My new column for Russia Magazein, “Infantilizing Putin.” Here’s an excerpt:
Last week, The New York Times lamented the dearth of Russian specialists to comment on the crisis in Crimea. “As a result, Russia experts say, there has been less internal resistance to American presidents seeking to superimpose their notions on a large and complex nation of 140 million people led by a former K.G.B. operative with a zero-sum view of the world,” writes Jason Horowitz. Presidents aren’t the only ones making superimposition upon superimposition. The persistent caricature of Russia, and in particular, its president Vladimir Putin is alive and well. Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea, entering Putin’s mind, let alone understanding his logic, has become a booming industry. Everyone, it seems, has some sort of inner insight into Putin’s psychology. Even pop-psychologist Keith Ablow diagnosed Putin’s being as “inseparable from the manifest destiny of the country he leads.” For Ablow, Putin’s psychology is “one part nationalism, one part narcissism.”
Some of this armchair psychoanalysis comes from the fact that Putin seems unclear as to what his endgame is. The over the top propaganda coming out of Russia coupled with Putin’s own contradictory and confused press conference has people asking: Is he insane? Simply out of touch? Suffers from a Napoleon complex? Or is Putin increasingly isolated from the world around him, a kind of cloistered and lonely Tsar surrounded by a diminishing circle of confidants? An excellent article in the Times suggested just that. Putin’s Crimea move was made with the council of only a few officials and born of frustration and anger rather than a well thought out plan.
One main thread in these psychoanalytical portraits of Putin is to infantilize him and his behavior.
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By Sean — 6 years ago
God save the noble Tsar!
Long may he live, in pow’r,
In peace to reign!
Dread of his enemies,
Faith’s sure defender,
God save the Tsar!
–“God Save the Tsar,” Vasily Zhukovsky, 1833
A few weeks ago, The New Times ran a story contemplating whether Putin had plastic surgery. “What happened to Putin’s face?” “Why does he look like a Udmurt?” bloggers asked after a photo shoot at Nashi’s camp Seliger revealed a glistening, pulled back Putin. Was it Botox? Plastic surgery? Putin did have that black eye back in October 2010, after all. He attributed it to a judo injury, as a mensch like himself would. But perhaps sanding down those wrinkles was part of a more long term plan?
As of yesterday, it’s now clear that Putin will need that new face as he’s set to dominate Russia’s news broadcasts for at least the next six years. Putin’s coming back to the Russian presidency, in case you haven’t heard. At United Russia’s Party Congress, current President Dmitry Medvedev all but resigned from his post with “I think it’s right that the party congress support the candidacy of the current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in the role of the country’s president.” As it stands now the tandem will switch seats with Medvedev as Prime Minister and Putin as President, again.
Six more years. Actually, more like twelve. The Russian Constitution forbids a President from serving more than two consecutive terms of six years (previously four, but that was changed in 2008, as many feared to extend Putin’s return to the throne.), so Putin could go at least another two. Putin, 58, will be 70 by the end of his additional twelve year reign. He will have directly ruled Russia for a total of twenty years. Twenty-four, if you count the four he (in)directly ran the place during the Medvedev interregnum.
Whether twenty or twenty-four, Putin’s rule will rival, but not exceed, that of many Russian leaders. Ivan Grozny ruled for 51 years; Peter the Great for 43; Elizabeth, 20; Catherine the Great, 34; Nicholas I, 29; Alexander II, 26; Nicholas II, 22; Stalin, 34; and Brezhnev 18. Historically, Putin’s 20 year run will not be out of the norm. The problem is that for a country that bills itself as a (sovereign) democracy and longs for appearing as a modern nation state of the 21st century, long reigns, let alone achieving them by cynically taking advantage of the Russian Constitution, looks bad. Really bad.
