled, anti-Western” forces” who could take power in a crisis. And leadership that comes out of a crisis, he said, is always unpredictable.
“The threat to Russian stability today comes from the inside,” Jowitt said. “If the Russian economy collapses … we might be in a situation where we see the appearance of nihilistic ideologies and movements clustered around leaders trying to form an alliance with parts of the Russian military.”
The result of such developments, Jowitt concluded, would be a far less palatable alternative to Putin’s rule. “In light of the economic recession and what Russia is today and what it is not, a state mercantilistic Russia led by non-ideological Putin may not be the optimal political outcome for Russia. But in 2009, it’s not at all a bad second-best.”