There was a time when the revolt of the masses, as Jose Ortega y Gasset would have had it, was about making modernity fulfill its promises of equality, the pursuit of happiness, and better life for the majority of aspiring and ambitious individuals. The masses never revolt now for new opportunities – instead, they revolt out of despair striving for the bare minimum of human rights and civil liberties, and also trying to defend the remains of their human dignity.
Whereas the masses revolt for their rights and dignity now, the dodgy fellows quietly revolt for something totally different, subverting democracy and making it into its caricature. What do they revolt for? They do seek their chances and opportunities to achieve a fusion of business and politics. Criminalization of political classes and politicization of mobsters appear as an awkward political export from the East, which goes westward with much success.
Is it corruption? Yes and no. As Andrei Piontkovsky, a noted Russian political commentator, caustically noticed, corruption in its conventional form does not exist in present-day Russia. To witness a classical situation of corruption, normally we would expect to see a businessman bribe a state official. This happens, according to Piontkovsky, in all democracies or otherwise normal states with their countless imperfections.
Yet this is not the case in Russia, where a businessman and a state official happens to be one and the same person. President Vladimir Putin is a businessman and a state official. A billionaire and a state president, he creates a phantasmagoria of rapidly accumulated wealth and consolidated political power.
The divorce of economic and political power once was a trait of the West, whereas the marriage of the two signified the political culture of the East. The first was inseparable from the history of Western Europe’s modernity, the second symbolized Russia’s Byzantine history with all those who participated in its symbolic design of power.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Putin’s Russia is a cleptocracy, and so, alas, is Ukraine, albeit it remains far more pluralistic and democratic than Russia where wealth does not translate yet into diversity and political liberty. However unfortunate, with a frozen conflict and the breakaway territory of Transnistria, this generous “gift” from Russia, Moldova’s politics remains closer to Ukraine's than to Russia's. A poor country with its high-ranking thieves, endemic corruption and political mafia, it is nevertheless able to resist the temptations of dictatorship.
The entire block of Eastern partnership countries could be described as a league of states that pretend to speak the language of democracy, while in reality they all reject its logic, suffering from cognitive dissonance and interpretive dyslexia regarding the very heart of the essence of modernity – namely, the separation of powers and a strict dividing line between economic and political power.
It is precisely this dyslexia that prevents them from distinguishing between lawful economic power and political legitimacy. The “you are in business, therefore, you are in politics” reasoning may be reciprocated or reversed by the “you are in politics, therefore, you are in business” logic. This is a feature of a post-totalitarian political culture that stretches from Russia to Kazakhstan, with some minor nuances and differences in Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Yet we should not deceive ourselves by firmly ascribing this trajectory of political ethics exclusively to Eastern Europe. Dodgy fellows in Eastern Europe have their guardian angels in the EU. The Putin-Schreder travesty is old news, yet the schrederization of Western Europe’s political classes seems a stable and prospective pattern.
Suffice it to mention what was described by some commentators as the cheat’s uprising in Romania. This is not a violation of, or a threat to, democracy. Instead, it appears as a mortal blow to democracy which allows us to assume that liberal democracy does not exist in Romania anymore. When you realize that the president of the state is impeached only because he becomes a threat to people who have a skeleton in the closet, and that the constitutional court is dysfunctional, along with dismissed ombudsman, for that same reason, and that all committee members who insist that 85 copy-pasted pages in the doctoral dissertation of Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta constitute a plagiarism are fired, it becomes impossible to call all this anything else than the rebellion of crooks.
They are not alone. When you find out that some top British liberals are backing such a person as Dan Voiculescu, quite a sinister figure in Romanian politics whose shadowy history dates back to the Ceausescu regime, an informer of Securitate, and a crook whose subordinate Ponta is, only then do you start realizing the degree of this malaise.
Western liberals would hardly tolerate a crook in their own circles, yet they salute and back him elsewhere, as that crook comes up with an offer which can only appear once in a lifetime, or who can praise them up to the skies, decorate, or else actualize them. For corruption provides much more options than transparency and routine policies, which always talk prose and prevent a crook within them, already suppressed at home, from acting freely and without impunity elsewhere.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament