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Hopes and Fears for 2008

On Friday, I went to my local photo shop to get some passport sized photos for a library card. While I was waiting I noticed a letter sized portrait of Vladimir Putin on the wall. This was no regular portrait that you see in most government buildings with Vlad looking all presidential and, incidentally, ever so metrosexual. This one was of Putin the commando. It was him, shoulders up, so you could see he was wearing a winter commando jacket and fur hat. I couldn’t help thinking of not just the cheesiness of the portrait, nor just how easy the ubiquitous pictures of Lenin of the Soviet times too easily returned in different content, but I also wondered what will happen to Russia once their beloved Vanya is gone.

Such is also the question increasingly on every Russian politicos’ mind: What will happen in 2008? You see, in 2008, there will be a Presidential election, in which Putin cannot run because of term limits. The newspaper articles seem non-stop. They overflow with predictions of chaos. From the necessity of a handpicked successor to avert chaos to complete doomsday scenarios about colored revolutions and the Russian State imploding. There doesn’t seem to be any room for any middle ground. Authoritarian anti-chaos or democratic chaos. Take your pick.

These views, of course, break down by political affiliation. Many liberal democratic politicos envision, or rather hope, for some kind of Russian version of a “colored revolution” similar to their cousins in the Ukraine and southern neighbors in Georgia. Many liberals are already mobilizing their grassroots forces a la Ukraine to prepare for the 2008 challenge. Yabloko is trying to make a political comeback. Students and other youths are starting to form their own anti-Putin groups. Taking a page from the Ukrainian youth group Pora (It’s Time) and the Georgian group Kmara (Enough), Russian youth groups like Yabloko Youth led by Ilya Yashin, Mikhail Obozov’s Idushchiye bez Putina (Walking Without Putin), student associations Ia Dumaiu (I Think) and Da (Yes) are starting early in anticipation of a 2008 showdown in the streets. The groups first began networking on the internet. Since the pensioner protests at the beginning of the year, they had increased in membership and furthered their activities. Speaking to the LA Times in January, Mikhail Obozov summed up liberal youths desire in this way:

“We are not for bloody revolutions or cataclysms. We are looking for normal democratic development. But if they continue their suppression of all possibilities, I’m afraid some bloody variation of events is possible. In Ukraine, everything went down peacefully. It won’t be like that in Russia.”

Translated: we’re not for chaos, but we won’t shy away from it either.

Many “pro-democracy” (whatever that means in the Russian context) advocates are hoping former Prime Minister Mikhail Krasianov makes a run for President. In something that is pretty unprecedented in Russian politics, Krasianov openly criticized Putin for his move away from democracy. Many observers note that Krasianov might be one of the few Russian politicians who could muster not only a coalition of liberal or anti-Putin parties, the backing of Russians Oligarchs, and possibly exploit the factions that have developed in Putin’s clan of former KGB/FSB and other security elites, the Siloviki.

Such political hopes for many Russian liberals might never get beyond hope, though their early mobilizations might fare them well. All this, especially the youth activity, only fuels the already widespread beliefs that the CIA orchestrated the “revolution” in the Ukraine with a combination of marketing and Soros money. Putin supporters and nationalists thus vow that Russia will not tolerate any “colored revolutions,” and some concrete steps are being taken to make that so. Pro-Putin youth have since ditched the moderate youth group, Idushchie vmeste (Marching Together), for the much more openly nationalist Nashi (Ours). Though the group has not been officially endorsed by the Putin Administration, its leader, Vasily Yakemenko also headed Marching Together. Nashi, says Yakemenko, has a long list enemies: oligarchs, bureaucrats, and what he called “fascist” enemies, which, as he told the Christian Science Monitor, includes “counter-revolution of former officials trying to seize power” (3/16/2005).

Despite the difficultly in imaging life with Putin, legislaters squashed the anticipated official move to allow Putin to run again. Last week, Lower Duma member Alexander Moskalets from United Russia introduced legislation that would alter Chapter V, Article 32.4 of the Russian Constitution so Putin could run again. The bill only gained 32 of the 226 votes it needed to pass. Such a defeat shows that United Russia, which dominates the Duma and is Putin’s party doesn’t even favor such a move.