I was surprised that Putin is coming back. Sure, many had pointed out over the last six months or so that the alignment of the political stars suggested that Putin was going to make a big return. Others noted the Presidential switcheroo was on back in 2008 when Putin anointed the politically weak, and virtually obscure Medvedev. But I thought that because Putin’s coming back would look so bad, not to the West (Russian domestic politics shouldn’t take it into consideration anyway) but because of what it says about the insecurity of the political elite and continued ossification of the Russian political system. Insecure because Putin’s return suggests that there is no one in the stable that could effectively confront the issues that plague Russia besides Putin. Only he gives the air of “stability” and whose “heavy hand” can save Russia from itself. It also proves that what I see as the contradiction of centralization in Russian politics. Basically, the centralization of power around one entity, Putin, with the belief that only he can effectively govern, weakens the pool of alternatives nodes of power necessary for the continuation of effective rule. But with those alternatives weak, Putin can only rely on himself thereby justifying nothing short of autocracy. By not allowing Medvedev a second term, not to mention the development of his power base, sets Russia up with a vacuum of leadership at best and possible gerontocratic stagnation at worst.
The threat of political ossification is clear. The threat to elite politics is real, but I think the backroom duels will continue after a period conservative euphoria. I agree with Comrade Rothrock that Putin’s return signals a defeat of the liberal party, but not the end of politics as such. The liberals might have learned that they need to unite and entrench themselves further. It certainly shows that experimenting with entities like Mikhail Prokhorov and Right Cause won’t do it. They need to burrow from the inside if they want to push their agenda. Another lesson is that Dmitry Medvedev is not their man, if he ever was to begin with. But playing interest group politics by lobbying the don has its limitations. The only way to real power and influence is to seek an ally willing to take down Putin.
But the rigidity of politics doesn’t just threaten the top. The threat is what it says to the public. Putin’s return removes the political charade that Russian politics can break out of its Byzantine forms, gradually whittle down the politics of personality and clans, and move toward more pluralistic practices. The decision for Putin’s return seems to have been totally Byzantine. This is at least how Medvedev himself explained it: “We already discussed this scenario back when we first formed a friendly alliance.” If this is true (a large part of me thinks it isn’t), then the last four years have been thoroughly delegitimized, let alone an utter cynical farce. The next six might also suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. As Aleksandr Minkin put it in Moskovskii komsomolets:
Tens (and possibly hundreds) of times you [Putin and Medvedev] were asked: “Who will be the next President?” You answered: “We will sit down and decide.” Here was a complete disregard to the opinion of the people, but, now it seems, this was also deceit. It seems that you decided a long time ago. Why such the cynical candidness?
You and Medvedev could have said something like: “We thought about what would be best for Russia all year long. We made a decision yesterday evening. . .”
It’s not important that people believed it. It’s important that decorum was kept. Why stand naked? No, with a smile which is customary that everyone excuse, Medvedev said that everything was decided and “deeply thought out” already in 2007, if not sooner. We don’t exactly know when “your friendly alliance was formed.”
All these years Medvedev said (it should be written “lied”) that the decision first and foremost was based on people’s opinion. But the decision was made beforehand. And the people were overlooked completely.
In fact, it seems that Medvedev and Putin were the only ones in on the joke. Medvedev’s team appears to have been in the dark. Even United Russia didn’t know who would be on their electoral lists before Medvedev’s announcement. United Russia, according to Stanislav Belkovskii, “has been proven once again not to be the ruling party, not a party at all, and not a political subject.” Moreover, Belkovskii continues, it has proved that “elections in the country have been practically eliminated” therefore no one needs to bother with them or even think about them. In regard to Russia’s long term process of political decentralization, well forget it. The process of “managed democratization” is now officially put on hold.
Sure, one will say: Putin is popular. The Russian people won’t mind. All the polls show that Putin is welcomed back to the Presidency. True, Putin is popular and there are very good reasons why. But this begs the perennial question about the Russian elites: If they are genuinely popular, then why do they have to scheme? Why do they delegitimize their power through subterfuge? What do they fear? The answer is that either they really aren’t that popular, or that even when secure they feel their grip on the country is tenuous.
The question that remains is which Putin will Russia get. As Putin, face pulled back, wrinkles a smooth veneer, thumbs through the annals of Russian history and contemplates the long reigns of his predecessors, what type of Tsar will he decide to become? Will it be the brutal modernizer Peter the Great always with club in hand? Will he be the enlightened despot a la Catherine? The politically arid Nicholas I? The modernizing police state of Alexander III? Or will he gaze deep into the portrait of Alexander II and unveil his grace through “liberal” reform.
We shall see.
