Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Cleaning Up in Moscow

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

MOSCOW – If you want to talk about trigger moments, you could do worse than the night of December 4. As the polls closed in Russia’s parliamentary elections that Sunday, the Kremlin’s polling firm FOM posted an exit poll on its website that gave United Russia, the ruling party created to support Vladimir Putin, 27.5 percent. It seemed a reasonable result: Moscow is a rich, highly educated city where United Russia, despite being backed by the full resources of the state, is virulently unpopular. By Monday morning, the exit poll had disappeared off the FOM website, replaced with an official result that bore no resemblance to the election day surveys: 46.6 percent. Moscow exploded in a rage that evening and many thousands of people came out to protest, something unheard of in the city for the dozen years of Putin’s rule.

A line had clearly been crossed. After this, tens of thousands of Muscovites — Muscovites who had up until then been indifferent to politics — started coming out into the streets in the largest political protests Russia had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their demands — new parliamentary elections — were impossible, but the one thing you heard over and over at those first protests was a sense of offense: we are not idiots. “Politicians everywhere lie,” one young man in a beautiful shearling coat told me at the December 10 protest on Bolotnaya Square. “But in other countries, they do it with more finesse. It’s not as crass as here.”

Exactly three months and three mass opposition protests later, that lesson seems to have been utterly lost on the Kremlin — or, worse, rudely ignored. Going into the March 4 presidential election set to restore Putin to the office he temporarily swapped out of four years ago, the going theory among the Moscow political chattering classes was that Moscow itself would have a relatively clean election, that the Kremlin would decide not to pour fuel on the fire by avoiding really flagrant election fraud of the sort we saw in December — the ballot stuffing, the so-called carousels of voters herded on buses to vote again and again and again. After all, 82,000 of the 370,000 new election monitors who volunteered to make sure these elections were more honest than the last were in Moscow.

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

“Everyone expected a cleaner election in Moscow,” says Alexey Navalny, who made his name as an anti-corruption fighter and is the opposition’s most natural, if reluctant, leader. We sat in the information center organized by his latest civil society project, RosVybory, one of the many new election monitoring initiatives that sprouted up in this winter’s unrest. “But these were naïve expectations, because this would have led to a second round.”

Without a strong showing for Putin in Moscow, Navalny reckoned, the math just wouldn’t have added up and Putin would not have gotten over the 50 percent threshold required to win the presidential contest outright, without a second-round runoff, despite the weakness of his would-be opponents, perennials of the stage-managed opposition like Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and oligarch newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov. Added Navalny, “If you want results, and they want results, you need to act firmly, without hesitation. There’s a sound file making the rounds on the Internet now of an electoral meeting with the governor of the Moscow region. He says absolutely clearly: our task is to get over 50 percent, do whatever you want. No one is going to punish the governor for falsifying the vote, but he will be punished for not delivering results.” (Indeed, several governors in whose regions United Russia did poorly in December’s elections were unceremoniously replaced by the Kremlin.)

And why did Putin not want a second round? “A second round is not cool,” Navalny argued when we talked. “If you win in the second round, then you’re just a politician who competes with Zyuganov. You’re not a cool guy…. In the political construct he’s created, you cannot show weakness. Which is why they haven’t carried out the demands of the protesters that would be easy to carry out – like firing the Central Election Commission chair, punishing even the small fry falsifiers. They clearly think that if you give the protesters a finger, they’ll take your arm. And a national leader doesn’t behave like this.”

In the meantime, Moscow filled with more special troops than I or most other people have ever seen. Special forces, interior ministry troops, military convoys at the entrances to Red Square, signal jammers, water cannons, soldiers walking around with ham radios strapped to their backs. Ostensibly, the massive presence was to secure the massive victory rally planned outside the Kremlin walls. It looked more like war, which given today’s tactics, the Kremlin is likely to see in tomorrow’s opposition protest on Pushkin Square: there’s just less and less patience for peaceful protest in an atmosphere turning increasingly toxic.

“The last time I saw water cannons in Moscow was in 1990, when there were big protests in the city,” recalls Yury Sparykin, the editor-in-chief of the media company Rambler-Afisha, and one of the organizers of the winter’s opposition protests. “That means it’s a good omen: only one year left.”

But what a year it could be.

When Putin finally took the stage at 10 p.m. he brought Dmitry Medvedev, who had served as his placeholder president for the last four years, with him. As Medvedev spoke of a clean victory, which no one could take from them, Putin stifled emotion. Only a third of the ballots had been processed, but his projected results steadily climbed past the 60 percent mark. A tear ran down his cheek. “We won in an open and honest battle,” he said, looking over a massive crowd that dwarfed any the opposition had ever summoned.

Back at the RosVybory headquarters in a bohemian café up the street from the Kremlin, Navalny mounted a small wooden stage with chessmaster-turned-opposition figure Garry Kasparov. “We have no legitimate government,” Navalny said. “We have no legitimate president. He who has declared himself president tonight is a usurper.” And then he called on the quiet, deflated crowd to continue their struggle.

Cleaning Up in Moscow [FP]

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election?

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister’s office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column “Kremlinology 2012.”) Once Putin decided who was running — himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev — then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country’s only real voter.

In the year since, so much has happened — the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since — and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man — the same man — can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.

Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests — not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies — it’s become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.

But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin’s number shot up. “People are rooting for the winner,” Volkov told me.

On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he’s the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin’s two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors — it’s a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead — has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin’s most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the “we-love-Putin” camp and the “got-any-better-ideas?” camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.

Regardless, on Monday morning, Russia will wake up to its old-new president Putin, and that evening Muscovites will take to the streets in protests, both for and against. The Moscow mayor’s office has made a serious concession and allowed the opposition to gather at Pushkinskaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. But some in the opposition are talking of marching downhill to the Kremlin and forming a white circle around the old red walls. Will the authorities crack down? How many more times will city leaders grant permits to the organizers after March 5? How much stomach will Putin have for more protests once the campaign is over and won and he has to go back to running the country?

Speaking of which, how will Putin interpret the mandate he receives this weekend? Will we see a shift toward a more pluralistic Putin, a Putin capable of coalitions and concessions, or will we see a retrenchment, a caricature of the old Putin, a blustery, salty KGB-type who rules by fell swoops and diktats, a ruler to whom the people must bow? Will Medvedev, promised the post of prime minister, be allowed to continue to play the (sort of) liberal good cop? Will the Kremlin’s political concessions in the face of these protests — the return of gubernatorial elections and easier party registration procedures — have legs, or even teeth? Or will Putin continue tightening the screws by cracking down on independent media and opposition activists?

And what of those long overdue economic reforms? Putin’s campaign promises to raise pensions and fly Russian soccer fans to the European Championships for free could cost something like $161 billion. It’s a price tag that pretty much requires oil in the $150 a barrel range in order for the Kremlin to keep its word. That or Putin would have to raise taxes, or the retirement age — anathema to his populist policies and to his core electorate, which depends on such fiscally contradictory largesse.

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is “the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin’s 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. “It’s become a very complicated scene.” The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or “play the tsar.” The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, “He’ll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome.”

For now, it seems Putin can’t quite make up his mind. On Thursday night, he met with the editors in chief of major European newspapers. He was calm and confident while monosyllabically turning down the opposition’s demands of new parliamentary elections. But just days before that, at a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, he screamed into the microphone of blood and sweat and meddling foreigners. It was a strange and angry speech, bizarrely out of sync with the wearily festive mood of the people who had come out to hear him (some willingly, some not). Moreover, those who had come had come in peace. Everyone I asked at the pro-Putin rally — without exception — said they didn’t mind the opposition protests. “Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” the refrain went. And then Putin talked to them of blood and dying to save the Motherland. From whom? “It’s a strange, sudden turn, not really motivated by anything,” argues Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s not his usual tone. His personal campaign is a lot more subtle. It’s a little savage, and I think it speaks to a certain unevenness, a nervousness.”

Increasingly, however, Putin’s rhetoric seems to point to something a little worse than a case of nerves. On Tuesday, at a meeting of his National People’s Front, Putin spoke of the opposition, saying bluntly that they would have to “submit” to the choice of the majority and avoid “imposing” their views on the majority. This kind of zero-sum language would seem to preclude dialogue. Putin followed by bizarrely speculating that his increasingly desperate opposition will end up searching for a “sacrificial offering” from its own ranks. “They’ll whack [him] themselves, excuse me, and then blame the government,” he said. This kind of talk doesn’t leave much room for hope; if anything, Putin seems to be encouraging the radicalization of the still amorphous opposition against him. Already, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who helped launch the protests, has been calling for an “escalation,” and some of his activists were arrested on Wednesday for trying to hand out tents: Navalny wants to see a repeat of the great campout in Kiev after Ukraine’s rigged 2004 presidential election — the one that led to the Orange Revolution, as well as to Putin’s obsession with “color revolutions” being plotted all around him.

The Putin I’ve come to know in writing this column for the past year is a leader who, when presented with two options, tends to pick the easier, if often far stupider, of the two, especially in a tense political atmosphere. All spring and summer, the political scene in Moscow stagnated and soured as the city waited for Putin to make up his mind: Would he stay or go? When he finally revealed his decision in September, it was a stunning one, simply because it came out seeming so shortsighted and reckless and blunt.

“It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted,” Putin’s chronicler, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov told me that day as we both stood slack-jawed in the stands following Putin’s announcement. “We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious.” He was in disbelief, despite the obviousness, because he, like many others, had hoped that Putin was capable of a better, wiser decision. When the protests exploded in December, Sasha, half of the duo behind KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter political satire, ruefully pointed out to me that if Putin had let Medvedev stay another term, “none of this would have happened.” And I think he’s absolutely right.

Would it be foolish to hope that, come March 5, Putin will see his mandate with the nuance the situation requires? To hope Putin has learned that political compromise and political strength can coexist? To hope that, for once, Putin takes the more difficult but ultimately more productive route of reform? Or would it be more prudent to see what’s hiding in plain sight? Again. Says Pavlovsky: “I just hope he doesn’t send us to war with Tajikistan.”

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election? [FP]

The Master and Mikhail

Monday, February 27th, 2012

On December 24, 2011, Mikhail Prokhorov—banking and mining billionaire, N.B.A. team owner, international playboy, and Russia’s third-richest man—set out to be among the people. A crowd of about eighty thousand had come out to Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue to demand free elections and to lambaste Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It was a bitterly cold, gray day, but Prokhorov wore just a pair of light-washed jeans, a brown leather jacket, and leather gloves the size of skillets. Moving slowly among the protesters, Prokhorov chatted with friends and staffers, and pointed to the building where, in 1989, he began his finance career as a lowly data clerk at the Soviet International Bank for Economic Cooperation.

Prokhorov is running for President in an election that takes place on March 4th. Putin will surely win, and Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist, will likely come in second. The urban professionals who made up the core of the Moscow protests have come to despise Putin, and they generally dislike Communists. But they also don’t have much love for Prokhorov. To most of them, he is a Kremlin stooge, taking orders from Putin, his ostensible opponent. According to this theory, which Prokhorov denies, his campaign is roughly equivalent to what would happen if Barack Obama persuaded T. Boone Pickens to run as an independent, in order to siphon votes from the actual Republican nominee.

As Prokhorov moved down Sakharov Avenue, rubberneckers and picture-takers eagerly elbowed their friends and pointed in disbelief at the oligarch. Prokhorov is six feet eight, and is not hard to locate in a crowd. Nearby, radical young Communists heckled, “One billionaire—a million hungry!”

“Come closer!” Prokhorov shouted back at them. “I can’t hear you!”

Soon, he was so mobbed by the well-wishers, the critical, and the curious that he could no longer move. (“I can’t believe he’s not wearing a hat!” one woman, a retired librarian, said. “He’s going to get sick!”) He listened to people’s grievances and nodded, accepted flyers and business cards, and gave snappy replies to questions; he even managed a couple of media interviews via cell phones passed to him across the cluster of heads buzzing around his torso.

“Can you please tell me, is it possible to earn a billion honestly?” an elderly man asked, echoing the sentiment, common in Russia, that the oligarchs earned their fortunes through deceit and government connections.

“I think you can,” Prokhorov replied, his face radiating self-regard. “At the very least, I haven’t broken any laws.”

Someone else asked if he was a Putin patsy.

“I am not a Putin supporter,” Prokhorov said. “I have my own views.”

What was his election platform?

“Maximum freedom.”

This is Prokhorov’s second foray into politics, and he has admitted that he consulted with the Kremlin before embarking on the first. Did he get Kremlin approval to run this time, too?

“I think that, for any person, it’s very important to be able to come to agreements,” he said, adding that not all Kremlin employees are evil.

What of the fraudulent December 4th parliamentary vote in which Putin’s United Russia Party narrowly held on to power, setting off a wave of protests?