It seems that the Putin/United Russia camp is paving a different road to victory in 2008. Despite the emergence of a more militant youth group like Nashi, United Russia might attempt to transform itself into a centrist party that places “Just imagine if they came to power” at the center of their platform. The “they” in this slogan is the Communist Party and Rodina (Homeland) the respective far left and right parties. In an interview given to the German weekly Der Spiegel this week, Putin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, described a strategy where, unlike their main opponents, United Russia is preparing for the future without looking to the past for solutions. This means that United Russia will focus on providing viable candidates not just for President, but for lower political positions as well. It is also looking to present an inclusiveness that could siphon off support of liberal democratic parties like Yabloko.

Yet the doomsday scenario continues to weigh heavily in the political discourse around 2008. After all, Untied Russia’s “Just imagine” slogan is a play against imagined right and left wing political chaos. Surkov’s response to Der Spiegel’s question about a potential revolt rising was “Sure, there will certainly be some attempts to stage a coup – but they will not succeed.” (Vedomosti, 6/30/2005). The assurance that there will be “certainly be some attempts” is an equivocal yes something will happen.

But will it? Such is hard to say. With the specter of revolution in Russia is only being fueled by the simultaneous hope and the fear of a repeat of the Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan informing the entire discourse surrounding of 2008, it will certainly be anti-climatic if there isn’t. It certainly seems that in the Russian and Western press, 2008 is being built up to Y2K proportions. There is no middle ground. Any suggestion of normalcy is cast off as naive.

However, one does have to wonder why normalcy for Russia is so out of the question. Sure, daily life lacks predictability. There is always some stumbling block. Take a small, but I think telling example. One day, I went to buy a bass pass and was refused purchase because I didn’t have exact change. The women in the ticket booth did not have 30 rubles to give me change. I walked away without a pass. Such is a standard occurrence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got eye fucked by grocery store checkers for not having kopecks for exact change. At the same time, there is a saying here in Russia: “Nel’zia, no vozmozhno” (It is forbidden, but possible.) There are barriers everywhere, but all barriers are movable. If you know how to play the game, especially if it involves bribes of money, chocolate, flowers, tea, etc, all things are possible. Daily life is a constant negotiation that involves a set of personal relations that stand in for the lack of legal ethic. (Here I mean not the rule of Law, whose existence here is also quesntionable, but an professional/service ethic that governs daily transactions.) If this game occurs on a micropoltical level can you imagine it in the macropolitical heavens of Russian politics?

The sheer lack of predictability creates a political culture that assumes chaos as the norm. Everyone predicted said chaos in the transition from Yeltsin to Putin, and when that chaos didn’t happen it was then argued that it was because Yeltsin handpicked a successor. Chaos inevitable and chaos averted in the same breath. Now, it is the same line. There will be some kind of chaos unless Putin runs again or hand picks a successor. His opponents are predicting a chaos of their own because they seem to believe that since Russian “democracy” is a sham, the only way to come to power is through chaos.

They are right about one thing: Russian democracy is a sham. But the only people who seem to care about this are Russian liberals who want power and the Western, mostly American, observers who see the Yukos affair as a sign of, that’s right, chaos. My sense is that most Russians don’t care about Putin’s assault on freedom of speech and political rights. They certainly don’t care about Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos. As far as they’re concerned, he is a crook.

What many Russians are looking for is a predictability to the micropolitical chaos that rules their life. They don’t care, or need, anymore. They care about stability. A predictable chaos, if you would. For them, Putin’s rule has established at least a semblance of it. It has put the breaks on the truly chaotic times of the 1990s. This new stability is not necessarily happening economically, though it perceived as better than ten years ago. The stability is mostly happening culturally. Reconciliation with the Soviet past has finally begun that doesn’t damn it, but praises its achievements. Nothing said this more than the recent 60th Anniversary of Victory Day celebrations. The glory of defeating the Nazis was relived through red flags with images of Stalin and Lenin. Putin has slyly absorbed the Soviet Union into his narrative. It lives in content, but not in form. This doesn’t mean that Putin is a Communist. Not by a long shot. What it does mean is that he is exploiting a nostalgia for the stability that the Soviet Union provided without actually providing it.

This is why I think when 2008 arrives, United Russia will come out on top because people don’t want to “imagine if they came to power.” And in my local photo shop, the Putin as commander picture will come down, and the picture of some, probably, handpicked Putin successor will take his place. Commando suit and all.

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