Window on Eurasia: Putin Seen Promoting 'Society of Citizens' Against 'Civil Society'

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 13, 2005  |  ARTICLES

President Vladimir Putin is promoting “a society of citizens” who enjoy a variety of rights and freedoms against “a civil society” organized in ways that allow groups of citizens to put pressure on the Russian state, according to one Moscow commentator.

In an article posted on the “Russkiy zhurnal” website yesterday, Aleksandr Yeliseyev, a Russian nationalist who has celebrated the rebuilding of what Putin calls “the power vertical,” argues that the Kremlin remains committed to the former even as it works against efforts to build the latter (http://www.russ.ru/culture/20050621_elis.html). 

Entitling his essay “Is August 1991 Devouring Its Own Children?” Yeliseyev suggests that over the last 15 years, Russia has gone through a pattern familiar to all who have studied revolutions there and elsewhere.

Those who make the revolution to begin with, an essentially destructive act,  not surprisingly always want to continue to play a role, and for those who made the August 1991 revolution, Yeliseyev continues, the most effective way for them to do so is the creation of a network of institutions generally labeled “civil society.”

But as has been true in other revolutions, he continues, this first generation is now being displaced by a new one, by people more interested in building something than in continuing the revolution of the past.  In Russia, this new group includes Putin and his supporters, few of whom see a major role for those who made the 1991 revolution in the first place.
Indeed, Yeliseyev explicitly says that those who made the 1991 revolution in Russia and want to extend it now have aspirations analogous to and find themselves in a position similar to those like Leon Trotsky. In contrast, those who want to build something new -- the “party of power” -- occupy a place in Russian politics like that of Joseph Stalin.

But having said that, Yeliseyev is insistent that Putin has no intention of returning to the brutal policies of his Soviet-era predecessor.  Instead, the Moscow commentator argues in his essay, Putin and his government are committed to the idea of what he calls “a society of citizens” even as they move to marginalize “civil society.” “A society of citizens” in their understanding, Yeliseyev continues, involves “not only obligations but also rights and freedoms fixed in the Constitution.  And ”these freedoms in principle are observed: it is possible to meet, to create various political associations, and to express one’s dissatisfaction with the authorities.”

Moreover, in this “society of citizens,” individuals can be involved in private business and can even make “a great deal of money.”  But according to Yeliseyev, that is as far as Putin and his regime are prepared to allow things to go, and neither he nor they are prepared to tolerate civil society institutions that can put real pressure on the state. 
To a certain extent, “a society of citizens” will have an influence on the government, Yeliseyev concedes, but he adds that “on the whole, the influence of those in power on society will be much stronger.”

Yeliseyev uses this model not only to explain the often apparently contradictory approaches of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in the past but also to suggest the direction the Kremlin is likely to move in the future not only with regard to particular political organizations but also in terms of the protection of the rights of individuals.

Many people both in the Russian Federation and abroad are likely to dismiss Yeliseyev’s argument not only because of his association with extreme nationalist causes but also because they will reject one or another part of his argument about just where Putin is and where he wants to go.

A large number of Russians and outside observers will accept Yeliseyev’s suggestion that Putin is working to subvert “civil society” as Yeliseyev defines it, but far fewer are likely to find convincing his insistence that Putin really wants to advance the values and rights of  “a society of citizens.”

But Yeliseyev’s argument is intriguing precisely because he draws the distinction between these two concepts, something few analysts have done up to now and one that helps to explain many of the paradoxes of Putin and his efforts to build something new on the wreckage that remained after the 1991 August revolution.