Tuesday, March 28, 2017

‘Why Do Russians Protest Against Corruption but Not Against War?’ Portnikov Asks



Paul Goble

Staunton, March 28 – “If Russians really want change,” Vitaly Portnikov says, they need to focus not on the secondary issue of corruption but on the authoritarianism and aggressiveness of Vladimir Putin. But Aleksey Navalny won’t lead that charge because he supported Putin in 2008 on Georgia and the Kremlin leader’s Anschluss of Crimea in 2014.

Of even greater concern, the Ukrainian commentator says, is the fact that Navalny in his demonstrations against corruption has focused on the actions of Dmitry Medvedev rather than on “the leader of Russian corruption, President Vladimir Putin” (ru.espreso.tv/article/2017/03/27/polytycheskaya_shyzofrenyya_pochemu_rossyyane_protestuyut_protyv_korrupcyy_a_ne_protyv_voyny).

“The paradox in this is htat a large section of its participants – representatives of the so-called ‘creative class’ of Moscow – only a few years ago saw in Medvdev hopes for the liberalization of the regime” and viewed Putin’s return to the office of president “as the most real political catastrophe.”

“Had Medvedev remained chief of state,” Portnikov continues, “many Muscovites despite the complete lack of signs of liberalization and the recent war in Georgia would have been delighted. And the corrupt nature of Medvedev” wouldn’t have bothered them at all given his supposed policy preferences.

Given that, the current demonstrations which “convert Medvedev into the main target of ‘the anti-corruption struggle’ prepare the ground for the seizure by Putin’s siloviki of complete control over the government and financial flows.”

“I will not assert,” Portnikov says, “that now Putin doesn’t control the government. He does. But he doesn’t completely control all financial flows, and this means that the Russian president simply cannot take all means for the realization of his own plans, among which it is completely possible a major war.”

Now, focusing on corruption and especially corruption at the level of Medvedev rather than Putin as if these were the most important thing is a distraction. But the problem here is an even deeper one, the Ukrainian analyst says.

Portnikov argues that he wouldn’t “accuse Russians of political schizophrenia” on that basis alone given that Ukrainians too have suffered from some of the same attitudes and sought to avoid mass actions even when they faced the illegal formation of a government and other violations before the Maidan.

 “The first real mass action in Kyiv and other cities of the country began only after the government’s refusal to follow the course of European integration which the powers themselves had so enthusiastically promoted,” Portnikov says. “But even the participants of this action explained that they did not want confrontation with the powers that be.”

But then “the Yanukovich regime committed a fatal mistake – fatal for itself but a salvation for the country – by deciding not to sign the agreement [with Europe] and to disperse by force the students. Political schizophrenia [in Ukraine] ended with that, and the Maidan began, a genuine Maidan.”

What is taking place in Russia and “by the way, in Belarus” is exactly what occurred in Ukraine “before the real Maidan.”  What will happen next, Portnikov says, “xdepends on how the Russian authorities conduct themselves and how Russian society does as well.”

For a real protest to take off, he suggests, the authorities will have to ask with “unmotivated cruelty” and “ignore any demands of the citizens;” and “these citizens will then have the support of millions of their compatriots who are ready to go into the street and defend those arrested and beaten.”

The Russian powers that be have “always acted with unjustified cruelty.” Dispersing a student demonstration is nothing, but what is striking so far is that no one sees “the millions of compatriots” ready to come out in their support. “But for a real protest, for the collapse of the regime, these millions are required, just as they were required in Kyiv.”

Thus, “the student protest in November 2013 led to a real Maidan and to the overthrow of the regime of the enemy of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich, but the walk along Tverskaya in March 2017 remains a show of force of the Muscovite intelligentsia which even during

Two Thirds of Russians Hold Putin Responsible for Corruption


Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 – Like all political leaders, Vladimir Putin likes to take credit for everything positive that happens and to shift responsibility to others when things go wrong – and is extremely upset when he is put in a position where things are not going well but where he has few good options to transform the situation.

            That is the situation he finds himself in now.  According to a new Levada Center poll 67 percent of Russians – that is two out three – hold the Kremlin leader responsible for the high level of corruption in the Russian Federation (znak.com/2017-03-28/sociologiya_67_rossiyan_schitayut_chto_putin_neset_otvetstvennost_za_korrupciyu_v_strane).

            But as a lead article in Nezavisimaya gazeta today points out, Putin has few good options, especially in the wake of Sunday’s demonstrations which significantly raised the salience of corruption as a political issue in Russia and which require some political response (ng.ru/editorial/2017-03-28/2_6959_red.html).

            Sunday’s demonstrations have created a new situation, the paper says; and that means there will be winners and losers as a result. Aleksey Navalny may be one of the winners, as may some in the corridors of power who oppose the current course and the population as a whole that has shown it is willing to protest and thus force the powers that be to respond.

            But even if he is not a loser from the protests and the increasing focus on the problem of corruption, what has happened may put Putin in “an uncomfortable position.” On the one hand, they showed that people and especially the young aren’t afraid to go into the streets to protest what they don’t like.

