I’ve been reading Richard Sakwa’s book ‘Putin: Russia’s Choice’ over the past few days. The author does a fine job of explaining how the former president’s political programme, ‘sovereign democracy’, ‘managed democracy’, ‘the dictatorship of law’, call it what you will, comprised a rational and defensible, if imperfect response to unique challenges which Russia faced post-Soviet Union and post Boris Yeltsin. It is the most forensic examination of the politics of Putin’s Russia, which I have as yet read.
‘Three Thousand Versts’ often wrestles with matters of identity, nationality, culture and these concepts’ interaction with more concrete notions of citizenship and state. Problems related to these areas are particularly abundant in Russia, with its huge land mass, plethora of ethnicities and disputed history. I therefore read Sakwa’s chapters which deal with Putin’s approach to state-building, national identity and the regions with particular interest, because he has tackled issues which are more acute, but share resonances, with some of those which we face in Ireland and indeed throughout the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland's 1980s' Vladimir Putin?
When Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President, he inherited a state which had fragmented, asymmetrically, its sovereignty across countless regions and republics through a series of bilateral treaties. He took over a state without an agreed flag, without words to its national anthem and struggling to establish a sense of shared purpose amongst its people. The disintegration of the supranational structure which had bound together the people of the USSR, threatened not only to undermine the coherence of its constituent republics, but also the existence of Russia itself.
Comparatively, Putin left Dmitry Medvedev a confident, powerful state, possessed of the normal range of symbols, and bound together by a strong, desirable civic citizenship which encompasses the endless range of ethnicities and cultures comprising the Russian Federation. By no means has Putin surmounted all the problems which he faced, in this area, at the outset of his presidency, but certainly he bequeathed to Medvedev a stronger, more coherent, more defined unit than he inherited from Boris Yeltsin
Although Putin’s credo is rarely applicable to the UK, there are times when it is tempting to conclude that it's more the pity. Yeltsin had fragmented Moscow’s sovereignty across a series of asymmetric bi-lateral treaties, creating vast disparities in the quality of citizenship available throughout the Federation, fostering a system of government by local clan, encouraging various republics and regions to make declarations of sovereignty and nourishing separatist nationalism. Putin combated asymmetric devolution effectively, subjecting treaties to central constitutional law, forcing them to lapse and enforcing a largely standardised political system across the Federation. It was a textbook reassertion of sovereignty. I could see a similar claw back of devolved power in the UK bringing a broad smile to the face of O'Neill, amongst others.
Another theory of Putin’s which strikes a chord is his belief that strong, national political parties are the means by which citizens should be able to access politics and as a corollary the full range of standardised entitlements which accompany their citizenship. To countermand clannish regions and an outrageously fragmented political system which meant that there was little parity of access to politics between regions, Putin rolled out the national party system across Russia. Although those who accused the former president of authoritarianism and marginalising regional parties may have had a point, few will argue that his reforms did not strengthen the link between parties and politics in Russia or allow previously unheard voices access to national politics without the distorting prism of local clans and local corruption.
Although minimum membership requirements, 7% quotas for access to parliament or party lists are not tenable options in the United Kingdom, Putin’s contention that access to national political parties is the best means to full enjoyment of citizenship remains valid. It is the same idea that fuelled the Campaign for Equal Citizenship which had its heyday in the 1980s and it is the basis on which Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties will seek to forge a shared political movement next week.