This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “The Far East Floods on Manual Control,”
August is never good to Russia and this year is no different. For over a month, the residents in the Amur, Khabarovsk, and the Jewish Autonomous regions have endured the worst flooding in the 120-year history of meteorological records. Over 100,000 people have been affected with tens of thousands evacuated. The monetary impact is estimated at over $1 billion. In the city of Khabarovsk, the water is over six meters. The city of 600,000 will begin evacuating if it reaches eight meters. The flood spans about 400,000 square miles. That’s the American states of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico combined. If you want to get a sense of its damage and spatial magnitude, see the photos taken by Alexander Kolbasin, a Khabarovsk resident, or the before and after satellite pictures of the Amur River provided RIA Novosti. It’s truly shocking, horrifying, and tragic.
Nevertheless, the floods illustrate a deeper quality of Russian statecraft: Its inability to switch from manual to automatic control. That is from the personal micromanagement of the President to decentralized, local administration. Granted, taking personal control is part of Putin’s political nature. Recall how he personally extinguished fires in Ryazan in 2010 and made several trips to Krymsk last year to chide local officials. Part of this is also the age old tactic of blaming underlings to deflect criticism of the center. But Putin’s performance is no mere symbolic photo-op. He is as much a captive to an intractable system as he is its master. Putin’s Russia is often characterized as a series of unbreakable links in a chain—the power vertical. Orders go down, their fulfillment goes up. But that is the problem. The power vertical ultimately atrophies local authorities’ power and initiative. Crises like the floods in the Far East reveal this. Therefore Putin must personally intervene, point fingers and give commands to simply get things moving.
Nezavisimaya gazeta tellingly summed up the situation: “The floods in the Far East are additional proof that much of the Russian state system is made to operate under manual control. Regional authorities and state bureaucrats attempt to resolve emerging problems and prevent the onset of the elements in automatic control, but it’s clear that for participants in the process, and not just the federal center, but the President himself are integral. That is to say, [bureaucrats] wait for the final decisions and instructive explanations from [the President]. He explicitly demands the final assessment of damage, the elimination of red tape, and the tackling problems in localities and not “through Moscow.” The fact that Putin only showed up a month after the flooding began is proof “automatic control” has failed.
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By Sean — 5 years ago
Here’s what we know so far:
A meteor disintegrated outside of the Ural city of Chelyabinsk. The space rock was 17 meters wide, weighed an estimated 10 kilotons, traveled at 30 to 50 kilometers per second, and, according to NASA, had an explosive force of half a megaton. That’s about thirty times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The meteor’s shockwave injured over a thousand with 48 hospitalized, destroyed about 200,000 square meters of glass, damaged t3724 residences, 671 schools, 11 monuments, 69 cultural objects, and 6 sports complexes. The Twitter hashtag #метеорит shot up to number one in Russia. Fragments of the meteor have been found. And to top of all off, no one died.
Just so you don’t think the Russian government has been asleep at the wheel, the Emergency Management Agency has been mobilized into action. Today, dead Prime Minister walking Dmitry Medvedev named Dmitry Rogozin to head a task force to find ways to “predict and prevent disasters from space.” And the asteroid panic has even reached the US, where the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has announced that it will hold hearings to come up with ways to better identify asteroids and mitigate their threat. I just hope, I sincerely hope that the latest asteroid craze doesn’t spark the production of Armageddon II. Please spare us . . .
Yet despite all this, there are some in Russia, and by some I mean supposedly well-respected opposition journalists, politicians, and cultural figures who don’t think it was a meteor at all. For a selected few, the fireball that reigned terror on the citizens of Chelyabinsk signified something far more sinister.
I’ve already blogged about Yulia Latynina’s crazy rocket theory. It turns out, the critic of all things Putin was forced to comment about her deleted column on radio show Kod Dostupa. Here’s how she explained herself:
Unfortunately, rather than keep this idea [that the meteor was a rocket] to myself, I quickly informed Novaya gazeta readers. Well, of course, it’s nonsense because as soon as it became clear that they were talking about a kiloton explosion, I understood that this wasn’t a rocket at all, but that it was really a meteor.
