I’ll be appearing on Political Vindication Radio at 6:10 pm PST to talk about Putin and the state of Russia. Political Vindication Radio emphatically portends to be “doing the work blue blood Republicans just won’t do.” I’m not sure what that means but having a stanch lefty like myself as a guest should certainly prove to be interesting radio.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
Russian politics is a joke. I’m not being sarcastic. It really is funny. Perhaps in an effort to one up the inanity of American politics (as we all know Russians just want to be like us!), or because it has a fatuous dynamic of its own, what passes for the political over there often epitomizes the absurd. Take the most recent scandal involving the Anti-Soviet Kebab House, the Moscow Veterans Committee, the dissident Alexander Podrabinek, and Nashi. It was a publicity stunt within a publicity stunt. A narcissistic plea of “Look at me!” if I’ve ever seen one. A better political parody couldn’t have been concocted by the Kremlin’s best spin doctors. The sad thing is that the ensuing scandal would have been really, really funny if the joke wasn’t so bad.
Long story short: After a summer of renovations, the owner of kebab restaurant on Leningradskii prospekt decided to call his place “Anti-Soviet” to poke fun at the Soviet Hotel across the street. The name went well the the restaurant’s dissident theme of photos of “anti-Soviet” figures of the past. Plus the moniker was a “jokey name” used by patrons in the Soviet period. Vets, however, didn’t see the humor and complained to the local district administration, demanding the restaurant be renamed. The “anti-” in Anti-Soviet Kebab House, they said, hurt their feelings and denigrated their sacrifice in saving Russia from Nazism. Within days, the district’s “crusading environmental inspector,” Oleg Mitvol, paid the Anti-Soviet Kebab House a visit ordering the “anti-” be removed. The owners begrudgingly complied. “We took down the sign under pressure from the district authorities,” Alexander Vanin, the restaurant’s manager told the Moscow Times. “It was to avoid a war and attacks from the prefect, Oleg Mitvol.” Another bad joke bombs to the politics of the absurd.
But the inanity didn’t stop there. In fact, it was only beginning.
Enter Alexander Podrabinek, the famous Soviet dissident and now Putin foe. Having had enough of the “restoration of the Soviet past,” Podrabinek pounded out a diatribe “Letter to Soviet Veterans,” where he called the name change as “great pity” and lambasted the complaining veterans as “idiotic, base, and stupid.” He then went on to charge the vets as “the ones who served as whipmasters in labour camps and prisons, political commissars of anti-retreat units, and executioners at firing grounds.” According to Podrabinek, he and others who defied the Soviet regime are the country’s real heroes. The letter was published on Podrabinek’s blog and on the website of the liberal rag Ezhdnevnyi zhurnal.
The real pity however, isn’t so much that the Anti-Soviet Kebab House was muscled into changing its name. Nor is it the substance of Podrabinek’s rant, ridiculous as it is. It’s the fact that screaming about the “restoration of the Soviet past” is really all Russian liberals have as a political issue. It’s no wonder your average Russian, many of who probably sympathize with the veterans, can’t stand the liberals (assuming they know the liberals exist). Instead of engaging in a politics that, I don’t know, actually matters like the economic crisis, layoffs, prices and other issues, Russia’s liberal intelligentsia choose to dig up the old bones of the past, wave them furiously in the air, and use them to beat the citizenry over the head. The politics of the dead just doesn’t make sense when you could be engaging in a politics of the living. But oh no. Many Russian liberals believe that constantly screaming about Stalin is going to further their political agenda. Newsflash: It’s not.
Thus, what began as a joke that flew over the heads of some thin-skinned old-timers, only revealed the joke that is Russia’s liberal intellgentisa.
Sadly, the comedy sketch didn’t end there.
Enter Nashi. Nashi has been aimless since the election of Dmitry Medvedev. With “colored revolution” vanquished, a number of its chapters liquidated, and little need for mass street protests, the kids in Nashi don’t know what to do with themselves. They purport to have all sorts of programs to train the next generation of Putinistas, but none of that makes the headlines in the Russian or international press. This doesn’t mean that Nashi hasn’t found a niche in the Medvedevian Thaw. Every generation needs a war, and if you can’t provide a real one, then a virtual one will just have to suffice. Taking the “anti-fascist” part of their name waaay to seriously, Nashi has decided that anything that criticizes the integrity of Soviet past and the Russian present is “fascism.” So Nashi’s activities over the last several months have focused on publicity stunts to unmask Russia’s internal enemies supported by the “fascist” West.
