Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Disaster Politics

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

MOSCOW — On Saturday afternoon, Vladimir Putin announced that he would finally sync reality with formality and become Russia’s actual president yet again. Once the initial sting wore off — Putin seems on track to rule as long as Stalin — cooler heads began to prevail. This will bring clarity and end the schizophrenia of the tandem contradicting itself, the thinking went. Putin was talking like he understood reform was necessary — and even doubters had to admit that he was the only person with the political capital to accomplish it.

Just two days later, however, the ground shifted yet again. Dmitry Medvedev, coming off a couple of really bad days, very publicly fired the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin: perhaps the one person in the Russian government whom Western investors see as credible, the one who saved Russia when the bottom dropped out in 2008, the one holding the Russian government back by the scruff of the neck from total economic disaster. Kudrin’s abrupt firing stunned everyone and completely destroyed the thesis that Putin’s announcement would calm down Russia and its uneasy economy. Everyone knew there were power struggles going on behind the curtain, but rarely have there been so many elbows and knees jutting through, and, in recent weeks, actual people flying out.

What is going on? In short, no one really knows. But one thing is clear: Putin’s return is not going to usher in a new reign of stability. If anything, the system is as unstable as it’s ever been, and no one can tell when — or into what form — it will settle. And with the country’s most competent economic official heading for the door while Russia stares down the barrel of another massive recession, it’s probably not going to be anything good.

After Putin’s surprise announcement on Saturday, everyone was asking: Why so soon? The substance of the announcement, of course, surprised almost no one. It’s been clear for months that Putin was positioning himself, via motorcycle gangs and half-naked girls, for a comeback. But the timing was shocking. Going into the United Russia party congress, the conventional wisdom was that nothing about the presidency would be announced. It was too soon to hobble Medvedev, too soon to end the intrigue that only reinforces Putin’s position as the country’s arch arbiter. If you recall, last time around this announcement came in December; so why September, a full six months before the presidential elections? One explanation is the impatience of elites, evidenced by a growing unrest in the system that culminated with the implosion of the Right Cause project less than two weeks ago: Mikhail Prokhorov, the Kremlin-curated party’s leader, bucked control and publicly slammed the very secretive curator of Russian politics, its eminence gris: Vladislav Surkov. It was a major, messy fail for the Kremlin, and it deepened the sense that the system has ossified to the point of inoperability.

The other, perhaps more urgent, explanation is the impatience of the market. At least $50 billion have leaked out of Russia this year. That’s just one of many miserable economic indicators that point to big trouble ahead: the ruble at a two-year low, sliding domestic stock indexes, a budget that could barely be balanced even if oil were still at $116 a barrel (today, it’s $107). Siberian oil fields are in decline, it’ll be decades before Arctic drilling comes online, and the center of world oil production is shifting increasingly to the Americas. Then there’s the looming economic crisis in Europe scraping at the door. None of it, frankly, looks very good.

So Putin’s goal on Saturday may have been to step in and put a firm hand on the wheel, to assure everyone that the system was in fact functional at such a sensitive moment. The day before, behind the scenes of the first day of the convention, one of his strategists told a European news channel, “It’s not the time to experiment with big political change in times of such economic uncertainty.” Putin’s return for, potentially, 12 years was supposed to signal an end to talk of such an experiment. The speeches he made at the conference — including the one about government’s duty to give “bitter medicine” — were supposed to reassure foreign investors that he would implement urgent reforms. (Or, as the famous Kremlinologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told me the other day, “Modernize or die.”)

And for a day or so, this strategy seemed to be working. People spoke of clarity, of stability, of concrete reforms. “Putin is a person of balance; he is constantly balancing the conservative with the liberal,” said Kryshtanovskaya. (Putin is, in fact, a Libra.)

“During [Putin’s] first two terms, there was so much money that the feeling was, why do you need anything like political parties?” Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, told me after Putin’s speech. “Now the situation is more complex and the system has to become more complex to accommodate it, and Putin can do it more effectively. And when the system lines up under him, you get rid of the complexity and decoration that was making it ineffective.”

The Kudrin fracas completely turned this notion on its head. On Sunday morning, Moscow awoke to the news that Kudrin, in Washington at the time, had already started fulminating against the swap, which would make Medvedev his new boss instead of Putin. “I do not see myself in a new government,” Kudrin said to reporters. “The point is not that nobody has offered me the job; I think that the disagreements I have [with Medvedev] will not allow me to join this government.” On Monday, before a meeting of the Kremlin’s Modernization Committee, Medvedev — who had long clashed with Kudrin on budget issues, particularly increased military spending, which Kudrin has been staunchly against for years — awkwardly, angrily read out a nasty pink slip from his iPad screen.

Kudrin’s departure set off a new round of conspiracy-theory-spinning (was he just trying to swipe at Medvedev for taking a job many thought would be his? Was this a long-term strategy to become head of Russia’s central bank?), until Tuesday night when he issued a new and more broadly explanatory statement to the press. He revealed that his kamikaze statement in Washington had been carefully considered. He also admitted that, due to his long-running fiscal conflict with the Kremlin, he had handed in his resignation to Putin back in February. Putin rejected it, telling Kudrin he was needed for the election season.

So, basically, Kudrin left when he felt the election season was over: the day Putin announced his return. “On September 24, the power structure in our country was determined for a long time to come,” Kudrin wrote. “And I determined things for myself, too, after explaining my position.” What was his position? “Over the course of several months, despite my numerous — and public — objections, there were decisions made vis-a-vis the budget that, without a doubt, increased the risk to the budget,” Kudrin wrote. These, he added, would then spread to the rest of the domestic economy.

The whole situation, it turns out, was far simpler than anyone had thought: Kudrin was just fed up and, quite likely, did not want to be held responsible for a policy he couldn’t control, especially on the eve of another economic meltdown. Kremlinology had become its own obfuscation. And now it looks like we’re set to miss the biggest story in many, many years: The rigid system is teetering, and its key components are breaking down. Oil money is running out, the economy is sputtering, social discontent is growing, all of the massive problems that the Kremlin first threw money at and then ignored in favor of pointless political intrigue are coming home to roost. And the charades that the Kremlin used to be so skilled at pulling off in order to release political pressure are now falling flat because very senior-level participants are, essentially, defecting. There have been two such implosions in the last 10 days and, given the fact that they’ve only made the system more untenable for those who remain, there’s no reason that they’ll stop.

Things are eerily simple this time around because things are eerily grim.

As for why Medvedev had to fire Kudrin even though Kudrin has publicly criticized him before, that’s simple, too. Kudrin — probably intentionally — hit Medvedev at his weakest moment, which is why much of Medvedev’s rant was about the fact that “No one has abolished discipline and subordination.”

“Anyone who doubts the course of the president or the government can openly appeal to me with a proposal,” Medvedev went on. “But I will put an end to any irresponsible chatter — up until May 7,” he said, referring to his last day in office.

In the meantime, everything’s still more unstable than ever. Today came the news that the number of Russians living below the poverty line increased by over 10 percent in just the first half of this year. And Kudrin is still out of a job: evicted from his official dacha, a photo of his boxed-up office surfacing on Twitter.

While Kudrin packed his things, Medvedev was in Cheliabinsk, watching a military training exercise. Military spending, he said afterward, would always “be the government’s highest priority…. Whoever doesn’t agree with this can go work somewhere else. That’s an order!” And so Kudrin did, perhaps because he discovered that there’s only so much you can do to save a sinking ship, no matter how many guns it has.

Disaster Politics [FP]

The Return of the King

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Back in December 2007, with his second presidential term running out, Vladimir Putin decided not to violate the letter of the Russian constitution. Instead, he chose to step down, become prime minister, and nominate one of his old St. Petersburg buddies, an aide named Dmitry Medvedev, for president. Back then, a good joke started to make the rounds: Russia, 2023. Putin and Medvedev are sitting in one of their kitchens, drinking and shooting the breeze. “Listen,” slurs Putin. “I’ve lost track again. Which one of us is prime minister, and which is president?”

“You’re the president now, I think,” slurs Medvedev.

“Well,” slurs Putin, “then it’s your turn to go and get more beer.”

It was a prophetic joke, and one that turned out to be all too accurate Saturday, when Medvedev announced the latest switch: Putin will return to the presidency in next year’s election and Medvedev will take up the prime minister’s post. And yet the joke was somehow lost on us over the last four years as we (rightly) let other debates get in the way, from the long silly distraction of wondering who was actually in charge (answer: Putin, of course) to the disputes over whether to believe Medvedev’s talk of modernization. Even despite these last few months, when it became clear that Putin would come back, we managed to be surprised all over again when it actually happened.

“It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, the Kommersant journalist who, in his intimate chronicles of Putin, has become the man’s hagiographer. We were standing in the press section of the grandstands at the convention for the United Russia ruling party, looking down on the swarm of thousands of delegates filing their paper ballots in unanimous support of Putin’s party platform.

“We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious,” he said. “It’d be nice to have some actual surprises because the situation is just so stable” — Putin’s watchword — “that when they made the announcement, I got really sleepy. Really. Because this is for keeps.”

While Kolesnikov drifted off, the Twittering masses of Russia were either euphoric or in despair, depending on their political leanings. The despairing liberals, a dwindling crowd after two decades of dashed post-Soviet hopes, were utterly winded and deflated. Why does God hate Russia, one asked. And then everyone started doing the math: How old would we be when Putin finally leaves office in 2024 (a date that supposes he serves two more consecutive terms, which were extended to six years back in 2008)? Russia’s digital airwaves quickly filled with a younger generation bemoaning their lost youth: Many of them will be pushing 40 by then, and they’ve already spent their last 12 years under his watch.

“When Putin finishes his second six-year term, I’ll already be 58,” one older blogger wrote. “Almost my entire life will have been spent with him.” He punctuated this with a frown.

But Kolesnikov, at least, was still seeing a glimmer of opportunity in this latest Kremlin machination. “I hope we’ll see a new Putin, this is my only hope,” he told me, “because the earlier iterations have exhausted themselves.”

In 2000, he and two other journalists (one of whom later became Medvedev’s press secretary) authored a book called In the First Person, an as-told-to account from Putin of his life. At the time, Putin was a little-known former KGB agent newly installed in the presidency by an ailing Boris Yeltsin; though obscure, Putin from the start talked of his plans to restore Russian pride after a post-superpower decade of economic collapse and political intrigue. Periodically, Kolesnikov said, he goes back and reads certain sections and is amazed to see how prophetic it all was, how much of what Putin promised back then he’s since delivered. “Even the idea of monarchy,” Kolesnikov noted. “He said that, it may sound weird, but the idea of monarchy is appealing to me because a monarch doesn’t have to worry about elections and can focus on the well-being of his subjects, so it’s not such a bad idea.” And even this idea, Kolesnikov noted, “is being realized.”

No doubt the fact that Russia is staring down another looming economic crisis makes this return — to the presidency or monarchy or whatever we call it — rather problematic. The ruble dropped precipitously this week, and Putin and his finance minister have been squabbling in public in recent days over whether the state can deliver on its mounting social obligations without increasing taxes, or fomenting social unrest. Then again, given Putin’s predilection for talking tough but not necessarily doing much, not to mention the fact that many of Russia’s current problems — corruption, cronyism, Byzantine politics — were cemented into place during his reign, it seems the course he’s choosing is to plow ahead and change as little as possible. Which, if you think about it, is a rather bold move, too.

“Putin is a very talented politician,” said Aleksei Chesnakov, a United Russia official who was one of Putin’s key strategists during his first two terms. “He never repeats himself and yet always remains himself. A politician’s style is set early and forever, and his style, his manner of making decisions are well-known, and they will remain the same.” Chesnakov assured me, however, that “Putin has always been a keenly responsive politician” who will continue to adapt to conditions as they develop. (“The child hasn’t been conceived yet, and you’re asking if it’ll be a great mathematician,” he told me, when I pressed him on what we can expect from the new Putin epoch.)

That remains to be seen. For now, though, Kolesnikov’s monarchy thesis — which, by the way, has more than a few supporters among the Russian elite — seems to be coming to pass, but with more subtlety than the name would suggest. Russia has shed its still-new adornments of modernity and is once again coming out as a deeply conservative government based on personal ties.

“On one hand, it’s a good thing because any ambiguity has now been removed,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, referring to the “whither Putin, whither Medvedev” schizophrenia of the last four years. (This, by the way, will also make American foreign policy easier: just one man to deal with.) “On the other hand,” she points out, “for everyone who has been thinking and writing about political modernization in Russia, the hope of this happening has been definitively negated.” That is, even though few ever really believed Medvedev had the power to modernize without Putin, there was a hope that his installation in the Kremlin was the trial balloon for loosening the reins. Apparently, the balloon has burst.

But that leaves more questions than answers. Why has it failed? How has Medvedev failed, if he was acting the entire time with Putin’s approval? Why will he be more effective as prime minister than as president? Neither the president nor the prime minister — match the names to the titles as you see fit — explained this in their speeches on Saturday, perhaps because the answer is obvious and yet cannot be uttered in polite company.

Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin get elected in 2000 and who was an advisor to Medvedev until he was fired in May, had another question. “Medvedev never planned to say no to a candidacy for a second term,” Pavlovsky told me. “What happened? Was he pressured? Did they make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? He didn’t explain his refusal in any way.” The explanation, from where I sit, lies in that joke from late 2007, and in past columns I’ve written here: Medvedev, despite his haggard, emotional appearance at the United Russia convention Saturday, has always known that it was not his decision to make. And that once Putin made the decision, he could do nothing but accept it. That was the bargain he struck in 2007, a bargain that would be hard to call Faustian: The end was clear from the beginning.

So what will happen now that the end and beginning are one? Some are predicting a new wave of immigration — or a class of dual-citizenship holders — for those who had other things in mind for the next 12 years. Others see Medvedev, as prime minister, shouldering the blame for the next wave of economic crisis. (“Prime ministers are easy to replace,” notes Lipman.) Still others see Putin steering the ship of state for a few more years and stepping down early. But Kolesnikov sees 12 more years for Putin, “because it’s the first version” again. Pavlovsky, though, sees altogether different man: “The Putin of 2000 was a politician I loved, but that Putin is dead,” he says. “And the Putin of 2007 is gone. Today’s Putin is a zombie.”
What’s certain, however, is that the office of president — buttressed as it was by the degradation of every other institution over the last decade — has lost quite a bit of its legitimacy. And United Russia, created a decade ago to be the country’s new ruling party, has apparently been dealt a body blow. It’s being slowly swallowed up by the nebula that is a new entity set up by Putin known as the National People’s Front, while United Russia will now be led through the parliamentary elections by Medvedev, a man who was just publicly stripped of his scepter. That may be good news for people who see United Russia as the Party of Crooks and Thieves, but where does that leave Russia? “I think we’ll see a decline in the authority of the government, people will see it as silly, as odious,” says Pavlovsky, “and power will have to lean increasingly on those who depend on it for wealth, for status. That’s not a healthy scenario, but it will be with us for a long time.”

Which is perhaps why so much alcohol was traded hands via Twitter in the aftermath of Saturday’s big announcement. Someone lost a couple beers on their presidential bet, others won cases of cognac. I won a bottle of Hennessy. Others just wanted to get to drinking away their shock at suddenly facing what’s been hidden in plain sight these four years. At the very least, it might pleasantly confuse them about where the rotating door might spin in the future.

The Return of the King FP]

The Kremlin’s Spin Machine … and Me

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

MOSCOW — I’d never been in a green room before, especially not one with ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky sucking up all the air in it. Yet there he stood in a blue suit, surrounded by concentric rings of advisors, assistants, and supporters. Producers and hosts ran around with clipboards. Billionaire and budding politician Mikhail Prokhorov sat nervously on a couch as his publicist prattled on next to him. Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russia Today network, was getting her make-up done; the leader of the ousted liberal party Yabloko stalked about gloomily. Two higher-ups from the ruling United Russia party checked their watches; the deputy head of the Communists sparkled in a shiny suit and a flawless coiffure. And then there was me, lightly dusted with powder, standing a careful few feet away from the refreshments table with its sweating cold cuts, unpeeled banana halves, and Hennessy.