“If I become President, I will dissolve this Duma”—the Russian parliament—“and have new elections.”

What about the story, reported in the Russian press, that Putin called him and asked him to run as a decoy?

“I like these tall tales.”

Will he ultimately give his support to Putin?

“I’m not going to give anything to anyone.”

Nearby, a group of young protesters—members of a Web forum called the Leprosarium—jumped up and down, shouting, “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” Prokhorov ignored them, and went off to attend a ceremony that officially opened his campaign office. The protest organizers had not invited him to speak.

The last time a Russian oligarch entered politics, he did not fare well. About a decade ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and the richest man in Russia at the time, started working to get his allies into the Duma, angering Putin. In October, 2003, masked commandos stormed his private jet and arrested him. His assets were parcelled out to Putin’s friends, and he was sentenced to nine years in jail. In December, 2010, he was given another, fourteen-year sentence. The harshness of the punishment sent a clear message to Russia’s magnates: stay out of politics.

During Putin’s rule, his éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, built a system of what he has called “managed” democracy. Elections were rigged, and it seemed that Surkov allowed parties to exist only if they served a specific purpose or demographic. The statist, conservative United Russia supported Putin. The three opposition parties—the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the left-leaning Just Russia Party—have opaque funding and generally toe the Kremlin line. (They are justly called “the loyal opposition.”)

In early 2011, Surkov began working to create a new party for Russia’s urban middle class, which had become increasingly hostile to the government’s corruption and ineptitude. Rather than permit them to organize organically, however, Surkov resuscitated a moribund liberal party called Right Cause.

The project’s curators approached at least three members of the Kremlin élite, with no success. Then, on May 16th, Prokhorov announced that he would lead the Party. He insists that the Kremlin didn’t ask him to do so: he heard about Right Cause’s search in the papers, and some friends suggested that he get involved. After contacting the Party, Prokhorov says that he then approached the Kremlin and was given approval. He told me directly that he sought the counsel of the President, Dmitry Medvedev, and the Prime Minister before making his announcement. Why, I asked, did he need to talk this over with them? “If you are the head of a big company, you cannot be involved in politics,” he explained. But, unlike Khodorkovsky, he added, he had relinquished control of his business before taking up politics.

Whether the Kremlin had requested, or merely blessed, Prokhorov’s campaign was an important distinction. If Prokhorov was to lead a party for the urban middle class, he had to be independent. But, from the beginning, few people believed that he was. He had funded various Kremlin initiatives, like a summer training camp for several of Surkov’s pro-Kremlin youth groups. As a publicity stunt, he once spent a night in a tent at the camp. Worse, he completely avoided criticizing Putin after taking over the Party. And so the urban élite dismissed Right Cause as a “Kremlin project.”

Surkov seemed to do everything in his power to help Right Cause succeed, thereby sending another signal about its lack of independence. In early summer, Prokhorov appeared on all the federal television channels, which blacklist genuine opponents. During one appearance, he demonstrated his basketball skills by sinking a three-point shot. Moscow was blanketed with tangerine-colored posters featuring Prokhorov’s face, staring heavy-lidded at the city.

In August, Surkov began phoning Prokhorov to suggest people who would and wouldn’t work for Right Cause. Prokhorov told me that he promised he would take the Kremlin’s ideas into account, but he clearly chafed at the interference. Prokhorov had recently tapped Evgeny Roizman, a controversial anti-drug activist from Yekaterinburg, to join the Party. In early September, Surkov pressured Prokhorov to remove Roizman from the Party roster. When Prokhorov refused, Surkov organized a coup within Right Cause and had him voted out of power.

On September 15th, Prokhorov gathered a swarm of puzzled journalists and supporters at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the place where he had planned to hold a Party congress. When he rose to speak, everyone was sure that the public tension with Surkov in recent days was part of an elaborately staged show of independence. But Prokhorov delivered an uncharacteristically emotional speech about Surkov. “There is a puppeteer in this country who privatized the political system, who has misinformed the Russian leadership about what is going on in the political system, who pressures the media, plants candidates, and manipulates citizens’ opinions,” he said. “This puppeteer is named Vladislav Surkov.” He then called for Surkov’s dismissal. This was real. The project had clearly jumped the rails.

When I first met with Prokhorov, five days after the implosion of Right Cause, he was not his usual swaggering self. He looked pale, and he drooped over a white leather armchair in the rotunda of his Moscow office. A glass skylight flooded the room with the late-September sun. His desk was immaculate: a few stacks of paper and a tray of dried fruit. There was no computer in sight. Bookshelves were littered with mementos, statuettes, and a smattering of books. Tucked behind them was an old picture of him with Putin, who comes up to Prokhorov’s chest.

“No, no, I’m not wilting,” Prokhorov said, when I remarked on his posture. “I’m just catching up on sleep. I’m sleeping seven hours a night now! Before, it was four or five.”

There were less than three months until the parliamentary elections, and liberals were intrigued by his unexpected show of independence. But Prokhorov had exited Right Cause at the very moment that he had become appealing. He seemed to relish the irony of his situation, as well as the skepticism he had encountered. “If one of my friends or colleagues did this, I would think exactly the same thing,” he told me. “I’d have no illusions.”

His independent stance also carried a potentially steep cost. When Prokhorov assailed Surkov at the Party convention, everyone in the auditorium was stunned. Such a confrontation was unprecedented, and it was not expected to go unpunished. This may be why Prokhorov was at pains to downplay the incident. “I don’t really like to discuss what happened between two people,” he demurred, before conceding that the clash had made public a growing rift between the modernizing and the conservative forces in the Russian élite. “He’s inhibiting development,” Prokhorov finally blurted out. “That’s the essence of the conflict.”

Five days after we talked, Prokhorov was unexpectedly excluded from a Presidential commission on technological modernization. A month later, Putin’s office postponed the London I.P.O. of his gold-mining company, Polyus Gold. “It’s just an administrative delay,” Christophe Charlier, the deputy C.E.O. of Onexim, Prokhorov’s holding company, said. He added quietly, “In Russia, because of lack of transparency, people don’t believe in coincidences.”

Prokhorov’s parents, Dmitry and Tamara, were members of the Soviet upper middle class. Tamara was a materials engineer at the Institute for Chemical Machine-Building; Dmitry was trained as a lawyer. When Prokhorov was born, in May, 1965, Dmitry was handling international relations for the Soviet Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. As Prokhorov now puts it, his father “spoke for the red Soviet machine that beat everyone in sports.” Athletes often visited their small Moscow apartment. “There were sports in my life from childhood,” Prokhorov says. Like many Russian men of his generation, he spent most of his time outside “in the yard,” where he learned the ways of the patsan, or guy code. (This is the code that Prokhorov upheld in sticking by Roizman—loyalty—and the code he broke in going against Surkov.)

Prokhorov was, until the eighth grade, a middling student. “Boys in the Soviet Union got to work on their brains later; it’s a common story,” Prokhorov explains. Reading also came to him in adolescence, though he says it is something he quickly outgrew. “I just don’t like literature, because all of the experiences in it are redundant to me,” he says, adding that he has read mostly “specialized literature,” like books on chess tactics. “I have it all in my real life,” he goes on. “Literature I just don’t get at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that if someone has real-life experience, then he can’t, by definition, like literature.”

Eventually, Prokhorov’s parents stopped chasing him out of the kitchen when friends gathered in the evening and discussed politics. Prokhorov remembers a wide range of topics, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Western culture and the ineffectiveness of a planned economy. “We weren’t discussing any plot against the state,” Prokhorov says. “We discussed mundane things.”

His need to clarify that his family wasn’t plotting against Brezhnev points to a key tenet of the Prokhorovs. Dmitry may have been discussing Solzhenitsyn in the kitchen, but during the day he worked in a highly sensitive branch of the Soviet apparatus: athletics were an important propaganda tool at home and abroad. He was allowed to travel, a rarity in those days. “He knew the Western world very well, and he would tell me about it, except very carefully, so that I didn’t give voice to these thoughts in school,” Prokhorov says, outlining a common Soviet public-private split. “At work, everyone was a strict Communist, but in the kitchen everyone was a dissident.”

“Our parents were thoroughly Soviet people,” says Prokhorov’s bookish older sister, Irina. She runs his philanthropic organizations, an erudite literary magazine, and a publishing house, and lives in a wing of his mansion west of Moscow. “They never fought against the Soviet state.” Dmitry and Tamara came of age during Stalin’s rule and knew better.

Prokhorov credits his mother with providing him with his cool temperament. “I’m a boa constrictor,” he says. “Calm, good mood. That’s like my mom. She could listen to people for a long time, and I can also listen.”

Prokhorov first made money as an undergraduate at the Moscow Finance Institute, which was a five-minute walk from home. He has developed a lofty mythology to explain his choice of profession. “Since childhood, money had a way of finding me,” he says. “I always found something in the sandbox. We’d be at the beach, and I’d find money. Money just found me on its own. I didn’t do anything for it.” This power is gone now, says Prokhorov, who is the thirty-second-richest person in the world. “I guess I don’t really need it.”

In 1983, after his first year at the institute, he did a two-year stint in the Army. “You had to fight at the very beginning, because that was part of the survival,” Prokhorov recalls. “People were always wanting to test you: are you real or not real? After a couple months, they understood that I was real, and no one bothered me anymore.”

Afterward, he returned to school and got to work. He organized his Army buddies into brigades that unloaded freight cars—potatoes, frozen beef, cement—and they earned in a day what a professor might make in a month. He handed over most of his money to his family.

In 1988, just before Prokhorov’s last year of college, Russians were allowed to own businesses for the first time in sixty years. He and another classmate rented a section of a laundromat near the institute and set up an operation for stonewashing jeans. The business was extremely successful, and soon all his friends—and their friends—were working for him. “I remember the last time I really got any pleasure out of money was when I bought a car, and I understood that I could take a girl to a café,” Prokhorov recalls.

At about this time, both of his parents died of heart disease. Prokhorov remained in their flat, which he shared with his niece and Irina, who had divorced her husband several years earlier. He became the breadwinner of the family. According to Olga Romanova, an opposition activist who was friendly with Prokhorov in college, this explains why he has never married. “This is his family; he doesn’t need another one,” Romanova says of Irina and her daughter.

In college, Prokhorov met Alexander Khloponin, who became his best friend. “Khloponin was the ringleader,” Romanova says. “Misha was the pensive serpent sitting next to the leader.” Khloponin introduced Prokhorov to Vladimir Potanin, who became Prokhorov’s business partner.

When he met Potanin, Prokhorov was working at the ailing International Bank for Economic Cooperation, where he had been assigned after college and where he’d quickly earned a series of promotions. In 1992, as Russia went through its first painful year as a fledgling market economy, Prokhorov and Potanin started their own bank, which they called MFK. That year, the management of the International Bank—whose fold Prokhorov had just left—sent a letter to its clients, encouraging them to transfer their holdings to MFK. Within six months, Potanin and Prokhorov had three hundred million dollars in assets. All the old debt was left at the International Bank.

The following year, Potanin and Prokhorov formed the United Export-Import Bank, or Uneximbank, for short. They divided their labor according to their talents. “He didn’t like to dig through the technical stuff, and I loved it,” Prokhorov says. “And he loved buttonholing people, being involved in politics, lobbying.” (Potanin declined to discuss Prokhorov for this article. Khloponin, who went into business with the two, is now the Kremlin-appointed chief of the restive North Caucasus region.)

Uneximbank soon became the authorized bank for a number of state organizations, including the Finance Ministry, the federal tax service, the state arms-export agency, and the city of Moscow. At the end of 1994, the second year of the bank’s existence, it had 2.1 billion dollars in assets, nearly seven times more than it did at the beginning of the year.

The partners’ next coup came in 1995. A resurgent Communist Party threatened to take down an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 Presidential election. Potanin masterminded a plan wherein he and the other oligarchs offered loans to the government, which couldn’t pay wages and pensions, and they asked for shares in state enterprises as collateral. After selecting the companies they wanted, Potanin, Prokhorov, and their compatriots bid on how much money they would lend the government for those shares. Should the government default on its loans, which was all but assured, Uneximbank and the others could sell the shares. When the government failed to repay the loans, the bankers kept the shares. Potanin and Prokhorov walked away with Norilsk Nickel, which was Russia’s largest platinum and nickel producer. At the time, Norilsk had revenues of three and a half billion dollars. Potanin and Prokhorov had given the government a loan of a hundred and seventy million dollars.

The loans-for-shares transactions, which made billionaires of Potanin and Prokhorov, remain highly controversial, and helped draw a connection in the Russian imagination between the crook, the businessman, and the Kremlin official. When asked recently on national television whether he had ever participated in corrupt dealings, Prokhorov shrugged and replied, “Yes, of course I participated in them. What, don’t I live in this country?”

