What is Opposition – a Parliamentary Mechanism or a Social Process?
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What is Opposition – a Parliamentary Mechanism or a Social Process?

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Nowadays just about everything might be called ‘opposition’, regardless of what exactly this or that force opposes against. Hence, the questions arise quite naturally: what kind of “beast” an opposition is and what is its role in contemporary social life?

Public vs. political opposition

Fairly often modern sociopolitical journalism and political analytics confuse political and public kinds of opposition. Public opposition or merely an alternative stance must have appeared at the dawn of time. Some Neanderthal could quite possibly disagree with his leader as to where they had to be looking for a mammoth; whether they had had to eat a caught enemy immediately or he’d rather be fed a little before being consumed. Different opinions existed also in the Greek city-states, in Roman senate and in Constantinople stadium, where, by the way, the Byzantine Emperor was elected. However, as they put it in our recent historical past, these matters were solved by means of democratic centralism. That is, if the bearers of divergent views did not represent the majority, they had, even if unwillingly, to submit to this majority.

Still it is one thing when a contrary view only exists. Implanting it into power is quite another matter. Western Europe in general and Great Britain in particular presented the world with the phenomenon of political opposition. Acknowledging existence of an alternative opinion was not enough, it had to work towards enhancing the efficiency of political and economic systems, in their syncretic unity.


British phenomenon

прапорIt is quite clear that for any opposition democracy is the best policy, while democracy, in its turn, is inseparably connected with the level of economic liberty. Freedom in economy presupposes flourishing democracy. Let’s take an antique democracy as an example: the more liberal the trade laws were, the more active was the exchange of goods in the city-states. Consider medieval democracy in such cities as Venice and Florence, Genoa and Lübeck, Hamburg and Gdansk, Novgorod and Pskov.

Throughout these historical processes the mentioned republics (Novgorod, Genoa, Hamburg) joined dominant states (Russia, Germany, Italy respectively). The democratic landscape of the societal structure changed, and not for the better. Democracy usually involves tolerance and multiculturalism. In a free town guests are friendly expected, while in an imperial one foreigners are not welcome. They can sell their goods, but then must get away.

In such a situation Great Britain could be seen as a one-of-the-kind country, for it was not so easy to distinguish a stranger from an indigenous inhabitant, a newcomer from an autochthonous man on its territory. The Magna Carta, dated 1215, was written in Latin. As a matter of fact, the majority of barons were speaking and writing either French or Latin. English, the language of the indigenous people, was treated as a language of a rabble. Wales, situated to the west, ethnically differed greatly from England. And there was also Scotland up north with its uniquely authentic mentality. Not to mention the Picts, the Saxons and the Jutes. To put it in a nutshell, in view of all the specific features of this multinational melting pot, it was necessary to find a common ground. And it was exactly this ability of conflict settlement that made Anglo-Saxon world the reference standard for measurement democracy levels in this or that country.

пиратThe whole thing began (in all the jokes there is always a seed of truth) with piracy. The pirate ship may serve quite an illustrative example of spontaneous democracy. There, as it goes, the democratic centralism was undisguised. The team followed the captain’s orders unquestioningly, but also could send him a black mark or disobey. The imperial ships fairly often failed to confront them. British Empire, thus, was created not only by traders, but also by pirates. Innovations involved not piracy itself which had been existing for ages, but the opportunity to hire pirates by the Crown. That is, yesterdays’ criminals were turned into heroes and friends of London. In such a way there appeared a tradition to always comply with the state’s interests and not to get tied to anyone in particular.   

Churchill’s remark about Britain not having permanent allies, but having permanent interests becomes a tradition for British and Anglo-Saxon political philosophy. And it’s true, isn’t it? Great Britain is a former USA’s colonizer, but Americans have been speaking the language of the occupant till now, appreciating its culture and being its main ally. This is how you can make friends with your enemies.  

This leads to understanding of opposition. Today they are enemies and rivals, tomorrow they become friends and allies. Do they say something against us? It’s alright! Neither we regard them with lots of favour. Above all, they should be ready in hand, at the needy moment they should provide their help. It’s important to grasp the psychology of a trader who has nothing to do with the origin of a buyer, or with his political views. He cares only about money that is paid on time. The British managed to make this principle a cornerstone of their Empire.