Earlier that week, the hosts of the political talk show “NTV-shniki” (or “NTV-ers”) had invited me to appear along with the leaders of Russia’s main political parties and some Russian journalists to kick off the political season by asking the politicians some questions. Given the degree of state control over Russian television — “NTV-shniki” appears on the Gazprom-owned NTV channel — I was wary of participating: Would I be edited out of the final show unless I asked softball questions? Would I be, as one Russian friend warned me, “legitimizing their charade”? “Don’t be shy,” one of the producers told me a couple of days before the show. “Be provocative!” She added that Simonyan wanted to prod Prokhorov on his alleged dalliances.

In the end, I agreed. There hadn’t been anything like this for a while. It promised to be, at the very least, interesting. “Today, on our show, we have something we haven’t had in about 10 years,” Anton Khrekov, the main host, intoned when the cameras started rolling. “The leaders of the biggest registered parties will meet in one place to participate in an open political discussion.” What, I wondered, would that look like in Putin’s Russia, where TV politics are drab and dully loyal? Would they pull it off?

The first question, from Khrekov, was not one you hear too often on Russian television.

“Why are your parties participating in these elections if the count is dishonest, if the election is dishonest?” he asked. “Aren’t you just aiding those who have orchestrated this buffoonery?”

His colleagues weren’t much gentler. When Vladimir Kashin, the Communist, started alluding to thieves and “corruptioneers,” one of the hosts, Anton Krasovsky, started to press Kashin: “Who?” he asked. “Who? Name one name.” (Kashin didn’t.) They went after the Communists for glorifying Stalin — “How many people would your leader sacrifice to build the Belomor Canal? 500,000?” — and for being the Kremlin’s lapdog: “Your leader … meets with the president, discusses with him nuances of internal politics,” one of the hosts asked. “How come Comrade Lenin didn’t meet with Nicholas II to discuss with him the reform of the country?”

They went after Yabloko for scuttling every liberal coalition, Zhirinovsky for selling his party’s votes in the legislature. (At this, Zhirinovsky stood up and hurled his clip-on mic to the floor. “Enough lying!” he bellowed as it exploded into its separate components.) The hosts even went after United Russia for campaign posters in Novosibirsk that implied that federal funds spent on road repair in the region were a gift from the party. (Andrey Isaev, the bigwig representing United Russia at the debate, did not see a problem with this.)

After the hosts took their shots, it came time for some “famous” callers and their questions. There was a question beamed in from Oleg Kashin, the journalist brutally beaten last fall. He asked why the most common prompt in Russian Google when one searches for “party” is “party of crooks and thieves,” a prevalent Internet meme referring to the increasingly unpopular United Russia. Isaev said that it was clear that this was the work of a focused campaign funded by the West. (The hosts laughed him down.) Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who fled to London when a corporate raid possibly backed by the Internal Ministry threatened to turn him into another Mikhail Khodorkovsky, called in a question from his safe haven: “Should Putin go, yes or no?”

I list the questions because the answers were hard to parse, mostly because there were usually several politicians screaming their responses at the same time, sometimes while grabbing at each other’s arms. Zhirinovsky in particular made sure to interrupt everyone, waving his arms and roaring with the slight slur of the embarrassing uncle who gets a little too drunk at family events. The edited, polished version of the show, which aired on Sunday night, conveyed some of this chaos. But in the studio, it was far, far worse. The only way to shut up the screaming politicians was for the hosts to yell “Applause!” and the crowd — young supporters bused in by the parties — would drown out the brouhaha among their leaders. Prokhorov tried to distance himself from the fray as much as he could, saying, “When I was little, my parents used to take me to the circus. It was a lot like this.”

Back when the now exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky built NTV in the 1990s, it was usually the fiercest critic of the Kremlin and of the first war in Chechnya. It hosted the most popular satirical program of the day, Victor Shenderovich’s Puppets. When Putin took control of the channel, in 2001, it marked a watershed moment in the new president’s rise. It was also a body blow to a once thriving and unruly Russian media. (This year, the 10th anniversary of the takeover was a major topic of discussion.) After NTV, the rest of the stations fell like dominoes and the Kremlin came to own television, which has remained the main source of information — really, about anything — for most Russians. Across all channels, political content became staid and formulaic.

But the Kremlin isn’t stupid, and it isn’t always ham-fisted. The rising tide of discontent in Russia’s middle class and urban elite is obvious. It’s what created the need for Prokhorov’s new political party, the first time since Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest that an oligarch has been allowed to participate in politics. It’s why anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is still not in jail. It’s also why state media has been easing up its strict, self-enforced ban on certain subjects: In the past year, there has been a show about Khodorkovsky — usually persona non grata on television — and one on the death of Sergei Magnitsky. And it’s why NTV was able to hold something resembling a political debate.

“They loosened things up about a year ago,” one of the channel’s employees told me after the show. “Because no one was watching TV. It was impossible to watch. I mean, you can’t have sex with a blow-up doll for 10 years and insist that she’s a real, hot woman and that the sex is great.”

According to Arina Borodina, the television critic for Kommersant, NTV has always been allowed to get away with more. “They’re trying to attract the audience that stopped voting, that stopped watching TV,” she said, noting that the ratings for NTV spiked during the debates, even though they aired at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night. “Eighteen percent of the Moscow audience watched it,” she said. “That’s very, very high.”

But despite a loosening of the strictures, the most important prohibitions remain. “No one will ever grade Putin versus Medvedev, or Medvedev versus Putin,” Borodina explains. “That’s definitely not comme il faut. You can’t talk about Putin jailing Khodorkovsky. You can talk about why he’s in jail, but not who put him there. You can’t talk about things that Putin has publicly taken responsibility for, but has not carried out. You can’t really criticize him. His personal life is off limits.”

When it was my turn to ask questions, I asked why no one but the Communists were fielding a presidential candidate, offending the perennial joke candidate, Zhirinovsky — a mistake I’ll chalk up to nervousness. I asked why Putin’s People’s Front has shown such drab results in polls (53 percent of Russians don’t know what it is). More screaming. Then I asked what it says about the Russian political system that the most important politician in the country, Vladimir Putin, is not a member of any party.

Isaev explained — well, screamed — that United Russia has never hidden the fact that it was created to support Putin and that, moreover, Putin himself was more popular than all of United Russia.

I asked why, in that case, United Russia was needed at all.

I don’t have the exact quotes for his answer, because this whole part didn’t make it into the final edit, even though a lengthy sparring match ensued. (That is why Simonyan, the head of RT, hissed: “What is this, a Foreign Policy interview now?”) But it also seemed to cross a line: Prior to my question, we had been criticizing parties, not asking whether they should exist. And weirdly, although the hosts ran with the idea and started to badger Isaev, one of them afterward singled United Russia out for a special thank-you on his Facebook page. “In a situation where they should’ve cursed and destroyed us, the [United Russia] guys were watching this bacchanal with an almost Buddhist-like calm,” the host, Krasovsky, wrote. “They behaved in a way that would make Americans jerk off with envy.”

Later, when a Russian journalist quoted me saying my sharpest questions had been cut, Krasovsky called to yell at me. “Where exactly was your freedom of speech violated?” he pressed. “You think that was a sharp question? It was completely banal!”

I won’t challenge Krasovsky’s editorial decision. But it was striking that Chichvarkin was alone in taking on Putin directly. The nervous laughter that rolled across the studio after his question was also striking — as was everyone else’s seemingly magical ability to stop right before getting to the heart of the matter. People got riled up and said wonderfully angry things about corruption and incompetence. But no one asked: Why does this corruption and incompetence go on when only one seemingly omnipotent person is really in charge? The debaters bemoaned Russia’s descent into irrelevance and disrepair. Yet no one asked: Why, despite countless billions thrown at the problem, is Russia still not a competitive country? And after screaming and shouting about rigged and fraudulent elections, no one asked: Why?

The show’s utter chaos was also revelatory: not of a British-style uproarious political discourse, but of the thinness of Russia’s political culture. Natalia Sindeeva, director of Internet TV channel Rain, asked the debutante, Mikhail Prokhorov, “You’re successful, young, rich. Why did you get yourself involved in this madhouse? Why do you need this?” It was a question deeply indicative of one central rule of Putin’s nearly 12 years in power: The image of Russian politics as a madhouse is extremely useful to keeping the population entirely out of it. Why do you need this, in other words, when we can take care of it for you?

“There is one iron rule of Russian television,” says political analyst Masha Lipman. “There is a strong leader who is in charge and anything else would be worse.” In other words, NTV is not exactly giving airtime to Putin’s most thoughtful and most dangerous critics (I can’t with a straight face include myself in that group). Allowing racist clowns like Zhirinovsky and ineffective old liberals like Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin to have their time in the spotlight is a shrewd gamble. In one move, the Kremlin permits the illusion of debate and disarms those who say the opposition is banned from television, while always carefully shoring up the perception that, compared to these guys, Putin really is the best man for the job.

“Look, this isn’t Soviet propaganda where you were getting a picture that completely contradicted reality — that we live in the best possible world and that things were terrible in the West,” Lipman says. “Even Putin says elections are fraudulent, he talks about corruption. He doesn’t totally contradict what people see in their lives. He’s cynical, they’re cynical. The point is to show that there is no better choice.”

In the end, it’s hard to parse what the debate was, exactly. On one hand, it was unprecedented and lively and fun, and the ratings and subsequent discussions in the press confirm this. On the other, it danced carefully around the elephant in the room. It loosened the strictures of federal TV while carefully observing the most important ones. A half-step forward, a quarter-step back? “Wait, what did they allow?” said Oleg Kashin, when I asked him what he thought of the debates we both participated in. “Everyone who regularly visits one office in the Kremlin got together in one TV studio. Am I missing something here?”

The Kremlin’s Spin Machine … and Me [FP]

She’s Number 3!

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — About halfway through last week’s controversial elections in two St. Petersburg municipalities, the state television channel Rossiya showed up to election precinct No. 1348 to film the proceedings. The young TV reporter buttonholed a tall young man with a dim face and a pink shirt — an election observer sent by the ruling party, United Russia.

“So,” said the reporter. “We just need you to stand here and say everything is going well.”

“Everything is going well,” said the election observer. “We are very pleased with the high turnout.”

In fact, everything was going swimmingly, both for the observer and his candidate, the former governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko. As the other United Russia observers chastised reporters for talking and tried to keep photographers away from the voting booth, Matviyenko was just a few hours away from winning representation to the municipal council in a landslide.

Why would the governor of Russia’s second city, one of the most recognizable politicians in the country, demote herself to the municipal level? Simple, really: The election is the first move in a Kremlin-orchestrated backdoor promotion for Matviyenko. Now that she’s won the seat, she’s eligible to replace Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the Federation Council (the Russian senate, whose members are chosen from among elected regional officials only — that is, not governors). This will make her the No. 3 politician in Russia, the person with access to the nuclear buttons should Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin become incapacitated.

In the upside-down world of Russian politics, Matviyenko’s upcoming promotion, expected to be finalized by September, will be richly deserved. Over eight years of controversial, bullheaded rule, Matviyenko polarized this exceptionally educated, cosmopolitan city. In 2003, she was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Three years ago, her approval rating was 35 percent; this July, it had nearly halved, to 18 percent — and this during a time when St. Petersburg was being resuscitated by rising oil revenues.

Matviyenko largely spent her time antagonizing her subjects. At the end of 2006, she signed the city onto a joint project with Gazprom to build the Okhta Center, a glass stalagmite that was to reach over 1,300 feet into the city’s firmament. Unfortunately for Gazprom and Matviyenko, the proposed plan was taller than the city’s limit on vertical construction (a la Washington, D.C.) — by 1,150 feet. St. Petersburgers proved surprisingly tied to the historical architecture of their city. Opposition to the project brought thousands into the streets, in one of the most organized and powerful — and one of the very, very rare — lasting Russian civil society movements of the past decade. Last fall, Matviyenko had to give in and agreed to move the project to a new location where the tower wouldn’t violate the city’s neo-classical skyline.

Since then, she has been involved in other controversial construction projects, including a posh $100 million judo center for the Yawara-Neva Judo Club, of which Putin happens to be the honorary president. There was the Sea Façade, a public-private venture to build an expensive complex of ports for which the city government — rather than the private investors — bears much of the risk. Then there was the project to renovate the famous Kirov Stadium, the costs of which mysteriously balloon every year. Add to that the utter inability of the city to deal with heavier-than-expected snowfalls last winter — and the more-deadly-than-usual icicles, which dropped into strollers. Meanwhile, Matviyenko’s son Sergey grew so fabulously wealthy in such a short period of time that many suspect him of cashing in on his mother’s connections.

So why is this woman about to become the speaker of the senate? In fact, this is the Kremlin’s way of putting her out to pasture. It’s hard to recall a time when the Federation Council has ever voted against any legislation; it’s also hard to name a single person in the council, but easy to recall why they land there: Many regional elites, given their storied, shady pasts, can hardly do without the immunity this post offers them.

Matviyenko is perfect for a Federation Council spot, and the untouchability it confers, because she has become an albatross around United Russia’s neck. Her publicly available poll numbers may be low, but according to two people familiar with the much more thorough secret internal polls commissioned by the Kremlin, the real figures are even lower.

“The people in the mayor’s office are walking around with eyes like dinner plates,” said a St. Petersburg source with access to the polls. “United Russia is panicking.” Why? Because her polls mirror United Russia’s fall from public favor across the country. Kremlin polls are said to put the party’s average nationwide approval ratings at below 50 percent. In St. Petersburg and other urban areas, it’s even lower, around 30 percent.

This is bad. United Russia has big parliamentary elections coming up in December. Three months later, either Putin or Medvedev (probably the former) have to be swept convincingly into power, without too much outcry about election fraud. Matviyenko has the real potential to fumble the parliamentary elections in the second-most-important Russian city, and she is inexorably tied to her mentor, Putin. She simply had to go.

But how? The very reason she needed to be moved — her unpopularity — would make it hard for her to get elected virtually anywhere. Matviyenko and her Kremlin backers, however, proved up for the challenge.

First, there need to be an election for her to win, so a few local deputies in four municipalities were encouraged to resign, automatically triggering new elections to replace them. Through a sneaky set of misdirections, Matviyenko then forced all potential opponents out of the race by not allowing anyone to figure out where she was actually planning to run until the 30-day period for registering candidacy had expired. United Russia officials told reporters that Matviyenko would run in the Lomonosov municipality, and the opposition began registering candidates there. Then, on July 31, Matviyenko announced she was running in two other precincts: Petrovsky and Krasnenkaya Rechka. By that point, the registration for other candidates was already closed. The candidates who did end up listed on the ballot against her appeared to be United Russia plants; one was a retired coat check worker who had been away from St. Petersburg for months at her dacha.

“You can’t call this an election,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a local reporter for Novaya Gazeta and a member of the national council of the liberal Yabloko party. “That would be like saying, OK, we’re going to have the World Cup but we’re not going to announce when it is or who’s participating in it. When we do, the only game will be between the national team of England and some unheard of country where no one even knows what soccer is. You call that a World Cup?”

There were other bizarre happenings, too. Former prime minister and opposition heartthrob Boris Nemtsov decided to go to St. Petersburg to campaign in the municipalities where Matviyenko was running. He canvassed apartment buildings and handed out fliers telling people to spoil their ballots (in a Russian election, if 40 percent of ballots can’t be read, the vote is moot). He was quickly arrested; apparently, it had been made illegal to campaign against — rather than for — candidates.

When he was released a few hours later, he was attacked by activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who pelted him with rocks and eggs. Nemtsov and his colleagues jumped into a car and sped away, at which point they were stopped by two cop cars. According to Nemtsov, the police waited to approach Nemtsov until Nashi had caught up. That’s when the police asked Nemtsov to get out of the car — and into the line of egg-fire. When Nemtsov refused, he was arrested again — the second time within 24 hours. As the police lead him away, a crowd of old women materialized by the side of the road, rained down abuse on Nemtsov, and praised the poor, defenseless Matviyenko. Local bloggers later identified one of them as the same babushka who had tearfully thanked the departing governor at a recent public appearance. Coincidence? Probably not.