In 2001, Prokhorov took over the management of Norilsk. He improved productivity, diversified the company, and, in the six years that he was in charge, Norilsk’s value increased elevenfold, owing in large part to a global commodities boom. He set up the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, run by Irina, which brought arts and culture to the icebound miners. He also took control of one of Norilsk’s less valuable but, to Prokhorov, more interesting projects: Moscow’s CSKA basketball team. Prokhorov gave the team a healthy budget, which allowed it to recruit top talent. The team won the European championships twice in three seasons.

In January, 2007, Prokhorov and twenty-five others—some of them young Russian women—were arrested at Courchevel, a French ski resort where Prokhorov has “a small house” and spends the Orthodox Christmas holiday. Prokhorov was detained for three days—which he spent shadowboxing and stretching in his cell—on suspicion of making prostitutes available to his guests. When I asked him about it, Prokhorov laughed off the incident and said that everything written about it was “absolute rubbish.” One of the people he uses to book hotels and cars for his guests happened to have gone through customs with a binder containing pictures of twenty girls. “Girls travel with me, and he had pictures of them in his bag—you know, to meet them at the airport,” Prokhorov explains. The French police got a different impression: that this man was a pimp. In general, Prokhorov is unapologetic about his predilections. (“How will I become president without a first lady?” he recently wrote on his Facebook page. “Let me tell you a secret: I had my first lady when I was seventeen.”) He can often be spotted at Moscow’s poshest clubs, surrounded by herds of young women from the city’s modelling agencies. Because neither he nor his friends are married, he says that, in Courchevel, “we didn’t even violate anyone’s moral code.”

Nevertheless, the arrests became an international incident. Potanin was scandalized, and Prokhorov was soon pushed out of Norilsk. In the spring of 2008, Prokhorov swapped his stake for a fourteen-per-cent share in Rusal, the world’s largest producer of aluminum, and more than seven billion dollars. Five months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed, sinking world markets and commodity prices. Prokhorov, whose assets were now mostly in cash, was affected far less than any of his peers. The French, in the meantime, apologized and awarded Prokhorov a Légion d’Honneur.

For a while, he was the richest man in Russia. He signed on to reënergize and fund the Russian Biathlon Union. He bought the New Jersey Nets and made plans to move the team to Brooklyn. (His wedding present to the Nets forward Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian was a pair of his-and-hers Russian fur hats.) He created a glossy media empire. He began investing in high-tech and nanotechnology projects, which were being pushed by the Kremlin in its drive to diversify the Russian economy. One of these ventures is a Russian-made hybrid vehicle whose name, to the Russian ear, sounds like “Fuck-Mobile.” Putin gave it a spin last spring and praised it as “a totally new product” with an “attention-grabbing” name.

When I met with Prokhorov last October, he had just got back from windsurfing at his private resort in Turkey, and celebrating the season-closing bacchanal at Ibiza. He had doubled his daily exercise regimen, from two hours to four. “Basically, everything’s great,” he said, beaming. He gulped down a large teacup of an orange vitamin broth. The rumor around Moscow was that he and Surkov had made up and the two of them had drunk on it. Prokhorov denied this, but in November Surkov told a Moscow newspaper that he had no issues with Prokhorov.

On December 4th, Russia held its parliamentary elections, and Putin’s increasingly unpopular United Russia edged back into power. To many, this seemed a less than credible result, and video evidence of egregious voting violations circulated on the Web. People took to the streets, and the police cracked down, arresting a thousand protesters in two days. On December 8th, Prokhorov published a blog post in which he declared, “Like it or not, Putin is for now the only politician who can somehow manage to control the machine of state.”

On December 10th, an estimated fifty thousand people gathered in Moscow’s Bolotnaya, or Swampy, Square. Thousands of others protested in more than eighty cities across the country. Crowds of expats gathered at Russian embassies around the world. Russia hadn’t seen anything like this since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite official warnings of violence, the protest had the feel of a block party. Muscovites, who can seem like the rudest people on the planet, smiled and struck up conversations with strangers. The President, however, was silent, and so was Putin.

Two days later, Prokhorov held a surprise press conference in the center of Moscow. “Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re expecting of me, but I’ll try not to disappoint you,” he said, smiling. “This is probably the most serious decision of my life. I’m going to participate in the Presidential elections.” This time, he said that he would do it as an independent. The people in the room gasped, and the old question arose immediately: was this another Kremlin project? That night, the main national channel broadcast a long, glowing report of his candidacy. Shots of the press conference were interspersed with footage of grinning protesters at Bolotnaya.

Whatever credibility Prokhorov had built up by turning on Surkov in the fall quickly dissipated, in part because of the fawning coverage on state television. To make matters worse, an article in the magazine New Times declared that, on the evening before the protest in Bolotnaya Square, Prokhorov had taken a call from Putin and then told the friends he was with that the President had asked him to run. The story was based on anonymous sources, and Prokhorov immediately denied it. He says that Putin and Medvedev found out about his intentions from the press conference. His spokeswoman adds that the New Times account was “total fiction.” Nevertheless, given Prokhorov’s past, and the nature of Russian politics, the damage was done.

When I met Prokhorov two weeks after he had announced his candidacy, he had just spent two hours in the cold at the protest on Sakharov Avenue, and another two organizing the drive to gain the two million signatures necessary to register for the Presidential election. He had clearly enjoyed himself.

He had an elaborate, and decidedly wobbly, story about his decision to run. For two months, he said, he had been building a national support network. Two days before the big protests, Prokhorov says he “quietly submitted” his application to the Central Election Commission. “I won’t hide the fact that I have a friend, and I asked him not to leak anything,” Prokhorov told me, declining to name this apparently influential person. His blog post, in which he appeared to endorse Putin, was, he said, a red herring.

A few weeks later, his election prospects, though not his credibility, were given an assist when the Central Election Commission disqualified Grigory Yavlinsky, the traditional liberal candidate: nearly a quarter of his petition signatures were deemed fakes. Prokhorov, who had gathered two and a half million signatures in a mere two weeks—one of which was a national holiday—remained on the ballot.

Regardless of its origins, Prokhorov’s second political intervention seemed more promising than his first. In his parliamentary campaign, he had avoided even the slightest criticism of Putin. This time, he has attacked the Prime Minister, however mildly. “I have my own economic views,” he said, on NTV, shortly after his announcement. Putin’s economic program, he said, is “leading to economic catastrophe.”

Perhaps most promising for Prokhorov, Surkov was promoted out of his position three days after the protest on Sakharov Avenue. Instead of curating internal politics, he will now oversee the state’s modernization push. In a farewell interview, he scoffed, “I am too odious for this brave new world.”

Running for President is not a bad deal for Prokhorov, whose name is still associated with Courchevel. (A popular joke has him choosing his first lady, his second lady, his third lady, “and some whores.”) Sated and successful in business, he gets to try something new. “The fact that I’m useful to the government is obvious,” he said in a television appearance. “But why don’t we use the government, too?” Meanwhile, he seems to have grown even smoother as a candidate. He jokes with the press; he laughs. He has even got better at answering the same question—is he a “Kremlin project”?—over and over. “There’s nothing I can tell you that will convince you,” he’s said. “The only way is to keep working, calmly, and prove it with action.”

Prokhorov seems to relish the role of being the one man who’s allowed to speak truth to power. His platform, which he published in January, is full of commonsense proposals, like shortening the Presidential term of office from six years to four, and limiting the number of terms a President can serve. He proposes to force the government to sell its controlling stakes in media organizations. He wants to eliminate the Draconian registration procedures that Surkov invented to keep opposition parties out of the Duma. He has detailed economic proposals designed to boost competition and remove the state’s influence from the economy. Prokhorov’s first campaign promise was to free Khodorkovsky. He has also become bolder. When asked in a recent television interview about that infamous online comment that only Putin could run the current Russian state, he stuck by it. “But I don’t want to live in a country like that,” he added.

“I’m playing a long-term game,” he said on the evening of December 24th, after the protest. It was already dark, and a butler brought in tea and a tray of sweets. Prokhorov seemed energized by what he had seen that afternoon, and spoke of building a political party after the election. “The only thing is if people don’t support me at all,” he said of the coming election. “In that case, you can’t fool yourself. You have to tell yourself, ‘Apparently you have no political talent and you should do something else.’ I’ve only done things at which I’m at least somewhat better than others. The Presidential elections are a great test.”

On February 4th, with a month left before the election, some hundred thousand Muscovites came out for the largest protest to date, a march down Yakimanka Street to Bolotnaya Square. The temperature was ten degrees below zero. Prokhorov had been gaining in the polls, with twenty per cent of the protesters supporting him. But his national share of the vote was still only about five per cent.

This time, Prokhorov was seasonably dressed, in ski pants and heavy-duty boots. A blue down jacket filled out his svelte frame, and a white fleece hat with a red zigzag on the forehead made him easy to spot in the crowd. Roizman, on whose behalf Prokhorov had abandoned Right Cause, was there with a delegation from the Ural Mountains. (He is now an adviser to Prokhorov’s campaign.) So was Prokhorov’s sister, Irina. She wore a leopard-print fur hat and clung to his arm in the crush of supporters wearing white scarves that said “Prokhorov.” They were a diverse but largely middle-class crowd, and they didn’t care whether Prokhorov had negotiated his run with Putin. “I agree with his platform, that’s it,” a middle-aged small-business owner from the Ivanovo region told me as we walked. Others said that it would be a good thing if Prokhorov were indeed a “Kremlin project”: at least he’d be able to get things done.

The tightly packed cluster around Prokhorov moved aimlessly through the larger crowd until Prokhorov took control.

“Right!” he called out over everyone’s heads. “We’re moving to the right!”

“Right!”

“Right!”

“Right!” his supporters echoed.

“Curb!” he called, stepping up over a pile of dirty snow.

“Curb!”

“Curb!”

Soon, the pack started chanting behind him: “Prokhorov for President! Prokhorov for President!”

“What are they saying?” he asked Irina.

He craned his head to catch what she whispered in his ear. Then he looked up and smiled.

The Master and Mikhail [TNY]

Tightening the Screws

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

MOSCOW – About a month ago, after the marred parliamentary elections and the December protests shook Moscow, after everyone went away for the New Year’s holiday, and after everyone came back, 27-year-old Duma deputy Robert Shlegel decided to do some digging. This enterprising young man, a star of the pro-Kremlin youth Nashi movement, was curious: Who, exactly was financing these opposition protests?

“There was lots of information floating around; were these protests financed from abroad? Were they not financed from abroad?” Shlegel explained the other day, referring to the claims put forward by prime minister and presidential frontrunner Vladimir Putin — and then picked up by the loyalist information network — that the protests were provoked and financed by the U.S. State Department. Shlegel found an interesting, if not totally bizarre, way to investigate. He decided to look into the financing of Dozhd, or Rain TV. This independent, internet-and-cable network, staffed and watched mostly by urban hipsters — though nobody really knows how many of them ever actually tune in — has provided unalloyed and often openly sympathetic coverage of December’s events. When the protests first broke on Dec. 5, and no one knew what to make of them, Dozhd simply aired a live stream, first of the rally, then of the violent arrests. Compared to the intensely filtered, hard-spun statist agitprop — if not utter silence — on state television, Dozhd naturally came to be seen not as the “optimistic channel,” as per its logo, but as the opposition channel. Obviously, the views of its staff, many of whom showed up at the protests decked out in white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), play a part.

But that’s not what Shlegel was after. “When I looked into how the technical side of the protests was financed, I thought: either Dozhd financed the protest organizers, or the organizers could’ve helped Dozhd cover the protests,” Shlegel explained. I couldn’t quite follow his logic, but he went on. “Are these things financed from abroad, or not? This is a politically sensitive issue.” It was, he decided, a question for the prosecutor’s office. “If you’re going to be the conscience of the nation,” he said, “why are they hiding where they get their funding?”

So a month after the protests temporarily died down, Shlegel filed a request with the federal prosecutor’s office, which, in turn, asked Dozhd for its editorial charter and tax documents, among other things. But Shlegel was looking for more — and late last week, Natalia Sindeeva, Dozhd’s owner, tweeted that she had received an urgent and detailed official request for all kinds of financial documentation. Because Dozhd had been the subject of official pressure back in December — the government agency overseeing the legal compliance of the media demanded to see all that live footage from those two violent days, Dec. 5 and 6 — this latest request naturally caused a stir.