This is all well and good. A coincidence, indeed. A meteorite flew to Chebarkul region. Well? It happens. But incidentally, for me personally,what happened to me is interesting. When paranoia emerges in a person, he immediately begins to have accept any logical confirmation of this paranoia. The fact that the [meteor] was flying on a straight trajectory and so on. And it is absolutely amazing that paranoia only emerges horribly logical. What separates life from paranoia is that it’s not logical. So given the fact that NASA didn’t detect the meteor, then [the fact that] GLONASS didn’t is forgivable.
I’ll let the reader come up with their own conclusions in regard to this. However, I just want to emphasize that Latynina has admitted that she is paranoid. I’m sure that in her mind this gives her unmatched clairvoyance into Russian political life like some medieval holy fool. Nevertheless, I appreciate the candor. However, I’m sure if pressed, she’d blame her paranoia on Putin too.
But at least Latynina admitted that her theory was bunk. We can’t say the same for some others. Upon hearing news about the meteor on the radio, Russian rock icon Andrey Makarevich charged that the ball of fire was some kind of Kremlin PR magic to lull the masses.
And there it is a meteor! How timely! They’ll talk about it for three days minimum. Or else a week.
By the way, is it expensive to launch a meteor? For it to fall where needed, beautifully, and where it won’t maim very many people. Still it can [cost] a lot. Why not? It’s a good time. I think it’s considerable cheaper than the Olympics. And it works!
Then there was Alfred Kokh ranting on his Novaya gazeta blog about how Russian satellites’ failure to detect the meteor’s rapid descent is indicative of a corrupt and decrepit system. This is more proof of what I call the omnipotent Putin syndrome. Namely, that even the opposition buys into the Putin myth to some extent. And when the super vozhd and all he represents slips, they are the first to scream, “Ah ha, you see!” as if they’re privy to some sacred knowledge unbeknown to the rest of us.
But at least Latynina, Makarevich, and Kokh can say their ejaculations were premature. Boris Nemtsov, on the other hand, has no excuse. He had all the confirming facts that this was indeed a meteor. Yet, he wrote this on his Facebook page:
Alfred Kokh is surprised why the search ended for the Chelyabinsk unidentified flying object, the explosive force of which was 20-30 atomic bombs [like those dropped on Hiroshima]. And why was Latynina’s version that it wasn’t a meteor, but our rocket that someone accidentally launched was ridiculed even in independent media.
It suggests to me that the discussion around a UFO is extremely dangerous and disadvantageous for the government. If this was a meteor, then why didn’t the satellites detect it? This large object with enormous destructive potential and silence . . . We don’t have a satellite detection system?? Where is it?? We waste a colossal sum on the army–more than two trillion rubles and by 2020 it will be 20 trillion. Where did this money go??? Was it stolen, embezzled? For who is such a discussion needed in light of the Oboronservice and Serdyukov affair. They definitely don’t need it. Latynina’s version is really bad for Putin and Shoigu. There is disorder in the army, rockets fly uncontrolled and what do Putin and his valiant Minister of Defense offer.
That it’s better to stop the search and quietly forget what they decide in the Kremlin. We await the increase the satellite budget and new embezzlers.
And this is one of the darlings of the United States Congress and the Western press?? A potential shining star of a Putin-less Russia??Post Views: 1,661
By Sean — 9 years ago
It looks like Nashi might have crossed a line in their campaign against Alexander Podrabinek. According to Vremya, the Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation made an official appeal calling for an investigation of Nashi’s “illegal and amoral” campaign to hunt down the journalist. The appeal reads:
The campaign to hunt the [Podrabinek] clearly violates existing legislation and demonstrates obvious signs of extremism: fomentation of discord and the violation of a citizen’s human rights and freedoms. There presently are signs of the violation of articles 23 and 25 of the Russian Constitution (the inviolability of private life and residence.) The violation of article 24 which prohibits the use and distribution of information about the private life of an individual without his sanction: it is unlikely that A. Podrabinek gave his address to anyone for the organization to picket his home. Finally, and this is the most important, is article 29 which guarantees everyone the freedom of thought and speech and prohibits the use of force against the expression of those thoughts, opinions, or in their rejection.
