My new article for Warscapes, “The Gendarme of Eurasia.” Here’s the opening excerpt:
In 1830, in response to the crowning of Louis-Philippe as king of France after revolution deposed Charles X, Russia’s Nicholas I wrote, “However, our allies, without agreeing beforehand with us on a step so important, so decisive, hastened…to crown insurrection and usurpation—a fatal, incomprehensible step to which must be attributed the series of misfortunes which has not since ceased plaguing Europe.” These words could have easily been spoken by Vladimir Putin about Kyiv. Shave off the literary flourish and exchange “allies” for “partners” and “Europe” for “Eurasia,” Nicholas I’s trepidation about revolution in nineteenth century Europe speaks to Putin’s alarm about the destabilizing nature of revolution in the twenty-first century. Putin’s pushback against his Western “partners’” fancy for revolution was on full display in his speech (here in English) before members of the Russian government. The speech wove together romantic, even volkish, Russian nationalism, anti-Westernism and Russian exceptionalism, and anti-revolution. A Gendarme of Eurasia has risen! But do the verbal epaulets of a gendarme make a different Putin? A Putin 3.0? I say rather than a new Putin, we’re seeing a crystallization of positions that have been apparent since he returned to the presidency in 2012.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
The fact that Putin is adept at judo is well known and admired. I got a taste of this admiration a few years ago when I stopped into a Moscow photo shop across from INION to get picture for my library card. Hanging on the wall were two pictures of Putin. One looking all stately and serious; the other in full judo garb with arms steady for a throw.
Little did I know that Putin and a few of his fellow judo enthusiasts penned a manual of their best throws, tumbles, and dodges called Judo: History, Theory, Practice. That is until I happened upon Daniel Soar’s “Short Cuts” in new issue of the London Review of Books. Soar wonders whether Putin’s judo mastery influenced his recent diplomatic jousting with President Bush. The careful observer can see that it indeed does.
As Soar explains:
The excellent thing about judo – in theory – is that you don’t have to be stronger than your opponent to beat him. The idea is that you use the momentum of his attack to keep him moving in the same direction, and then, with a little twist, you send him flying onto the mat. The bigger they are the harder they fall. This should be useful to Putin, since Russia is so heavily outgunned and outspent by the US military machine that it can’t win the arms race the old-fashioned way. Putin provides a striking metaphor to demonstrate the judo master’s technique. He calls it ‘give way in order to conquer’. Imagine you are a locked door. Your opponent wants to break you open with his shoulder. If he is ‘big and strong enough and rams through the door (that is, you) from a running start, he will achieve his aim’. But here’s the neat bit. If instead of ‘digging in your heels and resisting your opponent’s onslaught’, you unlock it at the last minute, then, ‘not meeting any resistance and unable to stop, your opponent bursts through the wide-open door, losing balance and falling.’ If you’re even more cunning, you can stop being a door and stick out a leg, causing him to trip as he sails through. ‘Minimum effort, maximum effect’, as Russia’s effortlessly effective president says.
The evident ingenuity of this technique made me wonder why Putin didn’t deploy it in the run-up to the G8 dojo. It was puzzling. On his way to Germany, Bush went on the offensive. He visited Poland and the Czech Republic to publicise his plan to install ‘exoatmospheric kill vehicles’ – little missiles designed to hit bigger missiles – on sites close to the Russian border. Putin’s counter-attack was very bold. He said that if America was going to play silly buggers with its Raytheon EKVs, then he would point his biggest ICBMs at Western European cities. ‘A new Cold War!’ the papers screamed. The leaders of the free world were righteously outraged, whereas Putin had merely closed the door. Any moment now he would flip the latch and stick out a leg.
But the analogy was troubling. When would the door open, and where was his leg? At first I wondered whether Putin was readying himself for the long game, hunkering down, raising the stakes to force the US to spend more and more money on more and more weapons until it bankrupted itself and went pop. Except, of course, that this would be playing into Bush’s hands, since American military spending is what the US economy depends on. The need for more weaponry would mean an even mightier America. So Putin wasn’t so clever after all: he’d forgotten all his old teaching and had taken up gunslinging in a fight he could only lose. Or so I thought.
On 7 June the full genius of Putin’s strategy was revealed. Earlier, Bush had said: ‘Vladimir – I call him Vladimir – you should not fear the missile defence system . . . Why don’t you co-operate with us on the missile defence?’ Ingeniously, Putin now called his bluff, and unbolted the new Iron Curtain. He quietly suggested that the US base its missile interception system on a Russian military installation in Azerbaijan, an unanswerable solution if – as the Americans claim – the EKVs really are intended to counter an Iranian nuclear threat. Bush’s people, wrong-footed, could only say that his proposal was ‘interesting’ and that the presidents would discuss it further in Kennebunkport, Maine at the beginning of July. But this is likely to be the end of the missile defence plan for Poland and the Czech Republic. Ippon!
Ippon indeed.Post Views: 583
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: 693
By Sean — 7 years ago
As many know, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin turned 59 today, a day which for the last five years is also the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination. As one would imagine, Putin’s return to the throne has made this birthday has made the pious and humble Russian people more grateful than usual. As if his personality cult needed more inflation, the great leaders birth was even commemorated with the Twitter hashtag #СПАСИБОПУТИНУЗАЭТО, “Putin, thank you for that,” a revamp of the old Soviet joke, “Прошла зима, настало лето—Спасибо партии за это” (Winter has passed, summer has come –Thank the Party for that.)”
But my favorite happy birthday to Putin prank so far is the kimono-clad Putin sitting in Indian-style right where the famous statute of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky stood on Lubyanka square. According to one Russian blog, the Putin puppet appeared at [5:07] in the evening. Who had to gumption to place the Putin remains unknown.
Experts claim that on the birthday of the colonel (or lieutenant colonel so he’s not to be mistaken as deep sea diver) will be inexorably dragged through the headwaters. Especially since he has turned into a hero in popular comics. Others think that he hasn’t ever drank, engages in sports and thinks a lot about the Motherland, meditates, and can levitate anywhere. Even on his birthday. After all, he recently did exactly that when he managed to change places with President Medvedev. What a great energetic person.
Here’s a video of the prank.Post Views: 1,642