But Dozhd isn’t alone in being the recipient of unwanted attention. Two days prior, Ekho Moskvy, the opposition radio station, came under attack by its state-affiliated owner, Gazprom Media, which owns two thirds of Ekho Moskvy’s shares. Gazprom forced a shake-up of the station’s board, ousting founder and editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov along with four other board members, including two affiliated neither with Gazprom Media, nor Ekho. “This is a signal, certainly,” Venediktov said in special broadcast after the news broke. “I don’t see anything catastrophic in this, but it is unpleasant and I certainly see this as an attempt to adjust editorial policy.” And while Venediktov tried to downplay any sense of looming catastrophe, and Gazprom Media denied any whiff of carrying out Kremlin orders, it was hard not to recall what had preceded this event: About a month ago, Putin, at a meeting with prominent editors, lay into Venediktov, accusing his station of “covering me in diarrhea, from morning ’till night.”

Now, Putin is certainly a man who backs up scatological rhetoric with action, but there is something else at play here. Ekho Moskvy did not start dumping liquid feces on the premier just recently; it has been doing so for a decade. It was known as the Kremlin’s window dressing, the thing it could point to and say: “See? Freedom of the press! And on our dime, too!” Neither Ekho nor Dozhd are marginal outlets: High-ranking officials regularly grace both studios. Their chiefs — Venediktov and Sindeeva — are consummate players of Russia’s political game and have intimate knowledge of the couloirs of power. Sindeeva is friends with the oligarchs; Venediktov gets birthday greetings from Putin.

Indeed, for a time, Dozhd was President Dmitry Medvedev’s new media darling. He once visited the studio and even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, used Dozhd as a way to wink-wink with the liberal opposition, admitting to them that Putin may not have actually discovered those ancient amphorae while he was scuba diving in the Black Sea.

But an increasingly shaky Putin is just weeks from a presidential election. Window dressing for the West is the last thing he needs right now, and he certainly doesn’t need Ekho using his government money to become a revolutionary hub — which, as Michael Schwirtz noted in the New York Times, is increasingly the case. The same can be said of Dozhd, and the other two publications that have come under state attack during this turbulent winter: Kommersant Vlast, and Bolshoi Gorod (the latter also owned by Sindeeva).

And so the screws are being tightened. The tightly monitored federal channels, which in December dared to push the envelope, have come under the gun. As I reported in my last column, NTV was swept clean of an upstart editorial team and Channel 1 has decided to freeze all shows with the merest hint of socio-political themes. Last week, Anne Nivat, a well-known French writer, was kicked out of Russia for meeting with opposition figures for her upcoming book. A bank where anti-corruption activist and protest politician Alexey Navalny has an account, received an official visit from the Bank of Russia and Navalny’s account was “checked.” And, earlier this week, Ksenia Sobchak — the daughter of Putin’s late political mentor, glamorous it-girl turned opposition journalist — finally felt the pinch, too. Her new show on MTV Russia, “State Department with Ksenia Sobchak,” was canceled after one episode. “I don’t know what happened,” she told me. “They paid for four shows — they paid the production company, they paid me. But I invited on Navalny. I think it was a political decision.”

Maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe MTV executives decided that a music video network wasn’t the best place for a political talk show. Maybe, when a day after the Ekho Moskvy board shake up, a summons from the prosecutor’s office landed on Venediktov’s desk, it really was, as it was claimed, spurred by complaint from a strange man in far-away Tambov who took issue with a radio station’s editorial charter. Maybe it was simply the ranting of a man with too much time and too few marbles. Maybe the police and immigration officials trailing Nivat were simply over-enthusiastic cogs showing initiative. The fact that she was allowed to return over the weekend, after an override from higher-ups in the Federal Migration Service, indicates that this is probably the case. And it is probably the case with Shlegel’s inquiry, too.

Sobchak, however, is not buying it. “I hope it’s connected just to the election campaign, and that after the election they’ll relax a bit,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I think the government has decided on a course of clamping down.”

Either way, at a certain point coincidences stop being coincidences. And overzealous minions are suddenly hyperactive because they can clearly read the writing emblazoned on the wall: We are tightening the screws. “I don’t think it’s over. On the contrary, we’re seeing a well-defined trend,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky. “I think it will get stronger and I think it is intended to put the media in a stricter framework after the election.” It is one, he posits, that will rely increasingly on legalisms and technicalities — as well as American-style claims of “immoral” programming — to keep the media in line. “I don’t the system will be as personalized. It doesn’t need a single conductor. The conception will be a loose, sticky legal framework where they can contest you on an increasing number of judicial points.” This means it won’t matter if you’re state-owned or, like, Dozhd, indpendent, especially if we see more of the kinds of things we’ve seen of late: pressure on Internet providers, on boards of directors, on owners. And the brilliant thing about it? “None of these are censorship.”

As for Shlegel, he insists that his initiative was not intended to be a PR stunt or to coincide with the Ekho Moskvy mini-scandal. “I just wanted information,” he said, flustered. He noted that 800 people had already called him that day to harangue him about his perceived attack on Dozhd. “I’m always really lucky when it comes to such things. I couldn’t have found a better moment,” he said. “Of course, I’m being sarcastic.”

Tightening the Screws [FP]

Upping the Ante

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

MOSCOW – There were a few surprising things about Saturday’s opposition protest in Moscow. For one thing, the cold — a bitter -10 degrees Fahrenheit — didn’t seem to keep anyone at home. Nor did the fact that it had been more than a month since the last demonstration, leading commentators to worry that the protest movement against Vladimir Putin’s rule would lose momentum. If anything, more people came out than last time, some 100,000 in all.

Which makes the second thing a little less surprising. If the first big protest, on Bolotnaya Square, on December 10, was a mix of the politically active and the young and white-collared, the crowd that reconvened there on Saturday was extremely diverse. There were pensioners and office workers and a group of military history hobbyists wearing fatigues. (“We’re freaks,” one of them explained.) There were even veteran paratroopers, the saltiest of the salty earth and famous for their August holiday when they strip to their skivvies and frolic in city fountains. One does not expect to see them marching alongside iPhone-toting urbanites and democracy activists. And yet, there were paratrooper flags everywhere. “They think that our people don’t think, don’t see anything, and don’t understand anything,” one of the veterans, a 50-year-old named Sergei, told me. “It’s time for the country to be ruled by honest people.”

Beyond the sloganeering, there were signs this time of genuine political organizing in advance of the national elections on March 4 when Putin will run to resume the presidency he temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago. Several booths had been set up to gather signatures for petitions to contest election violations in court. People recruited election monitors, part of a drive over the last few weeks that’s culminated in two projects to train over 20,000 volunteer election monitors: one by the blogger and opposition Alexey Navalny and another, called Voters’ League, formed by the creative types among the protest organizers.

I also met two men who had decided to run for office in the Moscow municipal elections in March. “We need normal people to get into government, so that the organs of the state work not for themselves but for the citizens of the district,” said one of the candidates, Konstantin Kolisnichenko, 36, who, surprisingly, works for a government bank. (Unsurprisingly, he’s had a near impossible time getting on the ballot.) It was a statement that sounded a lot different from the chants of “Putin is a thief” around us. It sounded suspiciously like normal political discourse.

Meanwhile, the pro-Putin forces gathered across town. More accurately, they were bused in, and many were paid for. There were a lot of them, though not nearly as many as the 138,000-person Internal Ministry estimate. And if the tens of thousands at Bolotnaya laughed and smiled, the people at the pro-Putin rally had little to be cheerful about. The message delivered to them as they stood in the frost was one of brimstone and fire: the country was on the verge of collapsing, revolution was around the corner. “They want to drown the country in blood,” television star Maxim Shevchenko shouted from the stage about the protesters gathered on the other side of Moscow.

This apocalyptic imagery is strange, given the peaceful nature of the opposition protests. It does, however, reflect the fear and incomprehension about the protests inside the halls of power. “Julia, do you have a pet?” Yuri Kotler asked me the other day. Kotler is a young member of the ruling United Russia party and was once an advisor to Boris Gryzlov, former speaker of the Duma. I had asked him how the slowly mounting protests were perceived in the Kremlin. Yes, I said, I do have a pet. A cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Are you sure it’s talking? You have to make sure. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and asking for something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it — or hoping it will all go away. “It’s a bureaucracy, and it works for itself,” Kotler told me. “It’ll take a long time for them to understand that they’re hired.”

But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin — that is, Putin — is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters’ League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition — and the federal television blacklists — on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin’s performance during his annual Q&A with the public.

Now, there is talk in the capital of “tightening the screws,” one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. “They’re waiting for the opposition to make a mistake,” says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. “Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down.” In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov’s phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.

And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.

Saturday’s pro-Putin rally in Moscow — and smaller ones across the country — have to be seen in this context. If the opposition’s strategy is to show the Kremlin that its sheer numbers demand more inclusion in the political process, Putin is answering in kind: there are even more of us. Which is why the official tallies of yesterday’s protests in Moscow — 138,000 for Putin, 35,000 against him — were so bizarrely off. (Most observers, including police I spoke to on the scene, put the figures roughly in reverse: 30,000 for Putin, 100,000 against him in Moscow.) And why it was so important that, in every city where there was an opposition protest this weekend, there was a larger, mirror one in support of Putin, with titles like “Strong leader, strong nation.”

Nor is it a coincidence that, just as people streamed home from the protests, Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has turned his guns on his own citizens. Russia is not Syria, and it is unlikely that Putin, with his European pretensions, would crack down that hard. But his people do warn of blood flowing and, at the last meeting of the Valdai discussion club, in November, Putin spoke of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s “gruesome” end. It has been rumored to be something of an obsession for him.

Thus the stonewalling, and what we’re about to see: a real escalation by the opposition. If the protests in December were about new, fair parliamentary elections, the focus now is becoming Putin, and there will soon be only one demand: Putin has to go. This is, of course, the logical outcome for a leader who has so personalized Russia’s entire dysfunctional political system, and who continues to preclude conceding more than an inch. But upping the ante is a risky game, especially if you lose it.

When Russians — and those thousands of new election monitors — go to the polls to vote for Russia’s president for the next six years, it’s by no means clear what will happen. Putin will likely win, but how? The possible scenarios do not promise a calm Russian spring. If Putin wins in the first round, but with just over the required 50 percent of the vote, few will see it as a legitimate victory, most likely because it won’t be. “They’ve spent a decade building a system that, on every level — teachers, local elites — are incentivized to falsify the vote to deliver the right percentages,” political consultant and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky told me in January. “You can’t just flip a switch, and expect the system to stop on a dime.” If Putin forces a win in the first round, Pavlovsky added, “he’ll assume the presidency for the first time in an atmosphere of mistrust, skepticism, and depression.”

The problem is, by March, it will no longer be -10 degrees outside. If half a million, or even a million people come out — and chances are, many will — how will the security forces respond? Will they leave them to protest in peace, as they have in the last two months, or will they crack down, as they did on December 5? If Putin is forced into a second round of the presidential vote and then wins, he will still have less legitimacy than before, especially in his own eyes. “For him, it will be a psychological catastrophe,” one government official explained to me. “We’re screwed,” the official said when I asked him for his assessment. He gave the current incarnation of the system two more years, tops.

But some in the opposition are not too optimistic for their own prospects either. “Everyone was so euphoric yesterday,” says opposition leader and former Duma speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. “But I went home last night and thought about it, and, oh boy. We’re stuck. We’re at a dead end.” Dead ends rarely end well in a country where dialogue with the other side is stigmatized, especially when the side with the power — and the guns — keeps warning of blood and chaos.

So far, however, those thoughts seem to be far from the minds of the tens of thousands who braved the bitterest cold for a purely political cause. “I had the choice to stay in my warm bed today,” said one middle-aged woman in a floor-length mink coat. The strap of an expensive purse crossed her torso, there were Armani aviators perched on her nose. Her skin was clearly familiar with the salons of the city. A former businesswoman, she said she had missed the December protests. “I know I picked a crazy day to come out,” she said about the cold. “But I just couldn’t sit at home anymore.”

Clearly, the times are changing. In the last two months, a surprising addition to the protesting crowds has been Ksenia Sobchak, the popsy, fashionable daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s political mentor. She has long been part of the gilded, Kremlin-friendly elite, a sort of Russian Paris Hilton, and her joining the protests has been viewed with some suspicion. On Saturday, she weighed in on her Twitter account. “If the government doesn’t see now that people are willing to stand out in the frost and defend their rights, that government will be overthrown.”

Upping the Ante [FP]

Protest and Pretend in Moscow

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Today’s opposition protest in Moscow drew more people than any of the protests that followed December’s rigged parliamentary vote. But not all of the protests since then have been anti-Kremlin. One of the many methods that the Kremlin has used in response to this unprecedented wave of civic bonhomie is to herd its own rallies. It’s a method the Kremlin has fallen back on for years: Pro-government youth groups, for example, regularly bus tens of thousands of kids into Moscow from the provinces for such events. Many of them can be spotted wandering the streets afterwards in their official T-shirts, swinging Zara bags: a free trip to the capital, with some pocket money to boot.