Ouch! The Council wasn’t the first to note Nashi’s violation of the law. On 2 October, Vedomosti denounced Nashi’s campaign, noting that lawyers agreed that the organization violated the law. But the business daily merely cited that their protests outside Podrabinek’s apartment violated the civil code because Nashi didn’t get permission from the city to hold daily pickets. I wonder if after hearing these charges Nashi will add the Council and Vedomosti to its lawsuit against Ekho Moskvy. The youth organization is demanding 500,000 rubles in damages from the radio station for its accusations that Nashi is hunting Podrabinek. But they are. Aren’t they? How else to you interpret Nikita Borovikov threat that if Prodrabinek doesn’t apologize then Nashi will “force” him to leave the country?
And all of this after Nashi received adulation from its godfather in the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov! Didn’t the Council not get the memo? Nashi is responsible for the political freedoms that every Russian now enjoys. Surkov told a group of Nashists in late September, “I am free and therefore I am for Putin and Medvedev. I am free and therefore I am “Ours” (Nash) and not an alien (chuzhoi)–this is my choice.” He then continued: “You are the leading fighting brigade of our political system. I as before believe that your prevalence on the street is also our essential advantage. We have it thanks you and all those who brilliantly know how to conduct mass rallies.”
With an endorsement like that, I’m sure the Council’s appeal will fall on deaf ears. Investigate Nashi. Yeah right.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any sillier.
Photo: KommersantPost Views: 686
By Sean — 6 years ago
On Sunday, by all accounts, Vladimir Putin will be elected President of the Russian Federation for a six year term with the option of running again in 2018. The polls don’t lie. The last Levada Center poll, places Putin at 66 percent with Gennady Ziuganov at a distant 15 percent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 8 percent, Mikhail Prokhorov, 6 percent, and Sergei Mironov, 5 percent. The second round possibility is now a fantasy. Even without rigging the polls, Putin is slated to win with 50+1 for a first round victory. It’s too soon to speculate if Putin will indeed remain in power until 2024. A lot can happen in six years. If recent events are any indication, a lot can happen in three months. For even though Putin will be victorious, that victory has happened in unfamiliar conditions.
Indeed, the Russian presidential election has been anything but ordinary. Sure, the official cast of characters remains virtually identical to past contests, save a few additions. Communist Party stalwart, Gennady Ziuganov still plays the role of “loyal opposition in-chief,” the aging face of a Communist Party that has the organizational resources to actually present a political alternative to Putin, but lacks the so-called “Leninist will” to adapt to present political conditions. Part of that adaption, however, would require dumping Ziuganov and forsake its aging electorate, something the KPRF mandarins and rank and file are still unwilling to do. Opposite Ziuganov is Vladimir Zhironovsky, another perennial “loyal oppositionist.” Zhirik plays the harlequin in this grand performance, adding outrageous, comic relief to a show already thin on drama. In a way, Zhirinovsky reflects the whole process itself, a clown for a clownish spectacle. Then there is Mikhail Prokhorov, the new addition to the cast. Prokhorov serves as a kind of Khodorkovsky-lite (since the real Khodorkovsky is less pliable and, well, in jail for the foreseeable future). An oligarch who “made” the bulk of his wealth in the “loans for shares” scheme that saved Boris Yeltsin from defeat in the 1996 Presidential election, Prokhorov, unlike Khodorkovsky, not only understood the rules of the game, but also played them correctly. But the biggest question that has dogged Prokhorov is not his past, but whether he’s a Kremlin project or not. I suspect that he’s a mixture. One thing is clear to me after reading Julia Ioffe’s profile of him in the New Yorker is that Prokhorov’s biggest obstacle is that he’s a sleazeball. Bringing up the rear is Just Russia’s candidate, Sergei Mironov. His candidacy only inspires one question: Who’s he?