As a social institution, opposition was a part of society as well as of government. Great Britain became a leading colonial state exactly at the time when the oppositional power institutions of her Majesty were formed. As we see, smart and active people were valued in London on the state, national level. The opposition was a certain dugout, necessary for hiring new managers for new lands or new branches. After all, Britain was developing intensely, having

George Washington
George Washington

George Washington’s message: “The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation” (Washington’s Farewell Address 1796).

Democracy and empire on the East Slavic land

Originally the culture of Eastern Slavs did not differ drastically from other European cultures. But in the days of Kyivan Rus, there, pardon, was Greece on the territory of some Turkish regions. It was then that the skomorokh culture appeared. To attract people’s attention, they didn’t have to do much – it was enough to sew sleigh-bells on their hats. They were kind of medieval ‘KVN’ (Rus. «КВН» – Клуб веселых и находчивых (‘Club of the Cheerful and Sharp-witted’) – satirical TV show, popular on the territories of the former Soviet countries since Soviet times) or “Quartal-95” (Ukr. ‘Квартал-95’ – Ukrainian prime-time humoristic show) where the adversaries were ridiculed. The skomorokhs were allowed to do so. They were the then-opposition.     

When tsarist Russia entered the absolutism era, skomorokh culture was subjected to prosecution. It was not unlike Europe, where theatres and buffoons were also prohibited at those times. Retaliatory measures, associated with expression of different views, were universally alike, including different customary resemblances. If in medieval Europe and Kyivan Rus a harlequin was usually a healthy man, devoid of visible defects, in absolutist epoch it was desirable for a skomorokh or a buffoon to be physically challenged – a cripple, a dwarf, a crookback or a freak. It was not so painful to listen to the truth from those who were handicapped. Such morals were characteristic to the European and Russian royal courts till the 19th century.    

Nikolai II, the Emperor manifesting "State Duma", as a parliamentary authority
Nikolai II, the Emperor manifesting “State Duma”, as a parliamentary authority

However, there certainly were some discrepancies. In Europe theosophical debates took place widely, and many universities were known for their polemic traditions. In Muscovy there was nothing of the kind. Orthodox church discouraged theosophical debates and science, but strived for integration with the government – and succeeded. The differences deepened further: European absolutism began relying upon parliamentarism, whereas a parliament (Duma) appeared in Russia as late as in the 20th century, being established by the Manifest, dated October 17, 1905. And the Soviet period (Soviets, by the way, initially were spontaneously managed self-governing bodies) can hardly be seen as the period of parliamentarism. The fundamental principle “if you are not with us, you are against us” forced comrade deputies to vote unanimously.  

As it happens, in the post-Russian-imperial space of Eastern-Slavic lands, the contradictory opinions were never verbalized, not to mention the culture of opposition to the authority. The totalitarian past left a deep conviction, though thoroughly disguised even by professional democrats, about harm and destructive power of differing views.  

To the point, there are economic reasons for that. As it was mentioned above, democracy, and the opposition opportunities along with it, much better “grow” on the “soils” of abundant trade flows, where a great deal of independent sellers and buyers are concentrated. Eastern Europe, especially after Kyivan Rus period, was never known for its population density or potent trade flows, let alone Siberia and Far East. It was just a few hundred years ago that on vast territories of Ukraine there were wild steppes, inhabited by the nomad tribes.  

Does it mean that Eastern Europeans suffer from some congenital malformation, disabling them to heed the divergent views and create an operating opposition? Of course, not. We just need to get to an early start.


Short history of Ukrainian opposition

Ukraine became independent when a formally united communist parliamentary opposition was quite strong. They actively confronted the ideas of democratization and liberal market. But was CPU (Communist Party of Ukraine) a real opposition in a functional sense of this word? Yes, communists were ideological counterparts of nationalists from “Rukh” (Narodny Rukh Ukrainy – political party, promoting national-democratic views), though they did not offer any alternative course of development to Ukraine. 

They left no stone unturned by criticizing any ruling group, but at the same time for the most part they actually avoided authorities. CPU reached its political peak when Petro Symonenko, their leader, qualified for the second-round runoff. Although it was nothing but an imitation of the Russian presidential elections, where the communist candidate was just a contractual partner of the then-president. At the right moment “boxer in a red tank-tee” fell onto the ring, whether there was a rival’s blow or not.     

