The Kremlin’s new course: "The enemy is at the gates"

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A noteworthy interview with Vladislav Surkov about the Kremlin’s “new course,” published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, has set off a debate in the press, with practically all the leading publications taking part. With varying degrees of bias, observers have commented on just about every paragraph of Surkov’s fairly lengthy interview. What’s more, it appears that some of Surkov’s statements have been interpreted as personal attacks.

In his “Author! Author!” article, Yevgeny Kiselev, chief editor of Moskovskie Novosti, quotes a passage from Surkov’s interview: “There are some people with whom no partnership will ever be possible. Essentially, a fifth column has arisen in a country under siege: a fifth column made up of left-wing and right-wing radicals. Lemons and a few apples are now growing on the same branch. (Translator’s note: “lemons” is a reference to supporters of National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov; “apples” is a reference to the Yabloko party.) The pseudo-liberals and the real neo-nazis are coming to have more and more in common. They each have sponsors of foreign origin. They share a hatred of what they call ‘Putin’s Russia’ – in reality, a hatred of Russia as such. There’s nothing new about this. Even Dostoyevsky wrote about people like these. And nowadays all these Smerdiakovs and Liamshins are having a fine time in all kinds of committees set up to await 2008, where they promote the idea that it would be a good thing for their own country to lose the war on terror. Let God be their judge. We’ll get by without them.”

Yevgeny Kiselev says that if, as Surkov asserts, Russia is now in a state of war, the logical conclusions are pretty scary: “That means there is no such thing as opposition; there is only treason. There are no political opponents; there are only traitors, enemies of the people, who serve those very same foreign sponsors mentioned earlier. Cool. All we need to figure out now is who is the real author of these ideas.”

Kiselev points out that Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, is unlikely to have expressed merely his own personal opinion. So was he speaking for Putin, with Putin’s authorization? Or was he speaking for “the so-called security and law enforcement faction (the siloviki)”?

Kiselev notes that the answer to this question will determine “in what kind of country we shall wake up – perhaps as soon as next Monday.”

Alexander Ryklin, an observer for Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, says: “Would any rational person in Russia today believe that there’s an insidious conspiracy afoot in the West, with the aim of destroying our country as a self-sufficient state?” This “mobilization madness” is serving the regime’s own aims, far removed from its public statements about improving national security.

As for those “people with whom no partnership will ever be possible,” says Ryklin, this is an obvious reference to the opposition: promising to deal with it according to wartime laws. “All the same, nobody feels at all scared.” That’s because “Surkov hasn’t managed to become an Alexander Voloshin – he is only a petty clerk.”

Ryklin says: “In reality, Surkov himself is now a person with whom no partnership will ever be possible – simply because no one is interested in him any longer.”

Surkov, “the Kremlin’s chief ideologue,” is further described in the same issue of Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal by Viktor Shenderovich: “He’s grown up into a rather simple young man, all told. Yet he used to try to be an intellectual – he used to speak in human terms, in his youth. Oh well, the first step is the hardest, and we’re bound to hear worse things than this! After all, they’ve only just started getting nervous.”

Yevgeny Kiselev agrees entirely with the idea that “they have started getting nervous.” In his view, the harsh phrases Surkov used in his interview provide further confirmation of this: “We all need to realize that the enemy is at the gates. The front-line runs through every city, every street, every apartment building. We need vigilance, solidarity, mutual aid, and joint efforts by the citizenry and the state.”

Kiselev says: “Actually, all this is just typical propaganda scare-mongering. In reality, the prospect of Russia breaking up is a nightmare for any responsible Western politician, general, or diplomat. Do you really believe that any of them like the prospect of instability in a huge nuclear power?!”

In Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Ryklin says: “There is hysteria within the Kremlin. Evidence of this is the unprecedentedly harsh and stupid statement… of Surkov, expressed in a tone worthy of Andrei Vyshinsky, the notorious state prosecutor of the 1930s… All this ideological nonsense can only elicit contemptuous amusement.”

Nevertheless, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for the first time since September 4 (when President Putin stated that war has been declared on Russia), the public has been told who its enemy is. Nezavisimaya Gazeta also includes plenty of quotes from Surkov, emphasizing his allegation that the West is attempting to “feed someone else to the predator, ensuring its own security at the expense of others.”