            And on the other, they challenge the Kremlin to respond. What might it do? Nezavisimaya gazeta asks. It “could tighten the screws and strengthen the apparatus of suppression, but in Russian society, the screws are already very tight and the repressive apparatus quite strong.”

            Some might think that Putin could “sacrifice” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. But Putin “doesn’t like to act under pressure,” and he retains the loyalty of those around him by showing repeatedly that he “doesn’t give up his own,” unless there is some immediate personal cause.

            “Medvedev is under [Putin’s] protection, and if the president removes him, this could provoke a genuine collapse of trust within the elite: no one would feel himself defended and it is possible there could begin searches for a new configuration and even a new center” of power within the elite, the paper says.

            “In other words, the meetings leave Putin in a situation when for him there is no good decision. In any case, no obvious one.”  But the paper is wrong about that: In the past when Putin has faced demonstrations at home, he has responded to launching aggression abroad, just as he did against Ukraine in 2014 after the 2011-2012 protests in Russian cities.

            Indeed, given Putin’s demonstrated proclivities, a new round of aggression is perhaps the means he is most likely to choose to try to escape what might seem to many an “uncomfortable” situation. 

Is Navalny a ‘Young and Sober’ Yeltsin or ‘the Putin of Tomorrow’?



Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 –Aleksey Navalny’s new prominence and his success in attracting young people– which some see reflected in the fact that he now has more “likes” than Moscow TV (politsovet.ru/54872-navalnyy-obognal-po-chislu-podpischikov-pervyy-kanal-rt-i-rossiyu-24.html) – Putin loyalists are attacking him and others asking what kind of a leader he may be.

            Putin’s press spokesman said many of the young people attended the demonstrations only because they had promised to be paid, a claim for which he provided no evidence and which says more about Kremlin perceptions about motivation than about Navalny’s followers (kp.ru/daily/26658.5/3679562/).

            United Russia Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov, who has recently attracted notice for his comments about Jews and Masons, suggested that the young people had taken part because they were “sexually unsatisfied” and tired of just watching pornography all the time (znak.com/2017-03-28/milonov_obyasnil_revolyuciyu_detey_seksualnoy_neudovletvorennostyu_i_pornofilmami).

                And Yana Amelina, a pro-Putin specialist on the Caucasus, said that whatever the cause, the presence of so many young people in Navalny’s movement sets the stage for violence given the impetuousness of youth and their sense of deathless invincibility fed by video games (facebook.com/yana.amelina.92/posts/1513464625351696).

            But far more interesting are the first articles talking about what Navalny is and how he is likely to behave in the future. There will certainly be more, but two from today are worth noting: one noting that Navalny is in many ways like a “young and sober” Yeltsin but that faces someone other than Gorbachev, and a second that argues he is likely to be another Putin.

            On the Kasparov.ru portal, Moscow commentator Igor Yakovenko says that Sunday’s demonstrations show that “Russia has ceased to be a country with only one politicians.” It now has two and thus Navalny is the leader of the opposition to Vladimir Putin and the party of power (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=58DA11A4BBDA8).

            In many but not all ways, Navalny resembles Boris Yeltsin: he was making a good career in the bureaucracy but like the earlier Russian leader was “organically incapable” of working within a specific command. Instead, both had to strike out on their own – and ultimately by themselves rather than in any organization they might create.

            Like Yeltsin, “Navalny is a populist exploiting the idea of justice. Yeltsin’s main these was the struggle with the privileges of the nomenklatura” – or in contemporary language, “struggle with corruption.” But in both cases, this was “a classical ‘false goal,’” one used by its authors to attract support for other purposes.

            Moreover, both were tacticians rather than strategists because they lacked any grand plan. But that brings us to the way in which the two are different: Navalny may appear to be “a young and sober Yeltsin,” but unlike Yeltsin, he isn’t really willing to acknowledge his shortcomings in this regard and to listen to others.

            “Yeltsin knew,” Yakovenko continues, “that he did not have a sufficient theoretical background and was open to the support of experts.”  But with Navalny, one has the impression that he isn’t really interested in the ideas of others and that he “considers himself an independent politician and is prepared to accept others” only as followers.

            But there is a more fundamental different: “Putin is not Yeltsin or even Chernomyrdin. He is quite prepared to use massive force against anyone to stay in power.  “And this means that there will be a Tianamen Square and a complete one at that. And such squares will be in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and everywhere protest needs to be suppressed.”

            And on the Forum-MSK portal, another Moscow correspondent, Yakov Azimandis, argues that “Russia has two misfortunes, Putin and Navalny. Putin with  his friends and relatives has already for 17 years sucked the country dry and supposes that this will continue forever” (forum-msk.org/material/politic/13001047.html).

            If he comes to power, Navalny is likely to do the same, Azimandis suggests. The opposition leader “in words criticize particular corrupt personages,” something even Putin has done, but Navalny “almost doesn’t criticize the system as a whole,” suggesting he might change it less than some of his supporters expect.

            “In the future,” he writes, Navalny “as a minimum, hopes to become a new systemic oppositwion figure … and in the best case to become the head of the country and for another 20 years to suck the country dry if anything remains after the current camarilla.”