“After we were arrested, the police flooded the building we had been canvassing,” Nemtsov told me later, safely ensconsed in a Moscow café. “It was a 15-floor building, and they put a cop on each floor. They weren’t letting people back into the building and started questioning everyone about the flyers.” He took a sip of his fresh-squeezed celery juice and added, “All the people in the building probably didn’t care about the elections before, but I’m pretty sure that now they’ll go out and vote against Matviyenko!”

Whether they did or not, we likely won’t ever know, since there were no independent election observers allowed into the election precincts this past Sunday. Nor was anyone allowed into the office of the municipal election committee. In election precinct No. 1348, in the Petrovsky municipality, local United Russia boss Vyacheslav Makarov stormed into the office and blared commands at the United Russia observers. “Look at what you have going on here!” he bellowed. “Look at all these — these — journalists!” He said the last word as if it were quite a dirty one. “Get them out of here!”

Makarov, a former colonel in the Russian military, probably got used to hollering commands back when he was an instructor at a nearby military academy. And all day, the trickle of voters into this precinct all looked strangely alike: perfect posture, buzzed hair, a martial step. Despite their civilian clothing, it was clear who they were: cadets from the same academy, which has a storied history of marching out its students to participate in elections, always for United Russia. It wasn’t surprising when the Petrovsky municipality delivered 95.6 percent for Matviyenko.

In Krasnenkaya Rechka, the other municipality, the voting was accompanied by music, as well as free souvenir snapshots and medical exams for people who voted. Most of them voted for Matviyenko, either because they didn’t know the other candidates or because they felt her victory was inevitable. “It doesn’t really matter,” said Tatyana Sedova after she cast her ballot. “You can’t do anything against the state. We’re just regular people; they’ve already decided everything for us.”

Another voter, who didn’t give her name, said she voted for Matviyenko because the governor had the elevator in her building painted gray. “And gray is my favorite color.”

Observers weren’t given much access at this municipality either, and I was kicked out of the precinct along with a Russian reporter because he had the temerity to sit on the floor, something that was not on the short list of what journalists are explicitly allowed to do during elections.

“It’s not very nice,” one police officer told him. Another added that they were kicking him out for his own good: “What if you sit on the floor and catch a cold and get prostatitis?”

In the end, the unexpected didn’t happen there either. Matviyenko swept Krasnenkaya Rechka with 94.5 percent of the vote, and announced the next day that she was taking off for Moscow to join the political retirement home known as the Federation Council.

Her replacement in Petersburg for now — and likely for the future — is a man named Georgy Poltavchenko, a top-ranking bureaucrat known for his faceless, diplomatic efficiency in dealing with unruly colleagues. In this, Matviyenko’s departure resembles that of another celebrity Russian mayor with inexplicably rich relatives: Yury Luzhkov. Luzhkov, who was unceremoniously booted from office last September, was also replaced by a quietly loyal, anonymous bureaucrat. There was no chance that his replacement, Sergey Sobyanin, would ever upstage Putin — and there’s no chance that Poltavchenko will either. And now that the last of the outsized mayors has made her departure, that stage is increasingly Putin’s for the taking.

As for Matviyenko, she had one matter to see to before leaving office: For her highly characteristic final act as governor, she handed over a big chunk of city land to Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s original diva and the country’s answer to Cher, Barbara Streisand, and Elizabeth Taylor. Pugacheva, who looks not unlike like Matviyenko, has plans to build a theater named after herself. Matviyenko, known for cutting generous development deals at the city’s expense, sold the land to Pugacheva’s consortium for 39 million rubles. Experts say its value is at least 10 times that. Rumored to be connected to the project? Matviyenko’s son, Sergey.

She’s Number 3! [FP]

Surreal Politik

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

It’s been a busy summer in Russia, electorally speaking. The malaise and tea-leaf reading of the spring have started to dissipate as the December parliamentary elections and the March presidential elections draw near. Powerful constituencies have emerged, and they’ve been lobbying hard for their interests and their candidates. Best of all? They are really, really hot.

First came Putin’s Army. It was led by Diana, a self-proclaimed college student in vertiginous heels and cleavage to match, a girl who claimed to have “lost my mind for a person who has changed the life of our country. He’s a good politician and a fabulous man.” That man, shockingly, was Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, and decider of the question of the year: Will he change his status from “basically in charge” back to “officially in charge”? While Putin spends his time deciding whether he or current President Dmitry Medvedev will become president (for six years) in 2012, Putin’s Army has not shied from making its feelings very clear. Last month, Diana and the girls of Putin’s Army announced a contest to “Tear it up for Putin!” — “it” being, say, your shirt — a contest in which you can win an iPad, even if you can’t win Putin’s election for him. Putin’s Army even had an official draft day in the center of Moscow, where two dozen young ladies, wearing teensy undershirts printed with Putin’s face in pop-art pink, gathered to parade on a makeshift catwalk and draft other soldiers to their cause.

Medvedev’s supporters, however, were not to be left behind. They formed an army, too — an army of three — called it Medvedev’s Girls, and came out to another square in central Moscow with a different gimmick. In support of Medvedev’s anti-beer initiative, they asked the strollers-by: “Choose beer or us!” What this meant in practice was that people could dump their beers into waiting buckets, and, for each beer dumped, Medvedev’s Girls would dump an article of clothing.

Then there’s “I Really Do Like Putin,” which staged a bikini car wash in Moscow to support the premier. If that didn’t convince undecided Russian voters, the group’s next event definitely didn’t. On Monday, it held a Tandem Ride with Medvedev’s Girls. They paired off on tandem bikes and cycled around Moscow. (This, mind you, was not in order to express support for the two-man tandem presidency of Putin and Medvedev, but because Putin promised Nashi, the Kremlin-made youth group, that he would lose a pound and learn how to ride a tandem bike with Medvedev.)

And then there’s my personal favorite, a music video by the group Girls for Putin. The video ends with a bang — the smashing of a watermelon with a baseball bat — but it’s more a pastiche of black panties, Jack Daniels, and tears of heartbreak, fitting for a raging rock ballad called “I Want to be Your Koni.”

“I want to be your Koni / on the table and on the balcony,” the girls sing. Koni, in case you’re wondering, is Putin’s beloved black Labrador.

It’s funny, this stuff, and yet it betrays something deeper even than the predominance of sex in Russian public life or in Russian youth politics. That part is obvious: Sex sells. More important is what this says about the current incarnation of the Russian political system.

When the Kremlin created Nashi, the first of its youth groups, in 2005, Russia — rightly or wrongly — felt under attack. The so-called Color Revolutions had swept through one former Soviet republic after another, bringing — in Russia’s perception — American influence right into its backyard. George W. Bush had started a war with Iraq, Russia’s long-time, lucrative ally, and lectured Moscow on democracy and human rights.

Russia itself, although no longer the hobbled post-Soviet country of just a few years before, was still in transition. The power vertical — the political system in which all power flows to and from Vladimir Putin — was still under construction, a relatively easy task given Russians’ bewilderment at the version of democracy they experienced in the 1990s. Any real opposition in parliament had been routed in the previous two election cycles, and yet there were still burblings of discontent.

Hence, Nashi. Formed to engage an otherwise apathetic youth luxuriating in new oil profits, the group protested and agitated, it spoke of “sovereign democracy” and Russia’s territorial integrity, it terrorized opposition journalists. Its members were brainwashed, yes, and they certainly weren’t going to do anything — the Kremlin guards the levers of power closely — but they were well-trained and they were keenly political. Even though the Kremlin was just gesturing at issues politics, in other words, at least they were gesturing.

Six years later, the country has far more on its plate than a sanctimonious U.S. president: monumental corruption, creeping stagnation, mounting ethnic tensions, a breakdown of safety oversight for civilian transportation systems, a stumbling reform of the rapidly decaying military, continued insurgency in the North Caucasus, continued dependence on resource extraction, an atrophied industrial sector, moribund and corrupt education and health systems. There is a lot of work to be done, and therefore, a lot to talk about.

And yet, somehow, with only four months to go until the Duma elections, and seven months until Russians elect a president, we are not hearing anything about it. All we get from the two supposed candidates for president is how and when they will make the decision to even run. Since they haven’t announced even that, speculating on the issue is the only issue this election season. Even at this year’s Nashi youth retreat — not perhaps a bastion of substance, but at least, in past years, a chance to bang on about solving the country’s problems — the emphasis was on things accomplished, not on future tasks. And youth politics more generally have devolved into a parody of a latter-day Britney Spears video. One would be a fool to even suggest a comparison between Russia and the United States, but shouldn’t even a simulacrum campaign season have at least simulacrum campaign issues?

We don’t even have those. Instead it’s a fake party here, a staged election stunt there, and all around the ceaseless chatter of anonymous sources “tipping off” journalists that Putin has finally made up his mind one way or the other.

Until Putin announces his historic decision and some level of reality on this very unreal question enters the campaign, we can either spend our time tearing our hair out guessing and twisting — or we can relax, forget about the mess that is the Russian economy and political system, and enjoy the fluff that has come to replace even the mirage of an election campaign. Because there is lots to be done. We can, for example, ogle the nubile young loyalists, we can watch in amazement as Putin, on his third scuba dive ever, magically pulls up a sixth-century Greek urn (and happens to have an archaeological expert right there to identify it), and we can marvel at the refreshing honesty, the release in acknowledging that, much to the relief of Russians rattled by their brief, post-Soviet taste of democracy, that finally, there are no more politics in Russia.

Surreal Politik FP]

Opposing the Opposition

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

MOSCOW — Dodging yet another question at the St. Petersburg Forum two weeks ago about whether he’ll re-seek the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev requested that “people be patient for a little while, to keep up the intrigue and the suspense.” He added, “That will be more interesting.” And yet, there seems to be movement in that inscrutable Moscow summer swamp of intrigue. Finally, things are happening. Finally, things are getting interesting.

To wit: On Saturday, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was easily elected leader of the Right Cause Party* at the party’s congress, just as expected. Speaking ex tempore, Prokhorov delivered a rather spicy, provocative speech. “Our country is called the Russian Federation, but judging by the leadership it is an empire where only the executive branch is working,” he said. He spoke of an ongoing 100-year civil war in Russia, and laid out an ambitious, liberal party platform: slashing defense spending, introducing voluntary army service, returning power to the regions, reinstating the elections of mayors, and introducing the election of police chiefs and judges. He even said that political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev should be paroled.

These ideas are usually propagated by the liberal opposition and are therefore roundly ignored by the state. But this is a billionaire, the third-richest man in Russia — a position one cannot maintain without the Kremlin’s warm feelings — voicing them. What’s more, all of this was carried on national TV, still the only real way that information can be broadly disseminated here and therefore a medium that tends to bar messengers of such liberal ideas. Arkady Dvorkovich, the president’s economic advisor, weighed in later on Twitter. “The majority of the issues voiced by Prokhorov are attractive to me,” he said. “Some needed to be discussed further.” And as if this weren’t enough, Medvedev himself decided to meet with the leader of this marginal, liberal party with no parliamentary representation to tell him that “some of your ideas line up with my own.” Some of these ideas, the president said, are “revolutionary.”

This is not particularly difficult to decipher. As I wrote earlier, the Right Cause Party is a Kremlin attempt to co-opt the well-educated, well-traveled, and well-off liberals increasingly dissatisfied with the system. Within the Russian political spectrum, they fall to the right. The idea is to create for this tier-two elite a party that would bring them into the system. It would also provide a steam valve for the so-called “pragmatists,” liberals stuck in the increasingly stodgy and corrupt ruling party, United Russia. Leonid Gozman, the co-founder of Right Cause, has been very open about this. Prokhorov has been, too. “Let’s forget the word ‘opposition,'” he said at the party congress Saturday. “This is a word linked to marginal parties that have lost their connection to reality long ago.”

This isn’t a vague reference. Prokhorov is calling out specific parties: Yabloko, the party of the first generation of post-Soviet liberals, all the other failed parties of the next decade, and their latest incarnation, the Party of the People’s Freedom, shortened as Parnas. The party is led by four liberal, ousted veterans of government: Boris Nemtsov, a prime minister under Yeltsin; Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former speaker of parliament; Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister; and Mikhail Kasyanov, once a prime minister known as “Misha 2 percent” for his skimming of the proverbial milk. Their experience in government makes them obvious choices to a Westerner searching out democratic heroes, but to a Russian their experience taints them, and their fractiousness is still more of a turn-off.

While Prokhorov was delivering his “revolutionary” speech, Parnas was picketing across town. A couple days earlier, Parnas’s official petition to register as a party — and enter December’s parliamentary election — had been denied because 40 people on their list of 46,148 signatures were found to have been dead or minors or had recanted their support of the party. (“Those who recanted told us they had done so because of pressure from the Interior Ministry [the police] and the FSB,” Milov told me.)

Parnas’s position is vague — it was founded as an anti-corruption party. But its target demographic is the white-collar, increasingly frustrated middle class; that is, exactly the same as the target demographic of Right Cause. Gozman makes no secret of this. “Our goals coincide 100 percent,” he said. And both Parnas and Right Cause could be called “marginal,” as Prokhorov put it: Parnas clocked in with 3 percent in Levada’s most recent poll; Right Cause got only 1. The difference? Gozman said, “We believe more in working inside the system.” Which is a strange thing to say since Parnas is also trying to work inside the system: It is trying to run for parliament and eventually to field a presidential candidate. But Gozman meant something else.

Right Cause is not about working inside the system, it is about being the system. Back in 2006, Vladislav Surkov, the master puppeteer of Russian politics, told a congress of another party that became A Just Russia, that Russia needed a two-party system. “Society doesn’t have a ‘second leg’ onto which it can shift its weight when the first leg has fallen asleep,” he said at the time. “Russia needs a second large party.” That is, a second “party of power” to dilute — mostly in appearance — the monopoly of United Russia. And so Surkov created A Just Russia, a vaguely socialist party designed to appeal to the pensioners who were then taking to the street over their shrinking social benefits and pensions. Part of the platform, therefore, was progressive taxation and a luxury tax. Those measures never became a reality, but A Just Russia became the second leg. It was a voice of opposition in the Duma, constantly criticizing United Russia and voting against it. Which, of course, never meant anything because the party has only 38 seats out of 450.

This is the box-ticking formality that’s come to be known in Russia as “managed democracy.” This is Vladimir Putin’s credo for controlling the rudder, for choosing how to react to external stimuli from the masses. Five years ago, the thorn in Putin’s side was geriatric rioters who remembered the glory days of the Soviet welfare state, so the state response was to shower them with oil money and to create a party that purported to be about their interests while not actually having the power to do anything about them.

These days, the group giving the Kremlin the most grief is the so-called “office plankton,” the young people who see what life is like in the West, who want some control over their future, who are nauseated by the corruption around them — not out of envy, but on principle. This is the Russian bourgeoisie: people who have far more money than power, which is why they donate millions of rubles to anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny.

Were these bankers and managers to form their own party, it would be small — Levada estimates that they make up, at most, 15 percent of the Russian population — but it would still insert some unpredictability into the game, which the Kremlin cannot tolerate. The answer, of course, is to create a party modeled after the one that is already starting to form on its own, install a fully loyal leader, and give it a seat at the table. This is why Medvedev has just proposed a law lowering the electoral barrier to 5 percent, from 7. (Right Cause’s goal, Prokhorov keeps saying, is second place in the Duma, which, given the crushing majority United Russia will undoubtedly retain, will be rather small: 5 to 7 percent of seats, according to Boris Gryzlov, the current speaker of the Duma.)

Arithmetically speaking, it’s strange that, even after the A Just Russia experiment, talk in the Kremlin and around Prokhorov’s party continues to be about creating a two-party state. A Just Russia, so far, hasn’t gone anywhere, nor have the Communists or the right-wing nationalists at the Liberal Democratic party, which are also of the loyal “systemic opposition.” That’s five state-certified parties. Do those other parties not count? Are A Just Russia and Right Cause going to share the title of “second leg”? Or will there now be three legs?

