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By Sean — 10 years ago
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.Post Views: 505
By Sean — 10 years ago
Prime Minister Putin continued his annual Q&A with the Russian people on Thursday. A full English transcript is now available on Putin’s website. Russia watchers have already began combing through his words, interpreting their significance, and assessing their political resonance. As most reports emphasize, Putin spoke at length about the economic crisis assuring Russians that things will get bad but the nation will weather the storm. It’s not surprising that the PM’s comments focused on the economy. Issues like unemployment, inflation, benefits and pensions were naturally what concerned most people.
Russians were eager to pose questions to the PM, or as a caller named Dasha Varfolomeeva called him, “Uncle Volodya.” About 2.2 million flooded in via phones, text messages, and the Internet. At times it appeared the studio was barely handling the deluge. At one point, Maria Sittel, the event’s co-host said, “The load is tremendous, Mr Mackevicius. No time for rest. I think we have crossed an important psychological barrier: 2.2 million communications, including 1.5 million telephone calls and just over 600,000 text messages. The rest is from the Internet.” Putin may not be president, but he certainly is “the father of the nation.”
This idea of Putin as “father” or even “uncle” to the masses is certainly not a new political idea for Russia. Direct communication with the Father, whether it be the Tsar, General Secretary, President or Prime Minister has been a dynamic between leader and people for centuries. Normally, the distance between leader and led is vast, giving the opportunity to be in the leader’s proximity a momentary but significant symbiotic relation. Here I find myself in agreement with Masha Lipman’s explanation of this event:
“[It] emphasizes the paternalistic nature of the regime. It is a style of government in which the most important thing is the rapport between the top decision-taker and the people. Many of those questions were local or even individual. And people have their own legislators. They have federal legislators they voted for, they have their own governors and yet there is this sense that maybe the only way to get a problem solved is to get through to the supreme authority.”
Putin’s Q&A does say a lot of about the personalized nature of the regime, but it also says that Russians themselves recognize this as an effective means to get problems solved. For example, the Financial Times notes,
From the southern city of Nizhny Novgorod, a mother called to complain that a subsidised baby food clinic had been closed. Half an hour after the show, the governor of the province announced the miraculous resolution of the problem.
The Tsar + people against the boyars dynamic continues to function. The interests of the leader are sublimated into the people so that for one brief moment they embody the sovereign body of Putin. When looked at closely, the whole exercise exerts an air of the carnivalesque.
The notion of proximity between leader and lead is further seen in how so many Russians crafted their questions. Not only did they address subjects as wide ranging as Christmas trees and pedophiles, how callers crafted their questions says volumes about the language of appeal. The questions were often personal and callers were quick to give Putin a short autobiographical note mixed with a political statement. For example,
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Oksana Klimova. I’d like to express the pain of many people who live in the Far East. We feel detached from central Russia, since many families cannot buy train or air tickets, because air tickets cost around 30,000 rubles or even more. My kid asked me if we could go to St Petersburg for winter holidays, but I said No.
What will be done for the healthcare and education professionals to help them afford such luxury?
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Olga Savelyeva.
I am a single mother. My daughter is 16. She studies in the 11th grade, this is her final year. I work at the radio-electronics plant, the Kontakt plant with billions in sales. These days, they have announced layoffs because of the crisis. Out of its 4,000 workers, 1,500 will be dismissed. I have worked as a production engineer for more than 20 years, and my salary grew from 6,000 to 8,000 rubles, but now it is being reduced. I am afraid I may lose my job.
Mr Putin, how will you deal with massive unemployment?
As someone who has read a number of appeals to leaders during the Soviet period, I’m struck by their narratological similarities. Often letters to power began with an autobiographical introduction of some sort. Since those appeals were written, the authors tended detail their life in greater depth than those fielded by Putin. Citizens’ requests from the early Soviet period also had a similar individual tone. I have letters to Komsomol General Secretary N. Chaplin asking for advice on marriage, employment, money, and other forms of assistance. Sometimes people got results. On some letters to Stalin, one can see his marginal notes directing the appeal to the appropriate authority. In other cases, letters of complaint and denunciation opened up investigations of local officials.
Finally, I think the most interesting part of the Q&A was the final part when Putin took short questions and at many points took personal responsibility for their resolution. Here are a few examples:
“I have eight children, my eldest daughter is 20. I have not received the Order of Maternal Glory, and, hence, I don’t get the benefits.”
It goes without saying I will check on this. I can’t comment on this particular case now, but this mistake should be corrected. I hope you’ve left your address here. We will find you.
“Dear Mr Putin, I found my father’s grave killed during WWII on the Internet.” The man asks to help with restoring the monument, which the local budget cannot afford.
We shall contact you. This is a sacred duty of local and regional authorities alike. If they do not have enough money, I would stress that the matter implies not only money but also morals. We shall help if they cannot afford such things, but I don’t think this is a matter where thrift should come in to play.
“We have no school and no art or knitting classes near our home. The children hope you will help.”
This is also a matter of regional scope, but we shall help, as the message has reached me. We shall certainly help.
“My request concerns my son, who will be conscripted next autumn. He dreams of serving in the Kremlin Regiment.”
Good boy! It’s great that he wants to go into the army. As for the Kremlin Regiment, it has certain qualifications. I will pass your message along to the Federal Guard Service, and I believe its chiefs will do something for you.