Then there is Putin. Yes Putin. Not much to say about the man except perhaps, as the star of the show, we’ve seen his ability to play multiple personalities. During this campaign, we’ve seen Putin as the defender of stability, Putin the xenophobe, Putin the strongman, Putin the liberal, and Putin the populist. If there is anything Masha Gessen got right in her new book on the man, it’s the title. Putin is indeed a man without a face, and it’s this facelessness that has made him so effective. Given the choices on the ballot, Putin ironically serves as the political moderate. But Putin’s chameleon-like abilities also make him a perfect totem for his supporters and detractors alike. He serves as both good and evil, corrupt and uncorruptible, hero and villain. Indeed, Putin is a man of contradiction. He rebuilt the Russian state, but in doing so has contributed to its ossification. He has rebuilt the Russian economy, but in doing so made it too inflexible. Putin facilitated the creation of the middle class, but in doing so created his most challenging opposition. Putin vanquished oligarch patronage, and in doing so helped create new patrons. Unfortunately, in resurrecting Russia from the smuta of the 1990s, Putin has had to restore some of the worse historical aspects of Russian statecraft: centralization, personalization, and patrimonialism. In such a system, Putin is the most indispensable and dispensable figure. Indispensable because as the center of the Russian political system, he prevents the whole thing from collapsing. But as that center, Putin also ensures the system a slow and decrepit march to suspension. Given that Putin will be sticking around for at least six more years, it can be assured that so will the contradictions.
The Rise of the Bandar-log
This presidential election also has a new addition to the cast: the Bolotnaya protesters. They weren’t officially hired to play a role, that is unless you believe all the conspiracy theories that they are paid US agents. It’s more like they’ve pushed themselves on to the stage, a motley Greek chorus whose disparate voices have been cauterized into a collective cry for “fair elections.” Liberals, nationalists, communists, anarchists, and their fellow-travelers make up their political palate. The movement, if it can be called that, was conceived on September 24 when Putin announced he was running for election, born during the parliamentary elections on December 4 with outrage against electoral fraud as its first cry, and since has matured into a political force, and if not then at least political irritant to Putin’s re-election bid.
The Bandar-log have captured the political imagination of those at home and abroad, as evidence in the showering of comparisons to the Arab Spring, the colored revolutions in the mid-2000s, the handmaidens of a new Perestroika, and even the American Civil Rights Movement. Comparisons, especially historical ones, are always tricky because they suggest a large measure of similitude. Thus for the protests to be akin to the Arab Spring, Putin must be a Mubarak and Russia, Egypt. Hardly. For the colored revolutions, there must be an opposition candidate strong enough to make the elections contestable. He or she doesn’t exist. For a new Perestroika to be on the horizon, today’s Russia must resemble the Soviet Union. There’s no need to exaggerate. As for the Civil Rights Movement . . . huh?
This not to say that events in Russia are isolated from the global uprisings of 2011. They are not. Revolutionary upheavals are never contained. We’ve seen this too many times–1789, 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989–to discount their contagiousness. While Russia looks nothing like North Africa, it is hardly immune to the infectiousness of its enthusiasm and symbolic power. Indeed, the uprisings in Russia are part of global reconfiguration of mass politics into a more ideologically amorphous, leaderless, network based, social media driven phenomena. In them inhabit revolutionary echoes of the past, which are reconfigured, for better or for worse, toward an undetermined future. What is striking about many of these uprisings, and here Russia is included, is that there is no future program of utopian or technocratic nature. Their platforms are mostly ethically laden calls for dignity and recognition. The rest is made up as they move forward.
This is certainly the case in Russia. The repeated protester mantra that “We want reforms, not revolution” is not just a tactic to keep contradictory forces together, a trauma of past revolutionary experiments, or indicative of its class makeup. Rather the mantra is born out of an ideological moment in Russia where nothing beyond reform is imaginable. In this sense, Russia is already a liberal society.
But what kind of liberalism? That is the question. Will it be the liberalism of Putin that allows for the ravages of economic globalization to eat away at the social and economic fabric of Russian society all the while funneling the benefits into the few oligarchic hands? Or will it be the liberalism of Bandar-log, who if they ever gain a measure of influence will abandon their left and nationalist allies, for a less crooked, but no less neoliberal capitalism? Thus when it comes down to the standoff between Bolotnaya and Putin, the disagreements are about the rules, not the game.