On December 6th, two days after the disputed elections brought thousands of angry Muscovites into the streets, these youth groups staged a massive counter-rally. They had pins and scarves and jackets and giant drums, which they pounded as the police surgically snatched nearly six hundred opposition protesters from the crowd and sent them off to jail. (They also had aggressive soccer hooligans keeping order, another hallmark of such gatherings.)
Four days later, on December 10th, a historically huge crowd of fifty thousand had come out to Bolotnaya Square to demand fair elections.

Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party—whose questionable victory was the reason for the ruckus—said it would bring out just as many people for a rally by the Kremlin walls two days later. But only two thousand people came out, if that. It was a thin crowd, which made for a strange counterpoint to one of the speakers, who went on about looking out from the stage and seeing a sea of United Russia supporters. Who were these supporters? One Russian journalist, armed with a camera, decided to find out by asking them why they came. Most turned away or ignored him. One of them, a migrant worker from Central Asia, could barely string together a sentence in Russian. (Many in the crowd that day, it turned out, were migrants—and not Russian citizens.)

There was a similar sham rally a few days ago, in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. This one, though, was in support of Putin’s candidacy for the Presidency and of the working class, which dominates the region. Many of the workers who attended the rally had been bused in from neighboring cities, industrial centers where life, even in Putin’s gilded era, is still not very pleasant. Several colleagues who went out there for the rally told me that people were very angry at Putin—the word “lynch” was used—but went to the rally in Yekaterinburg because their employers required them to, and because there was free vodka. This didn’t seem to add much to their mood, though: A video, which quickly went viral, showed a Duma deputy—formerly a worker from a nearby city—screaming “Urals! Russia! Putin!” He heard crickets in response. The protest, by the way, scraped together about ten thousand people, and police fined the organizers for having more people than the permit for the gathering allowed—an especially fine touch.

Today was the crowning moment of the Kremlin’s effort. As a hundred and twenty thousand opposition protesters marched through subzero temperatures—negative ten degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact—to Bolotnaya Square, buses across town brought in pro-Putin protesters to Poklonnaya Gora, the plaza commemorating Russia’s victory in the Second World War. The official police estimates of the size of each crowd were not believable. They put the pro-Putin number at a hundred and thirty-eight thousand, and fourteen-thousand five hundred at Bolotnaya. I was at the opposition rally, where there were clearly many, many more people than fourteen-thousand five hundred people. A smiling police officer confirmed this, adding that there were “significantly fewer people” at the pro-Putin rally. He seemed to be gloating.

I did, however, send my friend Albina Kirillova, a director with the hip opposition Rain TV channel, to Poklonnaya Gora. I asked her to capture the spirit of the pro-Putin rally, to find out if people were genuinely supporting Putin, if they had been bused in, or if they had been required to come by their employers, as has been frequently reported. Here’s what she found:

There were, as expected, people who had been paid to come; people who came out because of a work-place “initiative”; people who were less than fluent in Russian; and people who were less than sober. But there were also a lot of people who actually support Putin, either because they see no alternative to him, or because they really do like him. And they should, without a doubt, be able to gather and voice these feelings, just like the opposition.

But here’s the thing: when these protests are fake, when they aim to merely usurp and simulate popular sentiment in a controlled and controllable way, when the point is simply to mimic what the other side is doing, it’s downright destructive. People took to the streets in December and today because they’re tired of pretending that fake elections are real, that fake press is real, that fake protests are real expressions of anything. Responding with more of the same undermines the sand castle of Russia’s political system even further. It also just looks ridiculous.

Here’s another thing: these fake protests are expensive. Two days ago, the Russian franchise of Anonymous hacked the e-mail of youth minister Vasily Yakimenko. He is in charge of those Kremlin youth groups, and in charge of their fake protests. That protest with the pins and the scarves and the jackets and the drums? It cost the Russian federal budget—and the Russian taxpayer—nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Judging by the traffic the buses created near Poklonnaya Gora, Saturday’s protest probably cost even more, but the Russian taxpayer—a hundred and twenty thousand of whom were protesting exactly this kind of nonsense on Bolotnaya—will never know exactly how much. And what happens if more and more Russians start protesting as the Russian winter turns to spring, and—as is likely to happen—when Putin wins the Presidency in less than honest elections? Throwing money at things has been Putin’s preferred method for dealing with just about any problem, but this may be one of those times where this method doesn’t work.

And one more thing about today’s pro-Putin protest: Putin didn’t even show up. Instead, he commented on the show of support at Poklonnaya Gora and the fine for too many people showing up. “I’m positive that the organizers didn’t expect such a response,” Putin said. And he offered to pay the fine himself.

Protest and Pretend in Moscow [TNY]

Putin: A Used President?

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

guess you can say that it started with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s live question-and-answer session last Friday. This is a once-a-year extravaganza that lasts for hours and is Putin’s favorite—that is, utterly scripted—way to communicate with his subjects. He leans back in an Aeron chair, cocks one arm over its back, and confidently rains down figures and percentages and questionable numbers like heavenly manna. He solves housing shortages for Second World War veterans with a swift, manly snarl. He jokes, he zings—he is, in short, in his element. This year, however, Putin’s telethon came amid growing protests by the country’s middle class, which has had enough, over the crude, ham-fisted falsifications of the December 4th parliamentary vote. This year, he was nervous, and, despite his vocal unwillingness to discuss this wrinkle in the system, he had to keep coming back to the topic. When all else failed, he tried to ease off the theme by making a joke about the white ribbons protesters have been pinning to their chests. “To be perfectly honest,” he said,

When I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest—it’s not quite appropriate— but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.

Within minutes, the Russian-language Internet was overflowing with condom jokes, including a picture of a condom folded up like an activist ribbon, and a Christmas card from Putin, an unfurled condom hanging from his lapel. A joke started to make the rounds: a guy and a girl are getting hot and heavy, and, at the critical moment, she says, “Do you have a white ribbon?”

Russians have a long tradition of biting, bitter humor, a necessary steam valve when you live in a reality that could easily be mistaken for a joke. These days, with all the steam the system has built up over a decade of High Putinism suddenly billowing forth, humor has been front and center. KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter parody of Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter feed, has been especially active of late. “Putin,” one of the recent condom-themed tweets went, “is a used president.” (He had been President before, and intends to be so again.)

Saturday, up to a hundred and twenty thousand people came out to demand electoral reform—a record for the infamously indifferent Putin generation. Partly because the last massive protest, two weeks ago, was so peaceful, and because Muscovites are getting the hang of this, Saturday’s protest was, more than anything, a festival of such classically wry Russian witticisms. Below, some of my favorites.

(Photographs: Max Avdeev)

(Photographs, above and top: Julia Ioffe)

Putin: A Used President? [TNY]

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Going into today’s protest against the fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, it was unclear how many people would come. Would there be more people than the some 50,000 that gathered on Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10, in the election’s heady aftermath? Would there be less, given the holiday season, the dropping temperatures, and the distance — three weeks — from the insult of the election fraud that cemented the ruling United Russia party, however weakly, back into power? Would there be more, given the lack of a crackdown last time, when, it should be noted, no one knew how many would show up either? And even if there were more, what would it mean?

Crowd counting, especially from the ground level, is an inexact science at best, but it was clear to everyone — from police to journalists to the event organizers — that thousands more people came out today to Sakharov Avenue than did two weeks ago to Bolotnaya Square, which has become the new by-word for the still hard-to-pin spirit of change creeping through the Russian political system. The crowd — its estimates ranging from 30,000 to 120,000 — was also different from the protest of Dec. 10. If Bolotnaya was packed with the young and the white-collared (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia) today’s demonstrations brought out a more motley assembly.

Anarchists clustered by the gay activists, themselves within spitting distance from the radical young communists. Their elderly counterparts, with fur hats and voluminous, unkempt eyebrows (“You tell America,” one of them, an 83-year-old World War II veteran, said, looking at my press badge, “that Russia will never be its colony!”) were also nearby, flanked by the wry and rowdy hipsters from Leprozorium (“Leper Colony”), a closed and harshly meritocratic web forum famous for cultivating some of the Russian internet’s stickiest memes. Jumping up and down, they chanted “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” at the 6-foot-8-inch Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest person in Russia and a newly minted opposition presidential candidate, whose head loomed over a scrum of people eager to ask him about orphanages, corruption, and Soviet history.

All around these islands was a sea of grandmothers, of the middle-aged, of the well-heeled, the more modestly compensated, and, of course, the office plankton. It was bitterly cold on Saturday afternoon in Moscow and, huddling under a steely sky flecked with white balloons, people drank whiskey from flasks and tea from thermoses; they jumped in place to keep warm. As on Bolotnaya, the speeches coming from the stage — though clearly audible because of speakers placed along the avenue — were almost of secondary importance. It wasn’t about the speakers, some of whom, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, were booed; people talked politics among themselves, periodically stopping to join in the chanting of a slogan echoing from the stage.

And yet, despite the obviously bigger numbers than the protest earlier this month, many of the people I spoke to today didn’t sound like they were at the biggest display of civic upswell in 20 years. Gone was the euphoria, the ebullience, the anger. The people who came out to Sakharov Avenue were more muted than the crowds of Bolotnaya a fortnight before, and despite the friendliness in abundance — a rare sight when so many Muscovites cluster so closely together — there was a calmness and a quiet that Bolotnaya, its air crackling, did not have. Even the polite and peaceful police presence, such a novelty on Dec. 10, didn’t even merit a shrug.

At Bolotnaya, when everyone was surprised by the fact that so many thousands of other traditionally atomized Muscovites coalesced to voice their frustrations, there was something of a sense of elation, a delight in discovering that people who share the same frustration existed, and existed in such large and friendly numbers. In the two weeks since, however, a lot has happened. That surprise, that “now-now-now” euphoria, has morphed into a firmer sense of civic entitlement. The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor’s office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information. Contrary to the near universal expectation that this amorphous and motley crew would fracture and do itself in by squabbling, the diverse movement has surprised everyone, including itself, with its growing sophistication.

Part of the reason is that it has also tasted success. In the two weeks since Bolotnaya, the government response has gone from messy and panicked to largely symbolic gestures — tossing the infamously crass Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov under the bus and handing some parliamentary committee chairmanships to the “loyal opposition” — to the beginnings of something that’s starting to look like actual concessions and, more shockingly, real change.

In his four-hour live question and answer session on Dec. 16, Vladimir Putin floated the idea that Russia may see a return of elected governors, though a strange device called a “presidential filter.” (Gubernatorial elections, done away with in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism, have been the signature of Putin’s centralized — and now wobbling — political system.) This week, Dmitry Medvedev, still formally president, delivered his final state of the nation address to the country’s political elite. He laid out plans for political reform, including the direct election of governors, something that would begin to address the deafness, inflexibility, and ineffectiveness of Putin’s power vertical. “People are tired of having their interests ignored,” Medvedev said. “I hear those who talk about the need for change and understand them.”

Today, while however many tens of thousands stood around on Sakharov Avenue — a protest echoed in dozens of cities around the country — Sergei Naryshkin, until recently the president’s chief of staff and now the new Duma speaker, went on television to suggest that maybe they didn’t need a “presidential filter” after all, that maybe political parties’ own selection process was enough.

Even the official rhetoric has begun to shift away from insinuations of American provocation and Putin’s swat at demonstrators that their white protest ribbons reminded him of limp condoms. Today’s statements from top United Russia officials steered clear of insulting the crowd, choosing instead to focus on their leaders, and to hint that, maybe, they had come out not to get State Department money, but because they had legitimate grievances. “It’s obvious that there is a huge chasm between those Russian citizens who came out to protest, and those who address them from the stage,” said United Russia deputy Irina Yarova, in a press release sent around by the party on Saturday afternoon. The participants, according to Yarova, are “simple” and “sincere” — a far cry from Putin’s assertion that they had come out in exchange for money. Alexander Khinshtein, another United Russia deputy, spun it a different way. “I think that the existence of the opposition is testament to the health of the country,” he said, pointing to the “ripeness of our political system.” Compare that to the pre-Bolotnaya talk of provocateurs, traitors, and other characters unworthy of direct dialogue with the state.

That is not to say that many things, many of the most important things, will be left unchanged: The deeply fraudulent parliamentary elections of Dec. 4 won’t be nullified and held anew; Vladimir Churov — the odd and flamboyantly partisan “magician” in charge of the Central Election Commission — shows no signs of resigning (he’s a childhood friend of Putin); and, come March 4, unless things completely come apart, Putin will win the presidential election. He will still be the deeply conservative, change-averse, hands-on Putin; the system will still be deeply corrupt, unresponsive, and weak.

That said, there’s three months to go — and there’s still the chance, however much it shrinks with each peaceful protest protected by extremely civil police officers, that things could explode into violence and screw-tightening.

