Putin, Mahinda and Gotabaya

Tuesday, 20 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


I have to say that I am very happy indeed about the resounding victory scored by President Putin. If not for him, there would be no multi-polarity in the world; no chance of a global equilibrium; no ally for the rising economic power of China which would have been encircled by the West. There would be a unipolar world under Western hegemony. It would have been a return to the imperialist world order during colonialism—something our generation had never experienced. 

The Middle East would have gone the way it did in Iraq and Libya. Syria has held because of Putin. Had Putin been President of Russia at the time, Yugoslavia would still exist and the world would have been a better place.

Fidel Castro had warned about what the world would be without the Soviet Union. In 1973 at the Nonaligned Summit in Algiers, he contradicted Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who had equated the USA and the USSR as two superpowers both of which should be opposed by the Third World. Fidel, who had never been a camp follower of the USSR and often criticised it, blazing his own path, nonetheless warned Gaddafi that if the USSR did not exist the Western world would carve up the Middle East in the context of the rising oil prices with the activism of the OPEC. 

He urged OPEC to establish banks and other facilities to share its new wealth with the Third World. Not for the first time, Fidel proved prophetic. After the USSR fell, the US and its allies did carve up the Middle East as it did during colonial times. Gaddafi was lynched. Saddam executed. 

It was the arrival of Putin that enabled Russia to save itself and grow strong again. He had to start where we in Sri Lanka had to in 2005, by confronting and defeating a powerful, separatist, suicide bombing terrorist militia, arising from among the Chechens. If he didn’t do so, it would not only have been the USSR that was extinct but Russia too would have shrunk; its periphery broken off. The world had a taste of what things would have been like, when Yeltsin was in charge and Russia was a weak, wobbly fellow traveller of the West; giving itself away with nothing in return.

I was in Moscow in 1985 at the World Festival of Youth and Students at the beginning of the Gorbachev period—he opened the Festival—and shared the hopes of that moment. By 1987 at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Russian revolution in Moscow, Fidel Castro who was hardly unsympathetic or unkind to Gorbachev, however warned that “we shall not be surprised if one day we awake and find the Soviet Union has disappeared”. Again he was right.

The West never wanted to stabilise Gorbachev’s reformist socialism which stood for cooperation with the West. It wanted the USSR to go and beyond that it wanted a weak Russia. In recent years Gorbachev has revealed that the West reneged on all the solemn pledges it made to him and went ahead with the expansion of NATO and the deployment of strategic weapons around Russia.

Earlier Fidel had identified the Western strategic method and cautioned countries against falling or it: “You give them your finger, they take your hand; you give them your hand they take your arm; you give them your arm they take your whole body!” This is what the West did to Russia even under their ally Yeltsin. It never wanted a capitalist Russia as its partner in a new world order. They merely wanted Russia to capitulate. 

Western policy was so perfidious that the Chechen separatist insurgency, one which deployed pure unalloyed suicide terrorism as a tactic, had a sympathetic ear in certain European capitals. Not too much fuss is made about the Boston marathon bombings because the trail leads to the open door policy the USA had to the Chechens. Things were getting so bad for Russia, and the public opinion pressure was so great, that it was Yeltsin who brought in Putin, after repeated attempts at a peaceful settlement with the Chechens had failed.

Cause and consequence

Those who criticise Putin must realise that he is a consequence, not the cause. The Russian people vote for him because they remember what it was like before him and without him. He epitomises Russian self-respect. The Russian people, whose collective efforts had been primarily responsible for beating Nazi Germany, found themselves losing the Soviet Union without a shot being fired, and then reeling from terrorism in Moscow itself. The repeated vote for Putin is Russia echoing the words of the song by the rock band The Who: “we won’t get fooled again!”

Russia is a lesson for the Sri Lankan civil society intelligentsia. Never forget what the Buddha taught about cause and consequence. When reacting against the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa or the possibility of a Gotabaya candidacy, remember that these are consequences not causes. The Rajapaksa revival (of which I have been a participant) has been the search by the Sinhala people for a Putin. That search is a consequence of a cause—the capitulation, retreat and weakening of Sri Lanka under a pro-Western neoliberal regime. 

This was true of the Mahinda candidacy of 2005, which followed Ranil Wickremesinghe’s enforced retreat in the face of the Tigers. The re-run was in 2015 to date. These are the Yeltsin episodes, with President Sirisena as a well-intentioned Gorbachev. Where there is a Gorbachev, there will be a Yeltsin and where there is a Yeltsin, there will be a demand for a Putin. Do not decry the backlash; avoid or rectify or end the situation that generates one.

The same factor of the chain of cause-and-consequence holds true of the rise of Sinhala Buddhist statist nationalism as it does of Russian Orthodox Christian statist nationalism that underlies and powers the Putin phenomenon. I’m no fan of ‘Sinhala Only’ in 1956. Never was and never will be. But at the time, as now, Sinhala nationalism was a reaction to the nature of the existing regime; the existing establishment; the nature of the existing elite. 

