Symmetries and Asymmetries of the Ontologies of Power in Russia and Belarus

The metaphor “belarusianization” is being increasingly used for the descriptions of the changes that the Russian regime has been going through in the last years. However, it regards not the scientific, but rather the public-political discourse that is, moreover, politicized: in full accordance with the pattern noticed by Bourdieu1 Bourdieu 2001.1 the contra-elites seek to secure this metaphor as a legitimate definition of the Russian transformations direction, whereas the ruling elites deny (being totally sincere) its very possibility viewing the conversations about the “belarusianization” as nonsense at its best and as an obvious insult at its worst. However, the problem seems to be much deeper than just one of the episodes of the Russian internal political struggle and it only discovers the problem but by no means covers it at large. The question on the extent of similarity between the two countries’ vectors of development is far beyond the framework of the short-term pragmatism, at least due to such obvious fact that today both on the scientific and even more on the public-political levels there is no consensus on the far more fundamental issues about the nature and the logic of the development of the Russian and Belarusian regimes stipulated by this nature, while the existing interpretations vary within the unacceptably wide range.

It is true that in both cases further steps of the regime practically never can be predicted. The well-remembered intrigue with the presidential election in Russia, when the whole country appeared to be dragged into the speculations about the structure of the possible succession, although being the most discernable one, is rather typical of the Russian regime. Its any serious actions are always beginning with the personnel reshuffles and ending with the decisions that really transform the system, such as rejection from the direct elections of governors or the notorious “Yukos case”, caught the expert society on the hop, let alone the ordinary citizens. The predictability of the Belarusian President’s actions is a little higher: the rapid shifts from the “union’s construction” to the building of the nation-state and backward, the free drift along the ideological spectrum, from socialism to capitalism, always appeared to be a surprise if not for the experts, then for the foreign political partners of Belarus as well as for the significant part of the Belarusian society itself. However, the accessible official representation of both regimes disguises rather than reveals the true principles of the decision-making process, and it is extremely hard to make relevant forecasts on its basis. It is more about the fact that the cases of compliance with and violation of these principles are not structured in the coherent system, rather than the fact that the real practice is often at odds with the principles declared by the power. The worldview basis of the authorities’ policy remain mostly nontransparent and seem to be concealed intentionally, no less thoroughly than it was once done by the Venetian aristocracy2 Sergeev 1999.2.

One can notice with his naked eye that the political structures of the Russian and Belarusian regimes also have a lot in common. In both cases the role of the personal factor is extremely important and much more substantial than that of the institutional factors. Both treat the Western democratic mechanisms with caution, in the first place viewing them as the instrument of the external influence, although containing some universal values. Under both regimes the state property amounts to the substantial part of the economy with the state-controlled assets providing the significant part of the national income: the only difference is that Belarus did not undergo privatization, whereas Russia experienced the stage of the “wild capitalism”, and the today’s reality was formed as a result of the earlier privatized enterprises nationalization. The only difference that strikes the eye at the superficial glance is the economic self-sufficiency of Russia and self-insufficiency of Belarus. However, if taking into account the high world oil prices, this difference is no longer crucial: it is enough to take a look at the structure of the Russian export.

However, by taking the intent look, one can find out other differences that are of real importance and suggest evidence on the divergence of the ontological attitudes of the Russian and Belarusian ruling elites, which in its turn points out the possibility of totally different scenarios of these countries’ further development despite the potential situational similarity. It is revealed, in particular, that the key events related to the power that one way or another affects the foundations of its interaction with the society are interpreted in terms of the directly contrary logic. In Russia any confrontation between the regime and one interest group or another has always been interpreted as a one-time and by no means systemic phenomenon with its underlying reason usually being the personal confrontation between the certain actors, or their crude and obvious violation of the game rules as it happened within the “Yukos case” and ecological conflict on the “Sakhalin-2” as well as the “Russneft case”. Such confrontations do not presuppose any changes in the principal functioning of the system, including the official rhetoric, although in practice the shifts, including rather radical ones, undoubtedly take place: it is enough to remember the change of the very spirit of the law enforcement practice after the “Yukos case”. In Belarus, on the contrary, any political maneuver is presented as essential and cardinal, whereas the personal confrontation among the individuals (it can not be other way here due to the lack of any structured and self-sufficient interest groups) is shown as a systemic conflict entailing transformation of the rules of the regime functioning. However, in essence there is no transformation, and any other “fateful turn” inevitably appears to be a PR-project weakly underpinned by the real actions.