And there’s another question: Who will vote for this new second — or third — leg? Will the target demographic — highly educated and thoroughly cynical — buy it? Milov pointed out that the pragmatists who put results above the unsavoriness of certain bedfellows, are probably already voting for United Russia. That party, after all, still has all the resources; why bet on a new, unproven quantity?

I called a friend who helps run a fairly well-known bank in Moscow to ask him what he thought. He is in his 30s, wealthy, property-owning, globe-trotting, and a Russian patriot. He asked not to be named, because bankers, he said, should remain apolitical managers, like the Swiss. “Personally, though, I don’t really believe in this,” he said of Prokhorov’s party. “It’s just another political technology, as they say. Clearly, they have to carve up public opinion into several channels and maintain their rule.” The December parliamentary elections are irrelevant to him. He said, “What’s the point of choosing while not having a choice? Even without me, they’ll split up the votes. Even without me, everything will be just fine.”

*In a previous article, we translated the party name as “Just Cause.” A less confusing, and more widely accepted translation of the name is “Right Cause.”

Opposing the Opposition [FP]

Empty Words

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

MOSCOW — The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — Russia’s Davos — opened with a speech by President Dmitry Medvedev. It was a frank speech, a tough speech. “It is incorrect to focus on calm, slow growth. It is a mistake,” he said. “This infamous stability can hide another period of stagnation…. This is why we must quickly and deliberately change everything that hampers breakthrough development.” After listing some of Russia’s achievements since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he laid out his vision: privatizing government assets, overhauling the legal system, lifting visa restrictions, lowering taxes, and fighting corruption. Or, as Medvedev so kindly put it, “The squeeze of the noose on the neck of corruptioneers must be constant and merciless.”

The praise from Western writers was instant. It was “a blueprint for changing Russia,” Medvedev’s were “bold comments,” he had “Set a Goal to Reform, Modernize and Decentralize Russia as Quickly as Possible,” he had left investors “inspired” and “enthusiastic.”

I bet he had. Such tough-love speeches are common and often heard at economic conferences from other high-ranking Kremlin liberals. They work because they’re delivered by very smart, very persuasive people, people like First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov or privatization legend Anatoly Chubais, people who sound like they get it. And they do.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s hard to differentiate between all those speeches, and not just among those delivered by various ministers. How does Medvedev’s St. Petersburg speech, for example, differ from the speech he delivered to the Russian political elite in November 2009? And how does that, in turn, differ from its precursor, the “Forward, Russia!” editorial he penned in the oppositional newspaper In all three, Medvedev talked about the stifling corruption in Russia, about its dangerous dependence on extraction, about the need to get some air into the Kremlin-controlled political system.

Here’s the other thing: I’m not the only one who can’t tell these speeches apart. Boris Makarenko is a well-known and intelligent political scientist at a think tank called the Institute of Contemporary Development that serves as Medvedev’s brain trust. I asked him if there were any differences between this speech and past speeches Medvedev had made. Makarenko argued that Medvedev offered something “more concrete” this time around, that he spoke of lowering the vote threshold — now set at 7 percent — for entering the Parliament. (In other words, to get even a single seat, a party needs to get at least 7.01% of the vote. If it doesn’t, the votes are split among all the other parties proportionally. This keeps smaller, often opposition parties out of Parliament.)

But Medvedev didn’t mention that in his St. Petersburg speech. He didn’t mention electoral politics at all. He did, however, mention it in Sunday’s interview with the Financial Times:

For instance, once we raised the State Duma admittance threshold for political parties up to 7 percent I think this might be the right thing to do to achieve the organization of the political forces…. However, one day we will have to revise the decision and lower the barrier so that political competition improves and those unable to clear the 7 percent barrier can scrape together at least 5 percent or even 3 percent to get to the State Duma.

In fact, Medvedev first broached the issue in his November 2009 state of the union. “Didn’t he mention this in November 2009?” I asked Makarenko.

“No, no he didn’t,” Makarenko said. Then he thought a minute and said, “Oh, yes, you’re right. He did.”

The real issue, of course, is why Medvedev continues to talk about the same things using the same words. No doubt, Medvedev and his crew know exactly what’s going wrong in Russia and have some ideas about how to fix it. But even if they actually wanted to fix it — and, given the interests at stake, that’s a big if — the real question is whether the people below them, the implementers, want to. And unfortunately, we have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question: They don’t.

Take, for example, Medvedev’s recent public outburst at the Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev. It was an “outrage,” Medvedev said, that of all the plans the ministry had developed along with the presidential administration, not a single one had gotten through parliament and become law. “If you and I agree on a time frame,” the president went on angrily, “and it doesn’t work, tell the administration. We have our own levers, or if push comes to shove, I can get involved. And if it’s stuck, then you should’ve called me and told me.” Because things like this — meetings with ministers, phone calls — are usually staged, Medvedev was clearly trying to show that he was cracking down on foot-draggers in his ranks. Instead, he revealed the opposite: His words don’t easily translate to deed.

And this is not, by the way, just a problem for Medvedev, a man many mock as effete and ineffectual. This winter, WikiLeaks revealed that strongman Vladimir Putin dealt with similar issues during his presidency: “In 2006 — at the height of Putin’s control in a booming economy — it was rumored within the Presidential Administration that as many as 60 percent of his orders were not being followed,” one of the U.S. Embassy cables said.

Here’s what’s happening instead: The Ministry of Internal Affairs is indeed being overhauled and reformed, just as Medvedev called for in one of his speeches. But the law reforming the ministry was written by the ministry itself, and many legal observers say the law simply makes legal many of the ministry’s current abuses.

Following Medvedev’s speech, there will almost certainly be an overhaul of the judicial system, too. Less than a decade ago, Putin did the same. His calls for “a dictatorship of the law” were transformed into what is now known as “telephone law.” That is, a judge will often receive a phone call instructing him how to rule, a phenomenon recently highlighted by the assistant to the judge in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who accused her boss of kowtowing to commands from above.

It’s not hard to imagine that the anti-corruption reform Medvedev proposed in St. Petersburg will also become a funhouse version of its guiding principle. For one example, the president called for firing civil servants on the mere suspicion of corruption, even if there is not enough evidence to try them in court.

The other problem, of course, is that often the president’s own actions undermine his very inspiring words. While mulling his own judicial reform, Medvedev has proposed to reinstate Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika for another term. Chaika’s son has been implicated in a scandal surrounding underground casinos in the Moscow region that were given protection by … the prosecutor’s office. Medvedev’s war against corruption is proceeding apace, yet none of the allegations raised — in court — by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has merited even an inquiry. The Ministry of Internal Affairs officers who caused the death of Sergei Magnitsky in police custody after he uncovered their theft of $230 million from the Russian treasury were decorated with medals for their work.

And that political reform Medvedev insists is so badly needed, the sense of competition and fair play that would do such wonders for the Russian economy? Well, we’ll let the president speak for himself. The Financial Times asked him whether perhaps running against Putin in the presidential election — or even having any kind of real contest — would finally introduce the competition he talks about so often in his speeches:

FT: Don’t you think that such open competition will be good for the development of democracy in Russia?

DM: Open competition is always good.

FT: But why not for the post of the president?

DM: Well, I’ve just told you, the goal of participating in the elections is not to facilitate the development of free competition, the goal is to win.

Empty Words [FP]

Road Rage in Russia

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

It was a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon when Lena Miro (the pop-lit writer Elena Mironenko) was wheeling her way home, happy and sated after a Goya exhibit and some stuffed cabbage at a chic Moscow cafe. “When all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a vile old woman with a massive bag on wheels threw herself under my car,” Miro wrote on her blog. “I almost knocked the bowling pin down.” Miro was rattled, but then she had a soothing thought: “It occurred to me: I could’ve run over this scum (the world would only benefit from this), but to give myself a serious headache over some old cunt was a little silly.”

And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow — say, $200. “Then we’ll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats,” she mused. “And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma” — the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. “Let them pan for gold. That way, we’d at least get some use out of their pointless existence.”

Healthy thoughts, to be sure, in a city plagued by infamous congestion. Miro, a card-carrying member of United Russia, is not the only celebrity doing her part to give voice to the party’s patrician inner monologue. When confronted with the growing public outrage over his behavior on the roads, Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov retold an old pre-revolutionary joke. “A peasant nursed and nursed his anger at his master,” Mikhalkov said, “but the master didn’t know shit about it.” Last month, when Mikhalkov was finally stripped of his migalka — a blue VIP car siren that, when turned on, allows the driver to circumvent all traffic laws — his public bitching about the loss seemed to know no bounds. And it’s not hard to understand why: With that blue light flashing, a driver can cut through traffic like an ambulance, and everyone else must scatter. (Although some VIPs don’t even bother issuing that warning.)

In this season of strange movements of the bulldogs under the rug, the migalka and all it stands for have become what passes in Russia for a hot-button campaign issue: the people — or the bydlo, the plebes, as the elite and the plebes themselves refer to the non-elite — get upset at the constant abuse of gratuitous privilege, and the state throws a few of its most insignificant pawns under the bus to show that it has the interests of the people at heart. Which, of course, is not quite true.

In principle and by law, migalki are supposed to go only to the most important officials, officials who have really important meetings to go to, meetings that could make or break the future of Russia. Thus, Barack Obama has a helicopter to get around stoplights and traffic jams; Dmitry Medvedev has a blue migalka. Then what about the prime minister, Vladimir Putin? He has one, too. As do the finance minister and the defense minister and other cabinet members. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has one.

And then the definition of “important” becomes rather swimmy and 970 people get a migalka. Officially. Nearly double that number of “special sirens” are actually on the roads. Who has them? Some of the president’s advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner’s. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia’s leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:

Radio host: “Tatyana, tell us, where do you work?

Tatyana: “I don’t work.”

Radio host: “Then in what way did you acquire a special siren?”

Tatyana: “Well, it’s my car and it has a siren installed on it and I just wanted to say that people who demand to be treated well –”

Radio host: “Tatyana, Tatyana, one second. On what basis do you have a special siren?”

Tatyana: “Why would I tell you where I got a special siren!”

The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.

The plebes, and their cell-phone cameras, have started fighting back. That is how we know about the second in command at Customs going to the cleaners, or about the driver of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu asking another driver, via megaphone, whether his not getting out of the way meant that he wanted to be “shot in the head, dumbass.”

Given the symbolic significance of cars — they are a major commodity in a society obsessed with status and making it look conspicuously higher — the issue has proved to be one of the very few that is able to galvanize and organize notoriously anti-political Russians. Some of the biggest protests Russia has seen in the last decade have been about, you guessed it, cars. This is why the Blue Buckets movement — a bunch of people armed with cell-phone cameras, a blog to monitor abuses, and blue buckets resembling migalki strapped to their car roofs — has become such a major concern for the Kremlin over the last two years. People I spoke to in Moscow expressed an understanding that the envelope had been pushed too far and that something had to be done.

But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo — the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite — but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have “taken up the issue” of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city’s elite suburbs.

The only clear advances have been the ritual punishments of Miro, who was stripped of her party membership, and of Mikhalkov. After his public whining over the lost migalka, he was caught on camera by the Blue Buckets team speeding and veering into oncoming traffic on Moscow’s central Garden Ring — minus a siren. Initially, he said he was late to a taping and said the “louts” and “jackasses with cameras” who taped him couldn’t possibly understand. Then he backtracked and claimed it wasn’t even his car and that he had never called anyone a lout.

Rare is a day in Russia when we don’t hear of another accident involving a “VIP car.” As I sat down to write this story, a new story came across the transom: In the wee hours of Friday morning in Rostov-on-Don, Dmitry Ostrovenko, United Russia deputy in the city Duma, barreled through several stopped cars with his Porsche Cayenne. One of the cars, a tiny Zhiguli, was rammed and dragged nearly 200 feet. Its 23-year-old driver (dead on the spot) had to be cut out of the car’s mangled frame. “Ostrovenko was trashed and could barely stand and tried to pay off the cops right then and there,” an eyewitness wrote on his blog. The gathered crowd nearly tore the deputy to bits.

This was not a new reaction; but then again, this is not a new situation. In 1920s Russia, cars were scarce and prestigious. Whereas before the revolution, only the wealthy could afford cars and chauffeurs, in the dictatorship of the proletariat it was only the party functionaries who were permitted luxuries so out of sync with the letter of the law. But Russia was still a rural, agrarian country back then, and the peasants resented these elite cars kicking up dust or scaring their animals as they roared past. Veering into fields and mashing up their crops didn’t help either. So people fought back. They threw rocks at the cars; they strung up wires across the roads to trip them up. One driver was killed when an angry villager flung an owl at his windshield.

And yet the functionaries and celebrities privileged enough to have cars continued to exercise a familiar kind of recklessness and immunity. According to Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades, on a hot summer day in 1929, Lilya Brik was driving through Moscow in her car, given to her by her lover, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, when a young girl popped up in the road right in front of her, an experience Lena Miro would share 82 years later. “She froze, as if rooted to the ground, and then began to rush about like a chicken,” Brik later recalled. “Nevertheless, I knocked her slightly off her feet.” Brik was tried — and exonerated.

Road Rage in Russia FP]

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

I’ve just returned to Moscow after a two-week vacation to find that, true to the Gogolian model of Russian history, lots has happened, but nothing’s changed.

In my absence, the electoral campaign has swung into high gear: Heads have rolled, others were made into official heads, still others lost their precious marbles. And yet, at the end of the two-week bonanza of firings and the first press conference of President Dmitry Medvedev’s three years in office, no one knows any more than they did before.

Let’s recap. In mid April, we heard of the sacking of Alexey Chadaev, the young chief ideologist of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party. Two weeks later, Gleb Pavlovsky, a “politilogist” who is often quoted here and who runs Fund for Effective Politics, a think tank that was widely seen as a Kremlin stand-in, was fired from his position as Medvedev’s volunteer political advisor. Tit-for-tat? Maybe. Significance? Unclear.

Around the same time, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian Senate (the Federation Council) and head of the dummy A Just Russia party, found himself in hot water, ostensibly for criticizing his native St. Petersburg. (He said it was the most corrupt city in Russia.) In May, he was removed from his government post, and talk of dissolving his party began to circulate. It was also around this time that Putin announced the formation of the new All-Russia People’s Front, a strange amalgam of hail-Mary populism and Monty Python. Making way for a new Kremlin-made opposition party? Probably. End result? Comedy.

And then came the curve ball: On May 16, Mikhail Prokhorov, playboy billionaire and co-owner, with Jay-Z, of the New Jersey Nets, was trotted out as the man who would head another Kremlin dummy, the Just Cause Party. The names of the two parties sound similar because of an English translation glitch, and yet it’s a telling one: Both were created by the Kremlin to funnel oppositionally-minded voters away from the actual opposition. The only difference is in target demographics. A Just Russia is aimed at people sympathetic to the parties that used to be the real threat to United Russia: the Communists and the nationalist-populist Liberal Democratic Party. More recently, however, United Russia has swallowed up some of their positions, and those two parties have become loyal vassals of the Kremlin, making A Just Russia somewhat superfluous.

These days, the people alienated by the Kremlin are the ones who have done well in the market economy, the young, economically liberal, well-off middle class and elite. Given Prokhorov’s allure with this crowd — he is an internationally successful businessman who has just clocked in as the third-richest man in Russia — it seemed clear that his newly resurfaced Just Cause (a right-leaning, market-oriented party) was to be the replacement for Mironov’s A Just Russia.

Fine. But what of Medvedev’s first real presidential press conference, just two days after Prokhorov’s big news? The presser, announced well in advance with great fanfare, was eagerly anticipated by journalists: What was Medvedev was planning to say? Would he finally put an end to the agonizing guessing game and declare his candidacy? Was he going to — gasp — fire Putin?

