Perceptions of Liberalism in Post-Soviet Societies*

Today, there is a total confusion about what liberalism means in a number of post-Soviet societies.

First, critics and opponents of liberalism accuse it of creating a society of spoiled people; they blame liberalism for creating societies without moral standards. A stereotypical view of liberalism shared by a great majority of conservative Russians assumes that liberalism, specifically a liberal understanding of liberty, defends “liberty to commit sin, even liberty to live like a beast, therefore, liberalism downgrades human dignity, while the Orthodox Christian understanding of liberty means liberty from sin”[1]. Moreover, liberalism is perceived as “elimination of God’s image in human nature, making humankind devoid of the sacred”.[2] Similarly, liberalism is equated with absolute profaneness and hedonism.[3] It can be argued that these perceptions of liberalism by conservative Russian Christians are also shared by a majority of Muslims living in Russia and Russia-leaning countries.

Second, in general, liberalism is conceived of as a policy of the powerful towards the weak, depriving the weak of any chance of becoming strong.[4] Particularly, critics and opponents of liberalism in Russia claim that liberalism is committed to destroying Russian power and greatness.[5] For instance, the epigraph of the book Krepost Rossiya (Fortress Russia), written by a group of Russian economists, contains the expression “Russia has a great future ahead if the authorities finally say goodbye to the liberalism that is hated by the people”[6]. A number of anti-liberal Russian intellectuals believe that the elite who are pro-liberal will inevitably turn out to be compradors of Western neo-colonial powers. Even those who feel mere sympathy toward liberal ideas tend to be regarded, not just as pro-Western, but as lackeys of Western powers who are determined to destroy Russia.

Third, closely related to the second stereotype, the extrapolation of neoliberalism to liberalism in a broad sense is frequently observable in Russia.[7] However, neoliberalism is, in fact, only one of the models of liberalism, specifically a model of economic governance. Some Russian thinkers, by mingling the concepts of liberalism as a political ideal/liberalism in broad sense and neoliberalism as an economic model go so far as to argue that liberalism assumes that people live for profit, puts the state at the service of global business, not of its people, and leads to the elimination of the middle class.

It should be admitted that in a number of post-Soviet countries the basic idea of liberalism in the practical dimension has been distorted into the ideal of trying to get something [material], often in an unlawful manner, while the basic idea of properly understood liberalism is “the ideal of a society of individuals trying to be something”[8]. Post-Soviet people, especially intellectuals who criticize liberalism, do so because of the failure of early liberal reformers to protect values such as justice, equal opportunity, and foremost, the basic, fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals, which constitute the cornerstone of any variation of liberalism. That is why, while in the United States liberalism means more responsible government to secure the achievement of equal opportunity and equality before the law for all, in post-Soviet societies, a considerable number of people started accepting these principles in opposite as “not liberal values”.

The perception of liberalism as a phenomenon of social injustice gradually emerged after the collapse of Soviet Union, as the process of disintegration of the Soviet Union was carried out by some liberal politicians and interest groups that were liberal only in name to gain benefit and privatize state (Soviet) property, not infrequently in an unfair and illegal manner.[9] As one of the most ardent critics of this process in Russia, Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization Studies, espouses the view that the political groups presented as liberal divided Russia and grabbed much of its wealth.[10] Assylbek Bissembayev, former leader of the liberal movement in Kazakhstan, warns that the transformation of the Soviet economy, especially privatization of public property, which was implemented under the banner of liberal reforms, in reality hardly resembled any liberalism, let alone a policy of marketization which was supposed to be implemented through legal methods. Reforms aimed at establishing market economies in post-Soviet countries are falsely identified as liberal, when in fact they were only part of the marketization process. Moreover, since these were identified as liberal reforms, mistaken perceptions of liberalism emerged.[11] In reality, what occurred was not development of liberal ideas as such but a process by which particular groups of opportunists benefited enormously from the transition from socialism to capitalism.

Fourth, what is extremely surprising is that a number of people in Russia and Russia-leaning countries assume that liberalism shelters fascism and extreme nationalism. This tendency has accelerated, particularly since the crisis in Ukraine of 2013-2014. In the face of the hijacking of liberalism by some extreme nationalist groups in Ukraine and Baltic countries, the juxtaposition of concepts like fascist pro-liberals or nationalist liberals (expressions that are actually oxymorons) and anti-fascist anti-liberals have occurred in post-Soviet societies.[12] Likewise, the assumption that “liberalism defends only the rights of some chosen minorities while neglecting the basic rights of the majority”[13] has been formed.

