Virtual politics

By James Harkin (THE GUARDIAN, 01/04/06):

If you feel too confused about current political events in Ukraine or Belarus even to offer a dinner-party opinion, don’t fret. According to Andrew Wilson, an academic at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, we are perfectly right to be a little perplexed, because nothing is as it seems. In his book Virtual Politics, Wilson argues that much of what passes for democratic participation in most of the countries of the former Soviet Union is entirely fake, a carefully choreographed performance designed to maintain the political status quo.

A decade ago, most political scientists liked to talk animatedly about “post-Soviet transitions to democracy” as though this were a natural process in which they might lend a hand. Nowadays, their mood is more circumspect. After a brief flurry of popular protest in Russia and its neighbours after the implosion of the Soviet Union, Wilson argues, political elites entrenched their position and democratic impulses ossified into scorn for politics of all stripes. In a world in which a return to totalitarianism is considered unacceptable, says Wilson, virtual politics “is the way that elites seek to manage, manipulate and contain democracy”.

How does it all work? The democratic process, according to Wilson, is choreographed by a cadre of “political technologists” – many of whom learned their craft as apparatchiks in Soviet times. Whole parties and politicians are launched as TV projects, and then dropped as soon as they outlive their usefulness; electoral rolls are tinkered with; fake opinion polls and sociological surveys are drummed up to intimidate and demoralise opponents; “shell parties” are regularly constructed out of thin air, or real parties cloned to confuse the electorate. The politicians are usually only avatars, says Wilson, like the easily clickable icons of cyberspace.

For the most part, Wilson’s ire is directed at authoritarian governments in Moscow, Minsk and Kiev, but it might just as easily apply to the “movements within civil society” that are sponsored not by Russia but by Europe and America. Western commentators, for example, became curiously dewy-eyed when Viktor Yushchenko won the Ukrainian election from the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich in the “orange revolution” of 2004. Now that the party of his former opponent has triumphed in this week’s parliamentary elections, however, many of them are lost for words. Likewise, last week’s re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus was widely and rightly condemned as fishy by western governments, but it is often forgotten that he has a good deal more popular support than his opponents. In this new phoney war, democracy and civil society are the plaything not only of the FSB (the successor to the KGB), but of the CIA and MI6, too.

Such is our inability to see through the political fog, according to Wilson, that the study of post-Soviet politics might soon revert to something similar to Kremlinology – the painstaking study of Soviet announcements and rituals that was used to divine what was really happening in the corridors of Soviet power. One way out of the shadows might be to agree a ceasefire on claims that one’s own political clique is the authentic voice of “civil society” – a scoundrel concept if ever there was one.