Friday, March 16, 2012

Glasnost: Unpredictable Openness

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
So reads the quotation on the front page of the website for President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. This quotation originated as the first paragraph of a memorandum written by the President with the subject line “Transparency and Open Government”. In the memorandum President Obama details further the three elements of openness in government that are mentioned in the initial paragraph:
  1. Transparency
  2. Public Participation
  3. Collaboration
These are some pretty novel ideas, aren’t they? The leaders of our country are seeking to create accountability for themselves. This seems somewhat unprecedented, but it is a natural move following the mistrust that many have developed towards past administrations, like that related to the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, and more recently, the intelligence failure related to the second Gulf War. If people see more of what happens on the interior of the government, they are more likely to trust it.

But is that really the case?

Take a look back in time, to the mid-1980s. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, and on the other side of the world Mikhail Gorbachev was the General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had some novel ideas about how to improve the government and modernize the Soviet Union. The policies for which he is best known are usually discussed together: perestroika, meaning restructuring, and glasnost, meaning (you guessed it) openness.

The General Secretary was acutely aware of the mistrust people had developed in the Communist Party, despite the fact that practically all forms of public media were strictly controlled and minority voices were not heard the way they are in America. One can only imagine being a citizen of the USSR and undergoing the difficulties of life under strict Communist rule. It is likely that the Party’s effective control of media did something to mitigate the concerns of the people, presenting propaganda and spins on stories to ease their minds. However, earplugs can only do so much to block out the roar of a jet engine. The Russian people would not remain content with the secretive and controlling Party.

While perestroika as a policy ranged more broadly to economic concerns, glasnost was focused on improving governmental accountability (just as in President Obama’s point of transparency). It seems that the President’s idea is not entirely new after all. The Soviet Union was in previous years notorious for denying responsibility or involvement in anything that would cast a shadow on the immaculate image they had attempted to create of themselves. However, despite their efforts, the shadow was cast just the same. Glasnost was intended to remedy this trend and produce new trust for the government.

In fact, according to Gorbachev himself, the purpose of glasnost was more far-reaching than that; the General Secretary expressed his expectations for the policy early on in his administration at a party congress: “Without glasnost there is not, and there cannot be, democratization, the political creativity of the masses and their participation in management.” It sounds to me like Gorbachev’s policy matches up with Obama’s fairly well.

Now, a western-minded person might assume that the public was delighted with this new policy. That is certainly the impression that I had when I first learned about it. However, its effect was almost certainly not what the General Secretary intended. In lifting the restrictions on the press and other news media, along with the other actions associated with glasnost, Gorbachev unleashed the flood that eventually washed away the Soviet Union altogether.

The issue was information. Transparency in the Soviet Union meant no longer preventing the free flow of news, images, ideas, and opinions. Gennady Gerasimov, a spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry under Gorbachev, said, “It was glasnost that destroyed the Soviet Union… People opened their eyes and saw what kind of a country they were living in, and they looked at the nation’s horrible history.” When glasnost began, people were encouraged to speak up, to voice their opinions. Soon, however, Gorbachev found himself scolding the media for their highly critical treatment of the government. The people of the USSR noticed to a greater extent the inequality between leaders and commoners, one that ought not to exist in a communist system, and lost faith in their leaders. Soon there was a rift, a division between the conservatives who felt that Gorbachev had gone too far in opening up the media and the government and the progressives who wanted the changes to go further. This division led to an attempted coup orchestrated by the more conservative members of the Communist Party’s leadership, followed shortly thereafter by the secession of various Soviet Socialist Republics from the USSR. At that point, the Soviet Union was dead.

So an openness movement caused the collapse of the government that started it. Could it be that Obama’s initiative could do the same?

The answer is not likely, or at least, not in the same way. The problem with glasnost was in the state of the Soviet government prior to the change in policy. The Communist Party depended on strict control to stay in power because they were not really governing by popular mandate. There was no guarantee that the people were satisfied with their rulers and little avenue for the people to voice their own opinions. On the other hand, in the United States, our electoral system provides a method, albeit an imperfect one, to secure popular mandate for the governing body. Furthermore, discontent with the government is legally and openly expressed. And yet further, The United States’ new initiative is not really exactly like glasnost. In many ways, America already had the freedoms and openness guaranteed under glasnost. Thus while Gorbachev’s policy opened the flood gates, in America the gates were open before the water could build up.

The point, however, of this whole discussion was to highlight the fact that an openness movement can have some unintended consequences, like the collapse of a government that it intended to save. Obama’s initiative seems to take openness of government one step further. Who can say what unexpected results that might have?

Much of the history described above was taken from:

Usitalo, S. A., & Whisenhunt, W. B. (2008). Russian and soviet history: from the time of troubles to the collapse of the soviet union. Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield.

(1990). T. Clark (Ed.), The Russian chronicles : a thousand years that changed the world from the beginnings of the land of Rus to the new revolution of glasnost today London: Century.

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