In fact, Parliament consisting just of nationalists and communists could not function by default. However, either of them soon suffered a defeat from the centrists. New political adversaries appeared: “blue” and “orange”. “Blue” was a pro-Russian Party of Regions, while “oranges” were pro-Western actors. Then one could speak of a certain interplay. In both groups there were businessmen, easily finding ways of connecting. Not very knowledgeable in philosophical subtleties, they did not care about any ideological discrepancies, joining Rada with very clear economic interests and purposes in mind.     

Each of the “colored” blocks have been either in power or in opposition at one time or another. The situation looked more like a real parliamentarism, but traditions proved to be stronger. Representatives of both forces were sweepingly critical of their opponents, at the same time offering nothing instead. Seemingly pro-western, “orange’ politicians promoted ethnic nationalism, which, according to European criteria, was similar neither to neo-liberalism nor to neo-conservatism. The ideology of a “blue” party was even more incomprehensible. They targeted the Russian speaking population focusing on their customs and traditions, but did not take into consideration the country’s development course. Using the Russian propagandist material, they adapted it to Ukrainian reality. This all allowed their adversaries to blame the “blues” in betrayal of national interests which was quite logical from the radical nationalism’s point of view, but illogical in view of European parliamentarism. 

Consequently, political deal in the Parliament was as follows: active radical organized minority and huge business-‘swamp’, which did not care much about a country or politics in general. They concentrated their efforts on defending their business-interests, which had to be supported by the Government. Without a clear political programme ‘swamp’ was fully exposed to radicalizing “oranges”.  

In the meantime, the radicalism’s tactics consisting in destroying the opposition’s rights and driving them out of political life, began to bear fruit. On the one hand, it was not characteristic of Ukrainian politics to have the only winner who got everything. On the other hand, not only “blue” politicians, but even the voters happened to be unneeded. And the Parliament became de facto unipolar – in the best authoritarian traditions. 

And in Britain, when classical opposition gained strength, the Empire did not lose its territories but added them, did not block the trade but increased it. When Britain, though, attempted to dictate its prices to one of its colonies, it got into a war. This was how the United States of America were created as a nation.  

Lack of full-fledged opposition in Ukraine is caused by the absence of civilized politics and political culture in general. Members of the Party of Regions, comrades of former President Yanukovych, can hardly be called “politicians”. They are just the businessmen in power. May their opponents be called politicians? Yes, this is a certain direction of the country’s development, which is not, though, supported by economic and political success, and, besides, has no options.  

There has always been some vacillation between left and right, even at the Soviet times: initially called an “imperialism’s prostitute” genetics was later recognized as a field of science; originally an enemy Mikhail Bulgakov soon became a genius; corn, a super-plant, turned out to be a narrow-minded phantasy of Khrushchev; Stalin, “the father of all people”, was later called an executioner. Such wavering was possible not only due to an overall political approval, but also because there was never any operating opposition.    

The task of a real opposition consists in offering an alternative route of the country’s development, instead of dragging the authorities through the mud. Do you know many Ukrainian politicians working on the national development strategy, on the quality of the state government, on the nation’s global competitiveness? Do you know anybody who doesn’t wait for the next elections and has no private business interests?

This is a hard, diligent and daily work, which requires ongoing debates, and, as a result, modelling of various national development scenarios. However, our administrative traditions leave Ukrainian society unprepared for such a routine. It’s easier to make a man work under pressure than to convince him to do something on his free will.

That is why the modernization of Ukrainian political system should begin with the respectful and attentive attitude to a different opinion which makes it important for politicians to take their stances at all. Contemporary Ukrainian authorities practically don’t have any opponents. As usual, there are those who wish to blame them, but there is nobody to offer an alternative route. They can only nominate another candidate, but this will be more an employment issue, than a political choice. Ukrainian society is in short supply of political ideas, personalities, scenarios and elaborate subterfuges. Though geographically situated in the centre of Europe, we suffer from the crisis of statehood. Ukrainian political apparatus does not create politics, but distributes benefits to their advantage. Only new faces can save Ukrainian statehood. And one of their key challenges would be to implant an opposition into the power system, to force the dissent to work for the nation. It is not easy, but vitally important for the country and its people.