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In Lieu of an End of Year Rundown

The first thing on order is to wish everyone a happy New Year! I sincerely thank all of you for reading SRB over the last year and I hope you continue into the next.  The news about Russia certainly promises to heat up in 2009 as the economy, by all predictions, continues its nosedive, a new president takes office in the United States, and whatever other unpredictable events crop up in our favorite Slavic nation.

In the meantime, I have been silent about some of the recent news stories coming out of Russia.  I have another dissertation deadline and I’m trying to finish a chapter on masculinity in the Komsomol in earnest.

However, there have been a few news stories that have caught my eye over the last week.  First, of course, is the announcement that Aleksandr Nevskii won the Name of Russia contest. An interesting choice for sure.  Most reports have taken pains to point out that Stalin came in third.  But what I find interesting is that no one wonders why Piotr Stolypin came in second.  Perhaps understanding why this hard aristocrat, anti-democratic but competent reformer has received such recognition says something about Russia at the moment? I have a feeling he symbolizes more than just the “necktie” that snuffed out revolutionaries.  But no, I guess it’s easier to jabber about Stalin since to talk about Stolypin means that journalists would have to know something beyond stereotypes about Russia’s history.

For those of you who read Russian, there has been a few articles of late on the status of the Medvedev-Putin “tandem.”  Russian Newsweek has an interesting story (translated in JRL #233) arguing that Medvedev and Putin have a difficult relationship.  Much of the day to day governance has moved from the Kremlin to the White House.  Medvedev continues to act as the apprentice or sidelined as one by constantly looking to Putin for his approval.  Konstantin Faaze and Mikhail Fishman write:

People who know Medvedev say that he is extremely busy — “he sleeps only five hours a day” — and takes his duties extremely seriously. For instance, since the beginning of the crisis he has been holding conferences several times a week with ministers, vice premiers, and his aides. But that does not change anything, a Kremlin staffer asserts: Putin’s signature is always needed, just the same. According to him, Medvedev writes this on the documents that he sends to Putin: “Esteemed VV (Vladimir Vladimirovich), please take a look.” Or: “To V.V. Putin. Your opinion? With respect, Medvedev.” Putin, when he used to send papers to his prime ministers, would usually write: “Look into it and report back.” Or simply: “Report.”

In fact it is not so easy to get Putin’s signature. The situation has changed –even compared with this past summer. All the sources in the Kremlin and the White House assert that the prime minister does very little work. “Something needs to be decided, but he is not there,” a Kremlin staffer confides, “that is to say, he is nowhere to be found, and (chief of Putin’s bodyguard Viktor) Zolotov says: I don’t know what to advise you, I’m not going to harass him.” A situation has apparently been repeated twice where financial speculators were buying up currency and the Central Bank delayed reducing the ruble rate of exchange for 24 hours because they could not find Putin.

In fact it is not so easy to get Putin’s signature. The situation has changed –even compared with this past summer. All the sources in the Kremlin and the White House assert that the prime minister does very little work. “Something needs to be decided, but he is not there,” a Kremlin staffer confides, “that is to say, he is nowhere to be found, and (chief of Putin’s bodyguard Viktor) Zolotov says: I don’t know what to advise you, I’m not going to harass him.” A situation has apparently been repeated twice where financial speculators were buying up currency and the Central Bank delayed reducing the ruble rate of exchange for 24 hours because they could not find Putin.

An article in Vedomosti, however, doesn’t see an conflict between the two leaders but notes that Medvedev does look to Putin for advice, if not approval. Part of the reason is because the latter has more experience.  The other is that Putin commands more political authority in the country. Another reason is that each side of the tandem has their own spheres of influence.  Putin is tackling the economy–“the market considers him in charge”–and he has the authority to subordinate Russia national and regional elite.  Medvedev’ sphere is centered around legal reform–amending the constitution and fighting corruption.  Medvedev has also exercised his power to appoint governors, the most recent being making former SPS Nikita Belykh the govenor of Kirov.

Nezavmisimaya gazeta puts the point simply:

Western analysts can’t cease their interest: Who’s in charge? When will Medvedev cast off Putin? or the opposite, when will Putin return to power? They are naive people, though very intelligent.  They don’t understand that Medvedev and Putin are allies.

