Viktor Kogan-Yasny: On the presidential elections, civil society, today's politics, Ukraine - and remembering Sajudis

posted 30 Jul 2018, 13:21 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Jul 2018, 13:25 ]
30 July 2018 

By Viktor Kogan-Yasny 

Viktor Kogan-Yasny is chair of the NGO Right to Life and Civic Dignity and a political adviser to the Yabloko party

A few more thoughts on the outcome of the presidential elections

The “despot with a human face” has won. No one doubted that, in the end, he would win. But there was a clear feeling that the breakdown of the result could have been different, more pluralistic and more positive. However, using the current situation to his advantage, he pulled in absolutely all of his potential electorate that he could. In this he was helped by his intuition, his advertising specialists, the intriguers headed by Navalny, and also by those Western politicians who, despite their public image and literally one day before 18 March, confirmed they are demagogues no less than our own.

So far as the most important factors are concerned, we must bear in mind - apart from the general system of political relations created over the many years of Putin’s rule, the situation in the media and culture, citizens attitudes to traditional authorities, and so on - one special feature we observe throughout the USSR and beyond.

The vast majority of the second post-war generation - who in our country were children under Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, lived their youth under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and have lived the rest of their lives so far under Putin - is in my view little concerned with ideas, is pragmatic in both the Soviet and post-Soviet sense, unsentimental and does not favour things coming to a halt, delays, or references to Dostoevsky. In this they differ both from the older generation and from those who are very young today.

But today’s young people, who have courage and readiness to act, in their turn are simply lacking in knowledge and moral preparedness, and therefore are easily distracted by things that are in fact not even worth thinking about. As a result, the behavioural model we see everywhere is one whereby choices are made as it were honestly and bravely, but also quickly and to avoid all complications, and moreover with a desire to be “like everyone else” - at the workplace, in the village or on a university course.

As a result, anyone who takes ideas at all seriously - and ideas, even the simplest, are always a little complicated - finds themselves suspended between a “neoBrezhnevism” on the one hand and the pointless courage of those sitting on a couch, on the other. At the same time, the ideas themselves, even the most consistent, have not been developed in such a way as to make them maximally convincing and presented in the context of sincere communication. In this I would also blame myself, although perhaps it has been simply impossible to achieve this goal given that practically the same thing is nowadays happening everywhere, or almost everywhere, in our lives, in both the narrow and broader meanings of that term.

24 March 2018

On Civil Society

Civil society, even in the most difficult times of its existence, has its own very important internal logic. I have in mind beneficial, rational and purposeful procedures, peaceful means of defending one’s position, the resolution of local issues through discussion, the manner in which issues raised by civil society activists are taken up through diplomacy and public debates by politicians, and a commitment to voting in elections even in the most difficult circumstances. Rejection of logical reasoning in matters related to the development of society means the end of civil society. This is not the end of the possibility of political struggle, not the end of political showmanship, of manipulation, nor the cessation of conflicts - but the end of civil society.

Dictatorship itself, if it is not a totally repressive tyranny, cannot completely abolish civil society. An intellectual emptiness - the lack of logical thinking as the leading force of disagreement - does precisely this. So now, whoever fights for benches to be placed in the courtyard, for ancient trees to be protected in the park, and so on, for all those things that those in power will never do anything about, must in the first place appeal to this intellectual emptiness for the defence of their interests. Dear Emptiness, knowing your leading current political role, just one step behind the authorities, we appeal to you with a big ask: defend our right to a bench and an ancient tree in the courtyard...

26 March 2018

Remembering things past

In my not so short life I have met quite a number of people whom I remember very well, who influenced me, either through long discussions or by a single phrase. Some of them even lived part of their lives in the nineteenth century! These people were very different from each other.

They included people known to almost everyone, and people who are absolutely unknown to the general public, good, benevolent people - and people who didn’t have those qualities to any large degree. Among my acquaintances there have been people who were sometimes very difficult, whose influence on me was far from always for the best, people whose views on life were generally incorrect, who made mistakes, and I was mistaken in following them. I don’t want to name any names, it’s not necessary. And I may have already forgotten a great deal.

But what unites all these people for me is that they made me realise the importance of a commitment to logical reasoning and the need to reject the approach of “just any old how” with regard to any matter or issue. One’s logical reasoning, as we well know, can often be wrong, with fatal mistakes made in the course of it and in the result, leading to tragic errors made in good faith. But “just any old how” is wrong by its very nature, it is no path to the truth.

