Navalny vs. Fukuyama Russia’s top anti-corruption activist takes on the American political scientist who wrote ‘The End of History’
Last week, Warsaw hosted the fourth Boris Nemtsov Forum, welcoming dozens of prominent experts, journalists, and activists to discuss “fighting fear in Russia and beyond.” On October 9, the conference featured a lecture by Stanford University Professor Francis Fukuyama (best known for his 1992 book about the ascendancy of Western-style liberal democracy, “The End of History and the Last Man”), followed by a discussion with Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Meduza looks at the highlights of this exchange, which addressed liberalism, populism, environmentalism, authoritarianism, Internet regulations, Russia's potential unification with Belarus, the rise of China, and more.
Alexey Navalny: I’d like to get some advice from Professor Fukuyama and the other wonderful, smart people sitting in this audience. [...] What generally should I say, when people call me a populist? When I talk about inequality in Russia, they tell me: “Well of course you just want to rob the rich — that’s populism.” Since my campaign, when I raised the issue of the minimum wage, I spend 80 percent of the time in discussions about how I’m a terrible populist. [...] You’re a populist because you say something that most people like. If you say the word “migration,” then you’d better start running because cries of “populist” and bricks with “populist” written on them will be flying in your direction endlessly.
The main thing we [at the Anti-Corruption Foundation] are doing professionally is fighting corruption. Of course, even the people who support us sometimes say, “You’ve gone with such a populist theme.” “Why populist?” “Well, because all populists talk about corruption.” We find ourselves inside an ideological construct where the only non-populists are those who don’t support anyone. [...] What are we supposed to do?
Francis Fukuyama: Maybe this definition of populism would help separate these different forms: I don’t think that giving people what they want is populism; that’s called democracy. [Laughter.] I think the most dangerous form of populism is the following: It’s when a leader gets up and says, “You the people have elected me. I am your direct representative, and therefore I don’t need any institutions.” [...] The minute you stop relying on institutions and begin to say, “I personally am the solution to our nation’s problems,” that’s when I think populism becomes very dangerous.
Economist Sergey Guriev: I would say exactly the same: The definition of populism now consists mostly of two features — some people would add another feature, but the two features are (1) an anti-elite, anti-establishment movement, where you divide the society into corrupt elites, which Alexey does, and moral people. But that’s not the whole definition. The second part of the definition is exactly what Frank just said. It’s [the idea] that people are homogeneous, and you reject pluralism. There are no differences between people, and you don’t need political restraints, or political institutions, or checks and balances.
So the moment you say you believe in the rule of law, in the courts, that means you are not a populist. Populists, as Professor Fukuyama rightly said, are the ones who say, “People are a homogeneous mass, and I alone can represent the people, and I don’t need anybody else.” [...] And in that sense, what you [Alexey Navalny] are saying is not actually populist, as long as you recognize the rule of law, other checks and balances, media freedom, civil society, and of course this is something that differentiates what you are saying from populism. But of course all populists say that elites are corrupt, and indeed it’s true that fighting political corruption is part of the populist narrative everywhere.
And some people would also say the definition of populism also includes authoritarian tendencies. But there are also democratic populists — mostly the left-wing populists [...].
Alexey Navalny: Well, as you can see, it’s a classic situation with very intelligent professors: they’ve summed it up perfectly, but nobody can say what we should do now. [Laughs.]
Fukuyama: I think liberals made a mistake during the 1980s and 1990s because they carried the ideology too far. I think, if you look at the history of 20th century democracy, you never really had pure liberalism. You know: a minimal state, no social protections, pure market competition. If you have that kind of society, it produces enormous inequalities; it produces a lot of conflict, and ultimately it delegitimizes democracy itself. You’ve always had, to a greater or lesser extent, some form of social democracy — even in the United States, which is probably the most liberal of modern democracies, where there’s Social Security and services to poor people and protections for middle-class people. I think what happened in the 1990s is that a lot of liberals decided that the state was the enemy. That they had to eliminate as much of this as possible. They succeeded in many cases, and as a result these social inequalities grew much faster than they should have. And I think what we’re dealing with now is a backlash against that kind of inequality. [...]
I think there needs to be a rethinking of the agenda of progressive parties, to get back to a more redistributive state that takes seriously the need for classic social solidarity. It’s hard to do because most developed democracies are debtor countries. They don’t have budgets or the kind of economic growth that can support ambitious redistribution, but I think — if they don’t include that as part of their agenda — they’re going to end up brushed aside by populist parties.