As it turned out, none of the above. When the big day came, Medvedev talked for just over two hours about, well, nothing. He talked about television, about parking, about reindeers. When asked the question that’s been tormenting Moscow elites for months — who, for God’s sake, would “run”? — Medvedev dodged. Awkwardly. “Finally, you asked this question,” he joked, and then proceeded to discuss the nature of politics, very broadly speaking. “If I decide to make such a statement, I’ll do it,” he added, telling the journalists, confusingly, that a press conference was not the appropriate venue for such an announcement.

“This was a bit of an unfortunate performance,” Pavlovsky told me afterward. “Everyone wanted to know one thing, and he didn’t discuss it. You can’t gather the press and not talk about what they want to talk about. It angers them.” (A week out, the consensus seems to be that Medvedev wanted to show that he was not bent on confrontation with Putin. But who knows, really?)

As for his firing, Pavlovsky said he was let go because he was openly anti-tandem and had been publicly boosting Medvedev’s candidacy for months. Says Pavlovsky: “It wracked a lot of nerves at the White House,” where Putin has his office. Vladislav Surkov, the Russian Karl Rove currently serving as Medvedev’s first deputy chief of staff, “suffered for this the most,” says Pavlovsky. “I spoke with Surkov more than with anyone else, and all of my statements [about Medvedev being better for Russia than Putin] were attributed to Surkov’s intrigues.”

And Alexey Chadaev? Pavlovsky denies there’s any connection between the two firings, but according to a high-ranking United Russia source, Chadaev, a White House (i.e., Putin) ally, was let go as a lamb sacrificed to the Kremlin (i.e., Medvedev), which was made to fire Pavlovsky for offending the White House. But this explanation is probably just an attempt at saving face. More likely, it was the other way around: Chadaev (who also has made numerous FP appearances) was let go for United Russia’s relatively poor showing in the March regional elections, and Pavlovsky, long a thorn in someone’s side, was thrown on the pyre with him.

That’s all an aside, however. More important (that being a very relative term in this year of pointless uncertainty) is Sergei Mironov’s ouster. Since 2006, when Surkov formed A Just Cause to offer an appearance of a two-party democracy, Mironov and his party had played the role of “system opposition” moderately well: garnering votes from people not willing to vote for United Russia and using them as a mandate to do whatever United Russia does in the Duma.

In the past year, however, pressure has built up in — or, rather, around — the system. The young, educated, globally minded urban middle class has become increasingly fed up with the corruption and empty rhetoric they see around them, paving the way for such massively successful projects like the KermlinRussia Twitter parody, or Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption work. A Just Russia failed to pacify this potentially combustible group, and so Mironov had to go. Though he continues to head the party (while it still exists), he has lost, along with his Federation Council seat (which he formally handed over today), an apartment provided by the state, a dacha, a private jet, personal security guards, and even the space where he housed his, yes, rock collection, accumulated while he worked as a geologist in the 1970s and ’80s.

In his stead, we get Prokhorov, a man who is good at business, a man who, like his constituents, feels equally comfortable in Russia and in the West, a man who, in his acceptance, talked of changing things — a clear appeal to those who would support people like Navalny. But let’s be honest: Most likely, this was not Prokhorov’s idea. “He wasn’t in any party before,” said Andrei Belyak, a spokesman for Prokhorov’s Onexim Group. “He didn’t touch politics before.” According to Belyak, it was “a proposal from the party,” proposals that, in Moscow, tend to be offers you can’t refuse. As Russian sociologist Denis Volkov told the New York Times, “Major businessmen are under the authorities’ control. If the government says you have to head a party, you head a party.” (Prokhorov has been the subject of one such political offer before: his idea to build the first Russian-made hybrid car, the Ë-mobile. According to one Onexim insider, the idea wasn’t his at all; it was a pitch from the Kremlin. The idea for the title — which, to a Russian ear sounds like “F-mobile” would to an American one — well, that was intentional, and another story altogether.)

So whose idea was it? A few weeks before the Prokhorov announcement, I went to visit a man named Leonid Gozman, a former professor of psychology who was long a fixture on the political scene as a political advisor, including to the two great reformers Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. Now Gozman is the co-chair of Just Cause and has a spacious office paneled in dark wood overlooking one of Moscow’s sprawling bedroom communities. It is, strangely enough, part of the offices of Rosnano, the nanotechnology corporation once owned by the Russian state and headed by his comrade-in-arms Chubais. (Chubais, Gozman told me, provides him with political cover.)

Sitting in a big leather armchair and munching on sweets, Gozman explained his vision for the future of Russian politics. “The heroic period of Russian politics is over,” he said. “Now we need normal, boring political competition; 5 percent here, 5 percent there…. The most important task is institutionalize the schism in the ruling elite. Right now, we have people working in one government whose political views are more different than, say, Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s. Much more.” That is, the government includes both people like the liberal finance minister Alexei Kudrin, and hardliner former spook Igor Sechin. “This is normally called a coalition government, except in a coalition government, each of these factions has a party behind it,” Gozman continued. The point, then, would be to create a second party so that the liberals and the hawks don’t have to join the same one — in other words, more simulacra.

Was tapping Prokhorov a move to make Just Cause into such a party, I asked Gozman after the announcement? “Absolutely,” he said. Prokhorov himself has since said that he’d like to see Just Cause come in second in the fall parliamentary elections: a prediction that, given the engineered nature of Russian elections, will probably come to pass.

With all this political fidgeting, the end result is that little has changed in Moscow except the mood: It is increasingly tense and increasingly toxic, as people become increasingly fed up with waiting for such a big decision while watching the grand shows of incremental maneuvering. (Yesterday’s instantaneous dismissal of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s appeal, combined with a barely reduced sentence, is a perfect example of how little these little things mean.)

“These are big questions, and business can’t wait half a year to get the answers,” Pavlovsky said, noting that the stalled-out tandem has led the country into political crisis. “It’s unbearable. For business, for society, even for Putin’s circle, which is clearly starting to put pressure on him because he can’t solve a simple question.” Pavlovsky is understandably frustrated, but there’s really nothing to be done except wait and keep playing the utterly fruitless, frustrating guessing game. Or just wait for August. There’s always August.

All Tomorrow’s Parties [FP]

Putin’s Puppets

Friday, May 6th, 2011

At around 7 p.m. on Friday night, I called Robert Shlegel, the young techie who sits in Russia’s parliament as a representative of the ruling United Russia party. The week was sandwiched between two three-day weekends (May Day and Victory Day), and many Muscovites never bothered to come back from the first one. The city was empty, and emptying more every minute. Which is why my call found Shlegel in a loud Moscow cafe.

“Hi,” I said, when he answered casually, “so what do you think about this people’s front idea?”

An hour earlier, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at a United Russia conference in Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), announced his plan for the December 2011 parliamentary elections: a people’s front. The front would include, of course, United Russia, Putin said, as well as “some other political parties, labor groups, women’s groups, youth groups, veterans’ [groups], including veterans of World War II and the [Soviet Union’s] war in Afghanistan.”

“About what?” Schlegel said over the background noise.

“A people’s front. Putin is forming a people’s front.”



“What is that?”

I read Shlegel the description. He laughed. Shlegel was also surprised, as was I, that it had been announced at 6 p.m. on a holiday weekend.

“They did that on purpose,” he said, then quickly corrected himself: “I mean, I think it’s very necessary. They need to somehow unify the people who are politically active.” Then he asked to have a couple minutes to read the news, and asked me to please write something nice.

Most people will not hear about this till deep into next week — which is exactly the point, because the plan is ridiculous. Let’s start with the fact that none of the groups that Putin rattled off in his speech actually exist; in fact, he and his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov made sure to neuter them all. If they’ve managed to survive independently, then we certainly won’t see them as part of the people’s front. More likely, new ones will magically appear this summer and fall, falling in line with the so-called people’s front, which sounds far too much like The Life of Brian.

All kidding aside — and it’s hard with this one — the move is a clear response to United Russia’s dipping poll numbers and rather dismal results in the March regional elections. (In Kirov, they outright lost to the Communists, which also happened the year before in Irkutsk — and this with United Russia’s total media dominance.)

The point, though, seems not to be about poll numbers. United Russia would still win, and the desirable margin can be “drawn in,” as the Russians say. The point is legitimacy, assuring a population increasingly fed up with United Russia that Putin is listening to them, that he wants to include them — provided they’re “likeminded.”

“This happens every time there’s an election,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, who was just as bemused as Shlegel by the news, pointing out that national fronts are created in times of crisis and Russia has ostensibly had a party system and constitution for 20 years. “Every time, they invent a new trick for holding it together. It just underscores the ad hoc nature of Russian politics,” she said.

These tricks, let’s recall, are always rather silly. In 2007, United Russia started to sag at the corners, so the monstrously popular Putin put his name on the ballot as United Russia’s front-runner — without actually running or even joining the party. The bait-and-switch, here-take-some-of-my-mojo maneuver worked: United Russia roared into the Duma with over 64 percent of the vote, and the last vestiges of the democratic opposition were definitively locked out of Parliament. In 2008, Putin gave the party another boost, agreeing to head the party, but not joining it, an act that implies a sort of distaste for the thing. In fact, some of his utterances about the party have been less than flattering. The party, he said then, needed to “become more open for discussion and must be de-bureaucratized completely.” He also added that the party should be purged of “casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains.”

That hasn’t worked out too well: It took blogger and political activist Alexey Navalny no time or effort to create a powerful, catchy meme — “United Russia, Party of Crooks and Thieves.”

When he agreed to head the party, Putin said he was forming an alliance of “likeminded” individuals linked by their “love of Russia,” rhetoric that sounds much like today’s. He was concerned, he said, about “the spiritual unity of the people,” a trope that in Russian politics means: We’ll take care of it. This meant the same thing in Soviet times, when everyone was also dragged out to vote for a pre-determined candidate. How did they get numbers in the high ’90s when there were only a few million Communist Party members? They formed a people’s front of Party members and non-Party members alike. Back then, it was called the Bloc of Communists and Those Without a Party. According to a 1967 book called 50 Years of October: the Triumph of Marxism-Leninsm, the concept “expresses the inviolability of the moral and political unity of Soviet society.” In practice it meant, you all have to vote anyway.

Back then, however, there was an ideological underpinning, however frayed, to explain why we trust the Communist Party: “The experience of many years of struggle, the experience of the three Russian revolutions and communist construction workers convinced that the Communists have no other interests except the interests of the people.” The current ruling party has branched out, developing interests other than the interests of the people. These include, but are not limited to, real estate, business, and cars. And the attempt to gather votes with this Popular People’s Front is like going fishing with a grenade.

Putin’s Puppets [FP]

The Countdown Begins…

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

MOSCOW — Provided nothing really crazy happens, there are now 332 days left until Russia’s greatly anticipated presidential election, to be held on March 11, 2012. But the real election, such as it is, is happening now.

This is not, of course, an election in the most straightforward sense of the word. There are no real issues, no real campaigning, no real constituents — at least not in the way Westerners understand these things. Of course, on March 11, a few voters will go to the polls and cast their ballots. But everything truly important will fall into place well before that day, and it will be decided well out of the public eye. Some candidates will emerge — some dummies as well as the one the Kremlin intends to become the next president — and votes will be harvested to sweep that one candidate to power with a large but credible margin. Call it the Ratification of 2012.

At the heart of this production is a conversation between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over which of the two men will run and therefore become president in 2012 — a conversation that, for all we know, happened years ago and has already been resolved. Everyone else — the Russian press, the foreign press, the experts, the scholars, the bloggers, the man on the street, even sometimes, it seems, the two candidates themselves — is trying to figure out the outcome of that conversation: If, indeed, it’s actually been had. It is a frustrating game that, at times, resembles betting on future weather patterns: Will it snow on March 11, 2012? It has, after all, snowed on or around that day in previous years. Except that one year, with the freak heat wave …

As of now, with just under 11 months to go, the picture is still very murky. We don’t know which of the two men, Putin or Medvedev, will run. Here’s what we do know: Putin and Medvedev will not both run. “We shall come to an agreement,” Putin said when pressed on the matter back in September 2009, “because we are of one blood and common political views.” (It turned out a few months later that the two men actually have the same blood type. Presumably, the matching leather jackets were not only skin deep.)

The two have stuck to this line through nearly two years of pontificating about March 2012, and the reason is simple: If Putin ran against Medvedev, it could create a strangely real competition. This would waste a lot of resources and pit the elites against themselves, which would amp up the tensions in an already tense game of political musical chairs. And, despite Putin’s comments on April 13 that impossible was nothing, that both could easily run, this is still widely understood to be an impossibility: Real competition, real chance was surgically removed from the system years ago by Putin himself. If reality were reintroduced now, things could get seriously out of control. “It would be an apocalypse,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank closely linked to the Kremlin.

So, if it’s one or the other, what are the arguments for each? The case that Putin intended to return to glory in 2012 was once bulletproof. Back before the Ratification of 2008, after the then-president had spent eight years building up his powers to an unprecedented degree, everyone wondered whether Putin would violate the Constitution and stay on. He stepped down and picked Medvedev to take over the post. Why install the weakest, most malleable of the contenders in that race if Medvedev weren’t just a seat-warmer? “Many high-ranking officials don’t recognize [Medvedev] as a leader,” Azerbaijan’s president was quoted as saying in a WikiLeaks document.

And why, shortly before Medvedev’s accession, did Putin extend presidential term limits from four years to six? Was he not preparing — and gilding — his once-and-future throne? Talk began to circulate that Putin would come back in 2012 for another 12 years to retire in a distant 2024. This was fitting with his image as a strongman obsessed with being in control, in stark contrast with his booze-addled predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

Putin may also have some financial incentives to hold on, a logic vividly illustrated in Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s firing last fall. Luzhkov was pushed out of power; his bank and his wife’s company, Inteko, were thrown to the hungriest bidder; and Luzhkov promptly fled the country, seeking residence in Latvia or Austria. (He was later granted an entry visa to Britain, though he denied he was trying to flee.) The message was clear and chilling: If you fall from grace, you and your money are no longer safe in Russia. No one knows how much money Putin has accrued in his decade in power. He just declared that he earned $180,000 last year, but no one really believes that. There is talk of tens of billions of dollars, of friendly businessmen holding his money for him, of billion-dollar palaces on the Black Sea — all of which Putin denies. Yet if any of it is true, then how can he simply step down and risk losing it all?

About a year ago, though, the case for Putin as president-for-life began to look a bit weaker — as did Putin himself. WikiLeaks underscored a lot of the rumors Moscow reporters had been hearing on the ground, that Putin had become increasingly disengaged from work. “Well connected [redacted] told us that Putin is said to be ‘distracted’ and ‘disinterested,'” one document said. He was not on a regular schedule, often working from home and leaving the daily business to his deputies. “I think he has conflicting feelings about” whether or not he wants to come back as president, Alexander Voloshin told me this winter. (Voloshin was once Putin’s first chief of staff and still has an office directly below Putin’s in the Moscow White House.) “There is a certain fatigue there. He knows everything already, and it’s all déjà vu now to some extent. Is he chomping at the bit to come back? No. At the same time, [the presidency] is of course a position from which it’s much easier to guard one’s interests than from the premier’s position.”

He added, “And, in principle, the current situation suits him fine because it allows him to spend his time doing practical things instead of spending hours accepting innumerable awards and spending time on protocol, of which there’s plenty. Now, he is his own master, which he also likes.”

And, though the good-cop, bad-cop setup has been working well for the tandem, Medvedev has been asserting himself. In an interview with a Chinese journalist this week, he insisted that he is in fact interested in continuing on as president after 2012. Behind the scenes, he has said the same thing to anyone who will listen. An American official told me that Medvedev has repeatedly expressed his desire to stay on. “He knows that there is only one voter, though,” the official said.

Medvedev’s goal in the next year is to convince that one voter — Putin. In other words, expect to see lots of feats of strength in the coming year, like more bold firings and more unexpected policy about-faces, like the Khimki forest highway freeze. If Medvedev does manage to convince Putin, the conventional wisdom has Putin staying on as prime minister — Voloshin told me Putin is worried about the stability of the system he invented — or retiring in favor of another strongman, like vice premier, Rosneft chairman, and former spook Igor Sechin.