But for now, God Save the Tsar!Post Views: 259
By Sean — 10 years ago
Dmitri Medvedev announced the end of what he’s calling “peace enforcement” operations in Georgia, officially ending five days of fighting. “I have made a decision to end the operation to force Georgian authorities to peace,” he said in a meeting with his military staff. Fighting is still being reported, which isn’t surprising. War machines are easy to turn on. Turning them off requires a big wrench.
The final (preliminary) tally? Russia says about 2,000 civilians killed by the Georgian military; 18 Russian troops and 52 wounded. Russia used 9,000 troops and 350 armored vehicles. The Georgians claim 150 deaths and hundreds injured. Robert Guliye, the mayor of Tskhinvali, reports that 70% of his city’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Of the 30,000 residents, only half remain. So far there are no estimates on the amount of ordinance used in the conflict.
This is a big day for Dima. His first military victory as bat’ka. What no flight suit, big banner, and slogan? Surely Dima, you can squeeze some more political capital out of this?
I’m sure he will once he gets out from under Putin’s shadow. Putin, at least in the Western press, has been the face of the war, the little evil demon everyone loves to hate. A headline in the NY Times says it all, “Russia, and Putin, Assert Authority.” How does the Times come to this startling conclusion? Well, it uses a new theory to understand Russian politics: “The Rolled up Sleeves Theory.”
In recent days, Mr. Putin has appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up, mingling with refugees on the border with South Ossetia — the very picture of a man of action.
By contrast, Mr. Medvedev is shown sitting at his desk in Moscow, giving ceremonial orders to the minister of defense.
Putin looks all tough, Medvedev, always the bureaucrat, sits behind a desk. While Putin gets a firm talking to from Bush in Beijing, Medvedev cruises on the Volga. One wonders if the continued stress on Putin in the Western press is really because he is in charge or because he’s become the perfect villain, a kind of “Man of Action” action figure. Apparently, the answer is all in the rolled up sleeves.
Another way to look at the dyarchy is to wonder if balance even matters. Clearly, each man has their roles, and Dima, with his sweet smile and boyish looks, just doesn’t have the image (yet) to deal with international condemnation. Putin’s been around the block. Putting him up in front of the camera is a good PR move. I’m sure the Russians knew they were going to take all the shit no matter what they did. So why take the chance of having the new Prez get the beatdown. Dima is just too mild mannered and sensitive to deserve all that. Plus, Putin doesn’t give a rats ass about Bush and Cheney, let alone McCain and Obama. Basically, Putie’s position on all their blustering is “Save for the who gives a shit channel.”
Can you really blame the Russians? The anti-Russia propaganda machine immediately went into full swing as if all the talking points, footage, interviews and talking heads were already in the medai pipe. Black PR was already assembled. Reuters and other news outlets used staged photos in its reporting. Now CNN is being accused of using footage of wrecked tanks and blown out buildings from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and claiming it was Gori. Rumors and Georgian PR of Russia’s movements were swallowed throughout (even by myself). Fiction became fact. For example, there were constant reports that Russia took Gori but come to find out they didn’t. Reports are coming out about cyberattacks on media. Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English language channel, was crippled by alleged Georgian DDoS attacks (DDoS attacks were used by the Russians against Estonia during the Bronze Soldier affair) as was RT correspondent and commentator Peter Lavelle’s blog. Georgian officials also claimed that their sties were victim to Russia cyberattacks.
To get a sense of how thick the PR is take this passage from Ames’ “Georgia Gets Its War On . . McCain Gets is Brain Plaque”
The invasion was backed up by a PR offensive so layered and sophisticated that I even got an hysterical call today from a hedge fund manager in New York, screaming about an “investor call” that Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze made this morning with some fifty leading Western investment bank managers and analysts. I’ve since seen a J.P. Morgan summary of the conference call, which pretty much reflects the talking points later picked up by the US media.