But, if the people who have been coming out despite the cold this month — 100,000, for Putin’s Russia, is still an unimaginable amount (most protests in the last decade drew no more than a brave few hundred) — don’t fall asleep on March 5 when their slim hopes are dashed by Putin’s victory, if these small victories make them hungrier rather than nauseous, if the surprise at discovering that one’s political opinions are not at all singular or marginal does not sour when the number at these protests inevitably plateaus, then Putin’s system, come 2012, will already be a very different one. It will find itself dealing with a new constituency whose wizened, suspicious regard for his maneuvers will make them harder and harder to trick, which will therefore make it more and more necessary for the system to actually deal with them, and take their concerns seriously.

And perhaps, if this new protest constituency can be trained by its experience to see small concessions as big successes, perhaps the political system and political life can finally become somewhat “normal” — the utterly subjective gold standard for Russians. “We’re setting a precedent,” said Alexei, a 25-year old computer programmer, shivering in the cold. “The reason the word ‘politics’ always had this negative connotation in Russia is because there was an understanding that we’re not going to get involved in it, especially not as decent people. We want to give the word a different connotation, so that a decent person doesn’t have to get red in the face when he says the word ‘politics.'”

Won’t Get Fooled Again [FP]

The Condom-nation of Vladimir Putin

Friday, December 16th, 2011

MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government — and anti-Putin — protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin’s reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People’s Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain “signal.”

This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin’s first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. “To be perfectly honest,” he said, “when I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest — it’s not quite appropriate — but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.”

Yes, that’s right: in case Russians hadn’t been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn’t been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn’t angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.

The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. (“Happy holidays, friends!” the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: “You’re the gondon.” In Russian, gondon is slang for condom — or asshole.

Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to “push it to the side,” or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, “a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies” that “doesn’t come out of nowhere” — like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia’s once and would-be future president pointed out that “there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it’s often pointless or impossible.” And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday’s 50,000-person protest — “fine, let them earn a little money” — even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin’s, to some extent. “I get paid for my time,” Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn’t get money from the U.S. State Department. “Why shouldn’t they?”)

Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which “underestimates our nuclear rocket potential”), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who “has blood on his hands”), the one topic — the “red thread,” according to the host — that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday’s protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens’ rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, “will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It’s a question of political culture.”

But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. “There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position,” he said. “If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I’m happy. I’m happy that these kinds of people are appearing.” He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki’s statement that those who came out across the country were “Putin’s generation,” a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which “Putin, resign!” rolled loudly through the crowds.)

Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. “For God’s sake, if it’s so interesting to you, then I’ll discuss it,” he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn’t the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren’t asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors — eliminated in 2004 — but only, as he put it, through “a presidential filter” (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president — him — will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections — which, of course, would be logistically impossible — but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.

Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin’s favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti — one Russian journalist called him a “random number generator.” For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.

And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state’s reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions — like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position — but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, “Putin, go fuck yourself!” Two other top editors resigned in protest.

The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, “I was not invited to these meetings, I don’t know. I’ll say honestly that I didn’t notice any panic.” He was, he added, busy. “I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey,” he said, referring to himself as “a cow on ice.” “I wasn’t really paying attention to what’s going on there. And I haven’t been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking.”

Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin’s insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin’s snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.

And it’s true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. “Come to me, Bandar-logs,” Russia’s ruler told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in “The Jungle Book.” The ones who chant “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful.” (“I’ve loved Kipling since childhood,” crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. “What say you, Bandar-logs,” one journalist quipped. “Shall we go prowling?

The Condomnation of Vladimir Putin [FP]

The Decembrists

Friday, December 9th, 2011

MOSCOW – Tonight is the first night without protests here since some 6,000 young people gathered Monday night to express their frustration with the electoral fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary elections and, more broadly, the institution of Putinism. They came out again Tuesday night, where they were met by thousands of drum-beating pro-Kremlin youth activists. And again on Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested, and many of them — including anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, a political rising star since he coined the phrase “Party of Crooks and Thieves” to describe Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia — are still in jail. Moscow is filled with tens of thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops and armored personnel carriers, and the city’s skies crackle with the sound of helicopter blades.

But what’s next? In short: No one knows. Sure, the Russian blogosphere is deep into planning the next protest, scheduled in Moscow for Saturday and which, according to the Facebook group created for it, more than 30,000 people are planning to attend, and Yandex, the Russian search engine, has posted a map pinpointing the addresses and times of protests scheduled all over Russia. But, meanwhile, the Western press is scrambling to tag this phenomenon with something, anything — the “Slavic Spring,” “OccupyKremlin,” or “White Revolution” for the white ribbons organizers are handing out — to make it digestible, classifiable, understandable.

Neither the scope, nor the trajectory, nor the efficacy of the growing wave of protests is clear, and predicting, or even gauging, their success is still impossible. What is quickly becoming apparent, however, is that whatever is happening now is very real, and very different from anything that has happened in many, many years. Something, in short, has changed — essentially overnight — and there is no going back to the day before.

At least nominally, the protests are about contesting the outcome of Sunday’s elections. There is some substance to this, as each day brings more and more eyewitness accounts of electoral fraud, of carousels, of ballot stuffing, of dead souls voting. There is a sense that, were it not for such tricks, United Russia would not have gotten even the paltry 49.5 percent of the vote that the authorities claim. In Moscow, according to an exit poll by FOM, a Kremlin-friendly pollster, United Russia got 27 percent, a far cry from the national average. Moreover, the people who came out on Monday night — surprising both the Kremlin and the protest’s organizers — were people who had participated in those elections. For many of them, it was a concrete issue (feeling duped) rather than an abstract one. Perhaps this is why the numbers were so shockingly large by Moscow standards, which has up until now seen only sparse and largely radical or elderly crowds of a few hundred. (Though it should be said that protests over other tangible things, like foreign car imports or monetizing pensions, were always well populated.)

So what changed? It wasn’t simply that people were afraid to get involved and now aren’t. The axiom that people felt that it was pointless to protest was, in large part, true. For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design. So, too, was the official Kremlin line, which boiled down to this: After the chaotic and ruinous 1990s, the country needed stability and material comfort, while democracy and other such nebulous things could come at a later, unspecified time.

Ironically, the problem, at least for Putin now that he seeks to return to the presidency he first assumed on New Year’s Eve 1999, is that he did provide the promised stability and economic benefit to many people, both intentionally — by raising pensions, for example — and unintentionally, as commodity prices took off during his initial tenure as president. This flooded state coffers, lined his friends’ pockets, and at least some of it trickled down. For people who experienced the penury of the 1990s, these rivulets — small as they were compared to the billions the new Putin set of oligarchs was making — were nothing to sneeze at.

Yet it also meant this: Stability worked in ways Putin might now be paying for. As Robert Shlegel, a young Duma deputy from United Russia and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, told me a few days ago, “We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice.” That may sound like straight out of a political theory textbook, until you consider what he said when I called him on Thursday to ask about the growing protests. He recalled a conversation with a friend who said he planned on going to Saturday’s demonstration. “I said to him, ‘What is the problem? You have a job, you have an apartment, you have a car. What else do you need?'” Shlegel recounted. Why, in other words, are you suddenly violating your end of the social compact of the 2000s: You get richer and buy cars and take vacations, but leave the politics to us.

What else do you need? As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what Shlegel said they needed: dignity and justice. And not the lofty definitions of those words that one often hears in Washington. I mean something more basic: a state that trusts and respects its citizens, a state that sees its people as citizens rather than as bydlo, or cattle — as the common saying goes in Russia. When Russians describe their political system today, the phrase they most often use is ruchnoe upravlenie, or manual control — which, of course, implies an utter lack of both those things.

So we are right back to Russia’s historical problem, one that bedeviled both tsars and communist commissars before Putin: What to do with a liberal, educated, well-traveled elite that orients itself toward Europe and its democratic traditions — but that is an elite nonetheless, separated from the rest of Russia by a massive chasm in outlook and upbringing as well as aspirations? We’ve seen this story before, and, inevitably, the conflict does not end well for those involved. (See, for example: the 1825 revolt of the Decembrists, the 1917 October Revolution, the 1956 “thaw” of Nikita Khrushchev, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The people who came out to protest here this week were the representatives of this elite. It’s no coincidence that the center of organization for these protests is Twitter and Facebook, two platforms used almost exclusively in Russia by that very refined, and removed, slice of society. They’ve done well in the last decade, but they’ve also become increasingly fed up with being lumped with, for lack of a better term, the cattle. A breaking point seemed to come on September 24, when Putin announced the grand swap: His plan to switch places and resume the presidency while have his puppet successor, Dmitri Medvedev, take his job as prime minister. “September 24 was the signal,” says Igor Yurgens, head of the INSOR think tank, once see as Medvedev’s brain trust. “The feeling was, they can’t do this. Six, most likely 12 years with no discussions, no consultations. Even the Communist Party, when they picked the general secretary, even though it was totally clear that they would install whomever they wanted, there were still party meetings across the whole country. Even with the understanding that they’d get their person, they still worked on building consensus. Here, in one day, two people — but most probably one person — decided the next decade without anyone else.”

The response to this moved quickly. First, there were anguished calculations of how old people would be when Putin finally left the presidential throne, then numerous incidents of booing United Russia and even Putin himself, and, finally, the protests of the last week. The slogans were less about United Russia, and the farce of the elections hardly got a mention on Monday night. The main target was Putin and the brazen cronyism — and brazen brazenness — of his system. “Russia without Putin!” shouted the crowds. “Putin is a thief!”

This is also why people who had never voted before, or hadn’t voted in many, many years, went to cast a ballot this time around. The results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it. (The results, by the way, were very deeply telling when broken down by region. For example, among the areas that really swept United Russia back into power were the republics of the North Caucasus; areas, plagued by an Islamic insurgency, that are flooded with Kremlin cash -places where money for loyalty still seems to work.)

The other question, of course, is what will come of this unrest. The official response, despite Putin’s admissions of “losses” and vague promises of new reforms, so far, has been more of the same. It didn’t help when Medvedev and Putin proved dismissive of reports of electoral fraud, or that the top election official in the country, the openly partisan Vladimir Churov, flat-out denied electoral fraud and darkly accused the opposition of working for “dollars.”

On Thursday, Medvedev was finally pressed into calling for a full report to investigate electoral violations, but we’ve seen all too well how his personally demanded reports work out: the report, for example, that he ordered into the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in police custody resulted in Magnitsky himself being named as a party to the fraud he was trying to investigate when he was arrested, and in medals for the police officers who, quite likely, killed him. And what did Putin say about the electoral losses suffered by the party created to support him? “Putin has never been directly connected with the United Russia party since he is regarded as an independent politician,” his press secretary told the BBC.

And the protests? Putin acknowledged them on Thursday, which, given the fact that his television stations haven’t, means they’re actually important. “While going by the vast majority of our citizens, we need to have a dialogue with those who are oppositionally minded, give them the opportunity to speak their minds, giving them their constitutional right to protest, to formulate their opinions,” he said at a meeting of his People’s Front. But Putin also reminded people not to be naïve and hinted, as he has in the last two weeks, at shadowy connections to the West. “When you’re talking about people who leave for America, and get some training there, get some money, acquire some equipment, and then come back here and spend their time being provocateurs, dragging people out into the streets,” he said, “even these people cannot be measured with a single yardstick.”

It was a clear rebuke to two parties. One of them was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had expressed her concern with the way Sunday’s elections had gone down. This, Putin said, was “a signal” to the opposition — a fifth column, in Putin’s KGB-minted mind. “They heard the signal, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.”

The other swipe was at the very people that Putin proposed talking to: the opposition not lucky enough to win seats in the Duma. There is, for example, former prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who spent time teaching in the United States. And Navalny, who did a six-month fellowship at Yale. This is a standard Putin bogeyman, an easy way to deflect blame and to discredit whomever he’s up against. As for dialogue, Putin certainly didn’t have in mind negotiating with opposition figures like Nemtsov and Navalny. “He means the parliamentary opposition,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who, until recently, worked for Medvedev, and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “He has never taken people like Nemtsov and Navalny seriously. He sees them as nihilists and anarchists. He’s mistaken about them, of course, but there really is no consolidated opposition and there really is no one for him to talk to.”

And that, unfortunately, is true. The protesters, as massive as Saturday’s gathering promises to be, are still a diffuse group with no formulated demands. What do they want? A vote recount? A new election? Putin’s ouster? Good luck. Tonight, in a compromise with the Moscow city government, the protest was moved to a different location, which caused a minor war among the opposition, which in recent days, has been remarkably unified. This kind of squabbling over tactics, and whether or not to compromise with the authorities, will severely hobble the movement, too.

