Archive for June, 2012

The Price of Opposition in Russia

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

At around 7 A.M. on Monday morning, someone rang the door at the Moscow flat of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Navalny and his wife were sound asleep: it was a long holiday weekend celebrating the day, in 1990, when Russia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. So Navalny and his wife kept sleeping, but the doorbell kept ringing. Finally, Julia (his wife) got up to check who was there. She looked through the peephole and saw seven men in uniform. “I thought it was either an arrest or a search, so I turned off the lights—as one does in such situations—and called my lawyer,” Navalny told me later. Then he went to shave, “because you never know when your next shave will be if they arrest you.”

Julia intercepted him in the bathroom with a game-changer: the people outside the door had started an electric saw. “She said, ‘You should probably open the door,’” Navalny recalled.

Seven officers from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation piled into the apartment while two of their colleagues, armed with machine guns, blocked the door to the building outside. (It would take Navalny’s lawyer two hours—and going on Moscow’s most prominent radio station to say he was being blocked from seeing his client—to get into the apartment, something the Investigative Committee quickly denied.)

Upstairs, the investigators read out a search warrant: Navalny was being investigated as a witness in the case that had been opened after the violent clashes between police on protesters on May 6th. He was not a suspect in the case, nor was he charged with anything, which made the aggressive thoroughness of the ensuing search seem rather disproportionate. The investigators took anything electronic or telephonic: every laptop, desktop, iPhone, iPad, e-book, flash drive, D.V.D. player, D.V.D., disk, camera, memory card, and hard drive in the house. They checked the kids’ room and confiscated their laptop and camera. “I said, ‘Why don’t you look at the pictures on the camera? You’ll see they were just taking pictures of each other,’” Navalny said. It didn’t help. They took the kids’ camera, too. And the ten thousand rubles (three hundred dollars) they found.

Investigators also visited the apartment of Julia’s parents, who were not at home and were not even witnesses in the case. Her eighty-five-year-old grandmother was at home, however, but was physically unable to get to the door when the saw started up. “It was a very tense situation,” said Navalny (his wife was on the phone with her grandmother). “We were afraid she would die of the stress.”

After a thirteen-hour search, the apartment looked like a hurricane had hit.

Meanwhile, investigators had also arrived at the apartments of other opposition leaders, including leftist Sergei Udaltsov (scion of a long line of Soviet statesmen), veteran opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and Kseniya Sobchak. Sobchak is a television celebrity who was once Russia’s scandalous “it” girl (its Paris Hilton, if you will), and she went over to the side of the opposition when a wave of protests broke out following the contested December parliamentary election. Since then, she’s dropped one boyfriend—a well-liked functionary in the mayor of Moscow’s culture office—for a more fashionable one: a young, but seasoned, opposition activist named Ilya Yashin … whom they found in Sobchak’s bed. Sobchak, still half-asleep and thinking she was opening the door for her cleaning lady, didn’t even think to check the peephole and so found herself, in only her négligée, facing ten investigators from the committee. (The flat of Yashin’s parents, where Yashin still technically lives, was searched that morning, too. Among the confiscated items: Mrs. Yashin’s recipe book.)

Sobchak fared worse than the Navalnys. Her lawyer was unable to get inside for four hours, and only knew of the proceedings because Sobchak had managed to squirrel a phone away somewhere and send a desperate text to her assistant. “It was ridiculous,” she told me later. “I felt like a spy.” The search went on for nine hours, and, at first, the investigators wouldn’t let Sobchak get dressed. They also wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom alone. “They didn’t have a woman to go with me to the bathroom,” she told the Echo Moskvy radio station. “I had to do it in front of a man in a mask and with a machine gun.”