In other words, Russia declares the inalterability of the game rules with these rules being permanently changed in reality. Belarus declares the permanent change of the rules, but in reality they are never altered provided that the rule here implies ubiquitous and absolute domination of power. Of course, this difference can be explained by the personal features of the countries heads, which will be rather relevant in the theoretical terms taken into account their weight in the system, as well as by the institutional specificity — Russia still enjoys pluralism of interest groups, whereas Belarus lacks it. Therefore, in Russia the overt conflict between the regime and interest groups on the whole might provoke the systemic crisis, and that is why the regime seeks to present any confrontations as a situational one. In case of Belarus, where such restrictions are principally absent, the “systemic” reaction of the regime could only be justified by the intention to prevent the very possibility of structuring interest groups: under the conditions of permanent alteration of the game rules, their structuring is impossible by definition.

Nevertheless, such explanation seems to be insufficient since it tells nothing about the value foundations of the studied regimes (except for the “narrow” value of self-preservation), and these foundations are indisputably present since otherwise, the regimes would not be able to retain their legitimacy, nor about the “teleology” of the regimes implied by these values, understanding of which is of crucial importance for determining a range of the potential scenarios of their further development. This question seems to deserve more comprehensive treatment.

The ValueOntological Integration of the Ruling Elites: Russia

The value integration of the Russian ruling elites is beyond dispute. Neither the parliament nor the government demonstrate any substantial value cleavages: the observed disagreements are usually of a tactical character, whereas there is obvious consensus on the strategic issues.

However, one has the impression that initially these values were formed within the economic discourse, after which they were simply transferred into the political one and adjusted towards it. The rhetoric of the first person (in the first place, it regards Putin) as well as the official speakers is replete with the economic terminology and always implies the economic meaning by each political decision, whether it is about monetization of benefits, energy expansion or “gas” principles in the relations with the nearand far-abroad countries. The most important and practically the only corporation, which interests are undoubtedly identified with the state’s ones, is Gazprom. The prolongation of the gas contracts for another year has already become a usual New Year’s intrigue, which is being followed by the whole country, while the question on the Gazprom’s inclusion into the European gas-distributing networks always enviably come to the agenda of various visits abroad of the Russian first persons.

Moreover, the economic tooling is clearly thought of as the means of controlling politics and the sphere of the political, which has become especially obvious after Russia’s failed attempt to influence the Ukrainian elections’ results in 2004. Since that moment the Russian foreign policy rhetoric began to actively dispose of some mythologized terms formed in the 1990s, in the first place from the term “pro-Russianness” and “Yeltsin’s” semantic row derived from the former that implied the Russian obligation to subsidize “proRussianness” for the very fact of its declaration by one post-Soviet country or another without questioning what is implied by it and not gaining any dividends in return. However, the adequate political concept that would allow reconsidering “pro-Russianness” in the spirit of the new epoch has not emerged yet. The economic discourse that was used as the foundation for the relationships within the post-Soviet space has not generated the “super-structural” stages and so far has brought nothing else but the expenses in the form of the deepening isolationism as a thinking paradigm inside the country and the surge of the anti-imperial phobias outside the country, when Russia began to be suspected of the new imperial expansion performed by the means of the economic dictation.

The similar situation is observed within the internal politics. Despite the clear articulation of the economic priorities and imperatives, the political priorities remain rather blurred. The rather vague and to a great extent declarative national projects are probably the maximal degree of conceptualizing the internal priorities that the Russian authorities were able to present; the conception of the “sovereign democracy”, although regarding both internal and external contexts, mostly describes the foreign policy attitudes and is aimed at explaining the already undertaken steps rather than the ideology of the next ones; “Putin’s plan” proposed by the “party of power” as an election program in 2007 still remains an abstract declaration being subject for a wide range of interpretations, but on the whole implying the existing status quo reproduction.

In practice, of course, it is hardly about the intentional course towards isolationism or imperial foreign policy plans. Furthermore, there are reasonable doubts about the very possibility of the political rather than economic plan, because the economic paradigm of thinking, which the Russian power directly or latently appeals to, is more of a financial, monetary character rather than the economic one as a whole. The logic of the financier, however, implies the extreme undesirability to invest into the “startups” due to the high risk of such investments — they are performed only in case of the lack of more reliable alternatives and under enforcement.

In other words, the Russian ruling class simply avoids generation of new substances being unreliable and risky investments, preferring to act within the already established framework with a certain “rate of profit”. The management within such approach in the first place comes down to administration, i.e. distribution of the resources within the existing reality that is thought of in terms of being stable and unchangeable, but by no means to the impact over this reality.

