Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The Russian road

Published: Sep 12, 2007
Two huge, undemocratic states face economic crisis. Each starts on the road to democracy. For Russia and Indonesia, where will it end?

Anders Uhlin

Having paid close attention to Indonesia for about a decade I recently switched my research focus to Russia and other post-communist societies. I find it fruitful to compare the USSR with New Order Indonesia, and Post-Soviet Russia with Post-Suharto Indonesia.

An obvious similarity is that both countries are very large multinational states. The USSR had the third and Indonesia the fifth largest population in the world. This contributed to their international status - the USSR as a super power and Indonesia as a regional power. Ethnic diversity with one dominating group - the Javanese in Indonesia and to an even larger extent the Russians in the USSR - led to a strong centralisation of power in both countries. There was little regional or local autonomy in the Soviet Union and New Order Indonesia.

Both political regimes were based on a state ideology: communism in the USSR and anti-communism/ Pancasila in Suharto’s Indonesia. Although ideological counter-poles, there were striking similarities between the two highly undemocratic regimes. Power was concentrated with a strong leader - the Party General Secretary in the USSR and the President of Indonesia. Both had totalitarian ambitions. The people should be controlled and no powerful dissenting voices were tolerated.

There was an extensive surveillance apparatus on national, regional and local levels. In the USSR the communist party was responsible for the surveillance. In New Order Indonesia it was the military. However, Suharto’s Indonesia was far less successful in implementing its totalitarian ambitions than was the Soviet Union. The reason for that, I would argue, has more to do with bureaucratic incompetence in Indonesia than any ideological differences.

We should also not forget some fundamental differences. Power was much more institutionalised in the USSR, where the party ruled. In New Order Indonesia power rested mainly with President Suharto and his clients.

Another basic difference, of course, is that the USSR had a planned economy, whereas New Order Indonesia was built on a capitalist economy. This means that Russia and the other Post-Soviet states have to manage a double transition of both political and economic systems, whereas Indonesia at least does not have to face a transition to a new economic system. So one would expect Indonesia’s transition to be smoother and easier.

However, if we take the basic thesis of modernisation theory seriously, the higher level of socio-economic development in the USSR should be a democratic advantage compared to Indonesia. The Soviet Union in many respects was an industrialised country, whereas Indonesia experienced a later and more limited process of industrialisation, and the degree of poverty and illiteracy is much higher in Indonesia.

The regime transition which took place in the USSR in the late 1980s and early 1990s had an impact on developments in Indonesia. The fall of communist regimes made the New Order ideology of anti-communism obsolete. Western governments were less interested in supporting authoritarian regimes like Indonesia’s after the end of the cold war. Indonesia experienced its own version of glasnost - keterbukaan - a few years later.

Economic problems were one of the major triggering causes behind the breakdown of both authoritarian regimes. Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the stagnating economy had to be revitalised and the burden of defence expenditure lessened. He therefore initiated economic and political reforms (perestroika and glasnost) aiming at a reformed socialist system and more cooperative and peaceful international relations. It turned out reform was not possible. Instead the whole system collapsed, paving the way for a transition to a capitalist economy and a political system that (at least on the surface) shows some similarities with Western democracies.

In the case of Indonesia, the 1997 currency crisis put an end to the economic growth which had given the Suharto regime some legitimacy. With growing popular protests, regime elites realised they had to sacrifice Suharto and implement some reforms in order to save their own positions and some aspects of the authoritarian regime.

Old elites

In both cases the transition was characterised by strong popular pressure, but it was still mainly controlled by old elites. Sections of civil society (although weak and repressed in both the USSR and New Order Indonesia) played an important role in the collapse of the authoritarian regimes. In Post-Soviet Russia, however, politics soon turned into a struggle of a few persons, around whom political parties were founded. Social movements and other civil society groups were marginalised once more. In Indonesia we can witness a similar process today.