So far, the Kremlin has been buying time — keeping the protests off television, leaning on liberal media (like RainTV) and social networks to cut off oxygen to the protests, dismissing them as a vocal minority trying to impose its view on a majority happy with its apartments and cars. But Saturday promises to be the day when both the opposition’s approach and demands, as well as the Kremlin’s response crystallizes.

“I suspect the situation will be very serious on Saturday,” says Yurgens. “If the Kremlin has enough brains to enter into discussions, to form a coalition government, to fire the current government before the elections, there’s a chance. But if they just carry on as if nothing happened, we can expect rough times ahead.” Gennady Gudkov, an outspoken Duma deputy with the Just Russia party, agreed. “If they carry on like nothing happened, if there’s one more election like this, there won’t be a country anymore,” he says. “If the government doesn’t react, the protests won’t go away. They’ll simply take another form, and it will boomerang back to the Kremlin.”

As for the opposition, things are also unclear. Even if Saturday is a success, what next? What are its demands? And how long can this wave of protests keep going, and to what end? So far, no one, not even those leading the protest, knows.

Originally, Saturday’s big event was supposed to take place, fittingly, on Revolution Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin. For the past week, there have been orange and yellow banners there celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defense of Moscow. It is a strange anniversary to mark, and, in the absence of any unifying ideology, World War II has been a standard theme to harp on in Putin’s time. But it’s worth noting that the defense of Moscow worked mostly because a harsh winter literally froze the Nazi machine in its tracks. So far, Moscow has had a rather mild winter, with sunny skies and temperatures hovering above freezing. Should they dip, it may make protesting under the Kremlin’s walls much more difficult. Tahrir Square, after all, had the benefit of a Mediterranean clime.

Gudkov, the rabblerousing Duma deputy, doesn’t agree. “I don’t think people will be scared of the cold,” he told me. “Cold has never stopped people here. Look at the October revolution, the February revolution. When did the Decembrists come out? Whenever it gets cold in Russia, it only heightens people’s activity. I wouldn’t play around with that.”

The Decembrists FP]

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

On Sunday, Nov. 27, when Vladimir Putin accepted United Russia’s nomination to be its presidential candidate, he mentioned something in his acceptance speech that seemed to come out of left field. “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money — so-called ‘grantees’ — whom they instruct, find them ‘suitable work’ in order to influence the result of the election campaign in our country,” he said, adding that “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” It was old-school, West-bashing, Cold War-invoking Putin at his best.

It was also, it turns out, very carefully aimed. Over the weekend, as United Russia waved its flags and cheered its leader, two journalists from state-controlled television station NTV showed up at the offices of Golos (“Voice” or “Vote”), the only Russian NGO with the means and credibility to monitor elections. The uninvited film crew came to sit in on a training session for volunteers and, according to Golos’s accounts, made quite the entrance. They watched a Golos training video and interviewed the organization’s director, Lilia Shibanova (as she told me, “aggressively”), asking her about her organization’s connection to the CIA.

The next day, the same journalists arrived to find Grigory Melkonyants, Golos’s deputy director. They stuck a camera in his face and started yelling at him about the etiology of his salary (the United States, naturally) and alleging that Golos was attempting to disrupt Sunday, Dec. 4’s parliamentary elections. The resultant video, recorded on Melkonyants’s phone, quickly went viral when it made it onto the web a couple of days later. It shows the two screaming at each other: NTV insinuating sordid connections to shadowy Western organizations, Melkonyants repeating over and over and over again: “You are Surkov’s propaganda.” (He was referring to Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the power vertical, creator of United Russia and Nashi, and a man who makes Karl Rove look like a professional dilettante.) The repetition of the phrase — 84 times in all — was designed to make the footage unusable for the kind of hatchet pieces NTV airs on figures who suddenly fall from official grace.

The half-hour film segment, called “Voice Out of Nowhere,” finally made it onto the air Friday, but not before three Duma deputies wrote a letter to Russia’s prosecutor general, alleging that Golos’s newspaper breaks the law by “giving direct assessments of the progress of the election campaign in our country.” Furthermore, the organization, the deputies allege, is merely a shell organization for the U.S. Congress and State Department to influence internal Russian politics. The deputies’ demand? Shut Golos down.

A statement by Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission and loyal Putin defender, followed, claiming that Golos was waging a campaign against United Russia. There was the sudden removal of a banner on Wednesday from the liberal Internet newspaper Gazeta.ru advertising its joint project with Golos: an interactive map tracking all election law violations submitted by users. (Asked whether Gazeta.ru had been pressured to remove this banner, Editor in Chief Mikhail Kotov only said, “I’d rather leave this without comment.”) Then, Friday, in a hastily scheduled court hearing and verdict, Golos was found guilty, during just one morning session, of abusing media privileges — and ordered to pay a roughly $1,000 fine.

Golos, which, with its vast network of volunteers carpeting Russia, has been an invaluable resource to journalists covering Russian elections, has never denied that it receives foreign funding. “We survive on foreign grants because the government will never finance the kind of work we do,” Shibanova told me this week. “But the money does not influence our results.” She readily listed the mosaic of grants, large and small, that make up Golos’s roughly $2.5 million election-year budget: the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Democratic Institute, British and Scandinavian embassies, the European Commission. Nor does she deny that Golos observers often pose as journalists in order to get into the polling stations, something she says is impossible to avoid after the passage of a law, in 2005, banning all election monitors except those sent by the parties themselves, or journalists. “Of course we pose as journalists!” Shibanova said. “What else can we do if you ban any public observers and allow in only representatives from the parties themselves?”

This is not the first time election observers have faced trouble in Russia — European monitors generally have a difficult time getting accredited to cover Russian elections, and this year was no exception — but the scale of the attack on Golos is unprecedented. It also fits into the context of an increasingly brazen campaign in which government officials and offices — like Churov’s Central Election Commission — openly and unapologetically use their positions to campaign for United Russia. Or in which United Russia officials openly promise voters money directly proportional to election results. It is rather odd, for instance, that Churov steps in so openly for just one party — United Russia — which clearly has the lion’s share of the advantage, as well as the financial, administrative, and media resources of the state, essentially, at its behest. “Before, they at least tried to hide this,” says political analyst Maria Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now, not only are they not hiding the fact that they’re waging electoral campaigns from their desks and offices inside the government — they’re showing it off.”

But heading into Sunday’s vote, the Kremlin isn’t just showing off its political will, administrative might, or even hubris and blunt honesty about what the process really is; it’s also flaunting, albeit inadvertently, a fear of what that vote on Sunday might reveal. How else can one explain an otherwise sophisticated, cleverly nuanced system — Surkov, unlike Rove, fetishizes the post-modern — suddenly falling back on the crassest of methods? How else can one explain the explicit directive given to the foreign-news translation service within the state RIA news agency not to publish pieces critical of Putin and United Russia ahead of the elections? What happened to the state media system’s brilliant shortcut of self-censorship? And what to make of the sudden prominence given to Western spooks, in Putin’s speech, in the official letters to the prosecutor’s office, and in nearly identical language? (“We have special services, and we have all the data about NGOs’ being sponsored by foreign states,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary told me. “We have all the information, let’s say, about some recommendations coming from the foreign states. Already we know NGOs that will start shouting on the 5th of December” — the day after the elections — “that these elections are not legitimate without paying any respect to the results.”)

On Friday, still-president Dmitry Medvedev issued an appeal to his subjects. “How long will it take you to go and vote?” he asked. “Half an hour? An hour? But this hour will determine what kind of parliament the country will live with for five whole years.” Will it be a parliament “torn apart by constant contradiction, unable to solve anything, as we’ve already seen in our history?” Medvedev asked, invoking the old bogeyman of the 1990s. Or will it be a parliament where “the majority will be responsible politicians [read: United Russia deputies] who can actually improve the quality of life?”

Whatever kind of parliament the Kremlin gets on Sunday, Surkov will find a way to work with it or around it. But, given the public rumblings of the last two months as well as the Kremlin’s crass response, it seems that the Kremlin is increasingly uncertain about how its citizens will spend that hour.

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style [FP]

Putin and the Boo-boys

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

MOSCOW – With a week to go until Russia’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the stage on Sunday, Nov. 27, in front of 11,000 hooting, flag-waving United Russia delegates. He delivered a vigorous, nebulous speech about how long he has served his country (his whole life) and led a few cheers (when I say “Russia,” you say “Hoorah!”). Then he formally accepted the party’s nomination to represent it in the March presidential elections, which he will win in a landslide. It was both a formality and a preemptory victory lap, as well as a strange repetition of the September party congress, at which he and still-president Dmitry Medvedev agreed, essentially, to swap places. But if September’s convention — held at the same Moscow sports arena as the one yesterday — was a curve ball, yesterday’s festival of triumphalism was both expected and bizarre.

“This optimistic tone does not correspond to the depressive, anxious mood of many in the country right now, and it was unclear who it was aimed at,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. Pavlosvky pointed out that Sunday’s fanfare smacked of the “pre-crisis” era — that is, the end of Putin’s first, petroleum-fueled run as president. That chest-thumping tone was fine then, says Pavlovsky, but “today, it just looks anachronistic.”

Much has changed in the years since Putin formally stepped down from the presidency. With Medvedev’s arrival came talk of modernization, a détente with the United States, a bit more oxygen in the system. But in the two months since the Medvedev-Putin swap — which seemed to dismiss all of that goodwill as formalities — something else has changed, too: What was once easily classifiable as public apathy has quickly fermented into a very palpable dissatisfaction, and it is one that is increasingly breaking through the surface, even in places where it is not expected.

The most notable — and most symbolic — of these bubbles has been the “booing revolution.” It started earlier this month with a concert by a legendary Soviet rock group Mashina Vremeni (“Time Machine”) in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which was going well until an emcee announced that the concert had been sponsored by the ruling United Russia party. He couldn’t finish his speech because the sudden wave of booing was so loud. Later, the local authorities threw the emcee under the bus — they were not sponsoring the concert, and he was just a provocateur — but Kemerovo started a trend. A couple of weeks later, at a Cheliabinsk hockey game, the captain of the local team (“Tractor”) skated onto the ice and read a speech praising United Russia and the Cheliabinsk governor. The crowd didn’t stop booing until the player had skated back to the bench. Afterwards, Tractor’s fanclub clarified that “we were booing not Antipov [the team captain] who read that speech with a sour face, but the situation itself, the governor of Cheliabinsk, and United Russia with its inappropriate attempt to promote itself.”

The main event, however, came on Nov. 20, when Putin showed up at a Moscow stadium for a mixed martial arts fight between Russian Fedor Emilianenko and American Jeff Monson. Emilianenko won, and Putin decided to congratulate his compatriot by climbing into the ring and praising him as “a real Russian knight.” The problem was that few people could hear him over the sound of 20,000 people booing and shouting “go away!”

When the video went viral, Putin’s press secretary called a quick press conference to explain that the people in the stands were actually booing Monson. But hearing this, Russian fans took to Monson’s Facebook page to leave shout-outs of “respect” from different corners of Russia. “Jeff,” one Russian fan wrote, “all whistles were only for Putin and for his party — they are the greatest thiefs in our history [sic].” Many of these Facebook fans were not at the fight that evening, but the fact that they — and those who were — gave Putin his first public drubbing ever was highly significant: martial arts have always been Putin’s hobby cum official, heavily patronized state sport, and its fans have always been a loyal legion. This was not, in other words, the liberal intelligentsia shouting him down; these were Putin’s own guys. It is also hard to take Putin’s spokesman’s explanation seriously if you consider the way the fight and Putin’s back-patting were televised nationally: the crowd’s booing was carefully sliced out. (Another telling detail was that Putin simply did not show up to two similar events later in the week, where he was listed as the headliner.)

The numbers tell their own story. United Russia, the party created to support to Putin but of which he was never a member, has been sliding in the polls. On the eve of the last parliamentary elections, in 2007, it was scoring a firm two-thirds in national polls. This time, it is hovering just above 50 percent, having lost nearly ten points just since May. But these are national polls. In many regions — in St. Petersburg, in Astrakhan, in Kaliningrad — United Russia is doing far worse. These are also regions where, to everyone’s surprise, A Just Russia, a party created by the Kremlin, in 2006, to siphon off left-wing votes, is taking on a life of its own with vibrant, popular candidates who are addressing local issues in a way that governors appointed by — and subservient to — Moscow simply cannot.

The official response to these rumblings is similar to one that we saw in the municipal elections, in August, in St. Petersburg, where in response to United Russia’s abysmal ratings, the party brazenly barreled through any sense of propriety and legality to deliver 90-something percent results for its candidate.

