Monday, March 05, 2012
Putin's shadow is up to Russians to resist
For all of the news about the rigged Russian Presidential election, it is probably a fair assumption that he still commands considerable support. Middle class Russians in major cities may be disenchanted, but elsewhere the strong hand and steadiness of Putin gets much respect.
After all, Russia has no tradition of vibrant liberal competitive politics, it has a tradition of revolution, authoritarianism, corruption and subservience.
There was a chance for Russia to have joined the Western world's prosperity, modernity and traditions of individual rights and freedoms, when the Tsar was overthrown by a liberal democratic revolution. However, it was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who overthrew the liberal revolution, and so set in a chain of events that saw tens of millions slaughtered. Think of those killed by Lenin, Stalin and his successors, the murderous regimes installed in Mongolia, most of eastern Europe, North Korea, Ethiopia, or how about the pact with Nazi Germany, that allowed Hitler to conquer Western Europe and which no doubt delayed the end of the war and the Holocaust.
70 odd years of Marxism-Leninism has brutalised Russians, it has made them cynical of politics, as it became a tool for personal advancement, for corruption. It was a path for sociopaths and psychopaths to have fruitful careers. The state was an instrument of fear, that nationalised lives, brains, property and ideas. Those with ambition, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity either had to surrender it to the "good of the working class", or to be ironed flat, to surrender themselves, their creations and their ideas. For under "really existing socialism", individuals were to be categorised, classified and to worship those who used their hands, not their heads, who followed orders and did manual labour, not creating inventions and innovation. The rivers of blood, echoes of screams, corpses, tears and bones arising from that system left those remaining a different people from those of western Europe in some ways. Brutalised and hardened, cynical and saddened.
Mikhail Gorbachev set them free to complain, to know the truth and talk the truth about the system, the economy, but retained the system that kept them in chains, and which was already corrupted beyond repair. He faced a coup by gangsters wanting to turn the clock back and was saved by Boris Yeltsin, who then embarked on reforms on a grand scale.
The privatisations of the 1990s were well intentioned, but easily hijacked as a people who had never owned shares were offered easy money by entrepreneurs and gangsters as they hoovered up former state monopolies. The oligarchs were born, meanwhile the institutions of state that mattered remained corrupted. The underpaid police, the courts, the prisons and a justice system with literally no history of objective justice, of appeals, of challenging evidence of checks and balances.
It was ripe to be bought, to be undermined before it even started. Property rights weren't even embryonic, they were stagnant and subject to whim.
It was from this disorganisation, the emergence of the oligarchic state and an economy that had its archaic heart decimated by truth and the end of subsidies, that a non-descript former KGB bureaucrat emerged to become Yeltsin's choice as successor.
Putin dreamt of being a spy as a child. He joined the KGB, went to East Germany to train agents of foreigners, but as he did his work, it was being undermined. Perestroika saw funding and interest in his work decrease, and then when Gorbachev insisted on letting East Germany go, he saw his position shifted back to the USSR. In short, Putin saw what he had worked for eroded, he saw rapprochement and friendship emerge with those he had been taught were enemies, and he took the traditional Russian view that is suspicious of the outside world.
So he threatened, bullied and killed journalists who questioned him, who questioned his state and his party. He ran elections where pre-selected opponents from the fascist and communist parties he sympathised with ran flimsy campaigns, and the real opponents were excluded.
For some time Russians were complacent, because it coincided with rises in oil and gas prices, and a flood of foreign exchange as a result. The new money saw the state flushed with booty, able to spend on jobs, welfare and pay rises for the military and the wider state.
Yet the good times were not for all, and entrepreneurs, intellectuals, creative Russians, those not connected to the state or oligarchs, those affected by corruption, by the random whims of the state, and those not enamoured by the mindless hedonistic wild west of Russia's energy fuelled wealth, were less than happy. Those with the education and the means leave, for they see little future in a society dominated by an authoritarian corrupt gangster state. The unpredictable, unreliable, corruption fuelled state couldn't be relied upon to respond to assault, theft, rape or murder, when it was owned by those who committed those crimes, and would commit them itself for the state or for themselves. That's ignoring the nasty under currents of racism, anti-semitism, sexism and overall bigotry that ran through the society.
So now some have spoken up, some are being brave, some are wanting something different. However, it isn't enough, for now. Much money in Russia depends on having a state willing to use force or to be absent when it fits its interests, and the state keeps many in employment. Many Russians like having a strong man in charge, they have known little else except for 10-15 years of "chaos", unemployment and what has been portrayed as "weakness" and "humiliation". For over a decade young Russians have been taught about the glory of the Soviet Union, with absolutely no contrition or reflection on what happened in that era.
Putin will last a few years, but it will be Russians themselves who will need to throw off him and his regime, and demand change - and to do so, they need to stand together and fight for it. If they don't, Putin will continue to preside over a shrinking country, with shrivelling population, a military that bites and barks, but which is increasingly ignored by all beyond its immediate former satellites which it can bully (like Georgia and Ukraine), and be left behind. Despite Putin's clear schadenfreude over the global financial crisis, he has nothing to gloat about. Indeed, the very cynicism that saw the Soviet house of cards collapse ultimately will do the same to his system, with the one component present that the USSR didn't have - the internet and other communications technology means he has not got control of growing parts of the media.
The game continues...