That said, the protests in Russia have unleashed more than a middle class yearning for power. In a fascinating essay, Maria Chekhonadskikh and Alexei Penzin detail the more molecular political explosion that has occurred since December 4. Under the slogan “You can’t even imagine/represent us!” (Vy nas dazhe ne predstavlyaete!), a number of smaller radical initiatives have grown that have mostly flown under the media’s radar:
The protestors’ distrust of liberal oppositional leaders has provoked the mass self-organization of people who wanted speak about their issues and make different suggestions on the tactics of struggle. For example, at the Sakharovsky Prospect rally on December 24th, there were alternative platforms of students, teachers, cultural workers and traditional civil movements. For example, during the meeting there was an open people`s mic and workshop “Making your slogans”, organized by Union for Cultural Workers and Occupy Moscow Movement. Every day, new alternative committees, platforms and activist initiatives have emerged since January 2012. This “constitutive power” of the people is growing and is more aware of the stalemate of representative politics of any sort. The recent rallies and actions on February 4th and 26th demonstrated exactly this – the joyful creativity of a network-organized multitude of protesters and their distrust of any forms of traditional and authoritarian political leadership.
One cannot predict now how and at what moment the growing protest will reach its peak, nor when it will be able to dismantle the regime of so-called “managed democracy” dominating Russia for the last 10 years. Probably, the protests will be so strong that, after March 4th, the situation will drastically change again. At the same time, many activists are thinking about long-term struggle and putting their hopes in the democratic elaboration of a more socially and economically attuned political agenda, dealing with topics of the global crisis of neoliberalism and the question of social justice. But something irreversible has already happened –mass politicization and a rising political consciousness cannot be stopped and trapped in banal mantras of representative democracy. This situation of openness and uncertainty itself is an achievement of the movement, which indeed was unthinkable only three moths ago in the midst of the despair of imagining Putin’s uncanny “stability” for the next 6 to 12 years.
There are many echoes here, mostly of Italian Autonomist Marxism, particularly that of Antonio Negri with the references to joy, creativity, network, and multitude. It is here, hopefully, in the formation of a constitutive power that abandons the yoke of liberal hesitancy that Russia’s brightest political future dwells. There can be no real democracy without social justice, and on this last point the liberals of Bolotnaya are virtually silent.
In the meantime, the liberals of the Bandar-log remain the force in play, and its injection on to the political scene has completely transformed the Russian presidential election. After all, who is Putin running against? It certainly isn’t Ziuganov, Zhirinovsky, Prokhorov, or Mironov. The vast majority of Putin’s memorable comments, warnings, and threats have been directed to the Bolotnaya crowd. The utilization of the counter-protest by Putin’s camp has turned the struggle into an almost schoolyard battle, perhaps not unlike Putin’s childhood fisticuffs. Each side endeavors to tell the other: “I have more friends than you do.” It appears that at least in the short term, post-election Russia will feature more protest tit-for-tats of similar ilk.
The Road Forward
As that great philosopher Donald Rumsfield said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” We know Putin, but which Putin Russia will get is unknown. We know the opposition, but whether it can sustain and build is unknown. We know the Russian people, at least some of us like to imagine we do, but they remain the biggest unknown of all. The question, as the former Defense Secretary put it, is about the unknown unknowns. A heavy canopy of unknown unknowns hangs over the Russian political landscape. This, I think, is best encapsulated by the ratcheting up of rhetoric in the last week producing an eerie specter of violence. There is suspicion from both sides that the other will try spark something. The language of provocation is at its height. Blood figures too often in commentary. For example, I was personally struck by the amount of times Viktor Shenderovich mentioned “the spilling of blood” as a possibility in an interview on Ekho Moskvy. Each side may say that violence is a “lose-lose,” but the necessity of making that conscious articulation suggests that the haunting presence of violence is there. And if violence realized, by intent or accident, it would lead Russia into the greatest unknown unknown of all.Post Views: 575