It’s worth noting here that Sobchak isn’t just your average opposition activist, or even your average Russian starlet. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, was Vladimir Putin’s close friend and mentor. Sobchak is even rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. (Sobchak says that the rumors are false.) Her going over to the opposition, though she carefully avoided direct criticism of her family’s friend, was the ultimate betrayal, and the search—pointless and humiliating—was a clear reprisal. Sobchak told me that she tried to go see Putin in early December in order to explain her reasons, but he wouldn’t see her. Most recently, when the independent television channel Dozhd TV—where Sobchak has a popular interview show—tried to accredit her for the massive St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, she was the only member of the Dozhd crew who was turned down. When pressed, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, is said to have replied that the name “Sobchak” is never to be uttered to him again. (Sobchak wouldn’t comment on this, and Peskov didn’t answer his phone.)

This is also probably why the investigative officer in charge of the group explained to Sobchak that none of this would have happened had she not gotten tangled up with the wrong people; she should have, he said, married “a dependable Chekist”—that is, agent of the secret police—and stayed home and had his babies.

Investigators took not only all of Sobchak’s electronics, but they also opened her safe where they found over a million euros, four hundred and eighty thousand dollars, and about that many rubles. (Sobchak explained the stash on Twitter: “My annual income is over 2 million. If I don’t trust the banks, I don’t have the right to keep money at home?”) The tax bureau has now opened an audit and the Investigative Committee is working out why the money was split up in several different envelopes—the preferred method of handing out cash in Russia. “Some people keep their money in envelopes, some people rubber band it, some people keep it jars, some people make little airplanes out of it,” Sobchak says. “I personally think envelopes are the most convenient way of storing money at home. Why am I obligated to explain this to the whole country?” (Photos of the money, neatly fanned out and next to a ruler for scale—that is, official photographs from the investigation—made it onto the tabloid just hours after investigators left Sobchak’s apartment.)

Investigators also seized her passport, effectively banning her from leaving the country for any reason. So far, both of her petitions—to get back her money and her passport—have been rebuffed. Once a glamorous socialite, now Sobchak says she is broke and has had to borrow money from her mother. “At least they didn’t plant drugs on me,” she says. “I guess I should be thankful for that.”

Like Sobchak, Yashin, Navalny, and the others whose homes were searched on Monday morning were all handed a summons to appear at the offices of the Investigative Committee at 11 A.M. on Tuesday, which was conveniently just an hour before the start of that days’ anti-Putin rally where all of them were supposed to speak. They all showed up, and dutifully answered the same fifty-six questions about who organized the May 6th violence, how it was planned, and who financed it. Sobchak’s interrogators made her read aloud the statement she had prepared with her lawyer—she’d hoped to save time and make it to the rally—frequently asking her to slow down, rewind, and repeat.

“The whole point was to just keep me there the whole day, to keep me from going to the protest,” Navalny said of his time with his interrogators. He had very little to tell them since he’s now been jailed twice for his protest activity, and questioned extensively both times. “They asked, ‘Tell me about your work history since 2005,’” he said. “It was just a million pointless questions. Four hours of them, then a break, then more pointless questions. When they found out that the rally was over, they suddenly lost interest.” Then they took him along while they searched the office of his anti-corruption organization, RosPil. (Navalny was asked to come back again on Wednesday. When he did, he was asked for a handwriting sample, which he refused, citing the fact that he is just a witness in the case.)

The Investigative Committee has thrown over a hundred investigators on the highly-publicized case—twelve comparatively nameless people have already been arrested. According to Navalny, not many of the investigators seem to understand what exactly it is that they’re doing. “I can’t recall criminal investigations like this in Moscow, except for Nord-Ost,” he said, referring to the time, in 2002, when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage inside a Moscow theatre. “And all because one police officer got a black eye on May 6th, for which he was rewarded with an apartment.” (Actually, over a dozen policemen were wounded that day; several have in fact been given apartments for their troubles.)

Why is the state doing this? Yashin has said that he thinks they are ginning up a criminal case against opposition leaders like him. More likely, it is a case of an overzealous machine seeking to please its master. If one reads the tea leaves—and that’s often all one can do in Russia—it is clear that Putin has had enough of the protests. Go out and protest for fair elections, but the elections are now over, and he won. Now it’s time to go home. But people don’t seem interested in that, and both protests, on May 6th and on June 12th, drew tens of thousands of people. (In fact, many of those I spoke to at the protest on Tuesday said that they had planned on skipping the rally but changed their minds when they heard about the searches.)