But there’s also a third scenario at play: the dark horse! Rumors around Moscow have a third candidate coming in to replace the tired old model, whose rankings have hit an all-time low. The three dark-horse candidates are all young liberals who have publicly pushed Medvedev’s modernization agenda at home and abroad. First, there is Arkady Dvorkovich, a young Duke University grad who serves as Medvedev’s economic advisor. He also shares Medvedev’s passion for technology; the man’s job seems to consist entirely of tweeting. Then there is Igor Shuvalov: a charismatic 40-something deputy prime minister in Putin’s camp. Shuvalov is regularly trotted out abroad or during conferences with Western investors to reassure them that Russia knows what its problems are and that it wants badly to change the status quo. Third is Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a stalwart if somewhat dry pragmatist who saved Russia from falling into the abyss during the 2008 financial crisis.

But, of course, the third candidate could be anyone else. In 2008, there were 12 contenders in all. And, as Pavlovsky points out, “a third candidate [winning] is only possible in one scenario: if there is a stalemate between Putin and Medvedev, and neither of them backs down.” Exciting as this would be for Kremlin-watchers, it’s not a likely outcome.

As for Putin’s reported fatigue, Pavlovsky is dubious. “It’s not a question of psychology but of politics,” he told me. “He might be tired, but he can’t just abandon the huge numbers of people who depend on him. He’s our Fannie Mae.” He added, “Besides, Putin is not an old man. He’s turning 59 this year. Leonid Brezhnev became general secretary of the Communist Party when he was 59.”

The Countdown Begins… FP]

Who’s Crusading Now?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

MOSCOW — Those scouring the tea leaves for hints about how Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shares power with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were richly rewarded on Monday with a rare bit of public sniping between the two.

As bombs rained down on Libya, Putin toured a plant east of Moscow that makes Russia’s array of ballistic and intercontinental missiles, like the Bulava and the Iskander. A worker asked Putin what he thought of the situation in Libya, and the prime minister told him, as bluntly and saltily as ever.

“This resolution of the Security Council is clearly incomplete and flawed,” he said, referring to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to stop Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians, short of an occupation of Libya. Russia, along with the other BRIC countries and Germany, had abstained from the vote. Putin didn’t stop there, though. If you really read the resolution, said Putin, “it becomes clear that it allows anyone to take any action against a sovereign state.” He went on: “And anyway, it reminds me of a medieval call for the Crusades, when someone would call on someone to go to some place and liberate something.”

A few hours later, Medvedev chastised his partner. “It is unacceptable to use language that, in essence, can lead to a clash of civilizations, like the Crusades and such,” he said, while bemoaning the loss of civilian life in the coalition airstrikes. “It is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable? Did Medvedev, clearly the junior member in the ruling “tandem,” really publicly call Putin’s words “unacceptable”? Was this a rare indication that Medvedev has a political backbone of his own and might be capable of standing up to Putin’s more steely will? And, because there is only a year left until the presidential election — er, decision — of 2012, what does this mean for both candidates’ backroom plans? Was it a sign that Medvedev would want to remain in the presidency, and contest Putin’s rumored plan to take back his seat?

No such luck, dear tea readers. Although public disagreement in the tandem is a rarity, this is not the first time the two heads of state have sparred. (Whenever they do so, it’s also worth remembering the good-cop, bad-cop setup of the ruling tandem.) Moreover, the verbal disagreement seems much bigger than it actually is, given Russia’s generally permissive position on Operation Odyssey Dawn. Russia could easily have vetoed Resolution 1973, but chose to abstain, thereby enabling the operation.

So why is Putin so upset? The abstention puts Russia in an uncomfortable position. Russia does not like it when “someone” tells “someone” to go and “liberate something.” In 1999, for instance, when a NATO coalition bombed Yugoslavia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars, Russia took its complaint to the United Nations. It tried to pass a resolution stating that “such unilateral use of force constitutes a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter.” The bid was unsuccessful, but the Western intervention in that war continues to rankle Russia, which still feels threatened by the expansion of NATO, an alliance that was created to confront (Soviet) Moscow.

Perhaps because of this history, any intervention seems to hit a Russian nerve, however reflexive, that it could be next in line. But it also bears mentioning that there are frequently rubles at stake: The countries invaded are often Russian allies, and lucrative ones at that. Qaddafi was such an ally. Under his auspices, Russia and Libya forged a fruitful economic alliance. Just a year ago, Libya bought nearly $2 billion worth of weapons in a high-profile deal. Sources have told the Russian daily Kommersant that not only was Libya expected to be one of the first buyers of Russia’s new generation of fighter planes, but that another $2 billion in planes and anti-aircraft weaponry was in the pipeline. Russian Railways, one of the biggest government monopolies, had just won a $3 billion tender to build a railroad linking Libyan cities on the Mediterranean coast. Now, U.S. and European rockets are landing dangerously close to the Russian Railways factory at Ras Lanuf. They could also threaten to damage the installations of Gazprom and oil company Tatneft.

It’s no coincidence that Putin spoke at a factory that could be hurt by any drop-off in Russian arms deals: He promised workers at the factory, Russia’s main rocket producer, that he would double government orders, partly to compensate for any drop-off in smaller arms deals with Libya.

“[Putin’s] trademark colorful rhetoric was to compensate constituents who lost money because of the Security Council resolution,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This was absolutely for internal consumption.”

Medvedev’s response, on the other hand, was for external consumption. It was also no coincidence that he stepped into the fray just as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was speaking to Russian Navy officers in St. Petersburg, praising U.S.-Russia cooperation and the Kremlin’s decision to abstain rather than veto the Security Council resolution. There were even reports that Medvedev was leaning toward supporting the resolution.

Clearly, the Kremlin’s calculation was that there was no use propping up Libya’s sinking ship at the risk of seriously alienating Europe, still Russia’s biggest trading partner, and the United States. Russia was never going to support the intervention in Libya, but, in this case, it clearly calculated that remaining silent would reap the far bigger fruit. Not to mention all this disorder has sent the prices of oil and gold — two major Russian commodities — through the roof, and Russia has a not insignificant budget deficit to fill.

Major decisions like not vetoing in a classic veto situation are not generally reached without the agreement of both halves of the diuumvirate. “Of course they would have reached the decision together,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank closely linked to the Kremlin. And, at the end of the day, with such a major guest wheeling around the country, the message for external consumption won out. Russian television covered only Medvedev’s statement. “On the whole, this resolution reflects our understanding of the situation in Libya, which is why we didn’t use our veto power,” the president said, after registering the standard reservations about the futility of using force. (Russia also took the unusual step of abruptly firing its ambassador to Libya on the eve of the Security Council vote, for “not having an adequate understanding of Russian interests in Libya.” Allegedly, he was advocating for Russia to veto the resolution.) Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalia Timakova, as well as others close to the administration, tried to paper over the difference between the two leaders, saying that the president’s anti-Crusades slap was not aimed at Putin at all. “He meant Qaddafi and everyone who uses such expressions,” Timakova said. (Qaddafi had earlier called the attack on his country a “colonial crusade.”)

As for Putin’s statement on the Crusades, it was simply his personal opinion, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. Russia’s position on these things is the one voiced by Medvedev, Peskov said, “which is why he is more balanced in his reasoning on this topic.”

Who’s Crusading Now? [FP]

Reset 2.0

Friday, March 11th, 2011

MOSCOW — You can’t really blame U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. It was the end of a long visit to Moscow. For two days, he flitted from meetings to receptions to meetings; he had to see to the happiness of his wife and granddaughter Finnegan, whom he had brought along; and, on top of it all, he had a cold. He was tired. By the time he delivered a major policy speech at Moscow State University on March 10 laying out the Obama administration’s vision of the reset’s next phase, he seemed barely there. And by the time he got around to getting tough with the Russians and invoking the case of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Biden froze. “Over the past few months, our administration has spoken out against allegations of misconduct,” he began, “in the trial of, uh, uh, uh, the uh, excuse me, uh, Kamero … Kerminsky!” he sputtered. And then, by way of apology: “You can tell I didn’t do very well in Russian.”

The linguistic flops aside — Biden said he had brought Finnegan to see the home of the Russian cultural giants, all of whose names proved impossible — the speech was a greatest-hits compilation of everything Barack Obama’s administration has done and has wanted to do, has said publicly and has said privately, vis-à-vis Russia. New START? Check. Shipments of supplies to Afghanistan via Russia? Check. Cooperation on Iran? Check. Fostering an atmosphere of increased trust, starting to build economic ties, gently pressing Russia on rule of law and human rights issues? Ditto. Since last summer, and especially since New START treaty was ratified by the United States in December, the two countries have been working on the economic side of the relationship, with Washington quietly pushing Moscow on rule-of-law issues. Biden’s speech, though, marked a more high-profile appraisal of the reset and in some ways a road map as to where it is headed next. “This reflects what we’ve been talking about since the beginning of the reset,” said a source involved in the trip’s preparations. “The only change is that we’re now building the next phase.”

The next phase is a two-pronged approach, using the trusted carrot and stick. “The next frontier in our relationship,” Biden said, “will be building stronger ties in trade and commerce that match the security accomplishments of the last two years.” In other words, this means Russia’s long-overdue accession to the World Trade Organization and the equally overdue repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 law built to punish the Soviet Union for not allowing Jews to emigrate but which now prevents Russia from having normal trade relations with the United States.

In turn, that should mean a wave of American investment in Russia, like PepsiCo’s recent purchase, for $4 billion, of Wimm-Bill-Dann, Russia’s largest juice and dairy conglomerate. (In Biden’s mind, though, this was more a fruit of Obama’s political capital: “Imagine, five years ago, the likelihood that an American company could buy the largest anything in Russia.”) There have also been recent big-money deals involving ExxonMobil, Chevron, John Deere, Microsoft, and Alcoa. And on March 9, with Biden and Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov watching, the Russian airline Aeroflot signed a deal buying $2 billion worth of Boeing planes, at a 20 percent discount. (Likewise, there have also been significant investments in the United States by Russian companies like Evraz, a steel company, and Lukoil.) But, as Biden pointed out, Russia was America’s 37th-largest export market last year. “We’ve got to do better,” he said. “We’ve got to do better.”

Then came the stick. “But you in this room know as well as anyone that even if liberalizing our trade relationship, Russia’s business and legal climate are frankly going to have to improve,” Biden said to an auditorium full of business people. “Because right now, for many companies, it presents a fundamental obstacle.” Then he quoted President Dmitry Medvedev’s description of Russia’s problem of “legal nihilism” and used a maneuver he often resorted to in the speech: “Not my quote,” Biden said. “His quote.” (Message: I’m not Bush; I’m not lecturing.)

Biden went on to mention lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail in 2009 after exposing a scheme used by three Interior Ministry officials to defraud the Russian treasury of $230 million, and invoked poor, garbled Khodorkovsky. (The latter, the vice president said, was imprisoned “on a political whim.”) Biden’s point, and one Russia watchers have been making for years, is that you can’t simply will investors to Russia. “No amount of government cheerleading, or public relations, or U.S. support, or rebranding will bring wronged or nervous investors back to a market they perceive to have these shortcomings,” he said. “I’m not here to lecture; I’m not here to preach; and I’m not here to tell Russia what to do,” he added, but if Russia wanted foreign investors to come back there was only one thing it could do: “Get your system right.”

The vice president’s team was at pains to portray the speech as nothing out of the ordinary, as one that simply advanced the reset agenda. “We now have a record of achievement on security,” said a senior administration official. “This trip was about one piece of the reset that’s underdeveloped, and that is trade and economic ties. What the vice president said in his speech are messages we’ve been consistently sending, through White House statements on Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky; we’ve had half a dozen statements on Strategy 31 [the movement that protests on the 31st of every 31-day month for freedom of assembly]. In our opinion, we’ve had a consistent message.”

But to everyone who heard it — and to the people who interrupted Biden’s speech to applaud — it was new, because a White House statement that barely registers on a news wire is not the same thing as a vice presidential policy speech, delivered in Moscow. It was also unusual for another reason, as the Obama administration has so far been reluctant to take this tone, at least publicly. Although there have been discussions behind the scenes about the Khodorkovsky case and official boilerplate statements, policy speeches, like Obama’s in Moscow in July 2009, usually limit themselves to abstract “universal values” or focus instead on strategic cooperation, like New START and Iran.

The stranger thing, though, was the fallout from the speech. Namely, there wasn’t any. There was some bluster from the corners that are expected to bluster, like Duma deputy and foreign-policy hawk Sergei Markov. “From what I understand, the subtext of Biden’s speech was ‘Basically, I have to follow Obama’s orders, but basically I hate Russia and I hope that the reset blows up,'” he said, adding that he has yet to see any tangible benefits for Russia from the reset.

In general, though, Biden’s speech passed like the life-advice talk your well-meaning uncle gives you on the sidelines of a family dinner. It’s nice and maybe a little annoying, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before and you’d rather just go back to drinking with your cousins.

Russian media ignored it, just as Biden largely ignored Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s out-of-left-field suggestion, at their meeting earlier that day, to just drop visa requirements between Russia and the United States. (Biden, a bit taken aback, was reported to have said it was a “good idea” and promised to think it over.) But his speech, in itself, is a massive sign of progress. A similar speech by someone from George W. Bush’s administration — or, God forbid, former Vice President Dick Cheney himself — would have triggered a vicious rhetorical war. But Biden’s critique was calmly received, due in equal parts to the tactful phrasing, the two years of public deference to Russia, and perhaps the uncertainty about who will be leading the two countries after 2012. It’s also a signal of a deepening familiarity between Russia and the United States, notes Fyodor Lukyanov, the well-connected editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “This is the Chinese method,” he explained. “Obama said all kinds of things in China, and China didn’t react. There was no publicity, no change in Chinese policy. Now, in Russia, there’s an understanding that the Americans have to say it, that’s their style. Fine. They want to talk? Let them talk.”

As for the commercial ties, Lukyanov is equally skeptical. “America and Russia will never be major economic partners; it will all stay in Europe,” he said. And in Europe, talk is very different. “The Europeans have to say this stuff about human rights and democracy in public,” Lukyanov explains. “But in private, it’s only about business.”

Reset 2.0 [FP]

Binging on Purging

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Just after 4:30 pm Moscow time on Monday, a man with a suitcase walked into a crowd at the international arrivals terminal in Domodedovo, Russia’s busiest airport, and the suitcase blew up. Or maybe it was a man with explosives strapped to his body. Unless it was a woman who opened her bag, triggering an explosion that blew off the head of the man accompanying her. A day after the bombing at Domodedovo that killed 35 people, including several foreigners, and injured over 100, no one has yet claimed responsibility and there is little to go on except a closed-circuit tape of the moment of the blast and a grainy photo of the alleged bomber’s severed head.

But, even before the medics could carry the bodies out of the airport, the finger-pointing began. Within hours of the attack, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on the air with the opening salvo. “The airport is a good one, everyone recognizes this. It’s new and modern,” the president said on state television. “But what happened shows there were severe security breaches. And everyone there who takes part in decision making should bear responsibility for this, including the management of the airport.”

Said (privately owned) airport immediately fired back. “We think that we should not bear responsibility for the blast, as all the requirements of aviation safety were met by our personnel,” a Domodedovo spokeswoman said, adding that it was far too early to parcel out the blame.

United Russia Duma deputy Alexandr Khinshtein, meanwhile, did not. He had a different culprit. In fact, he had three, though no one had ever heard of them. “I am certain that the chief of the security division of Domodedovo, the chief of the transportation department of the Interior Ministry of the Central Federal District, the chief of transportation security of the Interior Ministry — if they consider themselves officers, they must write letters of resignation,” Khinshtein said on Tuesday.

Medvedev seemed to agree. Later that day, he did something that he knew would make everyone in Russia feel better: He asked Rashid Nurgaliev, the interior minister, to present him with a list of people to fire, by the end of the day. (He hasn’t, yet.)

