Bauhaus, “Slice of Life,” Burning from the Inside, 1983.
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By Sean — 4 years ago
The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.
Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:
Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.
Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.
Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:
Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.
The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.
They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:
“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”
While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.Post Views: 2,408
By Sean — 10 years ago
Dmitri Medvedev’s speech to the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum might be an indication of what he has in store for Russia. Before a crowd of Russian businessmen, Medvedev laid out his vision in a forty minute speech; a vision that when boiled down doesn’t look to rock the boat too much.
One of Medvedev’s themes revolved around the “s” word, svoboda, or freedom. “Freedom is better than non-freedom,” Medvedev declared, rather tritely. He then when on to emphasize that his view of freedom includes “personal freedom, economic freedom, and finally, freedom of expression.” How banal. Before anyone could get too excited with Medvedev’s liberal pretentions, he capped off his “freedom” rap with a Putinian maxim. “Freedom cannot be separated from the actual recognition of the power of law and to not chaos and respect the accepted order of the country.” Sounds like 2000 all over again.
At the moment, I take Medvedev’s “liberalism” as nothing more than campaign posturing. Sure, some might ask why he needs to placate the Russian business elite with a more liberal stance. Especially since his election is all but a forgone conclusion. The answer is that he’s not appealing to the Russian business elite’s liberal tendencies. They don’t really have any to appeal to. The last thing Russia’s chinovniki, er, businessmen want is anything akin to a populist notion of freedom. Medvedev’s statements are merely assurance that when in office he will continue along the present course. This is crystal clear when you put his “liberalism” alongside his statements about the law and the “accepted” order. In addition, Medvedev made it a point to refer to Putin six times. A move that I assume is to let the elite know that business will be as usual. Russia’s journey to 21st century modernization will be directed by the state and not against the fundamental interests of the Russian elite.
Here is where Medvedev’s plan of four “I”s come in: institutions, infrastructure, innovation, investment.
Within these four “I” Medvedev spelled out seven tasks: “overcoming legal nihilism, a radical reduction in administrative barriers, a reduction in taxes, the formation of a powerful and independent financial system, the modernization of infrastructure, the formation of the basis for a national system of innovation, and social development.” Notice there is no role for society in this effort. Like Russia’s many attempts at reform over the last three centuries, it is the state that will be its alpha and omega. Society’s seat at the table will be provisional, and at most advisory.
The truth of the matter is that Putin could have given this speech himself. And perhaps that is what is most comforting to the Russian business elite.
The same goes for voters. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is Putin or Medvedev at the helm as long the former is there to watch over the store. According to a recent poll conducted by the Leveda-Center, 80 percent of Russians polled plan on voting for Medvedev. People’s expectations seem to be similar to what they were in 2000 and 2004 says Kommersant.
Some 51 percent expect him to secure the great-power status for Russia, and the rule of law and order in the country are the highlights for 45 percent. Some 41 percent would like Medvedev to ensure fair distribution of income, 34 percent expect social protection from him and 34 percent want him to step up the government’s share in economy.
Moreover, Medvedev’s supporters see him as “a continuation and a copy of Putin;” a fact that certainly is the origin of his widespread support. While no one is sure who power will be distributed between the two, polled Russians seem fine with the idea of a power dyad.
Some 41 percent of respondents think both leaders will be equal after March 2 election, 23 percent predict Putin to keep the authority, but 20 percent expect Medvedev to emerge as the leader. At the same time, 47 percent of the polled want Putin to remain Russia’s president, viewing election as something inevitable.
Something inevitable indeed. Two weeks from now the inevitable will arrive, and after a few days of hooting and hollering, things in Russia will go back to normal. That is assuming the Kremlin clans will acclimate themselves to the new (old) order.Post Views: 712
By Sean — 9 years ago
The results of the mayoral election in Sochi were as expected. United Russia’s candidate Anatoly Pakhomov won. No repeat of the Murmansk mayoral contest allowed. The losers, Solidarity’s Boris Nemtsov and the Communist Party candidate Yuri Dzaganiya, have already charged massive fraud, dirty campaign tricks, and use of a variety “administrative resources” to hoist Pakhomov to victory. Both candidates were systematically barred from local television, their billboards removed, and campaign literature confiscated. Local Sochi tv even smeared poor Nemtsov with a 20 minute film claiming he was a South Korean spy. And what dastardly plot was he hatching for the east Asian nation? Conspiring to move the Olympics to Seoul. As if.
Early voting served as the perfect opportunity for stuffing the box in favor of Pakhmonov. And if that wasn’t enough to tip the balance, then mobile poll buses were dispatched to the Abkhaz border. Last week, Sochi’s electoral committee ruled that citizens of Abkhazia with Russian passports and Sochi residency could cast ballots. As a result, this election is probably the one of first to make a serious effort to enfranchise the homeless.
There isn’t much more to say about a contest which began as a circus and closed with a magic show. Votes were made to disappear and reappear at the behest of the electoral committee’s magicians. Nothing says this more than the enormous gap between exit polls and the election results, via Ezhdnevnyi zhurnal:
The surveys of exist polls gave the following results: Pakhomov, the candidate from United Russia, 46 percent; Nemstov the candidate for Solidarity, 35 percent. In other words, a run off. Yuri Rykov, the head of the city electoral committee, offered entirely different figures to the court of public opinion. Pakhmonov – almost 78 percent, Nemtsov 13.5 percent.
One candidate had to score 50 percent to avoid a run off. United Russia wasn’t going to take a chance even if that meant making electoral fraud even more blatant than usual. After all, it ain’t called “managed democracy” for nothin’.
Photo: Debaterage.Post Views: 632