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Very Little Hope and Very Little Change

Russia progresses from kleptocracy to tandemocracy.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By CATHY YOUNG
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In April, Russia’s biggest political story was a sex scandal dubbed “Mumugate,” involving secretly filmed videos of several opposition activists in compromising positions with one Katya “Mumu” Gerasimova, a sometime fashion model who had approached them while posing as a journalist. (The nickname refers to a classic Russian short story about a peasant named Gerasim and his dog Mumu.) While the videos were posted on the Internet by a shadowy group claiming to champion public morality, most independent Russian commentators believe the incident was linked to semi-official pro-Kremlin organizations—such as the “Nashi” youth group—that specialize in harassing the opposition with tacit official blessing.

Very Little Hope and Very Little Change

Alexei Dymovsky

This sordid affair neatly encapsulates the farcical nature of Russian political life today: the marginality and pointlessness of the opposition, the petty nastiness and sleaziness of the power structure, the authoritarian state as a grotesque parody of a once formidable dictatorship. In olden days, the KGB used “honey trap” operations to blackmail foreign diplomats into spying. Honey trap 2010 seems to have been intended solely to embarrass a few dissenters who have no chance of winning public office and no real influence on public opinion. Moreover, even the embarrassment was dubious: In Russia’s macho culture, most of the entrapped men reacted with barely disguised bravado, and their peccadilloes were widely shrugged off. Some Russian bloggers sarcastically inquired where they could sign up for an opposition party that gets free hookers from the government.

Mumugate is a shabby scandal for a shabby time. A year ago, the possibility of change and discontent seemed to be in the air; the economic crisis had signaled an abrupt crash of the relative prosperity associated with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and made a dent in public confidence in the government. There were also hopeful reports of a growing rift between Prime Minister Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev; many analysts claimed that, with his term entering its second year, Medvedev was at last emerging from Putin’s shadow and coming into his own as a real leader with a more liberal agenda.

Despite a spike in unemployment (now 9 percent) and underemployment, the financial crisis did not hit Russia nearly as hard as some had expected. Neither did a wave of mass discontent. Rather, the prevalent attitude seems to be a cynical, passive malaise: The government does not exactly inspire active loyalty or confidence, but no visible search for alternatives exists—both because the Kremlin regime has done its best to squash, cripple, and marginalize such alternatives over the past decade, and because there is little energy behind a push for change. 

The malaise is driven not only by economic factors but also by a general sense of a society plagued by dysfunction. Intensifying unrest in the Caucasus, where terrorist bombings and murders of policemen, soldiers, and local officials are practically a daily occurrence, serves as a reminder that significant, if peripheral, regions of the Russian Federation remain an out-of-control tinderbox. Meanwhile, the recent suicide bombings on the Moscow subway, which killed 39 people in two separate attacks, were a shocking reminder that this violence can still strike in the heart of Russia. And yet another peril has become a major topic in the Russian media: rogue cops. This problem, which points to a serious breakdown in the social contract, gained a new and terrifying visibility a year ago when a Moscow police precinct chief, Major Denis Yevsyukov, went on a shooting spree in a supermarket after a family argument, killing three people and injuring six.

Revelations that Yevsyukov had been allowed to remain on the force despite previous unstable behavior—and the fact that some of his superiors all but defended him as a good officer who had snapped under stress—shocked the Russian public. Whether or not violent attacks on citizens by police officers in Russia have actually become more frequent recently, coverage of such crimes became much more prominent after the Yevsyukov shootings. Faced with this rising concern, Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliev, the de facto national police chief, went so far as to tell an audience of college and police academy students in November 2009 that citizens have the right to defend themselves against police violence—though defense attorneys quickly warned people not to be emboldened by these remarks, since a citizen accused of assaulting a policeman would likely have a difficult time proving self-defense. 

Around the same time, another news story drew further attention to the dismal state of Russia’s police force. A major on the Krasnodar police force, Alexei Dymovsky, posted two video statements online, one addressed to fellow officers and one to Prime Minister Putin. Dymovsky spoke of rampant corruption, tiny salaries that leave officers little choice but to take bribes, and high-ranking officers getting away with crimes. Shortly after the clips were posted, he was fired from his job and later taken to court for slandering his superiors, a case he lost in March.

Dymovsky’s one-man rebellion, at first publicized only by the opposition press but later picked up by the mainstream media, was seen by some Russian commentators as a sign that political discontent was spreading beyond the intelligentsia. Further hopes were inspired by a protest rally in Kaliningrad that drew 10,000 people in January—a remarkable number for recent years. 