How to deal with them? Putin is no Assad, and at least so far he has shied away from a real crackdown. But he’s clearly unhappy with the situation and wants it to go away. In a country where the law is not a framework of protections and guarantees but rather an instrument used selectively for taking someone out, it helps when your friends or loyal minions are behind the controls of the legal system. Putin’s friend and classmate Alexander Bastrykin, for example, happens to be the head of the Investigative Committee, the same ostensibly independent government organization that harassed Navalny’s grandmother-in-law and chaperoned Sobchak to the bathroom. (A few hours ago, Bastrykin apologized to the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta for the harsh tone he took with Sergei Sokolov, one of the paper’s reporters. Sokolov had said that Bastrykin invited him on a drive, and then drove him out to the forest, where he proceeded to yell at and threaten him, which Bastrykin denied.) United Russia, the ruling party created to support Putin a decade ago, is doing its part in the Russian parliament: last week, they rammed through a law drastically upping fines and ordering restrictions on protesters and those found violating the peace. The Federation Council—the Russian equivalent of the Senate—was in such a rush to please that it passed the law all of twenty minutes after receiving it from the lower house.

And yet, thankfully, none of these zealous cogs seem ready to go all the way; they seem to pause at the critical moment. Protesters arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg, for instance, were not charged under the new law. And so far, Monday’s searches yielded little more than rattled nerves. Which is not to say that psychological warfare waged by a state against its own citizens is something to discount.

Navalny called me on Wednesday, just after he finished observing the Investigative Committee turn his office inside-out. He was his standard cheery, sarcastic self: the image he cultivates is of a fighter for truth who fears nothing. And yet even he was unsettled by Monday’s experience—despite having fought state abuses for a decade and having dealt with various reprisals, including a flimsy criminal case and two jail terms. “It’s very unpleasant,” he said, hinting obliquely that his wife’s nerves didn’t fare as well as his own. “Even if you’re ready for it, even if you know it’s coming, you can never be one hundred percent ready. It’s very stupid and infuriating because you know it’s stupid and yet you can’t do anything to stop it.”

Sobchak, on the other hand, is new to the game. She has been involved in Russian politics for only six months, and even if she saw it from backstage as the daughter of Putin’s mentor, she has yet to develop Navalny’s thick skin, the kind you need if you are going to become an enemy of the state. On Tuesday, the day after a humiliating and financially ruinous nine-hour search—and after six hours of questioning—she gave an interview to Echo Moskvy. “You know, it’s a nasty feeling when a strong person like me—and I’m a fighter—when you suddenly sit down and realize that your hands are shaking,” she said. “Yesterday, my hands were shaking because it’s the feeling that you can’t do anything, that these people who are walking around your apartment, that they can do whatever they want.”

The Price of Opposition in Russia [TNY]

Powder Keg

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow’s imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city’s Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.

And so, on the eve of Tuesday’s anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. “This time I expect to be bad,” she said. “So I’m sure it will be like Hair!”

Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they’d like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.

Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today’s rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today’s march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?

Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday’s estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting “like minds” into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called “After Putin.”

But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an “after” era. This week’s Gestapo-like searches — which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of — showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn’t seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. (“The government is a little confused. What are they against?” United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. “During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?”) The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.

“They’re trial runs,” said Duma opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov, who has been active in the protests — and is losing his private security business as a result. “Let’s see what happens if we do this, or if we do that, or if we go there. They’re looking to see what the reaction will be.” (Gudkov, a former colonel in Soviet counterintelligence, seems to recognize these tactics from his KGB days.)