As soon as Nashi joined the fray, what was already a political farce quickly turned into tragedy. Soon after Prodabinek’s diatribe hit runet, Nashi began mobilizing its apparatus of outrage. Members began pickets outside of Prodrabinek’s apartment, released his phone number and address on the internet, and vowed to run him out of the country. According to Nashi’s GenSek, Nikita Borovikov, all these actions are “of the most democratic in nature.”
Fearing for his life, Probrabinek went into hiding. Not because of Nashi, whose actions he considers a “propaganda stunt” and an “imitation of public outrage” (which it is), but because of “information from reliable sources” that “serious people” want him taken care of. That is “taking care of” in the bullet-in-head sense of the phrase.
More outrage ensued. Ezhdnevnyi zhurnal began an online petition in support of Prodrabinek, which now sports over 3000 signatures, a virtual who’s who of the Russian liberal intelligentsia. Not to be outdone, Nashi claims to have over 5000 signatures against Prodrabinek.
I just have to ask a number of questions. Are you kidding me? Hiding? Is this a joke? You do know that this is all because of a shashlik joint? Do you? Someone please tell me that this is part of some Russian version of Punk’d. Because if this is real then someone call Dr. Phil to mediate between the vets, Prodrabinek, and Nashi. There is a little to much of the “talk to the hand ’cause the face don’t understand” going on.
But apparently it is real or at least appears real enough. And always ready to jump on the latest scandal in Russia, the Western media and rights groups have hitched a ride on the outrage express. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists released a statement calling for an end to the harassment of and for the protection of Prodrabinek. Even the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner “contacted the relevant authorities to make sure [Prodrabinek] is safe.”
All for the name of a kebab restaurant.
But this is what passes for small-p politics in Russia. A bad joke produces outrage, which in the end exposes what utter jokes Russia’s liberals and Nashi really are. And the joke isn’t funny any more as the great Morrissey once sang. Because for Russians like the 27,600 AvtoVAZ workers in Togliatti waiting for their pink slips, the message is clear: Russia’s liberals and Nashi don’t care about you. Not when there are kebab restaurants and Soviet pride to defend.Post Views: 180
By Sean — 8 years ago
Last Sunday’s municipal elections in 75 of Russia’s 83 regions were like a bad rerun. Everyone played their role well in the latest stage production of managed liberal democracy. United Russia trounced its rivals, most importantly in the coveted Moscow city government where UR took 32 of 35 seats. The country’s real opposition, the Communist Party, got a mere three. Similar results were reproduced across the country. Overall numbers show that the Party of Power averaged around 70% of the votes nationwide, while the Communists hovered around 13%. The rest–Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party were in the single digits. The liberal party meld of Yabloko and Right Cause got nothin’ worth mentioning.
Of course, every oppositional faction–which ranges from those who could participate like the Communists, LDPR, Just Russia, and Yabloko and those who couldn’t like Solidarity–hemmed and hawed about election fraud. No Russian election can occur without it just like no sitcom sounds right without canned laughter. And especially the city Duma elections in Moscow. Did anyone actually think that the United Russia was going to allow the Communists, LDPR, and Yabloko have any say so in Moscow’s $40 billion budget? Democracy–shmocracy. This election, like all of them, was about power and money.
But Russia isn’t alone in this. It seems that no election anywhere can occur without someone committing or pointing to fraud. In an age void of mass social movements where “democracy” holds global hegemony, crying electoral fraud has become the sole “revolutionary” act in a very anti-revolutionary world. Well, I guess that and blowing yourself up. A century ago, politics was a bitter struggle between the have-nots and the haves. Economic crisis brought some nations to their knees; while others simply imploded. Now, “oppositional” politics has been reduced to the presence or absence of ballots.
Committing and claiming electoral fraud, therefore, has become integral to the logic of liberal democracy itself. For those in power, fraud serves as a soft means of reproducing their power. For those in opposition, it provides a safe raison d’etre where “democracy” is a rallying cry that never questions the foundations of the social-economic system it rests upon: capitalism. So for opposition parties in Russia, the political contest is relegated to the superstructure: the accuracy of ballots, equal access to the polls, equal participation in campaigning, etc. The ballot is a political end in and of itself.
How else can one understand the “protest” by Duma deputies from the LDPR, Communists and Just Russia? On Wednesday members from all three factions staged a walkout to protest Sunday’s election results citing the mass falsification of votes in favor of the Party of Power. The deputies demanded a meeting with President Medvedev. When the President phoned LDPR hetman Zhironovsky and KPRF batka Zyuganov with a promise of a future meeting, the “revolutionaries” signaled that they would return to their stations, though Zyuganov says that his KPRFers won’t do anything until they actually meet with him. “The fight goes on,” he declared. Spoken like a true heir of Lenin.