Firing people seems to be the best way out of any difficult situation in contemporary Russia. Transportation collapse at peak holiday travel season due to unforeseeable meteorology? Fire the deputy director of Aeroflot Airlines. Internationally controversial death of a lawyer in highly questionable police custody? No problem! Just fire 20 prison officials. Catastrophic fire at a provincial nightclub that leaves 148 people dead? Fire the nightclub’s management, and, while you’re at it, force the entire region’s government to resign for good measure.

Russians love firing people, because it’s fast, cheap, and easy. If you fire people, you don’t have to, say, examine the way fire codes are implemented and clean out a cadre of corrupt fire safety inspectors. You don’t have to overhaul the entire Interior Ministry to punish the inspectors who first defrauded the Russian treasury of $230 million and then put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in jail for investigating it. And you certainly don’t, in the case of the Domodedovo bombing, have to pursue a delicately balanced counterterrorism strategy in the North Caucasus.

It wasn’t always like this. In November 2009, Medvedev pleasantly surprised many when he spoke of the increasingly violent and uncontainable Caucasus in his address to the nation’s political elite. “It is evident that the source of many problems lies primarily in the region’s economic backwardness and the absence of the promise of a normal life for most people,” he said, finally acknowledging the complex factors — poverty and corruption, as well as radical Islam — that feed the growing insurgency in the area. “We will pay attention to the resolution of social and economic problems,” Medvedev promised. He even appointed a young-ish businessman, Alexander Khloponin, to preside over a newly delineated federal district in the area.

After two wars and extensive — and notoriously brutal — Russian operations to snuff out resistance in Chechnya, the North Caucasus has been stubbornly spinning out of control in the last few years, with violence spilling into neighboring Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Hardly a week goes by without news of a suicide bombing or of Russian troops “eliminating” yet another nest of fighters. But those missions alone have so far yielded few results: By Moscow’s own estimates, terrorist attacks in the region doubled in 2010.

Just a year after announcing his new plan, however, Medvedev seems to have entirely forgotten about it. “What happened to the strategy? Was it successful? Was it even being pursued?” asks Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made some gestures toward assisting the region, including chastising his cabinet — just a day before the Domodedovo bombing — for holding back progress in the region, and pledging $13 billion to various stimulus projects there. But the strategy is generally seen as unsuccessful and bogged down in the usual government corruption. There’s no sign that Putin’s stab at it will be any different. Says Lipman, “It’s the right policy toward the region, but it takes a decade — or decades — to pursue. It’s simpler learn to live with the reality of terrorism if you can’t solve it in the short term.” Removing people from their posts is part of that palliative strategy.

Firing, of course, may be a sign of political evolution, if an ambivalent one. Back when Putin was president, there was little public-penance firing to speak of. In the aftermath of a terror attack, like Beslan or the hostage crisis at Dubrovka, Putin would turn to his rattled nation, and reassure them with tough talk and aggressively scatological metaphors.

Under Medvedev — at least in the areas where he is allowed to exercise a modicum of political muscle — there is still the tough talk, though much toned down. (When he ran into journalist Oleg Kashin on his trip to Israel, Medvedev told him he would “tear the heads off” the two men who beat Kashin up.) But Medvedev is a liberal, and he likes to show that he is listening and that he is outraged when something bad happens in his government. Being a Russian liberal, however, he must show that he can and will act swiftly to punish those who, say, allow his subjects to gather unprotected in the nation’s airport terminals. And because he cannot change the system — and because his subjects know he can’t — he must find the specific people responsible for each seemingly relevant dereliction.

“This is a Russian tradition because there is no tradition of political responsibility,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank linked to the Kremlin. “The idea of political responsibility is now seen as political terror, as Stalinism.” The fear of repeating the purges of the late 1930s has swung so far the other way that now “there’s a tendency to look for that one specific person who didn’t put the metal detector in the right place, and maybe his boss, and fire them. And the problem with insisting on personal responsibility is you end up with the head of the government surrounded by the same people that can sometimes change places, but they’re never going to bring any systemic change in their ministries.”

That is, the people who matter — whose departures could significantly improve the ministries and agencies they head — never get fired. The officials who are publicly fired are usually of middling deputy rank, sacrificial lambs whose departures rarely make a difference save for a quick political catharsis, and quick political hay.

Speaking today at the FSB board, Medvedev seemed to acknowledge the futility of this approach. “Unfortunately, it always happens like this here,” he said. “After unfortunate events, we mobilize all our resources, everyone is called upon to be extremely attentive. Everything works in this way for a while — the armed forces, the law enforcement agencies. Even the citizens have a more responsible attitude.” And then? And then “there is a loss of control and vigilance.”

And then Medvedev asked his interior minister for the list of people to fire.

Binging on Purging [FP]

Meet the Persident

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

In his off-hours, a seemingly dutiful government servant in Czar Nicholas I’s Ministry of Finance would pass the time jotting down little aphorisms. Some were obscure in meaning: “Not every general is stout by nature.” Or, “If you have a fountain, plug it up. Let the fountain too have a rest.” Others mocked the state for which the official, a heavy-browed and dimple-chinned man named Kozma Prutkov, worked. “Our land is rich; there is just no order in it,” he wrote of Russia under Nicholas, a reactionary authoritarian who personally censored the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and whose education minister came up with the dubious motto of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” Prutkov’s very existence — a doltish, maudlin bureaucrat in a state overflowing with them — was itself an admonition to the regime.

Prutkov, however, did not actually exist. His verses and indelible image were the invention of writer Aleksey Tolstoy and his cousins, the Zhemchuzhnikov brothers, who published his short witticisms in the thick literary journals so popular at the time.

It’s hard not to think of Prutkov when scrolling through the short, sharp parodies on KermlinRussia, the wildly popular new Twitter account lampooning President Dmitry Medvedev and his anodyne official news feed at KremlinRussia. KermlinRussia’s persona — that of a solipsistic, foolish child-president — seems an apt echo of the earlier satirist’s bumbling scribbles. When I asked the anonymous author of the Twitter parody whether he was a latter-day Prutkov, he responded with characteristic bite: “More like a lie detector.”

As of this writing, KermlinRussia has more than 50,000 followers and is adding a thousand or more each week. Its tweets, like Prutkov’s acerbic little commentaries, pack the kind of sharp nuance for which Twitter is so well-suited, weaving together current events, history, literary allusions, and a very Russian sense of the absurd, all in 140 characters or less. It has been a successful formula. Not only is KermlinRussia the third-most popular Twitter account on the Russian-language Internet, it has among its followers the cream of the Moscow chattering classes and 40 percent of the real Medvedev’s followers. All this has transpired over less than half a year, while readers remain happily unaware of the author’s true identity, a tightly guarded secret.

When I asked KermlinRussia’s author for an interview, the “Persident of Ruissia” agreed to grant one but only via Skype, through an account created just for the interview — security fit for any world leader. The Persident dialed in first.

“Hello?” she said.

It’s interesting, I noted out loud, that a country as patriarchal as Ruissia should have a female persident.

“Yes, it’s unexpected, isn’t it?” the Persident said, and released an airy, tinkling laugh.

“There’s a male voice, too!” chirped a young man. “There’s an author and a co-author,” he added.

The author and co-author — let’s call them Masha and Sasha — are young (“between 20 and 30,” as they like to say) professionals, both of whom studied at St. Petersburg State University, an honor they share with Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and author Ayn Rand.* There, the two studied journalism (Masha) and economics (Sasha), and they now work as a copywriter (Masha) and financial analyst (Sasha).

Sasha’s idea for a parody Twitter feed came about when Medvedev visited Silicon Valley last June and, to much fanfare, started his official Twitter account.

At the time, Sasha was already in what he called “a protesting mood.” He hated that the division between business and government in Russia had become so negligible that even though he worked for a private company, his job amounted to ratifying public corruption. He hated the lack of professionalism, the lack of logic, the slapdash, emotional decision-making, the fact that Kremlin connections outweigh results. He hated that “all our politics are centered on thousands of people guessing about what kind of relationship Putin and Medvedev have.”

“Basically, this is the system that’s formed here, and I find it deeply repulsive,” Sasha told me in our Skype call, his ebullience fading to despair.

Sasha’s first tweet came on June 25, two days after Medvedev’s first tweet (with a typo, for ambience) from Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. At first, Sasha just retweeted the president’s bland messages. Then his writing skills — and years of barely repressed grievances — kicked in.

“I don’t understand all this talk of hours-long traffic jams,” he tweeted as the bizarro president, jabbing at the epic standstills created when the roads into the Russian capital are closed off to make way for functionaries zooming in from the ritzy outer suburbs in their speeding Mercedes: A trip from Rublevka, the Russian Beverly Hills, easily takes an hour or more for commoners. “Personally, I always get to the Kremlin from Rublevka in 10-15 minutes.” On the corruption and wildly growing bill for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: “In order to save 327 bn. rubles, the decision has been made to move the venue for the Olympic games from Sochi to Vancouver, where everything is already ready.” On the graft that accompanied the Kremlin bailout in 2008 and 2009: “It’s important not to allow a second wave of the economic crisis as the stabilization fund has already been looted.” On the lack of elections of governors: “Today the elections of the governors of Karelia and Chuvashia were held in my office.” When a controversial law giving the internal security service known as the FSB significantly wider reach was being discussed: “The amendments to the FSB law will give the special services powers necessary for guarding the country’s most valuable possession — the country’s citizens.”

One of Sasha’s great gifts as a tweeter is his ability to deftly link the seemingly unrelated — all in service of underscoring the absurdity of Russian political life. When a list surfaced of the plum businesses headed by bureaucrats’ children, he connected it to the government’s campaign to spark an entrepreneurial culture: “Governors need to have more children so that the country will have more successful young entrepreneurs,” he wrote. Commenting on the battle against corruption that seems to have only made corruption worse, he managed a jibe at the falsehoods of state television too: “Everyone who observes what’s happening in the country on television will note that corruption is decreasing.” When the second trial of already jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrapped up with observers expecting the inevitable additional lengthy sentence, KermlinRussia invoked the widely held notion that Putin will take back the presidency in 2012. “When Khodorkovsky finishes his second term, Putin will be finishing up his second second term.”

Over the summer, Sasha convinced his good friend Masha to join. With Masha on board, the tweets became richer, more layered. “The second dissident” — i.e., Masha — “has a very fine sense of language,” Sasha told me. “Approximately 70 percent of the tweets with the complex humor? Those aren’t mine.” Masha has a background in Soviet film and a head full of obscure quotes, giving some of her contributions bonus-points-level opacity. When Dmitry Zelenin, governor of the Tver region, found a worm in his salad at a Kremlin reception and got in trouble for tweeting a photo of it, Masha wrote: “Eisenstein got an Oscar for his worms. What’s Zelenin angling for?” No one got it. “In the film Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein, the plot turns on the part where the sailors are served maggoty meat and they’re forced to eat it,” Masha explained to me. “And of course it turns into a mutiny, and the rest we know from history books.”

Both Sasha and Masha have a propensity, like many young Russians, to speak in the floridly vague, precisely obfuscatory language of the ruling class. They’ve learned to speak like the bureaucrats who control their lives. In conversation, as well as on the KermlinRussia feed, their indirection and polysyllabic jumbles sound just like the officious ballast of the actual president, until the tweet suddenly disintegrates into a Gogolian absurdity. Consider these persidential tweets: “For a number of categories of citizens, drunkenness or intoxication at the time of the committing of the crime will be a mitigating circumstance. Similarly, the mitigation of punishment will require the provision of a document, according to which the citizen committing the crime was already a fuckwit.” There just isn’t that much KermlinRussia needs to do to make Russian reality funny.

IN A COUNTRY WHERE the presented reality usually smacks a bit of hallucination or, at best, a joke, and where the political system has almost always been closed, opaque, and absurd, satire has long played a key role. “Irony is a classic phenomenon of a totalitarian culture and a closed society,” observed Irina Prokhorova, a scholar of culture and the elder sister of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Glancing sarcasm and mockery reached their peak in the late days of the Soviet Union, when few believed in a system that was stagflating itself out of existence. This was the period of the famous anekdoty: short, canned jokes that played with the drab reality of Soviet life, the absurdity of the country’s leadership, the tectonic separation between words and meaning. (For example: What is happiness? Living in a socialist country that is building communism and striving for a bright and happy future. What is unhappiness? Having such happiness.) Anekdoty were also a means of analysis, of sharing knowledge that was unavailable in official media. The jokes were told for hours at the famous Soviet kitchen tables, the cramped linoleum corners into which civil society had been pushed.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse and the brief flowering of journalistic liberty that followed, anekdoty became more mainstream and gradually less relevant. Real satire was making its way into the media. Writer Viktor Shenderovich became a star for his TV program Kukly, which used puppets of the country’s politicians and businessmen to deliver potent, hilarious political comedy — a Daily Show for post-Soviet Russia. But that didn’t last long. At the top of Putin’s agenda when he came to power in 2000 was regaining control over television. He didn’t like his portrayal on Shenderovich’s show, so he took over the channel that aired it and quickly snuffed the program.

Putin’s clampdown created a vacuum: There was no longer real space for making sense of the changes happening so rapidly in the country. Eventually, the Internet filled most of that blank spot, but in the absence of real political discourse, the anekdoty started creeping back. “The tradition is being revived because civil society is feeling increasingly squeezed,” Prokhorova said. “And this is the tried-and-true societal reaction: irony, mockery. It’s not as bad as in the Soviet Union, but the elements are there and they’re recognizable.”

This time, however, anekdoty have morphed into digital-era equivalents like KermlinRussia, allowed to exist for its tens of thousands of followers, a minuscule nothing in a country of 140 million. “Satire will never go away,” Shenderovich told me. “It’ll always find a way out like water finds a hole. The question is, will it be on the margins, like on the Internet … or will it be on prime time, like Jon Stewart?”

The authors of KermlinRussia do not see themselves as an outgrowth of the tradition of anekdoty — it is “a dead genre,” according to Sasha — but there is one powerful link between the two: Both forms of satire are necessarily anonymous. No one knew who wrote the anekdoty before they were launched into the perfume-bottle atomizer of Soviet society. They just circulated. “I would have really liked to know the names of the people who wrote them,” Shenderovich said. “But of course I was not the only one who wanted to know their identities, which is why they were anonymous.”

This is also why the two halves of the Ruissian Persidency — like the anekdoty authors before them and the men behind Kozma Prutkov before that — prefer to remain nameless. Until our interview, KermlinRussia had talked to the media only by chat service, and only in character. Exposure, they say, could well cost them their jobs. It would also spoil the whole carefully constructed image of the parallel tweets of the Russian president, slightly warped at the edges. Said Masha, using a particularly Russian turn of phrase, “Why reveal information if you can not reveal it?”

But Masha’s is a larger point that speaks to the reason why KermlinRussia has resonated so deeply in the Russian blogosphere: It plays on the image of Medvedev as a cheerful, gadget-happy man warming the seat for the grimmer proto-czar Putin — a fake leader no one, including many in the government hierarchy, much believes in. Medvedev is already viewed as a parody; KermlinRussia is almost a form of wish fulfillment. “What people really want is for Medvedev himself to be writing it,” Masha explained. “People still have this hope that our president is actually a witty, discerning, thinking person. Everyone’s constantly writing to us that KermlinRussia is just his alter ego, that these are his real thoughts, and that what he writes in the official Twitter is just PR.”

As for the president himself, Masha and Sasha are “100 percent certain” that he reads their tweets. The presidential press service told me that everyone in the administration knows of KermlinRussia’s existence, but would not comment on whether Medvedev himself actually reads it. When pressed, they stonewalled: “We were stumped by your query,” they said.

Two weeks later came a strange riposte: The president was leaving his KremlinRussia account. Instead, he was starting a new Twitter feed that no one would confuse with Kermlin: MedvedevRussia. He took all 122,000 of his Kremlin followers with him. “Goodbye to everyone who is now with @MedvedevRussia,” Kermlin tweeted when the news broke. “Hello to everyone who never confused the two accounts to begin with.”