Political parties in Russia exist only for the sake of elections. With the exception of the communist party, which used to rule the country, they have no institutional structures and few if any grassroots connections. It remains to be seen whether the new political parties in Indonesia will base their policies on collective interests, succeed in institutionalising themselves and develop a popular base, or if they will become personalised election vehicles like the new Russian political parties.

The authoritarian rulers’ party Golkar is the most well organised party with branches down to village level in all provinces. Although thoroughly delegitimised after the fall of Suharto, it is not unlikely that Golkar will gain a substantial share of the votes due to its organisational and economic resources. By promising economic development and stability ‘like in the good old days’ of the New Order the party may also win votes, in the same way as the communist party of Russia has managed to remain the strongest party in the Russian parliament due to socio-economic grievances and political nostalgia. Golkar is unlikely to keep its dominant position if the June elections are reasonably free and fair. But if a new reform government does not succeed in improving conditions, a slightly reformed Golkar party could well make a comeback in the next election.

The weakening of central power has led to an increase in open centre-periphery conflicts in both Russia and Indonesia. The wars in Chechnya and East Timor are the most violent cases. But there are many other parts of the Russian federation where demands for more autonomy or self-determination are strong. In Indonesia the people of West Papua and Aceh are demanding their right to self-determination just as the East Timorese have done. Social conflict often takes the form of clashes between different ethnic and religious groups - more severe and violent in Indonesia than in Russia.

Being itself a federation with 89 subjects, Russia seems better prepared to handle demands from the regions than the still rather rigid unitary state of Indonesia. The idea of federalism, still widely associated with Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, has only started to reemerge in the public discourse after the fall of Suharto.

Negative growth

Since 1991 the Russian GNP has decreased more than 80%, and the average life expectancy for men has decreased 6 years. Indonesia after the currency crisis faces negative growth, enormous unemployment and a substantial increase in real poverty. This is not a favourable context for political democratisation.

The International Monetary Fund is playing a similar role in the two countries. Both are dependent on loans from the fund and subject to IMF dictates on economic policies - policies that tend to be the same irrespective of variations in the local context.

A major problem in both Russia and Indonesia is corruption. Widespread already in the Soviet Union, corruption has become even more common or at least more visible after the collapse of the communist regime. The way privatisation was implemented in Post-Soviet Russia led to an enormous concentration of economic resources to a few people who used to be part of the old nomenclature, and who seem to dominate the political scene in contemporary Russia. In Indonesia too it will be very difficult for a more democratic government to gain control of the enormous resources stolen by the Suharto family and clients.

Finally, I would like to stress some important differences. Russia has no historical experience of democracy, whereas Indonesia had a democratic political system in the 1950s. It might be an asset to build on, although the way New Order propaganda has constructed the democratic period as a chaotic unstable one may still contribute to delegitimising democracy.

Another important difference has to do with religion. The potential political impact of Islam in Indonesia is stronger than the impact of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church was accused of cooperating with the communist dictatorship during the Soviet period, just like the major Muslim organisations in Indonesia were accommodative towards the authoritarian regime. Since the fall of the communist regime there has been a religious revival. Leading politicians, including President Yeltsin, have sought support from the church. But the political impact of religion is not as strong there as in Indonesia, where several of the leading politicians are Muslim figures and many political parties are either directly based on Islam or more or less closely related to Muslim organisations.

The role of the military also differs between the two countries. In Russia there is civilian control of a weak and disillusioned military, whereas in Indonesia the military is still strong and independent, although losing legitimacy.

So what can we learn from this kind of comparison? Compared to Russia, Indonesia has some advantages which point to an easier process of democratisation. It has a less totalitarian heritage; democratic experiences from the 1950s; and the absence of a double transition. But there are more factors indicating worse prospects for democracy in Indonesia than in Russia. Among them are a lower level of industrialisation and modernisation; more severe conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups; a rejection of federalism; religious based politics; and last but not least a politically strong military opposing democratic reforms.

Anders Uhlin is assistant professor in political science at Södertörns högskola, (University College) in Stockholm. He is the author of ‘Indonesia and the Third Wave of Democratization’ (1997).

Inside Indonesia 59: Jul-Sep 1999

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