My latest contribution to Pajamas Media “Why Putvedev?” is up. There isn’t much new in it for frequent readers of this blog. Hopefully, it will give a wider audience a different opinion about the Russian Presidential Elections. Also I highly recommend Andrew Wilson’s analysis, “Russia’s Post-election Balance” on Open Democracy. It seems that we share some similar opinions.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
“I’m out of it for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” Now I understand how Han Solo felt after being defrosted from carbonite. I go into the basement for two weeks and there are rumors of me being in a post-election hangover, or worse, murdered. Well, I assure you dear readers that I’m alive and well. Los Angeles may be ablaze (again) but I’m safe from the rings of fire, that is until I kick the bucket and meet the dark lord.
For the past few weeks I’ve been devoting my Bolshevik will and strength to finishing a dissertation chapter. “Bolsheviks can storm any fortress” read the Stalinist slogan, and I did. I do have to finish this damn dissertation at some point. And well if I have to pick between you my dear reader and my career, well my petite-bourgeois sensibilities win out every time. Just don’t hate the player, hate the game. So over the next few months expect more periods where I go underground . . .
But the delusions of grandeur aren’t about me and my rumored doom. They have more to do with what’s been going on in Russia over the last few weeks. Well, not in Russia exactly, but more how it’s being interpreted by the gatekeepers of English language reporting. As we know, Obama was elected President of the United States, and Dima Medvedev instead of showing the proper deference to the new Emperor decided to address the Duma where he blamed the US for the global economic crisis (he’s right) and threatened to put missiles in Kaliningrad to match American intentions of putting missiles in Poland. Was this the challenge to Obama’s “lack of experience” that everyone predicted? The New York Times thought so. It called Medvedev’s move “a cold-war-tinged challenge for President-elect Barack Obama.” After all, the Times reasoned, “Russia’s leaders know full well that the American missile defenses pose no real threat to their huge nuclear arsenal. But playing the victim is an easy way to divert attention from Russia’s shrinking democracy, and now from declining oil prices.” A new President but the Times plays the same old record. So much for hope and change. Russia’s just the same old big bully, they say. Sigh.
But digging at the US wasn’t all, or even the real focus of Mr. Medevev’s speech. Sorry to disappoint my fellow Americans, but sometimes you aren’t at the center of everyone’s existence. To quote the NY Times again, “The dark flashbacks didn’t end there.” Surprise! Medvedev isn’t the liberal everyone hoped, prayed, and sacrificed small animals and virgins for. He’s a Putinist of perhaps a lighter shade, but still a Putinist. Dima’s most recent affront to Western democratic sensibilities was his proposal that the Russian presidential term be extended from four to six years. Immediately, pundits cried “authoritarianism” and revived the corpse of Putin’s impending return to Russia’s top job. The logic goes that since Putin didn’t want to risk international condemnation for changing the Constitution when he was President (as if there wasn’t enough condemnation already), he sent is little bear to do the dirty work.
The changes were submitted to the Duma on Friday and they passed without a hitch. No surprises there or in the Guardian‘s Luke Harding usually predictable analysis: The changes entrench “the Kremlin’s grip on power and paving the way for an early comeback by Vladimir Putin.” In fact, rumor has it that Putin will be back as early as 2009! For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this signals Putin’s “early comeback” especially since people like Harding believe that he never went anywhere in the first place. After all, isn’t Putin the de facto President anyway? Is Medvedev Putin’s puppet or not? Make up your damn mind.
In addition to extending the presidential term, Medvedev also proposed extending the terms of Duma reps from four to five years. This will certainly make representatives of United Russia happy. Since the majority of Duma seats are based on lists and not direct candidate elections, this will solidify their place for one more year. Rest easy, comrades. But not too easy . . .
Medvedev also made some other interesting proposals in his speech that went virtually unnoticed in the Western press. One is to change appointments for governors. Instead of being appointed by the Kremlin, candidates for governor would chosen by their parties and be elected by a majority vote in their respective provincial Dumas. Ekspert called this move “the most radical of all presidential initiatives.” If this is implemented, governors would be more accountable to the regions they represent rather than to the Kremlin. True, the Kremlin will certainly have a hand in the process via the back door–United Russia, after all, dominates every regional parliament–but it is a move toward some semblance of political decentralization.
The question, however, is why? Why extend terms of President, Duma reps, and propose altering regional politics? Many have pointed out that it’s all about the boys in the Kremlin tightening their grip. Perhaps, but I have a different take.
Taken together, Medvedev’s proposals are a gift and a check to bureaucratic power. Extending Duma terms gives reps a bit more time to rest on their laurels. Score one for the national political elite. Making governors accountable to locals is feather in the cap of local elites. Score one for them. Extending the presidential terms to six years, however, is a potential check against this transfer of power. The President will be in power longer than any one Duma member and given more time to put pressure on regional governors and their parliaments.
Extending the presidential term also suggests something else. In his speech, Medvedev spoke of “effective government.” In one sense, his proposals are exactly about effective government. They potentially, and I say potentially, increase the President’s effectiveness in influencing governance. But this doesn’t mean that it’s about the Kremlin strengthening itself. Quite the opposite, in my view. Extending the top dog’s term says to me that the center still can’t trust its regions to implement its agenda. Therefore the President needs two more years to ram it down their throats.
Political power in Russia is indeed centralized because the history of regional politics from the Tsars to Putin have been one of autonomy, localization, stonewalling, foot dragging, or worse, exploiting the center’s directives. Russian rulers’ solution has been to centralize its power. But here is where the inner contradiction of centralization rears its ugly head. The center must weaken the periphery to run the country as effective as it can, but in that weakening it makes itself the only real political force of reform, negating the power local need to prosecute the center’s policies. The center is thus weakened by its very effort at becoming more effective. The question then becomes how do you rule effectively and subordinate the machinations of regional boyars without giving them too much power to muck up your agenda? It sounds as if Medvedev, with his proposed changes, is faced with the same conundrum. Whether they will provide some semblance of an answer remains to be seen.
To think people believe that Putin wants this job back?!
By Sean — 1 year ago
By Sean — 13 years ago
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.