These kinds of conference calls are generally conducted by the heads of companies in order to give banking analysts guidance. But as the hedge fund manager told me today, “The reason Lado did this is because he knew the enormous PR value that Georgia would gain by going to the money people and analysts, particularly since Georgia is clearly the aggressor this time.” As a former investment banker who worked in London and who used to head the Bank of Georgia, Gurgenidze knew what he was doing. “Lado is a former banker himself, so he knew that by framing the conflict for the most influential bankers and analysts in New York, that these power bankers would then write up reports and go on CNBC and argue Lado Gurgenidze’s talking points. It was brilliant, and now you’re starting to see the American media shift its coverage from calling it Georgia invading Ossetian territory, to the new spin, that it’s Russian imperial aggression against tiny little Georgia.”
The really scary thing about this investor conference call is that it suggests real planning. As the hedge fund manager told me, “These things aren’t set up on an hour’s notice.”
War is waged through imagery and propaganda mediated by the government official, the public relations agent and the investment banker. Unfortunately for Georgia, its seems that Saakashvilli’s little adventure is going to cost them. The Bank of Georgia has halted all loans and suspended online banking for fear of mass withdrawals and capital flight. Georgia’s economic future, which until a week ago looked bright, is now in question.*****
Now that the fighting is winding down, the main question is: what is to be done? What to do with Saakashvilli? Surely, things can’t go on as they did. The use of violence has essentially provided the answer: South Ossetia will split from Georgia. Permanently. It’s only a question of when. Violence has redefined the theater of politics.
Many have pointed out that the South Ossetians and Georgians lived in peace in everyday life. The same was said about the Serbs, Bosians, Kosovars, Shia, and Sunnis. But violence is an act of creation as much as destruction. Violence concretizes Identities. As Franz Fanon pointed out in a different context, violence initiates a series of acts of mutual and self recognition. It is first the recognition of the Other. “They are the Georgians, we are Ossetians.” Second, it is an act of self-recognition. “We, Ossetians, are here!” Or “We, Georgians, are here!” Lastly, violence is a strange recognition of one’s own humanity. As Sarte wrote in his “Preface” to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, “Don’t be mistaken; it is through this mad rage, this bile and venom, their constant desire to kill us, and the permanent contradiction of powerful muscles, afraid to relax, that they become men.” Is it possible that this five day war has created a new sense of Ossetianess? Of Georgianess?
And what of Russians? The media chorus has announced that for Russia the South Ossetian War was a declaration of Russia streghten. A kind of perverted “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!” True, the Russian leadership has been tired of America’s finger wagging and double dealing for too long. It’s quick response in South Ossetia was a statement that Russia is back. It dashed Georgia’s NATO ambitions with guns and bombs in a mere five days. The Europeans were already reluctant about letting Georgia into the gang. Now there is no way they’re going to grant NATO membership to Georgia and risk being drawn into a future military conflict with Russia. Sure, they may like Saakashvilli’s pro-Western prostrations, but at some point they become a burden.
In Russia, the war was a prime-time sensation. It captivated the nation, intrestingly not unlike Russian football. As Kommersant reports,
Indeed, the Olympics, feature films or soap operas were practically of no interest to the Russians older than 18 years. The nation was watching the news, doubling and tripling the ratings of news programs. News spots won the first five lines in Top 20, which had happened in peacetime very long ago given that it is the height of summer now.
Russia’s political parties were all towing the line in their own belligerent fashion. Duma Speaker and United Russia leader, Boris Gryzlov exhumed Hitler and declared that Saakashvilli should put in prison. “There is no other place for him,” he said. Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov also played the Hitler card. As did the Communists. Zyuganov called Saakashvilli’s actions “fascistic.” Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia was a “war crime.” There is a specter haunting Eurasia . . .
The outcry in the Duma had its populist antecedent. Andrei Bely’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration announced that it will raid places where Georgians gather in Moscow. On Monday, 500 members from the pro-Kremlin youth groups Nashi, Molodaya gvardiia, and Mestnye staged an Orthodox pray-in for God to stop Georgia’s aggression. Orthodox prayers were accompanied with the slogans, “Ossetia, we mourn with you!” and “Saakashvili is a hitman.” Unsurprisingly, Nashi has taken to the war. War, whether real or virtual, has always been truer to its calling. On its website, it echoed calls that Saakashvilli is a war criminal and demanded that Georgian athletes be expelled from the Olympics. They even demanded that the bronze medal the Georgians won in women’s shooting should be revoked. Nashi and Mestnye also staged a 300 strong rally in front of the Georgian embassy in Moscow. Perhaps commentators are right and Nashi has indeed lost its purpose. They just lack the umph of three years ago. No 50,000 or 100,000 beaming youths in red and white T-shirts on the streets. One would thinka real war would be a perfect opportunity to mobilize the masses. It just goes to show that History does indeed occur twice. The first time as tragedy and the second as farce.
