In the heyday of geopolitical optimism after the First Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet empire, political theorist Francis Fukuyama prophesied the “End of History.” What he meant was that liberal democracy was ascendant and would continue to be ascendant in the coming years.
History had other things in mind. That fate culminated in the recent move by the Russian federal legislature to give Vladimir Putin almost unlimited powers until 2036.
How did we get here?
The Boris Yeltsin era in the former Soviet Union, then reduced to a truncated Russia, was an “Era of Good Feelings” between Russia and the West. Yeltsin himself regularly and merrily cavorted with Bill Clinton. But as that was going on, former Soviet officials, now turned wild west capitalists, were using their influence to buy up state assets, privatize them, and become rich overnight. Their louche and garish opulence left a bad taste in the mouths of many Russians. Included in that lot was an obscure former KGB officer who had become deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin.
But that was not the only specter on the Russian scene. A civil war raged in a mountainous Muslim republic, Chechnya, pitting the Russian state against a proud, ancient, mountain people who for decades had chafed under the Soviet yoke.
I talked to American lawyer and investor, Yuri Vanetik, who possesses keen insight into how the political destiny of the former Soviet Caucasus proves Fukuyama’s theories to be fallacies. Says Vanetik:
The North Caucasus and the Chechen Republic, in particular, are comprised of distinct ancient ethnic groups who have never relinquished their cultural identity and self-determination. They were conquered by the Soviets but never defeated, and for that were forced to pay a heavy price during the Stalin forced resettlements, Soviet oppression, and subsequent brutal wars.
Often dubbed the Spartans of the Caucasus, these mountain people possess a deep sense of identity which is expressed through adherence to Adat, the traditions of the mountains, with unique rituals, dances, cuisine, profound veneration of elders, deep deference for extended families, distinct dress and language, and an amazing sense of hospitality, loyalty and courage.
I have visited the region several times in the last two years. Recently, I brought a delegation of business leaders, and journalists. The Chechen people stand as an anomalous semi-autonomous republic; feared, respected, at times despised, and always deeply misunderstood by the West. They have been able to strike a delicate balance through loyalty to Russia. Yet they serve as an example of the error in Fukuyama’s utopian vision.
Their traditions draw comparison with the Americans of Appalachia and the stories and martial records of men like World War I’s Sergeant Alvin York. Distinctive speech, a fighting spirit passed down through generations, a mountainous existence, and a reverence for elders and ancestors recall the people and spirit of a region recently chronicled in Born Fighting by James Webb and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
When Yeltsin left and Putin took power, civil liberties began to fall by the wayside. Putin’s political party gradually muscled out all of the legitimate opposition, and Western gullibility (one is reminded of George Bush the Younger’s line that he could see Putin’s soul in his eyes) all played a part in the process of snuffing out whatever possibility of representative government had momentarily existed during the Yeltsin era.
Vanetik continues: “It appears that the Russian government intended to reassert social solidarity by returning to mitigated, modern empire building in an age of technology, sanctions, and global economy interconnected like never before.”
It may be the type of government that works in the former Soviet territories. Even though dynasties such as that of Azerbaijan, and most of the Eurasian states, are an anathema to our sense of righteousness, they are preferred and they are functional over there.
“For Chechens, Putin’s rule appears to provide sufficient autonomy, infrastructural support from a federation of states within the Russian union, and a predictable chain of command that seems to be appealing to many of the semi-autonomous states in the North Caucasus,” Vanetik explains. “Fukuyama’s Western liberal democracy does not work there. In fact, it has failed miserably where it has been attempted. Look at Ukraine, our ally and a professed democracy.”
As the years progressed Putin moved on Georgia and the Crimea, recalling Soviet attitudes of the recent past. This was, as Putin termed the downfall of the Soviet Union, “a political tragedy” and reinstated both Soviet and Imperial Russian cultural norms in Russia.
As the Putin regime wrapped itself in the warm embrace of Holy Russia and started flexing its small but smartly used geopolitical power, Western leaders continued to ignore the warning signs of an aggressive and resurgent Russia. Chechens are an example of an efficient resurgence after brutal wars. The rebirth is arguably tempered with self-determination and loyalty to the Russian Federation. That is a challenging balance to strike and an even more difficult balance to sustain.
State building has become the default in how geopolitics is played out. The Chechens have rebuilt their territory, fostered goodwill with Putin’s government without compromising their cultural identity. Not so much in defense of hard regimes, but it appears that authoritarian structures work better in certain cultures so long as they are tempered by certain boundaries when it comes to rule of law, transparency, and institutional integrity. It is a truism that benevolent dictatorships are just as much fiction as Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. Notwithstanding, authoritarian structures can work and do work and account for a large percentage of sovereign regimes and autonomous states even today.
And so we come to today. The Russian national legislature has recently made it possible for Putin to rule uninterrupted by democratic niceties until 2036.
Fukuyama’s naïve notion of the total victory of liberal democracy has itself been consigned to rubbish. “The End of History” eventually turned out to be “the Renaissance of Realism and Realpolitik.” States and their interests, both cultural and historical, to recall Charles de Gaulle, are eternal. They do not, and will never, take a backseat to ideology of any sort. Including our own.