How the West’s normativists misjudged Russia


The expert community both in the West and Russia is retracing the steps that Sovietologists made in the 1980s, when they turned out to be completely unprepared for the disintegration of the global socialist system, revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, notes analyst Lilia Shevtsova. The 1989—1991 events spelled disaster for political science and the politicians who acted on advice from Sovietologists, she writes for The American Interest:

In their Anticipations of the Failure of Communism, American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset (right) and Hungarian sociologist Gyorgy Bence analyzing why political scientists failed to predict the end of Communism noted that “the scholars sought to explain how the system worked. They took the fact of the USSR’s long-term existence for granted. Thus, they looked for institutions and values that stabilized the polity and society.” Meanwhile, they needed “to emphasize dysfunctional aspects, structures, and behaviors, which might cause a crisis.”

The normativists have faced a number of methodological problems too. One of the problems was their inability to adopt a dual-track approach incorporating both interests and values, adds Shevtsova, a member of the Journal of Democracy’s Editorial Board:

The normativists also hoped that if Russia began to imitate norms and was admitted to Western institutions (the Council of Europe and the G-8), it would eventually adopt these norms in earnest. Besides, the normativists concentrated on democracy promotion in Russia, which was frequently reduced to cooperation between Western institutions and an increasingly authoritarian Russian leadership, as well as Western funding for the mechanisms of Russia’s imitation democracy (a fact the normativists were frequently embarrassed to admit). The normativists also failed to take note of another development: the Russian System created a mechanism to lobby for its interests in the West, thus undermining Western liberal principles from within. In other words, while the normativists were trying to teach Russian society democracy, they missed the fact that the Western world had become a safe space for Russian authoritarianismRTWT

It has become a cliché to write off President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western pitches as only intended for internal consumption—uttered to rally the population around the Kremlin and dampen possible social discontent in times of economic and financial strain, notes Jamestown analyst Pavel Felgenhauer:

However, in a recent interview for the German weekly Bild, clearly aimed at a Western audience, Putin once more accused the West of treachery for enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moreover, he again declared the annexation of Crimea to be absolutely legitimate ….Putin seems to believe his own rhetoric and also apparently hopes that the European nations can be enlightened and induced to rebel against US domination. 

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