Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Foreboding of Storm - Medvedev vs. Putin

by Israel Shamir for

The Arab Rebellion has polarized Russia: some dream that the Spirit of Tahrir will visit Moscow, even as others hope for a NATO crusade to spread Western values all the way to the Volga; yet a third lot prays fervently that nothing will change, now or ever. The recent Russian abstention in the UN Security Council has split the elites and made the growing rift visible at last.

President Dmitri Medvedev has declared Kaddafi persona non grata. He supported the proposal to transfer Libya’s case to the ICC; he then ordered his Ambassador in the Security Council to abstain. A few days later, ex-strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin roundly criticised Medvedev’s compliance; he called the Western intervention “a new crusade”, and suggested that the Western leaders should “pray for their souls and ask the Lord’s forgiveness” for the bloodshed. Medvedev shot back with a meaningless “don’t you dare to speak of crusades” comment, and the pundits made a lot of mileage from this exchange, eager to see first light between the twain. Before this the President and the PM had behaved like Siamese twins. Now it seems they begin to pull apart.

We cannot know what Dmitri Medvedev’s actual political views are, but in recent months he has been promoted (by a clique of his advisers) as a pro-Western and pro-liberal alternative to Putin. Such a vision fits the traditional Russian duality of pro-Western vs. Native thinking epitomised by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky; to wit, Russia has always been part of Europe and yet Russia has always set herself apart. While this might drive a lesser species schizophrenic, the Russians have memorialised this health-giving tension in the two-headed eagle of their coat-of-arms. There is the native head that identifies itself with the non-European world and is strictly against the Libyan war, and then there is the pro-Western head that wants to collaborate with European powers and shares the European system of values, including those that have resulted in the bombardment of Libya.

It is very possible that election time will see Putin challenge Medvedev for the Presidency. Will it be a choice between (a) An independent, sovereign Russia going its own way, and (b) Russia as a massive oil pipeline guarded by yes-men? So say Putin’s followers. Medvedev’s clique declares that the choice is between (a) Russia as a legitimate member of the civilised world, and (b) A rogue Russia lost in the wilderness, like Kaddafi’s Libya.

So far so good, at the very least it sounds like a real choice; but there is a catch: the double eagle is not a real beast. It is only a dream. Putin is not really pro-native, and Medvedev has not really sold his soul to the West. Both pretend to be what they are hardly are.

If Putin were a real supporter of Russian independence, Russia would not keep its money invested in US shares and securities. If Putin really cared about the future of Russia, the profits from the sale of Russian oil would go to repair the country’s infrastructure, not simply enrich a few oligarchs. The storybook Putin would never allow Russia’s new-found wealth to drain away into the pockets of Londoners like Mr. Abramovich and his Chelsea football team.

On the other hand, if Medvedev were a real supporter of Western values, his police would not disperse every demonstration, and his electoral commissions would not block opposition parties from entering the fray. He certainly does not seem to be trying too hard to allow real competition into Russian politics.

Never forget that Medvedev is Putin’s creation, and his ability to stand alone is as yet unproven. That is why so many Russians doubt the sincerity of their low-key, high profile confrontation. The substitution of orchestrated media events in place of real, competitive elections has condemned Russians to demo-cracy: the demo version. Despite having an unrestrained freedom of speech and a near total absence of repression, Russians are unable to elect their rulers according to their own desires. They are free to speak, but their speeches cannot be translated into effective political action.

The man at the helm in the Kremlin isn’t elected by the general populace but is selected by insiders, as it was in Brezhnev’s days. The rule over post-Soviet Russia passes from leader to leader by some elite arrangement rubber-stamped by a visibly fake popular vote. Yeltsin came to power by a coup d’état and then used tanks against the elected parliament after being impeached. In 1996, he falsified the elections beyond anything in Russia’s history. After that, Yeltsin passed the power to Putin, and Putin has more or less transferred it to Medvedev. The only question left to the pundits in Moscow is whether Putin will allow Medvedev to run again or whether he has decided to take the steering wheel back. Pro-Western liberals would love to see Medvedev lock Putin up and run alone. They are afraid of Putin, but they are even more afraid of free elections with their unpredictable results. They prefer succession.