So you see - excuse me for a degree of pathos and speculation on the theme of “what would they have said now” - recalling the people I have known well, I can imagine some of them voting on the spur of the moment for Putin (let them forgive me). But I almost cannot imagine a single one of them supporting the “voters’ strike” (I can, anecdotally, imagine those who, as I remember, for their own reasons, have no interest in or knowledge of “politics,” doing so, but that is really another story). And for me this is decisive in coming to my own personal views on the matter.

26 March 2018

On Information Wars

What is happening nowadays of political significance in the realm of information is very often described as "information warfare," "infowar," etc. But this is not correct: I remember the real information wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Facts were used selectively, interpretations were based on ideology, the achievements of the USSR or the West were either exaggerated or diminished. The newspaper Pravda would publish two pages of news about a new Soviet spaceship, and at the same time twenty lines about a similar achievement by the US. But, after Stalin, it was rare that either side would use something that was definitely fake. To do that was too dangerous.

Now “fake news” has become a part of ordinary media and social network streams. It is not an information war, but purely propaganda and manipulation. Russia and its political rivals are too often playing an equal, symmetrical, role in this dangerous field. This leads to a global degradation of politics: if you cannot point to facts and will never make any apology for false information, then you cannot render any, even minimal, assistance to defending truth, justice and the rule of law which have been the goals of democratic policymaking since World War II. In these times, we are seeing the very rapid growth of a feudal kind of "solidarism' which is very far from solidarity…

If we are not able to defend the truth on a global social and political level, we shall sink into the degrading phenomenon of XXI century feudalism.

1 April 2018

On the current situation

What has direct political, and possibly constructive, significance for us in the future is that a real barrier could finally be put up against “our” dirty money. This should have happened 20 years ago and on the basis of a conscious decision. But then, and since (and now too) the leading economies of the West were rather too pleased that this money had reached them.

The negative aspect of this event, apart from its lateness resulting from the nature of political systems, is that it has come about almost by chance, as a result of the internal political situation in the USA and ubiquitous intrigues, and has not been the result of a conscious goal, of a responsible political will making decisions in good faith.

Other on-going developments include dangerous mysteries, stains on reputations, scandals that understandably arise but don’t quite make sense and have unforeseen negative consequences, the use of militant and militaristic rhetoric, and very bad leadership.

9 April 2018

Misrepresentation of facts

Putin is again using the main contemporary weapon in global polemics - misrepresentation of facts. For those who think he is doing this on purpose, I would point out that he is not alone, there are a great many doing the same thing. But for me personally it is important that he is doing this because this is very bad for my country. Others can answer for themselves.

What do I have in mind?

He talks about a coup d'état in Ukraine. But it is important to point out that there was no coup d'état.There was a constitutional upheaval in which parliament exceeded its powers. This happened in extraordinary circumstances which had only a very tangential relation to military action. In parliament, people voted who are very friendly towards the Russian Federation. The system of government was not violated. Elections were held that Russia recognises. There are dozens of people very friendly to Russia sitting in the new parliament and only the actions of our own leadership have not allowed them to have a positive impact on policy.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine can be reestablished and compromises can be sought. In fact, much more is possible than may seem. But nothing can be done without an essential first step by Russia, a step which is all but impossible. Official Russia must stop lying.

Unless this happens, there will be nothing except tension and war, now and in the future. Russia, which is the bigger and stronger country geopolitically, has adopted an aggressive stance, and her lies are a huge weight on her. Russia must as a state be the first to stop lying.

Once this has been done, it will be possible to put an end to all the lies and deception to be found in Ukraine. There is no such thing as a good lie. The lies of many in Ukraine are in no way better, and in some ways worse and more dangerous, than the lies of the political leadership in Russia. But both in terms of politics, and in terms of history, if we want to stop the movement to the abyss, we must begin with what is simple and obvious, and then move on to what is more complex. That is the only way.

Oh, we shall all come to a bad end unless the the Kremlin stops misrepresenting facts and repeating the same old whataboutism in response to every criticism.

25 May 2018

On the anniversary of Sajudis*

Part One

When I remember Sajudis, which I saw from its very beginnings when I was in Lithuania in the summer of 1988, I have a number of very different feelings.

First of all, I remember my youth and that of my friends, the warmth of personal relationships, meeting exciting and interesting people. I remember the beginning of my own public and political activity that is directly linked to Lithuania and Sajudis in particular.

Secondly, I think about Sajudis as a historical example of how to use a window of opportunity to fight successfully for truth and freedom.

Thirdly, it hurts when I think of mistakes that have been made - including by me - that resulted in deaths. I shall always remember those who died. We all share a moral responsibility with regard to those who lie in the Military Cemetery in Vilnius, and I share that responsibility because we failed to consider the situation in January 1991 with enough depth and responsibility in the light of our moral duty.