In his interview, Surkov even refers to the “infamous” Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: “As everyone knows, it didn’t stop Hitler. And the anti-Hitler coalition only formed after Hitler had done damage to each of its members separately.” Surkov notes that “even then, the number of casualties could have been reduced – but obviously, people fail to learn anything from history.”

In Surkov’s view, this unfortunate example is now being followed by some political figures in the West, who are still living “according to the phobias of the Cold War, which are an obstacle to the goal of completely cutting off financial support to terrorists and isolating them politically.”

According to Surkov, these political figures are aiming to “destroy Russia and fill its vast territory with a multitude of unviable quasi-state formations.” And the “fifth column of left-wing and right-wing radicals” within Russia is working on behalf of those political figures in the West.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta comments: “In effect, we are witnessing the birth of the latest state ideology – its cornerstone being the concept of an enemy without and an enemy within.”

What’s more, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Beslan hostage-taking was only a pretext for announcing this ideology, not the cause of the ideology arising in the first place.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that over the past few years, news coverage on Russia’s state-controlled television channels “has never tired of rejoicing in the failures of the United States and its allies in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. And during military exercises in Russia, the hypothetical enemy has never ceased to be NATO.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta approached some experts for comments; they said that a new orientation in Russia’s foreign policy took shape as soon as Vladimir Putin moved into the Kremlin.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Applied Politics Institute, said: “People from a military background, summoned by the bureaucracy, came into power along with Putin. These military people were supposed to save the nation from chaos, revolutions, and disorder. They were called in to restore order. But they came in with an ideology of their own: the old Marxist ideology which is still very strong in military colleges.”

This view is shared by Boris Nemtsov, co-chairman of the Free Choice 2008 Committee. He told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “It happened the day Boris Yeltsin decided to make Putin his successor. Obviously, it’s very difficult to change the thinking of someone who’s been trained in the schools of the Soviet KGB, and conditioned from childhood to believe that the main enemy is America.”

Then again, Nezavisimaya Gazeta does admit that in the years since Putin took office, relations between Moscow and Washington have changed, with frequent periods of warmth. However, some substantial grounds have now arisen for a new period of tension in relations between Russia and the West: in the view of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for the Russian regime “the latest wave of terrorist attacks has become the catalyst for stoking anti-West hysteria as a means of concealing the regime’s own helplessness.”

Boris Nemtsov explains: “Fiascos in fighting terrorism and in resolving the Chechnya problem; the disastrous rise in corruption, and the sharp drop in the president’s approval rating. They’re trying to blame all these failures on an external enemy. And it would be impossible to find a more vivid and significant object than America.”

Speaking of the president’s approval rating, it seems the situation there isn’t all that bad. According to the Levada Center polling agency, Putin’s rating, which dropped sharply after the Beslan siege, climbed back to 72% by late September (poll results published in the Kommersant newspaper).

Kommersant provides a review of Putin’s approval rating since he was first appointed as acting president. His rating peaked at 84% in December 2003 – undoubtedly, this was largely due to an intensive PR campaign in the lead-up to parliamentary and presidential elections. Putin’s rating reached a record low of 60% in August 2000, after the sinking of the Kursk submarine. But even then, his rating started to climb again within a month of the Kursk disaster; it then stabilized, in line with all expert forecasts, at slightly below what it had been during the election campaign.

As yet, pollsters are unable to say how the events in Beslan have affected the regime’s reputation. Kommersant explains that besides the approval rating for the regime’s performance, there is also a disapproval rating – and this reached 31% by mid-September, its highest level since Putin came to power. The previous record high for the disapproval rating, 30%, was set in August 2000 following the Kursk sinking, and then repeated in August 2004.

With some surprise, Kommersant notes: “Following the series of terrorist attacks in late August and early September, only 1% of respondents have started thinking worse of Vladimir Putin than they did before.”

Hardest of all to explain, according to Kommersant, is what happened to public opinion in the interval between September 10-13 and September 24-27: that is, between two polls done by the Levada Center. During that time, the president’s approval rating rose from a fairly low level (for Putin) of 66% to its usual 72%, while the disapproval rating dropped from a record high of 31% to a perfectly tolerable 26%.