Navalny: I don’t think liberalism is in any crisis at all. For an ordinary person, it’s always some [specific] individual who embodies liberalism. In Russia, it’s a cast of specific people from the early 1990s. In this sense, when you’re working on the ground with people in Russia, and you mention the word “liberal” or even “democratic,” nobody wants to hear another word. But if your start talking about freedom of speech, the rule of law, or about courts and other elements that, in fact, make up the liberal ideology, everyone supports it. Anywhere, [even] Putin’s supporters are in favor. It’s another matter that Putin simply lies endlessly that these liberal elements exist in Russian politics. [...]
Note that libertarianism is currently witnessing some kind of renaissance in Russia. A huge number of people are attending lectures, they’re discussing everything endlessly, and they’re staging large rallies. [...] I myself agree with them in many ways, and some of their ideology is a bit out there by the standards of a rather conservative Russia, but they’re nevertheless attracting large numbers of people. This suggests that ideas about our country being some kind of dark corner where everyone rejects liberalism are completely wrong.
Cooperating with authoritarian regimes
Fukuyama: I don’t believe that young people should cooperate with an authoritarian government. [...] But I don’t think that, if you’re working in Russia today, where there really is not even a glimmer of real democratic practice, that it makes much sense to try to participate in the government. There may be some technocrats who can make decisions that might help things, and it might prepare them for a role in the successor government, but it’s not something that I think would be a useful path for most people.
Navalny: Fortunately, today in 2019, we also have vast practical experience proving that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen this with multiple individuals, including some people who are generally quite pleasant. You can’t change the system from within. In his 1992 book, Professor Fukuyama wrote [...] that one of the things that might prevent Russia from embarking on a path of European development was a kind of Russophobia inherent in the ruling circles. In fact, it works exactly like that. Just look at these famous liberals inside the system! As soon as they come to power, you read their interviews where they make these statements, and you see how they’re the worst Russophobes. They start giving interviews about how we don’t need free elections because who knows whom these wild people would elect in free elections.
Whatever the facade or the practical explanation, we see why you’re sitting in that ministerial office, always demanding that big black car, that state-issued siren, that enormous salary, and that gigantic house. Right now, I don’t know a single liberal inside the system, not from Yabloko, or the Union of Right Forces, or [Accounts Chamber Chairman Alexey] Kudrin, or anyone else who would do anything that’s actually useful. They’ve joined a dance that’s not just meaningless but dangerous, the purpose of which is to consolidate this very regime.
Fukuyama: It’s very interesting. I think this is part of a process of the redefinition of the left around the world. Environmental issues had not been one of the core causes. Now, for many progressive people, it really has taken that on. I think the way that she’s put it — actually someone was remarking to me, in a way, it’s become a little of an identity issue in itself that “our generation is going to suffer more from this than the older generation, and we need special treatment because of that.” I think it’s part of a normal process of political evolution where the kinds of economic issues that had, in a certain sense, defined the 20th century are now being displaced because many countries can take a certain level of material comfort for granted. But there are new dangers that may upset that entire structure that are an order of magnitude larger than anything that the 20th century experienced in a certain way. [...]
My professor at Harvard was Samuel Huntington, and he made an observation way back in the 1960s that students and young people are really good at protesting, but they’re terrible at organizing. And the big issue, I think, for that movement is going to be whether they can actually move from protesting into creating new political structures and particularly political parties that actually embody that — because that’s really hard work. And that’s something where I think teenagers don’t really have a great natural advantage.
Navalny: In Russia, we see that adults are also often incapable of creating these structures. It’s not just a problem for young people. [...] As for Greta Thunberg, I like her very much. I was very surprised that she prompted a kind of unanimous and sharply negative reaction in Russia, and from all sides: from democrats and from conservatives. It’s probably due to political tradition and problems with trust because any discussion about Greta Thunberg in Russia is a discussion about “Who’s backing her?” What corporations paid billions for this? What terrible media bosses are airing her around the clock? But I understand perfectly well how Greta Thunberg became popular. She stood there, picketing, journalists noticed her, and other people started showing up… So I think she’s doing absolutely nothing wrong, and it’s a great example of political work.
Controlling the Internet
Fukuyama: I think that we’ve gone from thinking of the Internet as a tool to promote democracy to now thinking of it as an enemy of democracy because it has been weaponized by Russia, by extremist groups, and by a lot of political actors who are really not interested in democracy. And so I think we are now facing the question of whether we need to regulate it. There is a model for regulation out there already, and that’s called China. China regulates the Internet, and it does it very successfully. [...]
In the West, we basically have a situation where essentially two big American companies have come to control the vast majority of information that’s passed on the Internet. They are not hostile to democracy, but they’re also not necessarily supporters of democracy in the sense that they have a business model that thrives on controversy, and oftentimes it is in their self-interests to promote, let’s say, conspiracy theories because that’s what gets a lot of clicks. But it’s not necessarily what’s good for the democratic order.