The action is rightly being hailed as nothing more than a stunt staged by the factions or possibly even by the Kremlin itself. United Russia dominates the Duma so thoroughly that it could function just fine without them, making the opposition’s walkout utterly meaningless. The scandal will unlikely move any passions among the populace. One thing you can say about many Russians, they are hardly naive when it comes to the tenor of this political dance. According to a recent Levanda Center poll, 62 percent of Muscovites see elections as “simply imitations of a battle” between political elites. Or, as Anton Orekh writes on Ekho Moskvy, “The mutiny has been staged, just like the elections. First we were shown an imitation of elections and now an imitation of fury with the results of the elections.” It’s like a revision of the Soviet adage: “You pretend to govern and we pretend to support you.”
Perhaps the most interesting comment comes from Eurasianist philosopher extraordinaire Alexander Dugin:
“I think that a high level of depolitiization exists in the country. This means that both the people and those in power agree that serious political questions that would demand including the public are not on the table. Therefore interest in parties is sapped and party politics is transformed into a kind of ceremony, a ritual.
This has an impact on elections, because I think that people simply don’t participate in them. It is clear to everyone in the elections: no intrigue, no interests, and no enemies and no friends. In this sense, I think that interest in elections is totally absent.
Dugin went on to conclude: “Therefore I think that elections [are] very uninteresting, boring, and predictable, and naturally United Russia will win. It’s possible to not hold elections at all. [They should] simply announce that United Russia won.”
We should listen to Dugin. Instead of participating in the ritual of pointing out (yet again) the fraud of Russia’s elections (oh, the horror!), perhaps we should sit back and think of them as if they’ve already “jumped the shark” and hope that the Kremlin at some point cancels this bad sitcom so we can move on to other business.Post Views: 153
By Sean — 10 years ago
Is oil a boon or a blessing? When it comes to Russia, more and more analysis are seeing it as the former. As Konstantin Sonin argues, the “natural-resource curse” is now a favorite among those who seek to explain Russia’s skewed trajectory toward democracy. For Sonin, the oil curse is now displacing other favorite explanations for Russia’s inability to extricate itself from the tar pit of backwardness. Sonin writes,
The arguments over why Russia repeatedly runs into roadblocks in its path toward democracy will continue as long as the country exists — which is to say eternally. The excuses used to explain these failures also seemed to be eternal: Russia’s subjugation under the Mongolian yoke; the immensity of Russia’s territory and its need for expansion; or the “unique Russian mentality” that is somehow not conducive to democracy. Even the country’s severe climate is cited as one reason for its backwardness.
Russia democratic derailment is so perplexing that some are turning to where Putin and Medvedev sit as an clue to the configuration of power. It’s as if Sovietologists’ practice of finding out who was in charge by where they stood on Lenin’s Mausoleum wasn’t inane enough. But that is the logical outcome of seeing the Russians as eternally backward. Since they aren’t like us, and because of genetics or history can’t be like us, then we will have to decipher their barbarous symbolic order to uncover their hidden secrets. Such is the thrill and the frustration of studying an “abnormal” country.
As Sonin notes, whether the “natural-resource curse” is actually a curse remains to be seen. Sure there isn’t much historical precedent of oil rich countries becoming flower gardens of democracy. Sure it seems that most oil rich countries are wallowing in the morass of lopsided economies, polarizing wealth, and dependency. But the problem for Sonin isn’t oil as such. It’s the power dynamic between rulers and people.
The “natural-resource curse,” which is the theory that high oil and gas profits weaken economic and political development in the long term, is not always a given. The true impact of the curse depends on a nation’s particular history and culture. In some countries, governmental institutions are so stable that even a sharp rise in prices for resource exports would not threaten their integrity. Even in a country without successful experience in democratic development, the efforts of the ruling elite, coupled with the proper political awareness on the part of the people, could prevent the country from sliding into a dictatorship.
This is a nice theory. But “political awareness on the part of the people” has shown to be quite malleable to the whims of leaders. Maybe Sonin has a better ear, but I don’t hear many Russians clamoring for a redistribution of all that oil wealth. In fact, the population appears have been lulled into political content by the dazzling allure of consumerism. The plenitude of new cars, clothes, stereos, cell phones, DVD players, and flat screen TVs if not actually consumed, at least present the potential of consumption. The trickle down of oil wealth to Russia’s middle classes is enough to produce a reinforcing objective and subjective sense of stability. Enough Russians see and feel a bright tomorrow, which acts as a gloss over whatever problems that exist. There is a unspoken pact between leaders and people. One that says, to quote Sonin, “the country’s leaders don’t have to bend over backwards to earn the right to stay in power, and the people aren’t overly concerned about how their government is structured, or who controls what.” With a deal like that, why would any Russian what to muck it up with something as unpredictable as democracy?Post Views: 109