Kommersant says: “After six months of gradually becoming disenchanted with Vladimir Putin, what has made people start liking him again within such a short period of time? Nothing out of the ordinary happened in Russia during that interval, and it’s not even clear why the Levada Center decided to do its second poll within a month focusing on attitudes to the president.” Until now, pollsters had only done two polls within a month during presidential election campaigns.

But perhaps these figures – a sudden rise of confidence in the authorities – are only evidence of a general rise of “the level of alarm” among the people of Russia.

Novoe Vremya magazine reports that according to the ROMIR Monitoring polling agency, the perception of terrorism as a danger is much higher in Russia than in any neighboring country. Even back in August, before the latest wave of terrorist attacks, 36% of respondents described the danger of terrorism for Russia as “very high,” while 49% rated it as “fairly high.” In comparison, similar polls produced figures of 3% and 21% in Lithuania, 11% and 36% in Kazakhstan, 4% and 14% in Armenia.

In Russia, these figures have risen once more: 41% of respondents now say they are “very afraid” that they themselves or their family members could fall victim to a terrorist attack, while a further 40% fear this “to some degree.”

Evidently, says Novoe Vremya, most citizens are alarmed. Moreover, fear of terrorist attacks is highest in cities with over a million residents: over half of respondents in such cities say they are afraid.

Novoe Vremya also points out that “people in higher income brackets and people with a higher education are more afraid than the poor and the less well-educated.”

Under the circumstances, the tough rhetoric of the Kremlin’s ideologues may well be aimed at a specific audience – especially since it seems to be calculated to appeal to people who are perfectly rational and well-informed.

In his interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vladislav Surkov even quotes Francis Fukuyama, who “points out that post-totalitarian societies have a characteristic shortage of social capital, habits of cooperation, and trust for each other among the citizens.”

Surkov says: “Alas, our society is no exception. The moral crisis that originated in the depths of the pseudo-collectivist communist regime still continues today. The process of forming a moral majority is slow, while the indestructible characters once described in Fitil magazine – informers and gossips, sneaks and bribe-takers, liars and corrupt bureaucrats – are still operating just as skilfully as they did in the Soviet era. Therefore, we shall have to learn real collective behavior from scratch.”

For this purpose, says Surkov, we will have to “unshackle private initiatives in state-building and public security – this is the primary precondition for our victory in the war on terrorism. Others should also be involved in this effort: civic organizations, the education system, the media, the law enforcement agencies.”

It’s terribly tempting to ask – if one had the opportunity to do so – why the law enforcement agencies are mentioned last in Surkov’s list of measures and organizations which ought to be involved in fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Fukuyama quote has drawn a storm of comments from Surkov’s opponents.

In Moskovskie Novosti, Yevgeny Kiselev points out that Francis Fukuyama is one of 113 people who recently signed an open letter to the heads of state and government of NATO and the European Union.

In this open letter, prominent politicians and political scientists express concern about the tragic events in Beslan “being used to further undermine democracy in Russia.” (Quoted in Novaya Gazeta.)

The open letter says: “Russia’s democratic institutions have always been weak and fragile. Since becoming president in January 2000, Vladimir Putin has made them even weaker.”

It goes on to set out the same grievances against the Kremlin which have been mentioned repeatedly in the Western press. According to the open letter, Putin has “systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia’s political parties.” And immediately after the terrorist attack in Beslan, Putin “announced plans to further centralize power and to push through measures that will take Russia a step closer to an authoritarian regime.”

Among the signatories are Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic; Madeleine K. Albright, former US secretary of state; Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden; and Richard C. Holbrooke, who is considered likely to become secretary of state if John Kerry wins the election in the United States.

Actually, quoting Fukuyama really wasn’t the most successful move by Surkov in his Komsomolskaya Pravda interview. According to the Vedomosti newspaper, the Fukuyama quote appears “somewhat provincial,” as if intended to “dispel any doubt that Surkov is capable of reading clever books.”

As for Surkov’s diatribe against “informers,” “liars,” and “corrupt bureaucrats,” Vedomosti calls this “overtly parody-like – it makes one wonder if his speech-writers decided to have a bit of fun.”

Overall, Vedomosti describes Surkov’s interview as “a perfectly decent speech-writing product.” Indeed, “what else could a federal official have said?”