However, the latter is constantly changing, in the first place due to the realization of the “administrative” governmental paradigm aimed at its reproduction in the inalterable form. The logic of the pragmatic reasonableness requires situational reinterpretation of the norms and rules that are thereby becoming the object of the influence, inevitably obtaining vaguer forms, rather than the reason or the “framework” for the authorities’ activity.

It is clear that such reinterpretations in their true sense are comprehended by the elite. However, instead of somehow conceptualizing them, the Russian elites prefer to pretend as if nothing was happening, trying to legitimize the performed changes by invoking the Soviet Union with this evocation being overall restricted to the return of some symbols of the Soviet epoch, for instance, the melody of the hymn, rhetoric, as well as partial restoration of the public confrontation with the US and to a lesser extent with the West as a whole, by no means implying the revival of the USSR as such.

As a result, a rather eclectic scheme emerges. The logic of decisionmaking within its framework is schematically depicted in the Picture 1, where P stands for the power system, N — for normative systems, both institutionalized and informal, M — for meritocratic structures (interest groups); the upper arrow points out the secondary nature, i.e. subordination of the norms to pragmatism; solid arrows stand for the channels of the real vertical and horizontal mobility, whereas the dashed ones — for the low or only potential one.

In principle, on the level of decision-making we get the purely protestant architecture of the political system3 Koktysh 2002.3 that in its most completed form is inherent in the US with the critical difference lying in the fact that the political architecture of the US does not have taboo regarding the modification of the normative code that takes the shape of the lawyer’s practice within the precedential law, whereas in Russia such activity is hardly possible. It is substantially hampered not only by the law system, but also by the elite’ monopolization over the legitimate interpretation of reality that was established as a result of the “party of power” domination in the parliament and lack of other, nonparliament, but at the same time legitimate for the society, normative institutions. Therefore, the Russian architecture inescapably provokes serious problems with the vertical mobility. Since under such construction the power system always represents interests in the first place of the biggest meritocratic structures (or one structure) and act in accordance with a good deal of business-logic (“whatever is good for Ford, is good for the US”4), it is not able by definition to generate enough carrier prospects that are not based on the market considerations. At the same time, due to the normative context’s subordinate position vis-à-vis pragmatism it also blocks the possibility of their mass self-emergence, because the interests of the smaller meritocratic structures can only be realized to the extent, to which they do not contradict to the interests of the dominating structure. In Russia, for instance, the downside of the raw materials economy’s prevailing position is the underdeveloped process economy, i.e. the industry as such that at its best partly resorted, but by no means qualitatively developed, as well as the practical lack of the postindustrial sector.

To put it differently, the system itself due to the specificity of its institutional structure creates prerequisites for the “orange revolution” with the risk of the latter (that by its nature in the first place reflects the reaction of the society to the deficit of the vertical mobility) being able to only increase over time. It is the system of legitimizing the decisions made (see Picture 2) that encourages “defuse” of this constantly intensifying generation pressure from “below” — especially when it regards the evocation of the USSR’s spirit.

In this case the normative context beyond doubt holds the primary position vis-à-vis pragmatism: it is enough to remember that in the USSR the role of the normative hierarchy determining the game rules was performed by the CPSU, whereas the decisions in the framework of the established rules were taken and realized through the structure of the executive power with the most important thing being not a pragmatic efficiency, but the compliance with the rules, regardless of the extent of their correlation with the modern reality since as, for example, Gorbachev’s perestroika showed, the modification of even clearly obsolete rules is frightened with serious shocks.

It is worth mentioning that such type of the architecture being put in practice does not face problems of the vertical mobility. Moreover, in contrast to the architecture of decision-making, here the most attractive thing is rather a career within the normative hierarchy that from being the phantom legitimizing the already made decisions turns into the real power.

It is this architecture that seems to have allowed the ruling elites to “demine” the potential of the “orange revolution”4 Kazantsev 2006.4 stimulating the emergence of the mass youth pro-Kremlin movements and bureaucratic growth of the “party of power”. However, the tactical efficiency bred the grave strategic problem, and over time the system will inevitably face the following dilemma: either somehow it disavows those career prospects that the “new commissars” of all ages, ranging from youth movements to the “party of power”, count on, or actually transfer power to a new normative hierarchy. The first scenario might entail some rather non-trivial difficulties; the second one is likely to end up with the same economic inefficiency like the one in the USSR and direct dependence of the social stability on the world oil prices due to the simple reason that during the post-Soviet period there has not been any technological breakthrough so far, new legitimate norms and rules in general have not been established yet, and it is only Soviet norms and rules that can be the legitimate “example”. As a result, the threat of returning to the year of 1986 will emerge, without any specific gains, but with the substantial losses.