This autumn has seen this unapologetic approach embraced nationwide. In Izhevsk, a city in the Ural Mountains, the mayor told a group of veterans that the amount of money they receive in the future will be directly proportional to the results they deliver for United Russia on Dec. 4. Then he outlined the earnings brackets. In Chuvashia, in the Volga River basin, a polling station was made into a United Russia shrine. In Astrakhan, United Russia promises voters an election day raffle in which the prizes are two new cars. And in Moscow, campaign posters for United Russia were nearly identical copies of billboards put up by the federal Central Election Committee to get out the vote. Asked about the unsavory, and likely illegal, coincidence Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin asked the reporters interviewing him to put aside their naiveté. “Why pretend?” he said. “Of course we are not separate from political parties. When we talk about United Russia, we mean that the Moscow city government and party are, in fact, one entity.”

While such tactics are evidence of what one source here called a “deer in headlights” feel in the couloirs of Moscow, it is also a testament to a fed-up-edness outside. This time, however, there is a key difference. The wider public know about most of these violations because voters have registered them on their smart phones, which means something crucial: they understand a violation of electoral law when they see one. In the video of the mayor of Izhevsk’s speech, for example, you can hear the person holding the camera saying, “Oh, wow. You’re violating the constitution, and electoral law!” It’s not quite challenging election law at the Supreme Court, but the simple act of recording such a speech and posting it online, of registering a complaint that a polling station is advertising one party alone, shows an understanding of what is and is not acceptable — and an interest in seeing such things done properly.

This runs counter to one of the central theses of Putinism: that Russians are not yet ready for democracy, which is why it has to be carefully managed by a steady hand. This idea, known for a time as “sovereign democracy” and now as evolutionary, no-more-shocks democracy, made an appearance in Putin’s speech on Sunday, as did a new trifecta of the system’s values: “truth, dignity, justice.” It is a slight update on the chicken-in-every-pot theme of stability, but events on the ground seem to point to the fact that Russians are increasingly savvy — and sensitive — to being taken for fools by their authorities, and that promises of stability and prosperity are ringing hollow as the chaotic 1990s fall further and further behind, and as real issues born of the current system have taken their place. This echoes, in some ways, the inflection point in the post-War Soviet Union, when the ideological argument of historical perspective lost its bite.

It is also a sign of political ripening. “Politics” is still a dirty word in Russia and is defined as a mucky battle for power, but there is a growing recognition that it is also a tool for changing one’s daily circumstances. In Moscow, more people are talking about going to vote for somebody, anybody, than four years ago, when it was deemed pointless. The dissatisfaction with United Russia officials in the regions is perhaps a sign of a growing understanding that truth, dignity, justice — and even bread-and-butter stability — depend on a process of transparency, accountability, and fairness. And that Vladimir Putin, no matter how wonderful, cannot and has not really addressed the fact that, say, the growing cost of utilities is fast outstripping pensions. “There’s a growing interest in economic and local issues, while interest in ideological issues is decreasing,” says Pavlovsky. “The power structures in the regions are too weak to deal with them, because when a local boss decides what to be scared of — Moscow, or his subjects — he’ll pick Moscow.” This is the fatal flaw of the power vertical slowly coming home to roost.

But it would be a mistake to take this restlessness for a sea change just yet. The resentful mood is a sign of many things, but it is still too early to tell if this germ will sprout, or sour. And here, the numbers tell a story, too. Much has been made of Putin’s slipping approval ratings. Only 31 percent would vote for him for president, according to the independent Levada polling center. But his closest rival is the communist Gennady Zyuganov — with 8 percent. Still a landslide. As for Putin’s approval ratings, they have, in fact, fallen, from 80 percent — to 67 percent. That’s an approval rating that most world leaders don’t have on the best of days. (A euphoric week after Barack Obama was sworn in, his approval rating was 65.9 percent.)

Despite any political ripening born of annoyance, Russians are, on the whole, still not making a crucial connection. A significant and growing portion of Russians recognize the long-term concentration of power in “one set of hands” as a danger, and see a cult of personality forming around Putin. The number of Russians who see the government as a center of corruption has more than doubled over the last decade, to almost one third. And yet, Putin’s approval rating is an enviable, healthy 67 percent.

And this indicates that, in spite of everything, the system is still working pretty well. The Internet, key to propagating election violations and fomenting discontent, has made huge inroads in Russia, but it has still not tipped television, where Putin reigns supreme, into irrelevance. Many people were outraged and distraught by the thought of Putin unabashedly coming back to power, potentially for another 12 years, but two-thirds of them aren’t. A Byzantine, corrupt electoral system still keeps those who could become a vessel for this discontent from being listed on the ballot.

What’s left? The street — and very few people are gathering there as of yet. “It’s a mood, not a movement,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center. “This dissatisfaction is not becoming action, at least not on a large enough scale. The fact is, the system has a colossal advantage in that they’re dealing with a society that so loves to talk and to discuss and to joke and to snark, and yet is so bad at organizing itself.”

It’s still too early to tell whether this kind of organization will ever happen or if it could reach a critical mass. If United Russia doesn’t hand itself a victory grossly at odds with its poll numbers (it avoided making this mistake in 2007), chances are the system can hobble on a good while longer. Just how much longer, though, may depend on how long they can take the booing.

Putin and the Boo-boys [FP]

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin

Friday, October 7th, 2011

MOSCOW — Speaking at the Russia Calling! investor conference, hosted by state-owned VTB Capital, on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to reassure both Russian and foreign investors that, despite Russia’s recent political uncertainty, despite the tanking Russian stock indexes, despite the sliding ruble, despite more money than usual fleeing Russia, despite the bad to worse news coming out of Europe, despite all this, everything in Russia is going to be OK. The future is clear and under control.

“I’d like to speak about our priorities, about Russia’s strategic plans, so that investors and business can understand the logic and motives of our behavior, especially now, in these uncertain times,” Putin said. “And, of course, it is exactly in such times that the trust of our partners is so important. And you — we understand this — need predictability and openness.” His speech was flecked with the vocabulary of reassurance. Soothing phrases like “we understand,” “we see,” “we know” broadcast the image of a captain at the wheel, steering the ship of state past all that ice in the water because, don’t worry, he sees it.

Putin had already tried to smooth these choppy waters two weeks ago at the conference of United Russia, his ruling party, by announcing his return to the presidency, potentially for 12 years. The point was to erase the uncertainty that had the bureaucracy playing musical chairs all summer and return some stability to the system. But that quickly backfired. “Brezhnev” and “stagnation” quickly became the words of the day, and not two days later, Alexei Kudrin — finance minister and darling of the West, whose conservative budgetary policy had saved Russia from calamity in 2008 — was fired by a jumpy Dmitry Medvedev. The plan to stabilize things had, in other words, opened up a whole new can of entropy. Or, as one prominent Western investor in Russia described the whole thing in the couloirs of yesterday’s conference, “Yeah, it was a fuckup.”

Thursday’s performance was a take two of sorts. Putin seemed to be speaking not only to the class of people who squeegee money around the world, but to a broader audience of those who wonder what’s in store for Russia with another decade of Putin on the horizon. Putin’s answer today was, in so many words, that Putin’s back, and he’s the same Putin he’s always been.

“Changes are, without a doubt, necessary, and they will happen,” Putin intoned from the podium, “but it will be an evolutionary path. We don’t need great shocks, we need a great Russia!” Responding to a question about the growing number of Russians wishing to emigrate, Putin said:

Both I and the acting president Dmitry Anatolievich Medvedev have sent a clear and precise signal to the country: We are not going to destroy, mangle, or demolish anything. We’re going to develop our political system, but we want to strengthen its fundamental foundations. We have lots of political bustlers — faster, higher, stronger, use your saber to chop this, hack that. But we’ve already gone through this. We’ve seen this several times in our history: We’ll destroy everything, and then? And then what?

“We’ll build a new world, whoever was nobody will become somebody.” We all know these words [from the Internationale] from our childhoods. And what came of it? What came of it is that, in the 1990s, everything collapsed. So all of this “hack,” “chop,” “run without turning back” — we have to put an end to all this. We have to calculate, carefully pinpoint the destination point of our progress, and confidently move in that direction. That is how we should act, and I’m certain that that’s when your mood will change, too. It’s not an easy task, but we can do it. We can do it!

Here, certainly, is the language of a Russia traumatized by a revolution whose pain is still all too fresh. But it is also the language of Putin the standpatter, and invokes his favorite straw man: the 1990s. There are many people in Russia — people now in their thirties, for example, or the educated, urban elite — who remember the 1990s as a golden age of liberation. Not so for those who fell into penury, or for Putin. Reared in one of the most conservative organs of the Soviet state, the KGB, Putin saw the change of the 1990s as a destructive, negative force. (Which, of course, it was, too.) His spin-doctors use this narrative to legitimize the stability of Putin’s own era: the peaceful golden years after the storm.

This story gives the people a reason not just to trust one strong leader, but also to trust in incremental, shuffling, even glacial change. Yesterday, addressing the need to decrease the role of government in the economy, Putin said, “We will gradually — I want to emphasize this, gradually — start to extricate ourselves from the capital of state corporations.” Putin doesn’t like responding immediately to public pressure. Putin doesn’t like firing people. When Medvedev fired two of his loyal generals — Kudrin last month and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, in 2010 — Putin was publicly silent. But those close to him spoke of a rankling discontent with this very public act of firing a standard bearer for a rash remark. For the sake of unity and loyalty — two more Putin obsessions — Putin had to abide by his president’s actions. Had it been Putin’s choice, however, he would have promoted them out of their post (as he just did, in fact, with Medvedev).

This is why Putin addressed the issue of Kudrin’s firing as he did. During his prepared remarks, he only obliquely referred to the recently departed finance minister. He spoke of Russia’s growing currency reserves and increasing rainy day funds, which Kudrin insisted on during the good times of the last decade. The policy incurred the wrath of United Russia, which wanted to spend more on bread and circuses, but it was these cushions that saved Russia when the world economy tanked in 2008 and dragged Russia down with it. Kudrin’s firing at such a volatile time unnerved investors: Would Russia now spend its money willy-nilly, making the Russian economy even more vulnerable to swings on the world commodities markets? Once again, Putin reassured investors. “Our priorities — and I especially want to emphasize this — have been and will continue to be budgetary discipline and increasing the effectiveness of spending, as well as limiting the growth of government debt,” Putin said. Don’t worry, investors: Kudrin may be gone, but Kudrinism stays.

But when he was asked by a Scandinavian investor about Kudrin’s firing, Putin said something a bit different. After pointing out that Kudrin is one of the foremost financial specialists in the world, Putin began by saying, “Personally, he is my very good friend, with whom I have maintained very tight, close relations over the course of many years, beginning in the 1990s.” Loyalty, 1990s.

Then Putin let it out: “It’s well-known that the decision was made by the president. It was made because Alexei Leonidovich made a series of incorrect statements about the fact that his position does not coincide with that of the president. What else can I say?” After distancing himself from Medvedev’s decision, Putin turned the knife. “I want to tell you — this is my opinion, and the opinion of President Medvedev — despite this emotional malfunction, Alexei Leonidovich remains a member of our team, and we will continue to work with him. I hope that he will work with us. He is a useful and needed person.” More useful, that is, than the walking “emotional malfunction” that is Medvedev.

As if Putin hadn’t humiliated and negated Medvedev enough over the last two weeks, here was one more opportunity to show that the president was president only because of a technicality. As Kommersant pointed out, just the title of “the acting president” — which was how Putin insisted on referring to Medvedev throughout his forum appearance — was a slap in the face: “Actually, one speaks about a person like this only after the election,” Kommersant said. The title puts a sand timer on the title bearer’s head, as well as on all his “emotional” decisions. This is what Putin intended to do on Sept. 24, but Medvedev foiled it by asserting his — now purely technical — authority.

Yesterday, Putin put an end to all such attempts. Make no mistake, investors: He is the president de facto. No more emotional malfunctions. To underscore that, he picked up the themes that had been seen as Medvedev’s pet projects: fighting corruption, promoting nanotechnology and innovation generally, and diversifying the economy away from dependence on natural resources. The purpose was twofold: to show that the Kremlin would not abandon those (very necessary) initiatives, and to show that, all along, they had been Putin’s. Change would continue the way it had always been happening, slowly to the point of it being indistinguishable from inaction, and festooned as always by pretty rhetoric.

At the end of the performance by the de facto president, Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB, his host at the conference and, apparently, his very exuberant fan, thanked him. “Vladimir Vladimirovich! You have a very momentous period ahead of you, and I’d like to wish you not just success, but the most conclusive success!” Kostin said, red and beaming. “Investors vote not just with ballots, they vote with investments. I think that, in half a year, there’s enough time to figure things out and invest in the Russian economy.”

So far, they’ve voted by taking $50 billion out of Russia so far this year, beating every prognosis for capital outflow. Perhaps the next six months — roughly the time Medvedev has left as “acting president” — will be different from the other months, when he was just acting.

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin [FP]

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]