So what next? Last month, after the peaceful May 6 rally descended into violence — for which arrests continue — I wrote that we were about to see a radicalization of the protests. Yet even after a month of events that should have moved the protests in this direction — the arrests of people for wearing protest symbols, the rushing through of the anti-protest law, the quiet scrubbing down of media outlets of some of its more independent voices, the searches — Tuesday’s events did not bear me out. Does that mean that the protest movement won’t become radicalized in the future? I can’t say for sure, but all the factors for it are still there: an opposition with no access to a system that shows no sign of letting them, or of giving an inch. Historically, such set-ups have not ended well in Russia, whether for the system, the opposition, or the population at large. Moreover, if Gudkov is right and these are merely half-hearted trial balloons, what happens if the Kremlin really puts its all into something that looks like the Iranian response to the pro-democracy “green” movement of 2009? Will the opposition radicalize then?

There is also the economic factor to consider. The Russian economy is currently growing at a relatively healthy 3.5 percent, but it’s useful to recall the whopping growth rates Russia was posting just a few years ago. In 2007, the year before the world financial crisis hit Russia, Russia’s GDP growth topped 8 percent. It had been growing at that pace, buoyed by soaring commodity prices, for almost a decade, and it was not accidental that this was the decade in which Putin made his pact with the people: You get financial and consumer comforts, and we get political power. It’s hard to maintain such a pact when the goodies stop flowing.

Which brings us to the looming issue of the Russian budget deficit. To keep the people happy and out of politics, the Russian government has promised a lot of things to a lot of people. (Putin’s campaign promises alone are estimated by the Russian Central Bank to cost at least $170 billion.) To balance its budget with such magnanimity, Russia needs high oil prices, to the point where last month, the Ministry of Economic Development announced that an $80 barrel of oil would be a “crisis.” Keeping in mind that oil is now about $98 a barrel, and that Russia used to be able to balance its budgets just fine with oil at a fraction of the price, this doesn’t look too good for Putin. Factor in the worsening European crisis — Europe is still Russia’s biggest energy customer — and the fact that the state has put off unpopular but increasingly necessary reforms, like raising utility prices, and you find yourself looking at a powder keg.

“It’s not too late to save the situation, but I fear that by the fall, it will be too late,” Gudkov told me Tuesday afternoon as we moved with the throng. “Because by the fall, people will join who are not just concerned with politics, but people who have economic concerns. And it will be a rougher, tougher protest because the people who will join the protest are people who are less educated, less well-off, less informed. And they are people who don’t have a good understanding of the law and why it’s important to obey it.” That is, should an economic and budgetary crisis hit and have a tangible and extended impact on Russians outside the Moscow middle class, the resulting populist protests could swallow up this liberal, bourgeois festival of the past six months. And, though predicting things in Russia is a fool’s game, it never hurts to be a pessimist.

Powder Keg [FP]

“Boris Gudnov” in St. Petersburg

Monday, June 4th, 2012

A few hours before curtain call last Friday at St. Petersburg’s famous Mariinsky Theatre, a Moscow photographer named Rustem Adagamov posted an entry on his blog that caused a sensation. Adagamov had been sitting in on the dress rehearsal of the Mariinsky’s new production of the classic Russian opera “Boris Godunov,” and the pictures he took shot through the Russian blogosphere: they showed riot police on stage beating protestors; the words “The people want change!” grafittied onto a wall that looks much like the inside of the Russian parliament; and chorus singers who appeared to have waltzed in from the Occupy camps that were pitched around Moscow in the past couple of weeks.

The Mariinsky, whose conductor and artistic director, Valery Gergiev, is close with Vladimir Putin, seemed to have become the latest unexpected staging ground of the anti-Kremlin protests that have seized Moscow since the disputed parliamentary elections in early December. Liberal bloggers expressed elation and surprise, and the production quickly became the talk of both cities. “All of Petersburg is waiting!” wrote one commenter on Adagamov’s blog. “We’re waiting for it as if it were a miracle!” And many Muscovites wrung their hands, wishing they could flock to the Mariinsky to see the sadistic behavior of the riot police they had witnessed on their streets enacted on the stage of one of the most famous theatres in the world.

Intrigued by Adagamov’s photographs and the voluptuous praise for the production, I jumped on a plane the next morning to catch the second day of the première. Turns out, I could’ve saved myself the trouble.