Yet by and large, grass-roots opposition remains impotent, aimless, and scattered. Despite a few local outbreaks of protest—such as demonstrations in a Moscow neighborhood intended to block the demolition of privately owned houses for a commercial development project sponsored by the notoriously corrupt city government—a general apathy still prevails. The national “Day of Anger” called by opposition groups for March 20 was not a complete bust, with an estimated 20,000 or so turning out nationwide, but only in Kaliningrad and Vladivostok did attendance at any individual rally top 1,000. It should be noted that both cities are atypical: Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) is a geographically separate, Western-oriented enclave between Poland and Lithuania, while Vladivostok is a Pacific port city with strong ties to Japan and a local economy that thrives on imports of foreign used cars.

Electoral politics remains even less promising. The evidence of fraud in citywide elections in Moscow last October, where the ruling United Russia party won 32 out of 35 city council seats, was strong enough to prompt a parliamentary walkout even by the tame opposition parties in the Duma—yet elicited hardly a peep of public reaction. In local elections in March, United Russia’s share of the vote in the eight regions where people went to the polls dropped by 6 to 25 percentage points from its share in the 2007 parliamentary elections. Still, the ruling party won most of the races by a comfortable margin, and its most significant loss—in the mayor’s race in Irkutsk—was to a Communist.

With no hope for change from either elections or grass-roots opposition, some Russian liberals have continued to stake their hopes on Medvedev—hopes that the Russian president has occasionally fed. Last November, he caused a stir by releasing an article entitled “Russia, Forward!” which some optimists saw as the start of a decisive break with Putin. The essay, which argued for urgent “modernization” in Russia, appeared on the official presidential website and in several leading newspapers including Izvestia. It was not only a brief for comprehensive reform but, in effect, a scathing indictment of Putin-era policies and the Putinite status quo. Medvedev identified the problems facing Russia as “an inefficient economy, a semi-Soviet social sphere, a weak democracy, negative demographic tendencies, and instability in the Caucasus.” He was particularly critical of continued reliance on oil and gas exports as the principal foundation of the “Putin boom.”

Yet the talk remained just that. Putin’s power as prime minister remained unshaken. Medvedev’s call for a national conversation on modernization that would include critics of the government quickly turned to farce when, a few days later, the Russian president discussed the responses and proposals he had received and singled out the contribution of one Maksim Kalashnikov, an eccentric blogger who identifies himself as both a Stalinist and a Hitler admirer and who, coincidentally (and surreally), has conducted seminars at conventions of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group.

The balance of power between Putin and Medvedev thus remains a subject of constant speculation. In March, when Medvedev’s public call for Russia’s top sports officials to resign in the wake of the Russian team’s dispiriting performance in the Vancouver Winter Olympics went unheeded by Minister of Sports Vitaly Mutko—reportedly a Putin man—this was widely viewed as a sign of Medvedev’s powerlessness. Yet later that month, after the Moscow subway explosions, many saw a political significance in Medvedev’s higher visibility and harsh statements on eradicating the perpetrators.

More tea leaf-reading followed a March 16 interview in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta by businessman, political consultant, and Medvedev adviser Igor Yurgens. Urging Medvedev to run for reelection as president in 2012 on a “modernization” platform, Yurgens suggested that his candidacy would have the backing of the pro-reform faction in government—whose members he went on to list by name. Writing on the website, columnist and Hudson Institute fellow Adrian Piontkovsky suggested that this amounted to a declaration of war against Putin, and possibly the beginning of a push for his ouster as prime minister. But this possible signal of revolution in the Kremlin was another false start: Subsequent statements by both Putin and Medvedev suggest that their “tandem” will, in one form or another, endure after the next election.

While “tandemocracy” is unquestionably corrupt and authoritarian, it is in some ways a softer, more haphazard, less self-confident, and more amorphous version of pure Putinism. Its authoritarianism is tempered, at least outwardly, by pseudo-democratic decorum. It is less ideologically militant and more flexible: Earlier attempts to partially exonerate Stalin as a great if flawed leader have been largely abandoned, with both Putin and Medvedev strongly condemning Stalin’s crimes. (An attempt by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov to include posters of Stalin in the Victory Day displays on city streets at the request of war veterans was scuttled after harsh criticism from federal officials and legislators.) In the international arena, the quest to rebuild Russia’s lost empire has been scaled down to scattershot efforts to maintain influence in the “near abroad,” usually with mixed results: While the recent regime change in Kyrgyzstan is likely favorable to Moscow, it has also angered the Kremlin’s unreliable ally Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

Lenin once said that revolutions happen when those at the top are no longer able to keep things going the way they were, and those at the bottom are no longer willing. In today’s Russia, those at the top still manage, however badly, to stay afloat—and those at the bottom may be dissatisfied but are unwilling to demand change. At least for the time being, the Russian bear limps along.

Cathy Young is a columnist for Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason.

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