Presidential Election

The Politics of Russia’s Apartment Demolition

Guest: Maxim Trudolubov on Moscow’s apartment demolition plans.

The State of Russia

Guest: Masha Lipman on the current state of Russian politics.

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Ossified Putinism

Guest: Mark Galeotti on Putinism.

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A Letter to the Russian Elite

Repin_17October

I was on Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical podcast this week. In thinking over some of my comments, I realized that I was basically giving the Russian elite advice on how to be a functioning bourgeoisie. The bourgeois class project in Russia has been a historical failure. Russia’s third bourgeois is currently too busy with its head buried in the trough or is too paranoid to see the reality before it.

You can listen to my appearance on the Power Vertical here:

It’s so pathetic that me, a Marxist, has to tell it how to be a functioning bourgeoisie.

But I feel that I must. Because let’s face it, the Russian elite sucks as a ruling class.

Here’s my open letter to the Russian elite.

Dear Russian elite,

I understand you’ve historically had a rough go. Your forefathers have been decimated three times in the last 100 years. It’s difficult to reconstruct yourself as a class over and over again. But you must.

There are many types of bourgeoisies. You don’t have to be like America’s or Europe’s. You should take some lessons from them, but you can be your own Russian bourgeoisie. Find the right fit for you.

Now, I don’t think you’re currently teetering on the precipice. But the next few years will pose challenges. You have economic crisis, parliamentary elections, and a presidential election. Elections are supposed to be legitimizing rituals but as Putin’s tenure has dragged on, they’ve increasingly become periods of potential instability.

So it’s time to use this opportunity to get your shit together.

Your problem is a simple one, but indulge me, and let me put it in Marxian terms. You are a class in itself, but not for itself. That is, you exist as a sociological category but you don’t collectively pursue your class interests. Sure, you do this individually but that leads to inter-class cannibalism. You’re a lawless creature without inter-class rules. This is why you always need an arbiter to keep you from killing yourselves. Becoming a class for itself means coming up with collective rules of the game: fight amongst yourselves but don’t destroy, expropriate but do it legally, rule but mostly through consent.

So, you need to make a decision and there’s no time is like the present. The question is simple: Are you going to ever become a proper capitalist ruling class?

If so, then you first need to learn to govern. Not rule. Govern. Governing requires a few things at this historical moment.

1. Rebuild your institutions.

You had them in the past—the zemstvo, real courts that settled real disputes, competitive Dumas (think about it, the Fourth Duma (1912) was far more competitive than Putin’s today. It had 15 Bolshevik representatives. Bolsheviks! And ten political parties. Real ones.), the soviet, the Party, and many, many social and cultural organizations.

Today’s Russia is not totally de-institionalized. It’s just that institutions merely act as fiefdoms for ravenous elites. You just can’t help yourself from eating them up or hollowing them out.

Do you want to have your cake and eat it to? You need to start the Atkins diet. You can still feast very well. You just can’t eat everything.

2. Nationalize the Navalny Experiment

You have Duma elections coming up. Face reality. You’re really not as popular are you think you are. Your provincial elites know this. But the Kremlin and its puppies in the Duma still think they can manage popularity by crude propaganda, stuffing the box or, worse, letting uncle Bastrykin talk to the guests again. You need to take a political hit. All you’ve done is pass idiotic laws just to let the media know you exist. What was the 6th State Duma’s great legislative achievement? How did it represent its constituents?

You don’t have to continue like this. Just look to Navalny as your savior.

Navalny’s 2013 mayoral campaign was a class success. You had a more or less free election. You let an opposition candidate run and allow him to get 27 percent of the vote. The election helped pull the opposition’s plug, not that Navalny and the urban “creative class” pose any real class threat. They just want to be part of the club. And you should let them in (see item #5). But in all you let him run and you’re still securely in power.

My advice here is simple: nationalize the Navalny experiment.

3. America is out to get you but not in the way you think.

The United States would love to see the Putinists go. But the United States does not have wondrous powers. Yes, it plays all sorts of dirty tricks and interferes in other people’s countries. It does love to bomb. It has a lot of power but its ruling class has forgotten how to effectively use it. It’s slowly decaying because it’s bourgeoisie gave up governing. But besides military power, its influence is rather circumscribed. But for some reason you keep eating its bullshit up. Stop acting like you’re a besieged fortress. You just aren’t.