No Sir John Kotelawela, no ‘Sinhala Only’. Sinhala nationalism had little traction under UNP Prime minister DS Senanayake. SWRD and DA Rajapaksa broke away and founded the SLFP during his administration but the newly founded SLFP was a social democratic party. Even his son Dudley triggered a socioeconomic uprising, the Hartal of 1953, which united Sinhalese and Tamils. It took the open pro-Westernism and the sociocultural profile and arrogant discourse of Sir John (whose advisor was our present PM’s father) to cause the embrace of Sinhala Only by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. 

The same happened in 1970, when the target regime was a UNP-Tamil Congress-Federal Party coalition. The pendulum swing repeated itself in 2005 and is about to happen again in grand style in 2019-2020. There is a reason that the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of 1951-1952 and even 1953 was not the S.W.R.D. of 1955-56, and that reason is the character of the elite he was opposing. 

Some consequence is inevitable

Now I am not arguing that every backlash is justified or that every consequence is inevitable. But some consequence is inevitable. Its character depends on the time in history and the society in question. Personally I would have preferred had Yeltsin been replaced by the Communist party of Gennady Zyuganov (who has since been replaced in that spot by a millionaire Communist who ran against Putin this week). I am happy that the French turned to Macron’s centrism than Marine Le Pen’s National Front. I am delighted that the alternative to Teresa May is Corbyn rather than Farrage. I would have vastly preferred the US Democrats to have picked Bernie Sanders, who might well have trumped Trump. But all that’s beside the point. 

The point is that in some societies, mainly in Eurasia but also in the USA, the hurt caused to national sentiments by the neoliberal elite generates a backlash which is not only socio-economic but is intermingled and overlaid with the culturally majoritarian (sometimes the religio-culturally majoritarian), either because there is no other alternative or that alternative is too weak or not in tune with mass sentiment. 

To put it even more simply, pro-Western neoliberalism generates a populist backlash, which, depending on time and place, is either left, right or centre, and is mixed in, in various degrees with nationalism, which itself is intertwined to this or that extent or hardly at all, with religio- cultural, ethno-religious, ethno-lingual or regionalist (e.g. Italy) sentiment.

The stand you take depends on what you perceive as the main enemy. A tough-minded secularist like Stalin once shockingly wrote that “the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labour Party” (Foundations of Leninism, 1925) because the former, despite his backward ideology, opposed imperialism while the latter, despite its trade union base and leftism, did not. Stalin also went on to name the titanic war against Hitler waged by the Soviet Red Army as the Great Patriotic War, shifted his communist discourse and struck an alliance with the Russian Orthodox church for the duration.

I do not say this with merely the benefit of hindsight or simply because elections are on the horizon. I say this because it flows from my analysis, my perspective and the stand I have consistently taken. I predicted, in print, the rise of someone like Putin and the reasons for it, long before anyone including myself had heard of Putin.

The New, New Cold War

In early 1991, when the USSR was teetering before plunging into extinction that December, and while top Western policy thinkers were announcing “the unipolar moment” (Krauthammer 1990) of Western hegemony, and the “End of History” (Fukuyama 1989) culminating in the victory of liberal democracy and market economics crowned by Russia’s conversion to that doctrine, I was predicting “the New, New Cold War” and giving reasons why, in a six page article.

“…Underlying this is a battle about Russia’s identity. Is it a Western power? Or is it an Eastern power? Or does it straddle the two?…I think that the pendulum will shift back – if not to those who considered the Soviet Union an Eastern power, at least to the understanding that the Soviet Union is an Euro-Asian power. So in a way, it’s struggle for the soul of Russia.” 

“…The possibility of the Soviet Union looking East towards China cannot be ruled out…There may be strong economic grounds for this as well…”

“…We might well see a kind of Soviet Reaganism—reassertion of power...it’s possible that the Soviet ‘Carterite’ period is coming to a close. …What is far more probable is the re-composition of the power bloc in which the Soviet military and the KGB have a greater preponderance…What kind of forces or agencies in the USSR could provide that kind of input? I can only think of the Red Army and the KGB….Public opinion polls also reveal, rather surprisingly, that the KGB is relatively more popular (or less unpopular) than other entities in the USSR. It is seen as a somewhat clean organisation; ruthless but relatively clean…So the task of this kind of ideological restructuring may devolve on these forces—the Red Army and the KGB.”

(‘Towards the New, New Cold War’ Economic Review, Colombo, February/March 1991, pp. 45-51)

Thus I predicted the pivot to China and Russia’s adoption of Eurasianism, as well as the Putin phenomenon, referring to the latter as “Soviet Reaganism”. As we know, Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer as well as an officer in its successor structure, the FSB. 

I support Putin, just as I support Mahinda, and with more caution and caveats, am willing to support Gotabaya if the need arises, because I remember what context gave birth to them, what they stand against, and the causes which made/are making/may make the masses turn to them as alternatives. 

Recent columns