The ValueOntological Integration of the Ruling Elites: Belarus

The value integration of the Belarusian elites is also beyond any doubts. The Belarusian regime demonstrates the high extent of the ruling class consolidation: up till now there were no significant splits that were of the systemic rather than personal character. Even today the ruling class looks rather monolithic and united.

However, these values are rather specific and by their definition refer mostly to the public political discourse. One has the impression that propaganda is not only meta-language of the communication between the power and broad layers of the society, but also in many respects the language of the power itself. Otherwise, it is hard to explain why the Belarusian regime enters various, often mutually exclusive domestic and foreign policy projects: it is logical, indeed only in case if reality is viewed as being simple and monosyllabic. It is true that the Belarusian regime repeatedly demonstrated its ability to freely move along the whole ideological spectrum transferring from rather Soviet socialist rhetoric to that of the state capitalism and nation-state and backward, at the same time claiming membership in various geopolitical combinations, ranging from the close alliance with Russia to joining Non-Aligned Movement and integrating into a number of the European structures.

By all appearances, the public political tooling is viewed by the Belarusian ruling elites as a universal means of managing social life on the whole and economy in particular. The public political expediency is always regarded as the main, if not the only one, argument for making domestic and foreign policy decisions, often without taking into account its economic price. Up till now there were solid reasons for such political behavior: the union with Russia that was undoubtedly the main accomplishment of the Belarusian regime practically for a decade continuously provided the Belarusian President with the resource (in the form of the privilege prices for the energy carriers and the opportunity to use the factor of borderlessness) that was quite enough for maintaining the acceptable level of life in the republic regardless of the real efficiency of its economy. Furthermore, after the increase in the world oil prices the Belarusian system over several years, up to the oil-gas conflict at the end of 2006, lacking its own energy carriers can be regarded as nothing else but the classic “petro-state”.

However, the Belarusian populism also has its constants. It was already mentioned before that this regime permanently generates “changes without changes” with every other ideological doctrine inevitably leading to the preservation of the existing status quo. The reason seems to lie in the extent of populism: any ideological constructs within the Belarusian power discourse can exist only in the most vague, simplified form and therefore, unavoidably appear to be “variables”, i.e. accessories that can be easily replaced if necessary5 Koktysh 1999.5. The constant is the power quality of the President as the source and demiurge of the current political system and its only real subject: whatever the combination, he remains to be the reason for everything (which was rather logical as long as Russia expressed its readiness to buy friendly rhetoric in exchange for energy carriers). Basically, it is this constant that determined the decision-making logic: the decisions are taken regardless of the economic, social, and political value of the matter.

It is noteworthy that the already made decisions are legitimized through the declared pragmatic expediency rather than concerns about the supreme order. Practically every maneuver of the Belarusian power is presented in the public political space as another confirmation of the high competitiveness of the Belarusian production and efficiency of the Belarusian economy. The very construction of decision-making in essence rules out the possibility of the efficient economic plan since it in principle can not guarantee stable game rules.

The logic of the decision-making process within the Belarusian system is reflected in the Picture 3, where N stands for the normative hierarchy, P — for the executive power, M — for meritocratic hierarchies; the upper arrow points out the secondary nature, i.e. subordination of pragmatism to the basic, i.e. “constant”, norms; solid arrows below stand for the channels of the real vertical and horizontal mobility, whereas the dashed ones — for the low or only potential one.

Thus, at the level of decision-making process there is the quasi-Soviet model of architecture. It is “quasi”, because the rules and norms in the USSR were institutionalized through the CPSU structure and were viewed as the absolute and relatively transparent constants structured into the cohesive logical system, which resulted in the non-imitative vertical mobility: one could terminate another persons’ career only in case of the crude violation of the rules that were established and known in advance. However, in the modern Belarus the normative institution is replaced with the President relying upon the power vertical. The latter, of course, creates conditions for the high vertical mobility, but this mobility is in general imitative since it is related to the embodiment of the set of constant norms rather than the changeable ones: each situational review of this set naturally overlaps with the career prospects. The vertical mobility within the meritocratic structures is also mostly imitative as a result of the underdeveloped interest groups being autonomous vis-à-vis the state and lack of the stable game rules as well as the deficit of the career offers and overall degradation of the state-owned assets, which for a long time the economic, rather than social efficiency was demanded in the first place from. The mobility of the ruling elite as such concentrated in the executive bodies is to the same extent conventional: is does not possess an opportunity to get rid of the “technical” status.

The taken decisions are being legitimized with accordance to the absolutely different logic (see Picture 4) that, as in Russia, is of the totally phantom nature.