Whether Putin actually comes through on these is immaterial. What is important is that he acknowledged people’s individual voices in a very public forum. In the big political sense, that recognition is more important as any results.Post Views: 499
By Sean — 6 years ago
Stephen Kotkin, Professor of History at Princeton University, reviewed five recent books on Putin in the 2 March issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Kotkin is a tour de force when it comes to all things Russia, and when I heard about the review, I scoured the internet looking for an accessible version, but to no avail. Not having a subscription to TLS, I had to patiently wait until the University of Pittsburgh library received its copy. It finally hit the periodical shelves a week or so ago, and I eagerly made a photocopy. You can read of scan of the review here.
The five books under Kotkin’s analytical gaze are:
Gleb Pavlovsky, Genialnaya vlast! Slovar abstraktsii kremlya, Evropa, 2011
Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Riverhead, 2012
Augus Roxburgh, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, Tauris, 2012
Sean P. Roberts, Putin’s United Russia Party, Routledge, 2011
Allen C. Lynch, Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, Potomac, 2011
Here are some of my favorite passages:
This one-man capture of the State has stood out as utterly singular in writings on Russia. Throw in Putin’s KGB background and all the lingering emotions and politics of the Cold War, and Russia’s ostensible singularity becomes magnified. But the world knows myriad examples of personal rule, caudillos, juntas, in countries small and large. Did not Indonesia’s Suharto appoint senior military officers, equivalent to Putin’s KGB types, to civilian posts, whence they enriched themselves in the name of sovereignty and state security? Is not today’s Georgia under Mikheil Saakashviii essentially a one-man regime under which a tiny clique of associates holds sway over the executive, parliament and main national television channels, with a constitution altered by fiat and an opposition chased from the streets with truncheons? We would do well to understand that such regimes are often feeble, even before they reveal themselves to be so, and yet they are not so easily dislodged. They wield numerous instruments—tax police, courts, buy-offs—that are useful only for certain tasks, like holding on to power. Stalin excepted, the more leaders in Russia have pushed for a “strong state”, the more they end up producing weak personal rule and institutional mush. In the end, whether the current Russian regime falls or survives, the colossal modernization challenge will persist.
Pavlovsky draws a telling contrast with Karl Rove’s efforts under George W. Bush to create a permanent Republican Party majority, which failed. The “Putin majority”, he explains, encompasses people on the state budget (such as pensioners), the working class, state functionaries and the security services, and women. In other words, those who bore the burdens of the Yeltsin “reforms”, the losers of the 1990s, became the winners of the 2000s. The majority holds, provided the state budget can continue to find the largesse for its outlays, and the people continue to stay out of politics. But now? If the election of 2000 institutionalized the Putin majority, Pavlovsky concludes, the election of 2012 will institutionalize the “permanent insulted minority”.
When the voluble Sobchak inconveniently recalled Purin’s role differently from the emerging official line, he was, Gessen implies, murdered by poisoning. She piles up the suspicious corpses, recounting the death by polonium radiation of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the murders of the investigative journalists Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya, among others. Gessen’s friends fear she may be next. She is right that the regime shrinks from no act or method, but proving matters is not simple. In her telling, the deadly terrorist siege of a Moscow theatre turns out to have been a convoluted set-up; and the fatal storming of a school held hostage in Beslan two years later was unnecessary (Putin could have acceded to the terrorists’ demands). Tarring Putin, rather than just his associates, with corruption, she recounts the story of his supposed $1 billion dacha complex on the Black Sea, invoking the notion of pleonexia (an “insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”). Conversely, she tells us that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed tycoon, “invested money and energy in constructing a new political system”. She offers a similarly one-sided account of the destruction of Vladimir Gusinsky’s empire (”The day the media died”), where she used to work. Repeatedly, she scolds the New York Times for its allegedly naive response to these events. Above all, she frog-marches Putin’s facilitators before her interviewer’s court. Berezovsky, we hear, rues the day he ever helped him. Andrei IIlarionov, who worked as Putin’s top economic adviser, rues the day. William Browder, who applauded Khodorkovsky’s arrest before his own investment fund was evacuated under duress, rues the day. Gessen derides her peers for being taken in by Medvedev’s talk of modernization (“The intelligentsia ate it up”), then lets on that her recent boss, the ultra-rich Mikhail Prokhorov, a permitted presidential candidate, “just might topple the system”.
And finally, Kotkin concludes:
After twelve years at the pinnacle of power, with twelve more in prospect, Putin remains at a loss as to how to move Russia to the next level, towards a version of the modernity he rightly says the country needs. As for the man-boy Medvedev, even now he continues his enervating verbiage. “The old model, which faithfully and truly served our state in recent years, and did not serve it badly, and which we all defended – it has exhausted itself’, he remarked on December 17. Why have these endless calls for modernization not been answered? Masha Gessen has the simplest response: it was mostly a ruse. Angus Roxburgh’s explanation comes via a Russian businessman, who tells him that corruption “is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable”. Allen Lynch, too, singles out structural impediments, as well as accumulated Soviet rot and geopolitical constraints, some self-imposed. Russia wants to deal with the West and China from a position of equality, but it cannot; Russia wants to be a global power centre in its own right, the hub of a Eurasian Union, but it is not. Pavlovsky suggests another piece of the answer, on top of the exigencies of the global economy: Putin has exposed himself as ever more cocky and vindictive, and bereft of the political agility of his first term, refusing all concessions and unable to revive a sense of a future. Russia deserves better, but is in line for more of the same.Post Views: 1,010