Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interesting times in Russia

'May you leave in interesting times', is such a doubtful proposition, that is has been used as a curse in both Jewish and Chinese traditions. Arab spring has arrived on the steppes of Russia; the response of its leaders to the challenge of their legitimacy is of great importance.

It is possible that Saturday's unprecedented demonstrations against the rigged voting in Russia are a fluke. There were demonstrations in at least 99 cities, including four major ones, with around 40,000 attending the demonstration in Moscow on the Bolotnaya Ploshad' (literally 'swamp plaza/square' it's located on a large island on the Moscow river).

Russian special police 'Omon' were out in force, but merely channeled the demonstrators, instead of beating and dispersing them, as was the case with recent, but smaller demonstrations. It seems that Russia leaders don't know to what extent to turn up the heat on the demonstrators. Russia is holding its breath and the grass-roots opposition is continually organizing, time is on their side, at least until Kremlin's move.
How will the United Russia, that is to say, Putin react to this challenge to legitimacy? As a sign of how heating things are going to become consider a recent outburst by Medvedev. He is typically seen as mild, seen as a reformer and relatively liberal counter-weight to Putin's bear, but said things about protestors implying various carnal animalistic indecencies have led to their madness. Very unseemly. The Russian government had to walk this one back, awkwardly, by implying that the Tweet came not from notoriously technically savvy Medvedev, but from an aide, during a routine pass-word change.

The Russian opposition, fragmented as it is has some hope of prevailing, given the uniformity of disgust with the party of 'swindlers and thieves', as the opposition derisively calls United Russia. The chance requires pressing their case. The government throws people in jail, and destroys their livelihoods, but has found it prudent not to kill as in old soviet times. The army will not shoot civilians, and there is no reliable 'Praetorian guard' - a cohort that would be willing to fight for the regime to the death.

A comparison with Syria is apt here. Having been born in Soviet Russia, it was a painful realization to me that distinctions between autocratically rule in Syria and Russia lie primarily in the size and presence of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Ideologically, both are equally bereft of justification. Both are based on Force and Lies. The proportions differ greatly, and the groups that may apply Force differ. In old soviet Russia, the feared ChK, NKVD were capable of wide-spread terror on the home-front. Having work the battle on the home-front, the successor of NKVD, the KGB, dealt mostly with external espionage. FSB is primarily and anti-corruption force, with elements of anti-terror and anti-demonstration capability, but not the kind of organization that could suppress demonstrations in blood, as has been done in Syria. Syria has additional ethic and religious divisions, and Alawites, are both and ethic and a religious minority in Syria, with around 10% of the population. They hold all high offices in the army ensuring its loyalty. That bond allowed the army to butcher over 4,000 protestors in Syria, with many them tortured and killed by the security services. My point is that Russia, despite disturbing similarities to Syria, is not capable of such bloody suppression of dissent.

Because overwhelming use of Force would be unseemly, the main strategy open to Putin is one of Lies. Here there are more similarities to Syria, than differences. Like the Syrians, Russians are promising to listen to legitimate concerns, but also make threats against agitators, thereby casting aspersions on the demonstrations, as 'pawns' incited by foreigners. Putin said last week that by criticizing the fairness of Russia’s parliamentary elections, Hillary Clinton had “given a signal” to the opposition.

State Duma deputy Alexander Khinshtein belittled the oppositions cause on the website of United Russia: “The opposition does not accept the results of parliamentary elections and is calling people out onto the streets… this is simply a provocation” he said. “[The opposition] should not be hiding behind simple people.” Another top United Russia official, Andrei Isaev, warned those attending the demonstration today that they should not let themselves be turned into, “cannon fodder".

United Russia official Andrei Isayev on Saturday acknowledged that the opposition "point of view is extremely important and will be heard in the mass media, society and the state."
It will be difficult for the state for United Russia to live up to their promise.

The independent Russian election-observer group, Golos, said Saturday that "it achieved the majority mandate by falsification," international observers reported widespread irregularities, and the outpouring of Russians publicly denouncing him throughout the country undermines Putin's carefully nurtured image of a strong and beloved leader.
"Participants at today’s rally demanding the release of all political prisoners, the annulment of the false elections, the retirement of Churov [the head of Russia’s Central Election Committee] and an investigation into his activities… the registration of opposition parties... and new transparent and fair elections,” said opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov.

Clearly, United Russia is going to ignore the substance of opposition’s demands, while paying it lip service, and hoping that the furor exhausts itself. If large scale demonstrations occur periodically, they could significantly undermine Putin's legitimacy. He's already playing these games, by starting the National Front - a loose organization of corporations, individuals and political groups that is above the United Russia (UR) party. Putin lamented: "They say the party in power [UR] is the party of swindlers and thieves. That is not a characteristic of any political system, but power per se." (Speech in Russian is here).

The next demonstration is scheduled for December 24th, and the presidential elections are on March 12th of next year. The opposition seems likely to be able to sustain interest for that long; however, given the complete grasp on power by Putin, the victor is uncertain.

The next three to four months in Russia are going to be very interesting.

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