The war in Ukraine (12) – democracy and authoritarianism?

The war is supported by the Western powers, its media and its pro-war left, and justified as a war of democracy against authoritarianism.  In several Facebook debates I engaged in with this left a version of Godwin’s law kicked in quite quickly as Russia was denounced as fascist, and everyone knows you can’t support fascism.  It appears that the logic is that you must then support Ukraine.  And if it turns out that supporting Ukraine also involves support for their significant fascist armed units, well, these apparently aren’t significant enough to matter.

None of this prevents the supporters of Ukraine also claiming that support for Ukrainian self-determination doesn’t depend on the nature of its regime!  The supporters of Russia take very much the same approach, on the grounds that US imperialism is the main enemy.  The nature of the Putin regime is entirely secondary to their support for a multi-polar world, although that did not really work out very well in the last century; particularly between the years 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945, never mind the numerous smaller wars that have continued over the past number of decades.

Any attempt to present Russia as any sort of democracy, as supporters of Ukraine have pretended with their favourite capitalist state, faces the difficulty that Western propaganda has enough raw material to advance the case that it isn’t.  For a capitalist country Russia is not a very democratic bourgeois democracy; ‘The Economist’ magazine democracy index classifies it as ‘authoritarian’ while Ukraine is classified as a ‘hybrid regime,’ which sits below the categories of ‘democracy’ and ‘flawed democracy’.

One way the lack of democracy reveals itself is at ground level, where it impacts most on the most vulnerable, who became even more economically insecure because of the mass privatisations following the fall of the Soviet Union. This left many people more dependent on local political and economic elites, who were often the same people.  These elites were then able to engage in vote buying and coerced participation in demonstrations in support of favoured candidates etc., achieved through threats to the payment of wages; threats of unemployment; and threats to access to benefits, health and education services and to infrastructure, for example to gas supplies and public transport.

In areas with large facilities such as factories, agricultural enterprises, hospitals and schools and universities, political officials could demand political support from their workers and even relatives, with the open or veiled threat that the factory might close, the hospital staff might lose their jobs, or the school might not get the funds to maintain ageing infrastructure etc.  In one region the intervention of local officials had become so reliable and acute that in 2017 upon the expected visit of such officials on the first day of school the parents formally begged that the visit might happen on the second day.

In rural areas targeting voters has been carried out on a more individualistic basis with what might appear relatively minor figures wielding significant influence, often under pressure themselves, and so on up the tree of vertical command.  In one village, the mayor’s secretary worked on her homestead while also having a second job.  In her secretarial role she had lists of young men eligible for drafting into the army, which many avoided through payment at a widely known price.  This price went up from 200 in 2010 to 1,000 in 2019, although because of currency devaluation there was actually no significant increase.  During the war however the price shot up ten or twelve times the normal level.  During an electoral campaign this power could be put to good use to ensure a high turnout, with the implication that if you didn’t participate “we’ll take your son into the army.”  In small towns and villages, the political operatives would seek to ensure their instructions were followed by demanding that people bring their mobile phones and take a picture of their ballot paper.

These threats to withhold rights and benefits, which should be entitlements but became privileges, could be withheld if votes were not cast as required. Achieving compliance became easier using state resources, including databases of those receiving a pension or other government assistance. State employees were expected to see themselves as working for the current political leadership.  When one chief physician at a district hospital, whose wife was head midwife, was challenged by activists over his wife’s poor record in new-born mortality and his vote buying, he replied “I am not a public servant! I am not a public servant!”

While this is how political corruption operates at the lower level, it could not work so easily on those with some personal independence and therefore not so vulnerable, or with those so poor they might have nothing to lose.  At a higher level, political support has been wrought through increasing nationalism, which conveniently would play the role of diverting attention from the economic and social conditions that facilitated such corrupt political practices in the first place.

These individual stories and description of the general landscape of corruption are taken from a book ‘Staging Democracy, political performance in Ukraine, Russia and beyond’.  The author states that ‘Russia and Ukraine are widely viewed as occupying different places in regime-type taxonomies.  Yet key instruments of explicit political manipulation and control over most people’s everyday lives, if not the frequency of their use, are similar in the two countries.’  The examples quoted are all from Ukraine.

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In a previous post I noted the narrow differences in the political complexion of Ukraine and Russia:

‘The right wing US think-tank The CATO Institute has an annual ‘Human Freedom’ index, a combination of separate indices for personal and economic freedom.  Its 2021 report shows that Ukraine is the third worst country out of 22 in Eastern Europe while the Russian Federation is the worst.  Over 165 countries Ukraine is number 98 while Russia is 126.  The freest country at number 1 is Switzerland, which scores 9.11 for human freedom while Ukraine scores 6.86 (75% of the Swiss score) and Russia scores 6.23 (or 68% of the Swiss score).  We are expected to support the war of Ukraine with 75% of the ‘human freedom’ of the freest against Russia with 68%.  The war of 7%. It is relevant to note that while in 2021 Ukraine ranked 98th, it ranked higher at 82nd in 2008, so that relatively it has gotten worse, but so has Russia from 112th to 126th.’

‘The second index is that of ‘Transparency International’ which reports the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 180 countries/territories around the world. It scores these countries out of 100, with the lower the score the more corrupt a country is perceived to be.  The 2021 publication reports that the least corrupt countries included Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, scoring 88 each.  Ukraine is 123rd on the list while Russia is 139th. A better indication of the difference is that Ukraine scores 32 out of 100 while Russia scores 29, meaning that the former scores 36% of Denmark etc. while Russia scores 33%.  Not a pile of difference; 3 to be exact.’

In both countries the degree of political freedom has shrunk even further over the past year, at exactly the same time some from the pro-war Left have invited us to support one or the other capitalist state. While socialists should not do so in peacetime, we have even less reason to do so in war.

Back to part 11

Forward to part 13

2 thoughts on “The war in Ukraine (12) – democracy and authoritarianism?

  1. Pingback: The war in Ukraine (13) – the unity for democracy – 🚩

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