According to Vedomosti, Surkov makes quite a few valid points. “For example, when he says that ‘the regions, locked into their operetta-style sovereignty, and weak fly-by-night political parties were incapable of countering the chaos running rampant across Russia.'” Or when he says that “the pseudo-liberals and the real neo-nazis are coming to have more and more in common,” including foreign sponsors and hatred for their own country.

Then again, Vedomosti also says Surkov clearly abused the rhetoric of mobilization. If it’s really necessary to announce that “the enemy is at the gates” and that the front-line already “runs through every city, every street, every apartment building,” such statements should be made “by the president himself, not by one of his aides in a newspaper interview.”

But the biggest question – why all this was written – remains unanswered, according to Vedomosti.

One version of an answer is proposed by Profil magazaine: it says that the idea of “mobilizing the nation” to fight terrorism, and President Putin’s thesis that “Russia needs to be united,” may well lead to the long-awaited Russian national idea. Russia’s finest minds have long argued that such an idea is essential.

Profil says: “There is a goal: national unity. There is a threat: Russia’s disintegration. There is an enemy: anyone who assists (or fails to counter) that disintegration in any way. Isn’t this a perfectly valid national idea?”

Profil admits that “the events of recent months, especially the Beslan tragedy,” have enabled the Kremlin to revive the slogan of national unity, “making it the main idea that shapes the whole system.”

Actually, this thesis isn’t new; Vladimir Putin used it when he first moved into the Kremlin, and, as Profil points out, he has even managed to accumulate some experience in making it a reality.

“At one time – in his annual address to parliament in 2001 – Putin even said that the period of collapsing statehood is now behind us, and the disintegration of the state has been halted.” These conclusions turned out to be premature.

According to Profil, Kremlin analysts evidently see the threat of the Russian Federation falling apart as today’s biggest problem, and “those who are really running the country have become aware that they can’t run it properly in the existing framework.” As a result, skilled political strategists have “fished out” a national idea as the most useful idea for explaining the Kremlin’s actions. This is stated fairly openly.

In fact, says Profil, it isn’t all that important how the idea originated; “the important thing is that such an idea has arisen and it can work.”

Meanwhile, Kommersant-Vlast magazine expresses grave doubts about the effectiveness of Putin’s favorite idea of strengthening the hierarchy of governance – now joined by strengthening national unity, unity between the authorities and society, and so on.

According to Kommersant-Vlast, the Kremlin’s proposed methods are more likely to have the opposite effect.

With some irony, Kommersant-Vlast points out: “First of all, appointed regional leaders are unlikely to be any more effective at fighting terrorism than popularly-elected regional leaders.” Not to mention the fact that given the Kremlin’s shortage of skilled personnel, it’s bound to be difficult to find “people who are qualified to hold important posts in the regions – and, most importantly, people who are capable of not lying to the president.”

But if the quality of leadership in the “anti-terrorism provinces” remains the same, “and if – God forbid – oil prices crash and money in the stabilization fund runs out,” there would be every reason to expect the start of yet another “Novo-Ogarevo process.”

“And the fact that the leaders of those provinces are appointed from above rather than popularly elected would be quite irrelevant.”

After all, says Kommersant-Vlast, in Soviet times the first secretaries of the Communist Party central committees in republics of the USSR were also confirmed in office by votes at plenary conferences in their republics, after being nominated by the Politburo of the CPSU: “in other words, using the very same procedure now being proposed by Vladimir Putin.” But this didn’t stop those first secretaries from declaring the independence of their republics later.

Thus, all the regime’s moves to “further improve the political system,” which have been described by Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal observer Alexander Ryklin as “a prelude to a third term” (meaning more time in office for Putin), may prove to be ineffective.

In an interview with the Moskovskaya Pravda newspaper, Viktor Shenderovich says: “There is a law of physics: when pressure within a system is building up, you shouldn’t close the valve – or the whole thing might explode.”

According to Shenderovich, the Putin administration is “peacefully asleep on a pillow of oil export prices at $40 a barrel. It would be a good thing if it were to dream of the 1980s, when oil prices fell to $10 a barrel, and the Soviet regime collapsed, even though it had everything else under control: the media, the parliament, the military, the police.”

There is an odd pattern here: almost every article about President Putin’s “new course” inevitably starts talking about the collapse of the USSR.

Why might that be?

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