However, while in Russia the “reversed” legitimization is caused by the concerns regarding the low vertical mobility, in Belarus its reason lies in the “changeable” character of the ideological constructs: the society will not take them as an actual change as long as the system is able to demonstrate its pragmatic efficiency, i.e. an ability to solve economic problems in an acceptable way. This ability that has already been significantly reduced will be inevitably decreasing in the future: after the Belarusian regime was deprived of the substantial part of its resources6 Judging by the figures from Putin’s speech broadcast on TV during the oilgas conflict in December 2006, while 2 years ago Russia subsidized nearly 60% of the Belarusian budget, last year the amount was only 41%.6, the dynamics of worsening is rather predictable. The real transition to the political architecture of the Protestant type that is used today as the legitimizing one seems doubtful and unlikely, even if the situation with the resources’ provision continues to further aggravate, which the Belarusian system due to the obvious reasons is highly sensitive to. The intractable problem here is the ruling elites’ basic ontological attitudes that require permanent modification of the game rules as a result of the pragmatic, rather than political, necessity escalated from the “above”, rather than “below”: the institution that guarantees stability and non-exclusiveness of the game rules can not emerge within such configuration.

In order for the “legitimizing phantom” to become real, the change of the key players is necessary. In the current situation this role can be claimed, perhaps, only by the meritocratic structures emerging from outside that should be rather big in order to independently provide for the fulfillment of the contracts under the conditions when the institutionalized rules are practically absent.

Symmetries and Asymmetries

All in all, the performed analysis indicates that the value-worldview attitudes of the Russian and Belarusian elites despite their asymmetry (monetary context as a worldview basis in Russia and the public political one in Belarus) are rather symmetrical at the level of the macro-construction: in both cases we observe a certain symbiosis of the mutually controversial logics of decisionmaking and decision-legitimization, with the logic of the first one rejecting in essence the logic of the second, and therefore, the use of such logic will inevitably lead to the erosion of the very system of decision-making that thereby delegitimizes itself — the situation typical of the post-Soviet space on the whole.

This begs the question: why have both Russian and Belarusian ruling elites built such a controversial and — within the framework of this construction — obviously temporary political system? Although in this case we can rely mostly upon the assumptions, there is at least one reason on the surface that comes down to those ontological constructs that due to the specifics of their origin and previous experience the Russian as well as Belarusian elites can operate with.

It is, for instance, absolutely clear that state governance by no means can be based exclusively on the monetary logic, since with such approach neither any social projects nor the production on the whole appear to be “profitable”: the payoff period in case of investments into industry seems too long, and in case of those into the social projects — super long. The open realization of the monetary principles in Yeltsin’s epoch put Russia on the brink of the social explosion. Under Putin, instead of the expected review of the governance paradigm, the virtual restoration of the “ideological department of the Central Committee” took place, as if the partkhosaktiv (party economic managers), with the today’s Russian elites being its spiritual successor, having found out its own illegitimacy, simply had generated its phantom being the mediator between partkhosaktiv and the society. A number of social projects started to be implemented in the name of this virtual “ideological department” with the “defuse” of the situation being its main goal, whereas solving the social problems as such was no more than a side-effect. The ruling elites have not resolved to conceptualize “the project of Russia” do far.

The same scenario, although in the “reversed” logic vis-à-vis Russia, was realized in Belarus, where the existence of the partkhozotdelov (party economic departments) became subject to imitation, which were in practice no less phantom than the Russian “ideological department”. Public political discourse could seem sufficient for administration only if there was a stable market being ready to obtain the rhetoric. Moreover, the fact that such market in the face of Russia existed throughout the decade, made the situation ‘neglected”. The ruling elites have neither formulated the “project of Belarus”, nor have they moved in this direction, since they have not even seen the need in such “project” as a challenge and a problem.

The use by the Russian and Belarusian ruling elites of the “legitimizing phantoms” suggests that each of them does not consider itself fully legitimate and its worldview attitudes self-sufficient. In this situation, the society is inevitably interpreted as a hardly transparent and obscure potential political subject that if structured can pose a serious danger. Therefore, the authorities’ projects appear to be aimed in the first place at deconsolidating society and securing its passiveness, that is maintaining its political subjectness in the latent condition, whereas its development is only one of the implications of this policy’s implementation.

Such situation can not be stable on its own — its stability depends only from the ruling elites’ ability to balance between the society and the “legitimate golem” under the conditions of the permanently deepening feeling of their own illegitimacy. It is by no means about “belarusianization” of Russia, or vise versa, “russianization” of Belarus: it would be more relevant to talk about the “transition” being incomplete to the same extent in both cases, about the countries’ inter-project state and widening range of failure options due to the fact that a number of more favorable opportunities have already been missed.


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