4. Putin can’t keep driving you.

It’s time to learn to drive yourselves. Ruchnoi kontrol’ is not governing. It’s a substitute for governing.

5. If there is any lesson you should take from the American and European bourgeoisie it is how to build hegemony.

Let an autonomous civil society exist. Don’t see it as a threat but as another transmission belt for strengthening your hegemony. Gramsci described civil society as a system of “fortresses and earthworks” that propped up the state when it was in crisis.

6. Cut a deal amongst yourselves.

Stop using corruption and anti-corruption as an inter-class disciplinary mechanism. Come to some collective class agreement that if you stop stealing, you’ll actually make more money in the long run. And get this. Governance can help you! This is called the Rule of Law. And guess what? You get to write the laws! For the time being, you just need to accept a lower annual rate of return. If anyone steals, you bust them. You don’t have to be perfect. Property is theft after all. But keep corruption at politically acceptable levels. And if you still want to be corrupt, then follow the American example: legalize it.

7. Start thinking about life after Putin.

Botox doesn’t prolong life. Come to an arrangement where Putin will gracefully retire and receive all the benefits of being an elder statesman. He’ll go down in history as one of Russia’s greatest leaders. Put forward a class compromise candidate and establish rules of succession. You almost had it with Medvedev, but you let Papa come back.

8. Put your trust in Kudrin.

Alexei Leonidovich is the perfect shepherd for your journey in becoming a class for itself. He gets it. You just have to listen to him.

These eight points are my advice to you. I could elaborate on each of them more, but I assume you get the point. You don’t have to be successful all at once. Take some time. Just resist your inner Stalinist urges.

Your friend,

Sean

 

Nashi is Dead! Long Live . . . ?

Burn, Baby, Burn.

Russian translation of this post, courtesy of Inosmi.

Update on the Update: More on the Nashi website “403 Forbidden.” Alexey Sidorenko tweeted “for some time [Nashi] were denying all surfers from abroad. In order to be sure try accessing it via Russia-based proxy or VPN.” I went through a Russian proxy and indeed the site works

Update: The venerable Joera Mulders informs me that if you point your web browser to Nashi’s website and you get a “403 Forbidden.” It’s apparently been down for more than a day.

Having gone through a few articles I saved on Nashi over the last few months, I should note organization’s demise was already in the works since February. Then, Izvestiia reported whiffs of Nashi’s liquidation and the transformation of its summer bash, Seliger, into something else. Moreover, the article pointed to the possible passing of youth politics from Nashi to Molodaia gvardiia, i.e. from Surkov’s people to Volodin’s.

Then in mid-March, Gazeta.ru reported that Seliger was going to be re-branded, and its 12 million ruble budget placed in new hands.

Again, all of this suggests that Nashi’s destruction is part of Volodin’s victory and the subsequent coring out of Surkov’s clients.

***

On Friday, Gazeta.ru dropped a bomb concerning the future of Nashi, the Putinphiliac youth organization. According to unnamed sources, Vasilii Yakemenko, Nashi founder and soon to be outgoing head of Rosmolodezh, met with Nashi’s four Commissars, Maria Kislitsina, Artur Omarov, Alexkasnder Gagiev, and Sergei Blintsov, and told them “the history of [Nashi] in the present form is over.” The youth organization was to be “disbanded,” with Yakemenko telling his loyal servants, “thanks for everything, you’re all free.” All current Nashi initiatives were to be shuttered, the ruble spigot plugged, the marquee clicked off, the doors bolted. Good night, y’all.

Gazeta‘s article circulated quickly as many expressed elation at the doom of what is arguably a much hated organization. Nashi’s media maiden, Kristina Potupchik, tried to dispel the story as based on unfounded “rumors.” “I’m officially declaring to all interested persons: There isn’t any talk about Nashi’s dissolution or shutting. Nor could there be.” Potupchik wrote on her blog. “Nashi will not simply continue to exist, but will also birth new projects which will remain within the framework of the movement.” “We are not closed,” she added in response to the jubilation at the news, “[unlike] your white-ribbon-fountain “revolution.”

I’ve been skeptical of Nashi’s demise in the past. This time, however, I think something is in the works. Potupchik can gloss over Gazeta‘s very detailed report all she wants. The truth is this news comes amid a few significant turning points in Nashi’s seven year history: the Nashi brand soured, Vladislav Surkov’s dismissal, Vyacheslav Volodin’s ascendency, and Putin’s plan, albeit still nascent, to reorganize the structure of his electoral base.