To summarize, after the tumultuous 1990s and a set of crises that have erupted in recent years, liberalism has become fundamentally misunderstood in the post-Soviet context. Along with equating liberalism with the neo-liberal economic model, perceptions that liberalism means injustice, disorder, abuse of power by power-holders, oligarchism and nepotism, and even servility to the West and fascism, have become widespread in a number of post-Soviet countries. In contrast, in developed liberal countries, liberalism is premised upon the rule of law, all being bound by laws and obligated to obey laws, accountable and citizen-oriented- government, meritocracy and pluralism.

 

[1] As it was formulated by one of the leaders of the “Radonezh” association. See Daniel, Alexander, “Eshe raz o liberalnih tsennostyah i interpretatsiyah” (“Once again about liberal values and interpretations”), Moscow-based Russian human rights organization “SOVA Center,” January 25, 2005 [http://www.sova-center.ru/religion/publications/secularism-limits/2005/01/d3390/]. See also, “Svoboda lichnosti: vzglyad liberalniy i vzglyad pravoslavniy” (“Freedoms and liberties of individual: liberal view and Orthodox Cristian view”), Radio Liberty, July 13, 2005, http://archive.svoboda.org/programs/rt/2004/rt.071304.asp

[2] Nikiforov, Yevgeniy, “Tam Gde dobdo pod zapretom” (“Where goodness is prohibited”), Russian Orthodox Christian Community “Radonezh”, October 5, 2004 [http://radonezh.ru/analytic/8879.html]

[3] Leontyev, Mihail, “Proschaniye s Liberalizmom (Farewell to Liberalism)” in Leontyev, Mihail et al. Krepost Rossiya (Fortress Russia), Moscow: Yauza, Moscow: EKSMO, 2008, e-book: [http://projectrussia.orthodoxy.ru/]

[4] Ibid.

[5] Delyagin, Mihail, “Liberal rlimination of Russia will go on,” Nakanune.ru, January 30, 2012 [http://www.nakanune.ru/service/print.php?articles=6183]; [http://rusinform.ru/index.php?newsid=129]

[6] Leontyev, Mihail, “Proschaniye”.

[7] See, for example, the views of Mihail Delyagin, personal website “Delaygin.ru”, [http://delyagin.ru/position/22660-liberalnyj-fundamentalizm-ne-yekonomicheskoe-techenie-a-religiya.html]

 

[8] Thompson, Dorothy. “Liberalism and Morality” in Laura Grey, Liberalism and Morality, October 5, 2008 [http://littlehoppingbird.blogspot.com/2008/10/liberalism-and-morality.html].

[9] Tatilya, Kenzhe, “Kristalnoy dushi liberal” (“Liberal with a pure heart”), Central Asia Monitor, July 12, 2013 [http://camonitor.com/archives/8406]; Tatilya, Kenzhe, “Kto i kak ispolzoval liberalism v Kazakhstane” (“Who and how exploited liberalism in Kazakhstan”), Centrasia.RU, July 12, 2013 [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1373832480]

[10] Delyagin, Mikhail, “Towards a liberal dictatorship?” [ http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/towards-a-liberal-dictatorship-#MkkvQLEFiSPyX5Lh.99]

[11] Tatilya, Kenzhe, “Kristalnoy”.

[12] Kubanov, A. “Contemporary liberalism is the vanguard of fascism,” Zavtra, April 1, 2014 (Russian source)

Ibrayev, T. “From where do Maidans come?” Nomad, March 28, 2014 (Kazakhstani source), [http://www.nomad.su/?a=3-201403280017]

[13] Patriach Kirill, “Pravoslaviye i Liberalism: Protivostoyaniye ili Dialog: Mitropolit Kirill o ‘pravah cheloveka’” “Orthodox Christianity and liberalism: confrontation or dialogue: Patriarch Kirill on ‘human rights’”), Russian Orthodox Christian Community “Radonezh,”July 2, 2004 [http://radonezh.ru/analytic/8839.html]. 

 

*This article is an excerpt from a paper first published by Rethink Institute,The Disenchantment with Liberalism in Post-Soviet Societies”, Rethink Papers 20, Washington, DC, January 2015

Galym Zhussipbek

Independent Scholar, Almaty

Education

PhD in International Relations, Ankara University

Masters and Bachelor degree in International Relations, Ankara University

Research Interests

EU and post-Soviet area

Regional integration

Orientalism, critical approach

Critical theories in IPE

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