Written between 1868 and 1873, Modest Mussorgsky’s opera is based on a long poem by Alexander Pushkin about Boris Godunov, who ruled first as regent for Ivan the Terrible’s mentally retarded son Fyodor, and then as Tsar, from 1598 to 1605. Because Godunov was not from Ivan the Terrible’s Rurik dynasty, his hold on power was tenuous. It didn’t help that he was suspected of having murdered his rival for the throne, Ivan the Terrible’s other son and potential heir, the seven-year-old Dmitri. On top of this, his reign coincided with an economic and national-security crisis, to which Godunov responded by tightening the screws. Eventually, a young man claiming to be the slain prince Dmitri led a rebellion of the poor, hungry, and disaffected. With the sudden death of Godunov, in 1605, Moscow was opened to the “false Dmitri.”

The opera, which hews fairly closely to the facts of this historical saga, would seem to provide a rich vein of symbolism: four hundred and seven years later, Russia again faces economic trouble, social unrest, and a ruler whose legitimacy is being vigorously questioned. Indeed, the winter’s protests, which the “Godunov” production is clearly referring to, quickly turned on Putin himself: in March he was elected to his third presidential term, never having gone away when his second term ended in 2008. (Putin seemed very much the regent for the weak and comical figure of Dmitry Medvedev.) In fact, the opera, which premièred at the Mariinsky a hundred and thirty-eight years ago, was always seen as a political opera. Royal censors first banned, then heavily edited it, in part because of an imperial edict banning the portrayal of the Tsar onstage.

And yet, this production of “Boris Godunov” fell absolutely flat. The director, Graham Vick, who is British, tried so hard to squeeze the opera into the outlines of today’s political situation that he lost the plot entirely. There were certainly political parallels he could have played with: Able but vaguely illegitimate ruler? Check. Popular unrest? Sure. But who, for example, is the haunted Boris Godunov supposed to be? If he’s Putin, then whom did Putin kill to get the throne? And why is he kicking a huge gilded Soviet crest lying on the ground at the beginning of the opera? Is it because it’s actually Boris Yeltsin, who toppled the Soviet Union? Whom did he kill? Who is this false Dmitri? The anti-Putin protests have yet to find a real leader. And yes, it could have been powerful to watch riot police in their trademark blue fatigues bringing down a shower of nightsticks on singing protesters. But why are these protesters begging for bread, when the core of the Moscow protesters are white collar and upper-middle-class? And why did even the gratuitous violence of the police, which should have rung so true, feel so emotionally empty?

First, the production was hobbled from the get-go by the hype surrounding it, which was mostly generated by those involved with the Moscow protest movement, who are eager to see signs that their rebellion is echoing anywhere outside their relatively small circle. But it also seemed to me that Vick, as a foreigner, simply didn’t understand the nuanced political situation he was trying to stage. (He declined to talk to me for this piece.) I often find this explanation odious, but in this case it seems particularly apt: a lefty baby-boomer—he was described in the playbill as “a socialist, a philosophical communist”—he arrived in Russia amid unprecedented social unrest and projected onto the situation the clichés he has likely heard in the West, clichés culminating in the image of Putin as the slayer of children. The Moscow protests, viewed from abroad, have often been erroneously compared to Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. Vick seemed to fall prey to similarly pat—and therefore misleading—stereotypes. A particularly cloying touch was the out-of-nowhere parade of fur-clad wives of state dignitaries sashaying haughtily past the protesters.

In the ruckus surrounding the Mariinsky production of “Boris Godunov,” Russians seem to have forgotten that the subject of protest has been taken on by some of the most prominent Moscow theatres for years. Many provocative productions have been staged by a young, punkish director named Kirill Serebrennikov. His latest, a production of “The Golden Cockerel,” at the Bolshoi, mocks a king’s coronation (which for a while become the byword for Putin’s recent inauguration), as well as the now annual and highly ridiculous Victory Day parade that clogs Moscow every May 9th with tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles in a feeble show of aggressive insecurity.