But does this mean Nashi is dead and buried? Dead maybe. But a resurrection in a new form is entirely possible.

Indeed, according to the article, Nashi will be “reformed” but how and into what “no one knows.”  One theory is that, with Yakemenko out as Youth Affairs chief, he will join his patron Vladislav Surkov in the Duma (there is talk that if Medvedev becomes Prime Minister, he will name Surkov his chief of staff), where a new youth movement will be born under his leadership. Given that Nashi is essentially Yakemenko’s personal property, many of the activists and all the resources the organization has accumulated will go with him. This would be an interesting move. This would put Surkov-Yakemenko-Nashi re-branded under Medvedev. Could this be the budding of the long sought after Medvedev clan base? A pretty weak base, I know. But it’s something.

Another theory is that Nashi’s Commissars will possibly create a political party out of the organization’s corpse to serve “as a base for tomorrow’s pro-Kremlin youth.” This is an interesting idea too, and works well with something Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin brought up in their latest Power Vertical Podcast. Namely, Putin is looking to reorganize Russia’s political landscape based on a corporatist model around a coalition of parties and social organizations under the umbrella of the All-Russian People’s Front (ONF). United Russia, which Putin has been distancing himself from since December, would either be dissolved or split and its remnants reabsorbed into Putin’s coalition. Indeed, Putin hinted that he might lead the ONF and dump his chairmanship of United Russia. If this is the future of Putin’s electoral machine, then the reform of party registration works in Putin’s rebranding favor. It allows a bunch of disparate parties, presumably the Nashi Party would be one, to form a populist network that is flexible, and more importantly, decentralized to avoid another United Russia PR crash and burn. If one head gets bloodied, chop it off and grow two new ones in its place.

Nashi’s supposed liquidation, then, can be read in terms of a convergence of forces. The idea that Nashi has outlived its usefulness has been a longtime coming. As I noted back in 2008, there was already some in the Kremlin that felt that Nashi was no longer needed with the “Operation successor” imminent and the “Orange Threat” vanquished. Still, Nashi survived, presumably thanks to Surkov’s patronage, and spent the next four years harassing the phantoms of revolution: liberal oppositionists, foreign dignitaries, imagined “fascists,” and critical journalists. Things are now different. According to Gazeta‘s source, Yakemenko told the Commissars that “the movement was quite severely compromised before the [Duma] elections.” This explains Nashi’s conspicuous absence over the last six months. Known for bringing thousands of youth to the street, Nashi was nowhere to be found in any significance (clashes with protesters on Pushkin Square on the evening of December 5th aside) during the Putin love-fests during the Presidential campaign.  Nashi’s degradation, however, was a longtime in the making. I would place the beginning of the end at Oleg Kashin’s beating in November 2010. Kashin quite logically fingered Nashi and Yakemenko in particular for organizing the crime. As chronicled in the excellent documentary Putin’s Kiss, Kashin’s beating even turned one of its diehard members, Masha Drokova, away from Yakemenko’s clutches. Things went downhill from there, culminating in February’s email dump by Anonymous that revealed Nashi engaging in all sorts of dirty deeds, including smear campaigns against oppositionists like Alexei Navalny and organizing a DDoS attack on Kommersant, allegedly.

But there is another context to Nashi’s supposed destruction: the fall of Vladislav Surkov, the grey cardinal. Nashi is just one more casualty in the Vyacheslav Volodin-Sukov death match. Volodin won, and in one of his power consolidating moves, quickly placed youth policy directly under his thumb with his client and former Molodaia gavardiia leader Timur Prokopenko at the head. With his patron Surkov vanquished and Rosmolodezh soon to be emasculated, Vasilii Yakemenko announced his intention of leaving his post after the Presidential election. I expect his resignation around Putin’s inauguration, if not sooner. Hence, wither Nashi.

Granted, this story is still young. Things could develop in another direction in the coming weeks. But as things now stand, liquidating Nashi’s present form makes good sense. The question is what would a resuscitated Nashi look like, and more importantly, what role will it play in Putin 2.0.

Russian Presidential Election: Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns

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.

Stephen Cohen on Democracy Now!

I’m not sure how I missed this, but Amy Goodman did a segment on Democracy Now! with Stephen Cohen. Topics include the Russian protests, the Communist Party, and the general political mood of the populace. Decent discussion, I thought.