So, yes, I do think that there needs to be more regulation of the Internet. How you do that is very complicated because you don’t want to endorse state censorship. It would be extremely hard to replicate in a democratic country anything like what the Chinese do, and you wouldn’t want to do it. But I do think that the concentrated power that’s represented by these large companies in itself represents not just economic power but political power. And that kind of concentrated power, I think, is dangerous to democracy. And, by the way, it’s not just in one country anymore. Facebook is the leading way that people communicate in dozens of countries around the world. That is really something that I think is probably not best left in private hands.
Navalny: For the past two years, there’s been an active war against the Internet and the attempt to “fix” this Internet can come from different directions… [...] Where the Russian authorities (unlike the Chinese) can’t use technology, they just show up masked, banging at your door, asking you to stop talking or writing something on YouTube or on Facebook or something. This is Russia’s new Internet technology — the startup that Vladimir Putin pioneered. It goes without saying that these efforts will only increase. [...]
The Russian authorities don’t like anyone who isn’t subordinate to them. The Internet has yet to submit to the state, and every policy has now decidedly shifted in that direction. They will attack the Internet by offline methods, pressuring and persecuting specific mass media outlets, specific organizations, and specific individuals they don’t like. In parallel, they’ll of course try to use technological methods, but in this they’re crippled by an inefficient authoritarian state, and so far they’re thoroughly inefficient here, too.
Sanctions against Russia
Fukuyama: I really don’t believe that there’s a productive way to build a good relationship with Russia, given what Russia has become. I think it’s important not to close off possible avenues of discussion, but until there’s more evident change in behavior on the part of the Russian government, I really don’t think that talking just for the sake of talking is going to get very far. And there are dangers. There are a lot of countries in Europe that actually do want to talk for economic reasons. And once they’re given permission to do so, the kinds of sanctions that have been built up will crumble very quickly. I think unless there’s a real change in Russian foreign policy that’s not a good outcome.
The situation is really complicated now by the United States, which has been following a schizophrenic policy towards Russia. In Congress and in the bureaucracy, it’s been very traditional. Most people — both Republicans and Democrats — regard Russia as the single biggest geopolitical rival of the United States. They don’t like the Russian interference in the American election, and they want to maintain the sanctions regime.
On the other hand, there’s one individual who doesn’t agree with that — and he happens to be the president of the United States. It’s been this very odd thing, where the president has expressed very different views about what policy towards Russia should be, but he hasn’t been able to actually implement that. The most recent developments, I think, are very disturbing because the support for Ukraine was bipartisan until now. [...] And now the same one individual now sees Ukraine as siding with the Democrats, and therefore he sees the entire struggle in this part of the world through a partisan political lens that’s all based on American domestic politics. [...]
I feel actually quite sorry for [Ukrainian] President Zelensky because, on the one hand, he has to keep good relations with President Trump, but, on the other hand, he can see the dangers of the current situation, and he doesn’t want to alienate either side. Whether he can continue to walk that path is going to be a very tricky task for him. So I’m very worried about that because I think the United States ought to make its foreign policy based on a long-term view of national interests and not simply on what’s going to help you win the next election.
Navalny: Realistically speaking, European countries vary. Of course, we’d like them to act as a united front, but in reality these are different countries with different governments, and very often they have different economic interests in relation to Russia. Under the conditions of this admittedly cunning, bizarre, hybrid war where it’s unclear how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s actions, I don’t think European countries are capable of doing anything more than they’re doing right now.
I’m not a supporter of the sectoral sanctions that have been imposed against the Russian economy, and really I can’t understand why European countries don’t impose targeted, personal sanctions more widely. [...] The situation is pretty ironic: today, when the [Russian] Justice Ministry has added our organization [the Anti-Corruption Foundation] to its list of foreign agents, who celebrated the news loudest on the Internet? Television pundit Vladimir Solovyov, known to the whole country as a resident of Italy who owns two luxurious villas on the Italian island of Como. This perfectly captures the Russian elite. [...] At the very least, couldn’t you simply stop allowing these people to come here?
I think it’s pretty straightforward. Bar a few hundred people, and you’ll find support inside Russia. Everyone will welcome it. [...] If the world wants to show how hypocritical and corrupt the Putinist elite are and restrain them somehow, I think the cheapest and easiest way to do it would be to punish specific people who are hated inside Russia, too.
The rise of China
Fukuyama: In the short run, obviously China and Russia have common interests in opposing a lot of initiatives coming out of the United States and out of Europe. And so there’s no question that they’re going to want to show a great deal of solidarity in the [UN] Security Council and other forums. But there’s a fundamental geostrategic rivalry going on right now. The Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” is basically pushing through Central Asia and into the Middle East and into Europe in a way that will directly challenge Russia in an area that it has regarded as central to — I mean, these countries were part of the Soviet Union, and Russia regards them as its backyard. [...]