I recently saw Serebrennikov’s production of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” at the Moscow Art Theater, which was founded by Stanislavski and Chekhov shortly before the Revolution. There, in the final act, hungry and wretched crowds gather, and the London police worry that these malcontents will sully the Queen’s upcoming coronation. The Queen, they tell the ringleaders, wants to roll through empty streets. The line instantly generated applause: On May 7th, the day Putin became President for a third time, his black limousine rolled through streets so deserted that some commentators said it looked like a neutron bomb had gone off in Moscow. All the streets even remotely near his route had been cordoned off, and people trying to get close were instantly arrested.

But here’s the rub: Serebrennikov staged “Threepenny Opera,” a Marxist critique of the corruption of Western Europe (it premiéred in 1927), in 2009, when protests and coronation-inaugurations were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Back then, Muscovites talked about modernizing a stagnating state—and about Apple products. It was a subtle, masterfully clairvoyant touch. (A bum holding a sign that says, “We demand a fair coronation!” seems to be a later addition for the new production; “We demand fair elections!” has been a rallying cry for the protests. Even this, however, was so subtle as to be a satisfying surprise when you spotted the sign in the thicket of them on the stage.)

Serebrennikov’s approach is also more powerful because it is in the best Russian traditions of political satire and subtle mockery of the powerful—summed up by a phrase which translates to English as “middle finger in the pocket,” the rough equivalent of flipping people the bird as soon as they turn their back. It’s a satire that’s masked by necessity, but it’s also one that Russian audiences, steeped in the satirical literary canon, will recognize immediately.

In a recent interview with Moscow’s Rain TV, Serebrennikov said that he couldn’t avoid talking about politics because that was all anyone was talking about. Perhaps because he is so attuned to the atmosphere of political obsession among the cultural élites of Moscow, Serbrennikov knew that he didn’t have to march riot police onstage or have anyone beaten for the audience to pick up on his planted references. He knew that they wouldn’t miss his furtive wink, the middle finger in his pocket.

“Boris Gudnov” in St. Petersburg [TNY]

Russia’s Syrian Excuse

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Shortly after the world found out about the massacre in Houla, Syria, in which more than a hundred civilians, including dozens of children, were killed, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met in Moscow with his British counterpart, William Hague. At the press conference afterward, the two spoke of a “constructive” meeting, but everything about the event indicated otherwise. According to reporters there, the atmosphere was tense, and Lavrov, the tanned and smarmy face of Russian diplomacy, was in fine form. He spoke, on one hand, of avoiding “all-out civil war and collapse” in Syria, but he also talked of shadowy foreign (read: American) interference. He also dropped some characteristically colorful quotes: “It takes two to dance—though this seems less like a tango and more like a disco where several dozens are taking part.”

More than anything, though, Lavrov insisted on towing the Syrian government line, suggesting that who had killed all those women and children was far from clear, since some died by artillery—which only the Syrian government has—and others execution-style. Who could have done that? “We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent citizens,” Lavrov said, contradicting the accounts of witnesses who blamed government forces and paramilitaries. He added, “Guilt must be decided objectively.”

Insisting on “objectivity” has become a favorite Kremlin weapon against outside criticism. Blaming the West, pointing out its flaws (the famous tactic known as “whataboutism”), searching for elaborate cabals behind even the fairly obvious—all of these are tried-and-true tactics, but, in recent years, “objectivity” has joined them. Russia Today, the Kremlin-financed English-language news channel, for example, operates under the slogan “Question more.” It is an admirable motto for any news organization, but in this case it is a bit like Fox’s claim of being “fair and balanced.” Consider an infamous advertising campaign that RT ran in the U.S. and England, in 2009, superimposing symbols that were seemingly diametrically opposed to each other, and then asking a rhetorical question that equated them. One blurred together the faces of Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?”