As for the Russian public, poll figures provided by the Levada Center show that Russians firmly support (71%) South Ossetia in the conflict and the vast majority (80%) think that South Ossetia should join Russia (46%) or become an independent state (34%).
Finally, the peace plan drawn up between Medvedev and French President Sarkozy has been released. Its six points are as follows:
1) Non-use of force.
2) Stop all military action.
3) Free access to humanitarian aid.
4) Georgian troops return to their previous positions before the conflict.
5) Russian troops return to the lines they held before the start of the military operation. Before an international solution is worked out Russian peacekeepers are taking up an additional security role.
6) The start of an international discussion over the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
It seems that Saakashvilli will keep his job. That is of course there isn’t talk behind the scenes of him bowing out “gracefully.” It does sound like a good time for him to “spend more time with his family.”Post Views: 342
By Sean — 9 years ago
The Democratic and Republican conventions are over. Thank god. All the political pomp, demigod worship, endless biographical tales, self-congratulation, repetitions of God Bless America, convention protesters and chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A have reduced to a low simmer. Now the pundits and campaign gurus are weighing in. To my surprise McCain beat Obama in the preliminary TV ratings:
Across all broadcast networks Thursday, Sen. McCain’s speech ended the night with a 4.8 rating/7 share, compared to Sen. Obama’s 4.3/7 average, according to overnight numbers from metered households in 55 U.S. markets measured by Nielsen. These ratings are preliminary, however, and are subject to change.
I have lots of thoughts on the both party’s performances which I won’t belabor here. Suffice to say I think Obama gave a good speech until he began to promise the world. At that point I promptly turned him off. McCain’s speech was just boring. As everyone knows, they man doesn’t fare well behind a podium.
I do have to say that McCain’s response to the attempts to disrupt his speech was brilliant. “My friends, my dear friends,” McCain said moving off script, “please, please don’t be diverted by the ground noise and the static.” This gave his speech a jolt in the arm. Unfortunately, it faded rather quickly as he became mired in teleprompter morass. I gave him the axe after 20 minutes and tuned into the new 90210 (which I loved).
While McCain doesn’t stay on message when he speaks off the cuff, part of me thinks it would have been quite entertaining to see him wonder around the stage, microphone in hand, talking “small town meeting” style. Alas, there just isn’t much room for spontaneity in managed democracy.
Speaking of managed democracy, what role did Russia play in the words of the candidates. Very little actually. Obama only mentioned Russia once with his promise to “curb” its agression. Here’s is what Obama said:
I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.
McCain mention of Russia was a little more substantial. He put oil and empire at the center of Russia’s “invasion.” Though he said that he would work to establish good relations. Here’s what the Maverick had to say:
“We have dealt a serious blow to al-Qaeda in recent years. But they are not defeated, and they’ll strike us again if they can. Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism and on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Russia’s leaders, rich with oil wealth and corrupt with power, have rejected democratic ideals and the obligations of a responsible power. They invaded a small, democratic neighbor to gain more control over the world’s oil supply, intimidate other neighbors, and further their ambitions of reassembling the Russian empire. And the brave people of Georgia need our solidarity and prayers. As President I will work to establish good relations with Russia so we need not fear a return of the Cold War. But we can’t turn a blind eye to aggression and international lawlessness that threatens the peace and stability of the world and the security of the American people.”
Both are rather bland statements that are more to say that they know Russia exists rather than how to deal with it. What really strikes me about both these excerpts is how similar they are. If you slice out the rhetoric and hyperbole, Obama and McCain are basically saying the same thing.
It’s hard to say who will be better to Russia. Both candidates have their firm face on, looking all manly and foreign policy-like. Plus so much of that they say is for domestic consumption. As banal it may sound, Russia, as well as us all, will just have to wait to see what either will do once they’re in office. For campaign time it’s much safer to speak loudly and carry a small stick.Post Views: 175