Meet the Persident [FP]

The Verdict Is In

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

There is one word that comes to mind when watching the drama surrounding the Mikhail Khodorkovsky verdict and sentence today of 13.5 years in prison. Perhaps tellingly, it is a Russian word: naglost’. English simply doesn’t have one word that packs into so few letters all that naglost’ means: arrogance, contemptuous malice, obnoxiousness, brazenness, insolence, impudence, and sheer nerve. Google Translate suggests no fewer than 22 synonyms, none of which captures the fullness of the word as well as the Russian government has embodied it in this case.

There was, for instance, the postponement. The verdict was supposed to be read on the morning of Dec. 15. Camera crews, journalists, and a crowd of Khodorkovsky supporters showed up at the courthouse to find a piece of paper taped to the courtroom door. The verdict would now be read on Dec. 27, it read, when the world — and foreign journalists — would be on holiday. No one had bothered to alert Khodorkovsky’s legal team. When asked for an explanation, the court spokeswoman snapped, “The court does not explain itself.”

When the court reconvened on Dec. 27, just before the reading of the verdict could commence, Judge Viktor Danilkin called a 15-minute recess. After it was over, he simply didn’t let the journalists back in. Then he shut off the simulcast of the proceedings and kicked Khodorkovsky’s wife and daughter out of the room.

And just when one thought the naglost’ had surely peaked, the court — and, by extension, the Russian government — showed how much farther they could go. In October, the prosecution had cut the volume of oil allegedly stolen by Khodorkovsky from 350 million tons to 218 million, citing a lack of evidence and arithmetical error. But on Dec. 29, Judge Danilkin found Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev guilty of stealing — that’s right — 350 million tons of oil. The judge overrode the prosecution, apparently deciding that it was not being prosecutorial enough.

And there’s more: On the second day of monotonous reading (the verdict is some 250 pages, most of which simply recapitulates the trial and all of which has to be read aloud), Danilkin challenged the testimonies of German Gref, the minister of economics and trade from 2000 to 2007, and of Viktor Khristenko, minister of industry. Both had reluctantly testified on Khodorkovsky’s behalf this summer, but Danilkin said that their testimony merely proved Khodorkovsky’s guilt. What had they said in court? Gref testified that had 350 million tons of oil been stolen under his watch, he surely would have noticed — and he didn’t notice any such theft. Khristenko, for his part, explained why it is impossible to accuse Yukos (Khodorkovsky’s oil company) of stealing oil at all. But Danilkin seemed to think that it was, in fact, very possible, and reminded everyone of a crucial detail that, in his view, mortally compromised the two high-level government officials: They had been subpoenaed by the defense. And the defense, let’s recall, is not anything the Russian judiciary takes seriously, even when trying to imitate a fair trial.

On Dec. 30, the third day of the reading, Danilkin accused Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of withholding dividends from shareholders — which, he said, “hurt their feelings” — even though the day before he had found the two former oil executives guilty of bribing board members and shareholders so they would participate in Khodorkovsky’s plot to steal 218 million — wait, no, 350 million tons of oil. How did he bribe them? He paid them dividends.

One could go further and expose more reasoning such as this, reasoning one could call circular if that circle didn’t instantly collapse on itself. It seems a pointless exercise, however, when the charges themselves are completely nonsensical: Khodorkovsky has just been convicted and sentenced for stealing all the oil his company ever produced, after having been convicted and sentenced in 2005 for not paying taxes on all the oil his company ever produced.

Much of the coverage of the verdict and trial has described the affair as a farce, but farce cannot be the right word when, at every step, the court has displayed such a flippant disregard for even the barest semblance of logic, or when it pulls such childishly malicious stunts as coaxing the press out of the courtroom. (Or when it seems to just be half asleep: In the course of mechanically reading the verdict, Danilkin occasionally read pages twice, or pages from something else altogether that had somehow made it into his stack of paper.)

Sadly, this is not just about the Khodorkovsky case, which is still ignored by a massive — if shrinking — segment of the Russian population. This is about a large and growing arrogant impudence embodied not by the Kremlin, but by the real master of the house, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Plans to hew a road through the federally protected Khimki forest this summer sparked an unexpectedly fierce public resistance, so President Dmitry Medvedev pulled the plug on the project until the experts could deliver their opinion (which no one had asked them for in the beginning). Earlier this month, however, the original plan for the road was reapproved: Putin’s friend, Arkady Rotenberg, just had too much money riding on the project.

What else? In November, the lawyer-cum-blogger Alexei Navalny posted Treasury Department documents showing that Transneft, the state oil transport monopoly, had stolen a humble $4 billion in building an oil pipeline to China. How did the government respond? The next day, Putin publicly thanked Transneft “for its big contribution to the development of energy cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.”

During Putin’s annual December phone-a-thon with the Russian public, he received a question from the town of Ivanovo, from a cardiologist named Ivan Khrenov. Khrenov alleged that all that hi-tech equipment and the happy, well-paid doctors the premier saw during his visit this November to Khrenov’s hospital had been brought in for the occasion, a near-literal Potemkin Village. “What you saw in the wards also has little to do with the real situation,” Khrenov said during the live broadcast. “Most of the patients were asked to leave the hospital on the day of your visit, and in some wards the patients were disguised as members of the hospital’s staff.” Putin, seemingly surprised and dismayed by this allegation, ordered an investigation. But the special commission investigating the charges found that Khrenov had been lying, of course. (Khrenov is now being accused of slander, in a turn of events reminiscent of Alexey Dymovsky, a police officer who issued a YouTube video detailing grotesque corruption in his unit. He was jailed and bankrupted.)

The most shocking example of this fuck-you attitude is the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer for Hermitage Capital, then the biggest foreign investment company in Russia. He died in November 2009 under stomach-turning conditions while being held in pre-trial detention. He had been put in prison ostensibly for evading taxes, though he was forced to recant his findings that three Interior Ministry employees had, through forged Hermitage documents, stolen $230 million of Russian tax revenue. Despite the shock over Magnitsky’s death, this November the Interior Ministry awarded those same officers medals for exceptional service. Earlier, an investigative committee had found that Magnitsky himself was party to stealing that money. This after Medvedev pledged to punish those responsible for Magnitsky’s death.

This is at the core of Putin’s image as a salty man of the people who speaks his mind: He does things his way, and, when his way is challenged, he will contemptuously, insolently, flip the world and his subjects a giant, brazen bird. Thus his Foreign Ministry told foreign leaders — like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who issued flabbergasted statements criticizing the Khodorkovsky conviction — to “mind [their] own business, both at home and abroad.”

To many, it is reminiscent of the behavior of street thugs (of which Putin was one until he tried to join the KGB and was told to first go to college) or of the gulag barracks: Any sign of compromise is weakness, and any sign of weakness starts the countdown to your demise. How do you show strength and leadership in today’s Russia? Be brazen, be rude, be ruthless.

“It is unaccountability par excellence,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “You can do whatever you want because you’re the man of the house. And even when the action seems to be beyond the pale” — say, postponing the hotly awaited Khodorkovsky verdict with a note on the door — “they seem to say, ‘You’ll eat it, and you’ll like it.'” This is what’s known in Russia as the Churov rule, named after Vladimir Churov, an eccentric old man doggedly loyal to Putin and known to his employees at the Russian Central Election Committee as “Grandpa.” “Putin is always right,” he told an interviewer in 2007. And if he’s wrong? Churov replied: “Can Putin really be wrong?”

The Verdict Is In [FP]

The Wheels of Injustice Grind Slowly

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

MOSCOW — When journalists showed up to hear the judge read the long-awaited verdict in the case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they found a note on the courthouse door. The reading of the verdict, it said, would be postponed. It was still early in the morning, though, and the note — unsigned and typewritten — seemed like it could easily be fake. This was, after all, the denouement of a highly politicized, hyper-publicized trial, both in Russia and abroad. So one of the puzzled journalists called Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, Genrikh Padva, who had not yet heard of the note’s existence. “I might have expected this,” he said. “But no one warned me about it ahead of time.”

By the time Padva got to the courthouse, there was a scrum of reporters and elderly Khodorkovsky supporters by the door. They swarmed him, demanding an explanation. “Apparently the court just didn’t have enough time to write the verdict,” the lawyer explained. He also had not gotten an official explanation (just an official version of the note on the door) but Padva and the rest of the legal team tried to play it down. This happens all the time, they said. Only Khodorkovsky’s father, Boris, had a more probing — and Russian — explanation: After the delay, he said, “a lot fewer people will come” for the actual verdict.

The date was April 27, 2005.

Five and a half years later, on December 15, journalists awaited another Khodorkovsky verdict; the scene was almost identical, with a few names and details changed around. It was a different Moscow courthouse and a different case in question, this one brought in 2007 when Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev were just about to be up for parole. The new charges alleged that the two stole all the oil their company Yukos ever produced and then laundered the ill-begotten proceeds. (The first case was that they neglected to pay taxes on this laundered oil money. The apparent contradiction between these two cases has yet to be explained.)

Just as in 2005, a mass of journalists and supporters arrived early in the morning (this one sub-zero) to get seats in the courtroom. And once again, they found an unsigned, typewritten note taped to the courtroom door, informing them that the verdict would now be read on Dec. 27, when most of them — and most of the people watching and reading about the case abroad — would be away on winter vacation. And, as before, the lead lawyer (now Vadim Klyuvgant), expressed a weary frustration: “I just heard there’s a piece of paper hanging there, with no explanation, not even to me,” he said in a phone conversation on his way to court, “This is not the most unexpected scenario.”

There was no explanation from the court this time, either, and Khodorkovsky’s legal team attributed the delay, once again, to a procrastinating judge. “The judge didn’t have enough time to finish writing the decision,” Klyuvgant said later. “What can I say?” He and his team refused to speculate on just why a judge who had six weeks to prepare a decision appears more like a stressed college sophomore who sends a twelfth-hour pleading email to his professor about computer problems. “I’m an attorney! Stop asking me provocative questions!” Klyuvgant barked when pressed.

This left the explanation, once again, to Khodorkovsky’s parents. This time, it was his mother, Marina, who broke it down. “This was all done on purpose,” she told reporters. “Many journalists and politicians planned to come to court. And when you move everything close to New Year’s, everyone will be gone.”

She has a point. A verdict in a Russian court is not a quick, decisive paragraph, but a lengthy rehashing of the entire trial, as well as a delivery of the sentencing. The ruling is not clear until the end, though delivering a verdict can take weeks of deadly, monotonous reading from the bench. (At a press conference yesterday, Klyuvgant noted that the judge, Viktor Danilkin, is “a professional.” That is, he reads really, really fast, “almost like a tongue-twister.”) Given that the decision in this case — as in the first one — has long ago been decided in the Kremlin rather than within the courthouse walls, it’s strange that Danilkin would need extra time to finish writing a pre-decided decision.

What Danilkin really needs is time for the people who are interested in reporting and reading about his pre-fab verdict to be less interested, like when they are skiing in the Alps or sunbathing in Thailand or getting chronically drunk over the holidays. (When the first verdict was postponed, the Kremlin needed time to host foreign leaders like George W. Bush for the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Why give the foreigners cause to complain on such a sacred day?) People are already starting to leave Moscow for the winter break, and many of them won’t return until the country gets back to full-time mode on January 10. By then, they’ll come back to find that nothing’s changed — that Khodorkovsky is, as always, guilty in perpetuity. And if there was any question on that matter, there are rumors circulating that there is a third set of charges being prepared.

If any more proof were needed that justice and politics in Russia is all form and no content, it came in today’s statement from the court’s spokeswoman, Natalia Vasilieva. Someone asked her for an explanation and, unintentionally echoing Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov’s infamous quote that the Russian parliament “is not a place for discussion,” Vasilieva answered with a familiar herniation of the state’s disdainful subconscious. “The court does not explain itself,” she said outside the courthouse, and quickly ducked back inside.

The Wheels of Injustice Grind Slowly [FP]

Holy WikiLeaks, Batman!

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

MOSCOW—Journalists here spent the weekend tensely awaiting the WikiLeaks data dump, having been tipped off that there would be a Russian bombshell in the mix. Would the documents finally reveal just how much of Gazprom Vladimir Putin owned, or how much money he really had? Would they shed light on his personal life? On who really killed Alexander Litvinenko, or all those journalists? Instead we found out that Putin is an “alpha dog”; that President Dmitry Medvedev is not an independent actor; that, by comparison, he is “pale” and “indecisive”; that he is Robin to Putin’s Batman; that the Russian state resembles the Soprano clan; that Putin is extremely close to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. This was about as shocking as the attendant revelation that 9/11 still haunts American politics. Who didn’t already know that Putin is Batman?

What we learned, besides a few new shades and details, is that American diplomats in Moscow rely on a lot of the same sources Western journalists do in trying to decipher the Kremlin — sources like the Russian press, which is a lot more intrepid than the West gives it credit for. They also don’t seem to spend much time actually deciphering the Kremlin; mostly the cablers were preoccupied with the gossip coming from the bulldogs under the rug or the spiders in a jar or the “heads in a soup” or whatever metaphors such circles use. We discover, for instance, that Russian first lady Svetlana Medvedeva keeps a blacklist of bureaucrats who don’t respect her husband. Does that mean anything real, and do these chinovniki actually suffer for earning her wrath? Unclear. “I would ask whether there’s anything really sensational here, whether there’s anything here that isn’t already in the newspapers,” a Moscow source familiar with the situation but unable to comment officially on the leak, told me.

In fact, there seems little chance that the latest, biggest document vomit will derail America’s largely productive relationship with Moscow, an achievement that Barack Obama can justifiably flaunt as perhaps his sole untarnished triumph as president. The official response has ranged from strong condemnation to disdain — “imaginary Hollywood characters do not require comment,” Medvedev’s spokeswoman said, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the cables “amusing reading” — and this, given both sides’ interest in not rocking the reset boat, is also not a surprise.

In addition to the fact that much of the information in the cables — even the intertwining of the Russian police and organized crime — has been widely reported in the Russian press, officials on both sides say they weren’t really caught off guard. “When the U.S. found out what would be published, they got in touch, they warned the respective governments and asked not to make this into a big deal,” says Sergei Markov, a Russian parliamentarian who specializes in foreign policy. “The authors of these cables are not exactly policymakers. I think the Russians see and know the difference,” says a senior Obama administration official who was not authorized to speak to the press.

As for the potential for diplomatic awkwardness now that everyone knows America thinks Medvedev wears green tights, few Russia watchers seemed concerned. “In Russia, unlike in America, where optimism reigns, the views on politics are extremely cynical,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “No one is surprised that diplomats say these kinds of things.” (Lukyanov added that only Medvedev stood to be offended. “Putin is likely to be flattered,” he says. “He has built his whole political image on being the alpha dog.”) There is also a practical matter preventing any kind of real offense, the American side was quick to point out. “I personally don’t see what the big deal is,” the Obama official says. “They intercept our phones and emails enough to make this not surprising.” Besides, those Batman-Robin analogies, he adds, were the work of “Bushies.” “Obama doesn’t treat Medvedev as Robin,” he says.

And while Obama may face political repercussions at home for the leaked information, on the Russian side no one really cares, given how little new information was revealed — except, of course, the fact that Chechen president and deranged boy-warrior Ramzan Kadyrov gives gold bullion as wedding gifts. We did not learn, for instance, anything new or definitive about how power is distributed between Medvedev’s Kremlin and Putin’s White House, about how Medvedev feels about his role in the tandem, or about his future ambitions — or whether anyone who matters cares. Given the banality of the disclosures, the Russians are likely to respond the way they know best: purging. “We will draw internal conclusions,” says Markov. “Most likely, they’ll look at the cables to see who spoke a little too frankly with the Americans and a couple department heads or deputy ministers will be fired.”

In the meantime, the Americans await a new batch of data, one that could actually make a big impact. “To be honest, I was much more worried about what might have been in there,” the Obama official told me. “But this roller-coaster ride isn’t done yet.” And while the Wikicoaster climbs the next over-anticipated hill, the Russians, for once, radiate a bystander’s innocent pity. “We feel sympathy and awkwardness,” a Russian diplomat told the Interfax news agency, because “rooting around in diplomatic dirty laundry is not very pleasant.”

Holy WikiLeaks, Batman! [FP]