The Grey Eminence

The people who arrange succession are called political technologists, and they are a breed apart. In Russia they have wedded the brain of Karl Rove with the brute force of the Teamsters. Russian political technologists were described for a Western audience by Andrew Wilson when he wrote: “Post-Soviet political technologists see themselves as political meta-programmers, system designers, decision-makers and controllers all in one, applying whatever technology they can to the construction of politics as a whole.” Ivan Krastev explained: “A political consultant works for one of the parties in an election and does his best to help that party win; the political technologist is not interested in the victory of his party but in the victory of ‘the system’. In other words, political technologists are those in charge of maintaining the illusion of competitiveness in Russian politics.”

The use of political technology in the place of real politics has begun to make Russians extremely cynical and fatalistic: whatever move we make, they have already planned for it and it will be only they who will enjoy the fruits. Russians have begun to believe that political technologists are practically omnipotent, and this belief has made them very powerful indeed. For this reason, the éminence grise of Russia is neither priest nor oligarch, but a political technologist named Vladislav Surkov, a gifted writer and a poet of Russian-Jewish-Chechen stock. Some observers consider him to be the real power behind the cardboard figures of Putin the strongman and Medvedev the liberal. This is the view presented in the bestselling novel Virtuoso by Alexander Prochanov, a man with some first-hand knowledge of Surkov - a rarity for the great man is media shy. There is a description of Surkov in Wikileaks cable 10MOSCOW184, and we attach this yet-unpublished cable to this article.

A stage production based on Surkov’s novel Okolonolya (“About Zero”) is now enjoying an extremely successful run in the best Moscow theatres, and is directed by one of the best Russian directors (Kirill Serebrennikov). At $100 per seat, it is sold out for months in advance. I have seen it - and it is scary, in the Tarantino and Hostel style, but Tarantino never meddled in American politics. In the novel and in the play, Surkov contrasts the omnipotence of some people with the total impotence of the rest of us. Dmitri Bykov tipped his hat to the writer in his new play The Bear, when he says to the protagonist: “I can do with you whatever I wish.”

This perfect wave of political technologists, oligarchs, and former security officials has derailed every attempt to bring real democracy into Russian politics. This is a very common complaint of Russian democrats (as liberal Westernisers are called here). However, they rarely admit that there is one reason behind all these political technologies, one reason why the Russians are not allowed to practice political freedoms as they wish and deserve: without all these tricks, the Communists and other indigenous forces would regain a foothold in Russia.

The Communist leader Gennady Zuganov already said he will run for President in 2012, and a very popular Youtube (utilising 2012, the disaster movie trailer) called this vote “an alternative to the catastrophe”. They are still the biggest opposition party, but people doubt they have enough oomph. The Party is too timid, it made too many painful compromises. In 1996 the Communists won the elections, but the same Gennady Zuganov surrendered to Yeltsin’s threats of ‘civil war’. He may submit again, people fear. Putin considers him “harmless”.

The winning mixture would probably include Nationalists and Christians, beside the Communists; i.e. forces that value Russia’s uniqueness, Russia’s Orthodox Christianity, its native solidarity and strong social compassion. In fact, the mixture could include nearly everyone except the extreme Westernisers. “Le gouvernement est encore le seul Européen de la Russie,” as Alexandre Pushkin wrote (in French) to his pro-Western friend Chaadaev almost two hundred years ago, and this saying is still frequently quoted here.

The pro-Western opposition of Khodorkovsky fans, Novaya Gazeta readers, and the Echo Moskwy listeners is loud and omnipresent, but in fact they represent a tiny minority. They front for a plethora of small right-wing parties and groups calling for yet more neo-liberalism, though God knows Russia has seen too much of that. They are united by their loathing for the old Soviet system, by their hatred of Putin, by Western grants, and by other financial arrangements with the oligarchs.