Fourthly, and finally, when I consider the situation today, I feel sad that a community of people who are so important to me is playing a very small role in the main current political and social developments. Moreover, the phenomenon of Sajudis, which was of global significance, has passed into history in such a way that I fear not even all Lithuanian school children would immediately understand what the word means.

Sajudis was a driver of change in the Soviet Union because it fought, above all, for the truth. Gorbachev boldly spoke about the truth, but while he brought the question to the forefront of contemporary discussion and into the realm of political decision-making, he did not himself know the scale of the tragedy of the past that he was opening up, or what to do about it.

Gorbachev opened the window of opportunity, but it was Sajudis that swiftly and demonstratively opened the door. But the window came first, and we must all remember that. I am totally convinced that Gorbachev, who bears major political responsibility for the deaths of people in Vilnius and Riga, does not bear criminal responsibility. And that is why now, almost 30 years on, and against the background of the ‘hybrid totalitarianism’ of Russia’s current course, it would be appropriate for public figures in the Baltic countries to take a step towards recognition of this truly historical figure, a man who completely changed world politics at the end of the 20th century and who, for all the limitations of his specific views, put freedom at the centre of political priorities for a state that until then had prioritised only brutal repression and violence against the individual.

To go back to Sajudis: it fought for all the truth about history to be made public, not just parts of it, so that that each person, and the country as a whole, should have full freedom. Moreover, everyone without exception whom one met and talked with at that time, despite the differences in views about how and to what extent LIthuania should regain its independence, from those who were cautious to those who wanted to crudely ‘smash the system,’ thought that what was at issue was not just Lithuania itself. They were concerned about the whole process of liberation of countries and peoples that, in one way or another, had been part of the USSR, and above all about the liberation of each specific person from the fetters of the totalitarian system.

That is why we made such good friends, worked out common positions and helped one another in 1988, in 1989, in 1990 and in 1991 and even somewhat later. I well remember how Sajudis’ publications were everywhere in Moscow, and for the sake of historical accuracy I will say that there were even more publications by the Popular Front of Latvia. What was not permitted to be published or organised in the Russian Federation was printed or done in Lithuania and the Baltic countries. Moreover, the Moscow archives acted as a source of information about the occupation of the Baltics and repressive measures against the people of these countries. We had to think and act on a very large scale, although in many ways we were naive and rather childish. Very many of us saw Sajudis as the driver of enormous change of a global nature. For me, the ideas put forward by Sajudis chimed very well with the Paris Charter for a New Europe of 1990.

But it didn’t work out that way. And that is not simply sad, it is tragic.

Part Two

What happened to us?

Tragic barriers of distrust, provincialism and egocentricity are now plain for all to see.

In Russia there is today a neo-totalitarian or hybrid-totalitarian political regime that gives rise to very considerable hardships and threats both within the country and outside it. This is no longer a secret to anybody, although even quite recently many, for their comfort, preferred not to notice. I do not want to exaggerate in making political assessments, and therefore will say that, as I very much hope, Russian neo-totalitarianism in no way corresponds to the notion of a “global evil.” I would urge everyone to avoid exaggeration and to reject misrepresentations because unless we do this we are in a dead-end in terms of our political views and it will be impossible to make the right decisions. But those who have suffered from this voluntaristic, repressive and provocative regime, from its adventurism and lies, will be no better off if I were to prove the regime’s ‘moderation’ … They will always have the right to make exaggerated comparisons. There is nothing to be done about this, and it will always be one of life’s tragic problems.

But the reasons for what has happened in Russia and Russian politics do not lie solely with Russia in any sense. I would be so bold as to suggest that one important reason lies in the almost complete lack of a positive example. By the beginning of the 1990s, all the necessary external forces for reform in Russia had disappeared. World politics had become petty and narrow-minded, the ruling idea was that “all the main problems have been solved.” And now we have reached the point where, for all the negative assessments of Russian policy-making, similar threats have appeared in other parts of the world with such frequency that it is quite impossible to say which of them actually represents the greatest danger. And almost all the states of Eastern and Central Europe, even those generally considered exemplars of political and economic reform, as we very well see, have acquired many of the features of what can be termed a “state governed by private interests.” And this is all the more true of the countries that at one time or another formed part of the Soviet Union.

26 May 2018

A hybrid-totalitarian regime is when, on the one hand, public independent and opposition subcultures remain active, comparatively small in size and without significant influence, while, on the other hand, “people within the system” submit to especially strict rules of conduct according to the orders of the power hierarchy and are ready, at any moment, to carry out any order, even ones that are absurd, since they cannot imagine their lives outside the system.

28 May 2018

* Sajudis was established on 3 June 1988 with the goal of seeking the return of independent status for Lithuania (trans).