Famous and fearless
Undaunted by dissent, Russia is reforming its own way
I do not believe that Putin — and even the Kremlin before him, and after him (under Medvedev) — is scared in the least, even by the rarely seen large-scale protests of recent months.
First, had the ruling elite truly felt threatened by such activism, city authorities would not have granted permission to most of these street rallies; then those who have been arrested and detained might have been subjected to worse treatment than they actually were. Finally, and most notably, we all know what happens to individuals the Kremlin truly considers threats to social order: they “disappear,” fast and simple — Galina Starovoitova, a pro-democratic reform politician; Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and human rights activist strongly opposed to Putin and the conflict in Chechnya; Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, subsequently critical of the Russian secret services and of Putin, to cite but three examples. … All of them were apparently perceived by the authorities as being able to influence the political mood in the country, and were consequently “dealt with” — conveniently liquidated contract-style.
The list of such murders, many still unsolved to this day, is long. I believe these are the people whom the Kremlin truly fears. Thus, with all my respect for the laudable and much needed efforts of the brave and determined activists in Russian cities’ streets and on the Net, in stark contrast to most U.S. and Western media which see in them the winds of change and a likely threat to Putin’s rule in his third term, I would argue that very sadly, these efforts are kindergarten fare in his eyes. This is certainly an additional challenge for human rights activists and opposition leaders in Russia.
In the same vein, why would Putin dread the possibility of a “Color” revolution and its repercussions? The mass civil resistance movements that erupted in several former Soviet “satellite” countries in the early 2000s following reports of electoral fraud and government abuses have been called by Western observers ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the catalysts of a new era,’ susceptible to cause fear and therefore repressive responses in the ruling classes. Yet, while they have without a doubt exerted unprecedented popular pressure on the ruling structures, their resulting success was eventually modest, and in some cases short-term.
Ukraine’s Orange Revolution that followed the 2004 presidential election is a perfect example, close to Putin’s home. Although the nationwide protests were instrumental in getting the first results, believed to have been rigged, annulled and a revote ordered for later that year and in getting the Constitution to decentralize power from the presidency, the years that followed saw the political decline of pro-reform President Viktor Yushchenko, until he lost the presidency in 2010 to Putin’s personal favorite Viktor Yanukovych. As for the constitutional changes of 2004, they were declared “unconstitutional” and overturned under the “pro-Moscow” leadership of Yanukovich.
While such a sad U-turn and reversal in the country’s democratic development cannot be put entirely on the shoulders of the Ukrainian people, and their demonstrations are still a crucial step forward, clearly, just like in post-Soviet Russia, liberalizing efforts in Ukraine seem to have been half-hearted, poorly-organized, and therefore short-lived.
Perhaps in their public addresses, Putin and Kremlin officials have only feigned concern about these shows of popular discontent in neighboring countries when they condemned them (again — for domestic consumption purposes), because deep down they suspect that desire for change among the Russian people, as I argued here above, has only taken place on the surface, is not deeply-rooted and is therefore too superficial to cause a real threat to the present system. Just an hypothesis.
Put all together, I believe these observations lead to a very different picture than the fearful, destabilized and undecided, weakened post-Soviet Russia under Putin (as Prime Minister and President) that the American public has been fed by the mass media “ and still is, when it comes to predictions of Putin’s third term.
This goes too for the U.S. media’s focus on “anti-Americanism” on Russian state media airwaves and supposedly growing dislike and distrust of the West among the population. While tensions in US-Russia relations on various levels are undeniable, absent from this news coverage is the fact that much of this anti-U.S. rhetoric from Russian politicians has a distinct domestic political purpose — “create an enemy at which to direct all your fears and discontent” is a well-known tactic in the internal politics of numerous countries.
Similarly misplaced are the reports in Western media on how Putin’s speech police has killed humor and political satire especially. While it is true that shortly after coming to power for his first Presidency, Putin proceeded to control public discourse and ordered the discontinuation of, among others, the satirical political puppets show, “Kukli,” not only Russians have now been exercising their laughing muscles on the Internet, unrestrained, but there have also been over the past decade and before plenty of jokes, sketches and stand-up acts in hugely popular comedy shows by The Comedy Club, broadcast on Russian federal television channel TNT, and the even more venerated long-running shows and contests of KVN (an abbreviation for “Club of the Funny and Inventive”), a humor TV show founded in 1961, whose popularity has boomed to the point that it has become a social phenomenon, with its own birthday celebrated on Nov. 8.
These humorous programs not only have included Putin parodies and jokes critical of his policies (Garik Kharlamov’s hilarious act on Russian TV channels all showing Putin at any given moment comes to mind, among many others), but their live shows have also been attended by Putin and Medvedev themselves, with the latter even appearing as guest on KVN. If one needs any further evidence that subversive humor is doing well, even in post-Soviet Russia: in 2006, on KVN’s 45th anniversary, Putin delivered one of the highest awards to KVN President Alexander Maslyakov for running the show successfully for so many years.
One would be hard-pressed to find this reported in the American media. While there have been recent reports of a resurgence of political humor in the Western press and online blogs, the truth is, it never really stopped. Simply, reporting on it probably didn’t fit the West’s favored and strategic “Scary Putin — Bad Russia” line.
Many Western commentators have also been clamoring for reforms in Russia, warning that should Putin in his third term fail to implement serious legislative and economic changes, the whole country will be down on a sure-death spiral. What these commentaries and predictions fail to acknowledge is that there have been plenty of reforms in Russia, for a long time already: long, complex, and painful reforms in the tax, banking and other legislative systems, to name but a few. Admittedly — and this is where the misconception lies - Russia has been reforming in its own way (not necessarily the way the West wants), and it has been doing so in its current context of corruption, nevertheless.
Among some of these commentators’ proposals for remedying Russia’s ills and helping it steer its ship into a more successful future is decentralization of power and redistribution to local authorities throughout the country. Such a proposal can be applauded: it is indeed key to many, if not most of Russia’s problems. Although hoping for Putin in his new Presidency to step in that direction is wishful thinking, as the policy for much of his previous presidential and ministerial terms in most areas, seems to have been geared precisely the other way, with regional governors being gradually stripped from their say and influence through new election- and other laws, and Moscow accumulating more power in its hands.
If decentralization were to ever happen in Russia, it won’t be while Putin is around (in whatever form — President, Prime Minister, or other).
Other forecasts by American and Western media point to a period of uncertainty under Putin’s soon-to-be third Presidency — especially if he doesn’t reform. But I beg to differ: if there is one thing he has proved to be able to deliver, it’s stability — of the Soviet kind, but stability nevertheless. This is what the people crave, and the reason behind his popularity with much of the population. Recent reports of his declining support among his people in fact refers to the poorer and older layers of society, who may indeed be dissatisfied with his policies precisely because they are hankering for more stability and are nostalgic about the “good old” stable days of the Soviet system. This is typical of the elderly — precisely the category that has most turned its back on Putin in recent statistics. In other words they want more of the old order —a little detail omitted by the pro-West media, all too happy to report on Putin’s declining power.
This article is the seventh in a series on Russia’s presidential election, popular street protests, and Putin’s new presidency.