They speak of human rights, but what they really mean is their own rights. They supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza, and now they support the Western bombing of Libya. To them, the West cannot do enough: Julia Latynina, a voice for the opposition, glorified Kitchener’s slaughter of Egyptians as the best way to deal with unruly Muslims. (Here is a timid English version of her screed).The right-wing opposition’s hatred of Muslims may engineer a break with Muslim-populated Tatarstan and North Caucasus. Their main political figure is the redheaded Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Yeltsin’s privatisation, godfather of all oligarchs and a Teflon man who always stands close to the power and money. They speak of democracy but what they really mean is managed democracy, enforced by NATO tanks. Some eighty per cent of callers to their radio station said they would welcome an operation like Dawn Odyssey if it were aimed at Moscow.

Russia’s pro-native opposition is numerically huge but is in disarray. The regime has successfully broken it up and divided it against itself. The last time it made a strong showing, it was under the charismatic personality of Dmitri Rogozin. In 2005, his very success caused his undoing: “Forgetting that he was on a leash, Rogozin began to stray too far and ultimately crossed Kremlin redlines, to the anger of Putin,” in the words of the US Ambassador. A secret Wikileaks cable from Moscow explains “Rogozin's real sin: he stopped playing at being an opposition politician and started acting like one.” (This cable 06MOSCOW10227 is also attached). Rogozin was the only man capable of scaring Putin: he out-Putined Putin. Soon after, Putin stopped playing democracy and Rogozin’s party was disbanded. After spending some time drifting through the political wilderness, Dmitri Rogozin was eventually exiled to Brussels as the Russian Ambassador to NATO, where he was described in another secret Wikileaks cable as “one of Russia's most charismatic, clever, and potentially dangerous politicians”.

It is just possible that by undoing Putin and trying to achieve a great liberal victory, the right-wing pro-Western forces will rub the lamp of freedom one too many times and free the indigenous genie. This has been openly admitted by PM Putin’s most venomous enemy, right-winger Andrey Piontkovsky: “Our glamorous Eloi are paralysed – not by fear of the ferocious Alfa-male, but by dread of facing alien mass of Morlocks without this Alfa male protection”. Indeed, only Putin stands between the people’s anger and the fat cats of Moscow. Much as they hate him, would they dare feed him to the wolves even as he protects them? Perhaps they would, hoping to finesse into place a leader they prefer, like Medvedev or Chubais. That would be a very risky play indeed.

On the other hand, procrastination is usually safe, but you never know when Russians will tire of the games and demand the real thing. It could happen. The Navalny phenomenon is an indication of the latent power of the Russian people. Navalny is a blogger and small-time political activist who became famous for attacking the corrupt practices of the ruling party. Political technologists accused him of being a US orange agent aiming to undermine Russian sovereignty and sell out Russia to NATO. These accusations caused him zero harm. In his TV encounter with a leading member of the ruling party, he won hands down: 99 per cent of responding viewers supported him, with just one per cent accepting the story about the bad Western wolf trying to swallow the innocent flock. These Russians, frustrated by the ballot box, voted with their pocketbooks – thousands of Russians contributed a few roubles each to his struggle against the ruling party until they had built up a multi-million-dollar war chest.

It’s not that Russians don’t believe in Western wolves embodied in NATO and Wall Street, but they have come to the conclusion that their rulers are also wolves - dressed in sheep’s clothing. Russians know that the oligarchs and top Kremlin figures are perfectly integrated into the Western capitalist scheme: they keep their money in Bahamas, they send their children to Oxford, they own houses on the Riviera and Hampstead, they own shares in the transnational companies. And together with their Western chums, they fleece Russians.

So Russia is ripe for change. But which way will it go? Will it be another “managed revolution”? Will the regime promote another pro-Western party while blocking the Left, the Orthodox and the nationalists? Or will the pro-native opposition finally sort through its problems, rescue Rogozin from his Brussels retreat and seriously try to win Russia? We shall see.

(Edited by Paul Bennett)