Medvedev Sacks Kudrin

Just like that Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is gone after a 24 hour imbroglio that put him tet-a-tet with outgoing President and soon to be Prime Minister Medvedev.  During a shocking announcement in Washington on Saturday, Kudrin responded to Putin’s return to the Presidency with “I do not see myself in a new government. The point is not that nobody has offered me the job; I think that the disagreements I have will not allow me to join this government.” That is the government soon to be headed by Medvedev. The differences between the two power players are well known, particularly around issues of budget austerity, which Kudrin is a staunch advocate of.

Nevertheless, Kudrin was expected to continue on as Finance Minister well on into 2012. Just two weeks ago said he was prepared to stay on. Apparently, Saturday’s big announcement  blindsided him.  Some are suggesting that Kudrin’s gunning for the Premiership himself, and being released as Finance Minister allows him to gun harder.

All that said, what is most surprising about all this is its publicity. Russian elite political tussles are rarely aired in open. I believe it is for this reason that Kudrin had to go. He basically violated Russian political ethics dating back at least a century.

Of which, he made three mistakes:

1) He undermined Medvedev’s authority precisely at a time when it is so shaky.
2) He broke “democratic centralism” by making public statements that diverged from agreed policy.
3) He made these statements outside of Russia, and worse, from the United States.

And this is why, Medvedev decided to undress Kudrin for all eyes to see. Medvedev’s comments weren’t for just for him. They were for everyone in the government.

Here’s a transcript of the undressing:

Dmitry Medvedev:

I want to say a few words about discipline in the Russian government. Everyone knows that we entered into an electoral campaign, that this is difficult test for the governmental system and for individual people. I believe that this affects the nerves. Apparently connected to this is a whole host of statements that have reverberated recently in our country from abroad, specifically from the United States. We generally have a entire class of citizens who make departing declarations from the other side of the ocean. There’s Alexei Kudrin, who is present here, announcing the happy news that he doesn’t plan to work in the new government and has serious differences with the active President, in particular over questions of expenditures, including military expenditures. In this context, I would like to note several things. First, there is no new government whatsoever, and no one has made any kind of invitations to anyone. But there is an old government which I formed as President and is accountable to me and will proceed within the framework of my constitutional authority. This government will carryout the course of the President and under all key decisions made under government’s leadership, including, of course, those under the Minister of Finance on issues of budgetary finance policy and generally to widest class of problems, including, of course, those having to do with expenditure on armaments.

I understand that Alexei Leonidovich has previously had the possibility to state his position and has accepted his decision on his political future. To the purpose of joining with the Right Forces, as they call it. But Alexei Leonidovich apparently refused this for some reason. Nevertheless, I would like to say that a statement like this, made in the US, appears to be offensive and cannot be excused. Second, no one can abrogate the discipline and subordination to the government. If, Alexei Leonidovich, you don’t agree with the President’s course, and the government is taking the President’s course, then you have only one option–submit your resignation. Therefore I turn directly to you here with such a suggestion–if you think that you have another viewpoint on the economic order of the day from the President, that is from me, you can write a corresponding letter of resignation. Naturally you can answer directly here and now. Would you write such a letter?

Alexei Kudrin:

Dmitry Antolevich, I have real disagreements with you, but I have to talk with the Prime Minister before I arrive at a decision to your suggestion.

Medvedev:

You know that you can consult with anyone you want including the Prime Minister. But I am President at the moment and I make such decisions myself.

Kudrin:

Now you have offered me to make the decision for me, I can decide for myself . . .

Medvedev:

I repeat again — You need to make up your mind very quickly and give me an answer today.

Kudrin:

Of course.

Medvedev:

Or you proceed that a disagreement, as you call it, doesn’t exist and then it’s necessary for you to explain your comments. If these disagreements exist, about which you recently spoken about, I don’t see any other conclusion, although to me, of course, it would be unpleasant to do what I have said.

Lastly, I would like to say a few words about this context. If there is anyone who doubts the course of the President or the government, or if there is anyone who has their own plans, you have the right to give me your resignation. But if it must be done out in the open, I will need to put an end to any irresponsible chatter. I will accept all necessary decisions up until 7 May of next year. I hope everything is understood?

God Save Putin

Putin as Alexander III

God save the noble Tsar!
Long may he live, in pow’r,
In happiness,
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!

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