Indeed. For some reason, Western analysis fail to see that Russia’s ruling elite are a team.  It’s not a team of equal players for sure, but a team nonetheless. And as a ruling elite they have corporate interests that they share with a constituency–Russia’s business elite. .

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Much has been written about the car tax protests in Vladivostok, and many in the West are continually treating them as the sign of the coming death knell to the Putin system.  There is another dimension to the protests: the fact that the importation of cars into Russia is big business for the mafia.  “The gray-market importation of used cars from Asia is a profitable business. A vehicle is brought in as a set of parts (an “erector set”), documents are forged, and bribes are paid to officials instead of customs duties being paid. In Vladivostok even the children know that this is how a majority of the local dealers operate,” Ivan Yartsev quotes in a piece on the possible mafia connection to the Vladivostok car tax protests (translated in JRL #234). The inclusion of the criminal element could raise the political stakes for sure on both sides.  For the state, the mafia presents a powerful and well funded foe. For the protesters, it paints black marks on their otherwise sincere intentions.  Yartsev explains,

Now we are seeing the clear politicization of this conflict between one lobbying group (the government) and another (the car mafia). Comparing the first hand accounts of those who participated in or witnessed the Far Eastern protests, it is not hard to see that the press has been inflating the size of the demonstrations. The authorities have in fact had to resort to force and even send special police tactical units to Vladivostok from Central Russia. However, a review of the available videotapes showing the dispersal of unauthorized demonstrations in Maritime Kray confirm that the dispersals themselves were not carried out as harshly as organizers claim, and the number of protesters was significantly lower. At this point at least we are talking about hundreds of participants and tens of people arrested, not thousands of participants and hundreds of people arrested.

Obviously there is a PR-driven, manipulative exaggeration going on of the conflict between “two commercial entities” over revenue from car sales. Who is doing the exaggerating and why is not very clear. Most likely, at this point we are seeing a desire on the part of the Maritime Kray car mafia to slightly inflate the scale of the clashes, simply in order to scare the government. However, in the future we could see the construction of a classic manipulated revolutionary scenario. And if the authorities intend to deal with the crisis, they have to take into account the danger of an alliance between the opposition and mafia – that is, criminal -business. If that alliance become a reality, it will be extremely difficult to beat it.

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Commemorating the end of the year is often marked by highlighting its highs and lows. Time doesn’t permit to do a complete run down, but in my perusal of the news over the last week I did find a low that seems to capture the state of Western reporting on Russia.  Granted it has become quite tedious to point out the utter hypocrisy and bias, if not idiocy.  But the topic always serves as good fodder, and at times I even come across something that doesn’t fail to dismay me.  The most recent comes from James Rodgers, who writes a biweekly blog for the BBC called Moscow Diary.  Rodgers’ most recent diary speaks of the Vladivostok protests.  Nothing unusual and to his credit, nothing sensational.  But then he ends with a bit that I think encapsulates journalists’ tendency to see a greater conspiracy behind every Russian action, or is this case between the cheesy layers of khachapuri.  Rodgers writes:

My local supermarket has just started selling fresh khachapuri, a kind of hot bread with cheese and other fillings. It’s a traditional dish from the Caucasus, a staple of Georgian restaurants. But while the delicatessen sells a variety of different kinds from different regions of the Caucasus, it manages to advertise them without mentioning the word Georgian. Perhaps, given the current state of relations, the shop feels it might leave too bitter a taste in their customers’ mouths.

Luckily, commentators wasted no time in pointing to the ridiculousness of Rodgers’ assertion. One commentator named Ksenia writes:

About the khachapuri – no offense, but only a foreigner would make such a comment. All Russians know that khachapuri is a Georgian food. In fact, advertising it as Georgian on the menu would make most people chuckle and say: “as opposed to what, all that french khachapuri we’ve been having?” Since the days of the USSR we’ve grown very accustomed to foods from other ex-Soviet Republics and everyone knows where they come from!

Happy New Year! See ya in 2009!

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