There’s a huge number of Chinese living adjacent to Siberia. A lot of them have moved into Siberia, so there’s demographic pressure that Russia is facing. So for all of these reasons, I think there’s a long-term basis for a real conflict of interests between these two countries that right now is kept hidden because of their short-term interests in opposing Western initiatives. But in the long-run, that rivalry is going to be a very serious one.
Navalny: I don’t think China currently threatens Russia. The real threat is in the authoritarian Internationale organized by the Chinese and Russian states. They act like bedfellows, mutually supporting each other. For example, the Russian Foreign Ministry speaks out against the protests in Hong Kong, and says they’re instigated by foreign powers, after which the Chinese Foreign Ministry says Moscow’s protests are instigated by foreign powers. Cooperation of this sort is the problem.
The world structure in Putin’s mind includes just Russia and the United States, without room for any other countries. Talking about China at all is forbidden because everything Russian diplomacy does with respect to China is an endless series of concessions, including some that really annoy the public. They handed over the islands on the Amur River, and what’s going on with lumber contracts — these issues are covered up carefully, and talking about them is forbidden. And that’s the real threat.
Fukuyama: I would say the best thing that could happen for the Crimean Tatars [would be] to give Crimea back to Ukraine. [Applause.] Because I don’t see that Russia is ever going to do anything for them. But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely to happen.
Navalny: They need to be left alone. They’re now being subjected to illegal and completely senseless political repressions. For some reason, the [Russian] authorities are panicking wildly about any Crimean Tatar political movement. Understandably, the bulk of them are probably hostile to the annexation of Crimea. Well, okay, but inside Russia there are plenty of people who take a negative view of that, too, but Crimean Tatars are being subjected to genuinely cruel persecution and torture. They need to be left alone immediately. I don’t think this is even being discussed or can be discussed [in the Russian government].
As for the Crimean factor in [Russian] domestic politics, fortunately it’s dissipating. A lot of politicians, including politicians in Ukraine, probably won’t like my answer, but the dominance of the Ukrainian and Crimean issues has greatly damaged everything [in Russia]. All life inside Russia is dedicated to Ukraine, and nothing else. [...] Turn on the television during the day, and every channel is airing shows about Ukraine. You get the sense that all the country’s housewives have no interest in love triangles or soap operas, and all they want is an endless discussion about Ukraine. [...]
I’m often told that I ignore the discussion about Ukraine and the discussion about Crimea. Yes, inside Russia I try to minimize these discussions because they’re what Putin wants us to talk about. Instead of Russian problems, we’re endlessly discussing the fate of Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states, and so on. Thankfully, the Crimean issue has gone away now. In every election, they try to twist everything back to Crimea and make it a conversation about who backs whom, but the people aren’t buying it anymore.
The unification of Russia and Belarus
Navalny: This is, of course, what the Russian authorities would like to happen. They dream about a scenario where they can manage the transition like this: Belarus becomes part of a federal or confederate state, and Putin thereby begins his first term in what is now a new state. Probably the main obstacle here is named Alexander Grigorevich Lukashenko, and he’s no fool either. In any intrigues like this, he’ll have more experience than most.
What do I expect the Kremlin authorities to do? They’ll play at worsening the economic situation [in Belarus], and try to sell the Belarusians on the idea that, guys, come over to our side and your salaries and pensions will be twice as high. We’re witnessing a highly interesting and curious game between two authoritarian leaders.
As for cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the beautiful Russia of the future, there’s nothing really that we need to invent. Close ties, and international trade. Everyone Is satisfied and everyone’s happy. Just don’t do anything, and it will all be great.
I have a negative attitude toward subsidies because they come at the expense of Russian citizens. There’s some kind of strange geopolitical game at play here, but this geopolitical game costs Russian citizens’ pocketbooks. Belarus needs Russia’s support, and that’s fine. In the end, all countries take out international loans. We can fully support Belarus on various normal, reasonable terms that are acceptable to the market.
Fukuyama: It’s dangerous in a geopolitical sense just by extending Putin. If the scenario that Alexey was describing happens, where it becomes an excuse for Putin to remain president of this new confederation for another five or 10 years, that’s not going to be good because I don’t think he personally is good for international relations. And it will also add somewhat to Russia’s size and GDP and military capacity. It will put the Russian army that much closer to Eastern Europe. So in that sense, I think it does represent a threat, although I’m not sure it’s going to be that easy to digest Belarus. But it’s an interesting question to think about.