It’s a clever device, substituting counteritutiveness for objectivity, and it’s something one encounters a lot in conversations in Russia, a hairy land of slippery facts where Occam’s Razor doesn’t stand a chance. What happens if you turn X upside-down, and discover it’s actually a Q? The problem, of course, is that Q may not really be the answer, and that you end up in a small epistemological hell. But it certainly makes for good rhetorical theatre.

More often than not, however, it’s used, especially in the hands of Kremlin officials and the state press, as Russia’s answer to Western moralizing. When an international crisis strikes, leaning on “objectivity” allows Russia to present itself as the parent in a room of screaming, disoriented children. In fairness, Russia has had some wins; the Russian government appealed to objectivity of evidence in the runup to the Iraq War, and they were right: perhaps the Americans should have paused and taken a couple of deep breaths. “I like being counterintuitive,” Russia Today host Peter Lavelle told me a couple years ago. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”

For the sake of objectivity, however, we can’t lose sight of the fact none of this is being done for the sake of objectivity. One of the favorite refrains of Russia Today and other Kremlin apologists is that journalists, as fallible human beings, cannot be truly objective, and that objectivity itself is an artificial construct. (How’s that for objectivity?)

This posture is a defense tactic, the Kremlin’s way of adapting to a new post-Cold War geopolitical reality. “Whataboutism” was a popular tactic even back in Soviet days, for example, but objectivity wasn’t. It’s new. Why? Because “there was no pretense of cooperation,” Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says. “We were usually fighting each other in these proxy wars, in Nicaragua, for example. Before, it was a struggle of good and evil, whereas now it’s become a very nebulous thing. It’s no longer a cold war because we don’t have clear ideological markers that separate us”—both countries are, on paper, free-market democracies—“but we”—the Russians—“think that you’re using human rights to achieve your own geopolitical aims.” And so we appeal to objectivity, if there even is such a thing.

And so, when it comes to Syria, much as when it came to Libya, the answer is, Let’s all calm down and recognize that there are no saints here—and therefore no villains. “We need to choose—if the priority is to stop the violence, as everyone says, then we need to pressure the regime and the opposition and get them to stop shooting at each other and sit down at the negotiating table,” Lavrov said on Monday.

But this is a stalling technique, and stalling in such times can be quite dangerous. “The longer the Russians insist on waiting, the more likely it is that the Syrian opposition becomes the very radicals the Russians are warning against,” one Western diplomat told me this winter, a sentiment echoed in today’s statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Pointing to its notion of objectivity, Russia has stuck firmly to the Annan plan, which calls for observers and negotiations, for government troops to pull back, and for rebels to lay down their arms. But it has clearly become moot if—it was ever really workable. “It’s a very convenient position,” Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the Institute of International Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Science, says.

And what, objectively, is Russia’s interest here? According to Mirsky, the issue isn’t the Russian Navy port at Tartus, or even the arms sales to Assad—which, by the way, have not stopped—or even Russian Orthodox support of Syrian Christians. The issue is an appearance of strength and independence. “If Putin shows weakness on Syria, it will look like what happened with Libya,” Mirsky says, referring to last spring, when the Russians abstained from the Security Council vote authorizing intervention, rather than vetoing it. “And what it looked like at home was that [then President Dmitry] Medvedev surrendered Qaddafi. The Russian people didn’t know who or what Qaddafi was, but as soon as the American bombing started, given the anti-Americanism that exists in our country, Qaddafi became our man. And Medvedev surrendered him to the West.”

Putin, Mirsky argues, doesn’t need this. The current stance allows Russia to project an image of real concern for everyone’s human rights and safety, but if things—the Annan plan, the Assad regime—fall apart, objectivity becomes convenient in that it also absolves the Russians of any responsibility. The Annan plan didn’t work out? Too bad, that. Assad was toppled by an armed uprising? Well, we tried. For Putin, Mirsky says, “it’s better for Assad to hold on to the end, even if he loses. Because at least it will be clear that our government doesn’t follow the Western marching orders, that we are a sovereign superpower whose opinion is listened to, that Putin won’t follow American commands to follow the policies that America needs.” Meanwhile, objectively, the killing continues.

Russia’s Syrian Excuse [TNY]