PUTIN AND EMPTINESS

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Politics no longer exists, because there are no longer any politicians

The real danger of widespread unrest dictates a leadership style for the Kremlin: freezing Russia even further. The fear of civil war is making the elites close ranks around the Kremlin even more. The historical record prompts the conclusion that Russia has nowhere to go but back into the past.The Putin regime is being written off already. In opposition newspapers and at protest rallies, people who disagree with each other on everything else are united in saying that Putin and his team must go. In general, Putin – the guarantor of all our non-liberties – has ceased to be a figure immune to criticism. Russia’s few remaining democratic newspapers and magazines are setting out arguments in favor of the conclusion that Putin and his hapless ex-KGB people (chekists) are doomed. The list of arguments seems quite convincing: losing the war on terrorism, anarchy instead of a hierarchy of governance, the clumsy monetization of social benefits, and YUKOS as a symbol of predatory redistribution of property. The verdict is also clear: this is a weak regime, trapped in mediocrity, and it’s time for them to go.


The timeframe for this is being disputed.

Will Putin remain in power until 2008, or step down earlier? Who will replace him? Shall we succeed in electing someone better next time, or shall we be forced to go through an era of red nationalism? As one political analyst observed about four years ago: it’s Putin’s successor we need to fear, not Putin himself. In short, a fair proportion of Russian society is preparing itself, with some alarm, for yet another round of perestroika (to put it mildly) – because hatred and contempt for the present regime is already off the scale. But is that really the case?

Russia made its choice in the 1990s, and there’s no turning back. Now there’s a change of tone: a sense of loathing prevails, but in seeking consolation, we find this final argument. The working class dreams of free health-care and law and order, but there isn’t enough money for that. Life has become boring; but there will be no repeat of the GKChP (State Emergency Committee) coup attempt of August 1991.

Why not? Because the GKChP has already won.

The fierce protests against the half-hearted reforms currently under way are pushing the Kremlin in the direction of socialism with an as-yet-undetermined face. Foreign policy failures, and a noticeable deterioration in relations even with other CIS countries, are dooming it to self-isolation. The real danger of widespread unrest dictates an entirely natural leadership style for the Kremlin: freezing Russia even further. The fear of civil war is making the elites close ranks around the Kremlin even more. The historical record prompts the conclusion that Russia has nowhere to go but back into the past. And the past is very close.

Kakha Bendukidze once made a brilliant observation: building socialism is possible if oil prices are over $10 a barrel – if oil prices are below that mark, building socialism is impossible. Oil prices may be fluctuating at present, but they still remain sky-high. Prices are being boosted by the war in Iraq; and that is a war to last for decades, so there will be oil enough for Putin, and for his successor, and for one or two more chekists in the Kremlin – that is, more than enough for the rest of our lives.

In general, natural resources in post-Soviet Russia are just as important as “the mail, the telegraph, and the railway station” were in the unforgettable year of 1917. Here we have Igor Sechin, protecting the Rosneft oil company. Here we have Putin, protecting Sechin. And this system – controlling the federal budget, and the second (oil and gas) budget, of a vast country – is already functioning, more or less, in all areas: from Gazprom to Sibneft. It isn’t always as overt as in the abovementioned example, but it is everywhere. The power-struggles among the chekists who control the oil and gas pipelines only underscores the importance of the positions they hold. The Kremlin administration and the people from a military or intelligence background: these are the new masters of Russia, replacing the equidistanced oligarchs. This is the new oligarchy now taking over the entire federal marketplace. The nation’s wealth is in their hands, as it used to be in the hands of the Communist leaders, and no one else can control it. They are distributing it, and they will continue distributing it.

This goes beyond domestic affairs. The same perspective can also be applied to the notorious YUKOS affair. Undoubtedly, the wholescale looting of Russia’s most successful private company has greatly damaged our image, making Russia much less attractive to investors. However, the remaining investors now clealy understand the new rules of the game. When investing in Russia, they now know exactly whom to deal with and whom to avoid. When operating in Russia, foreign companies must check to ensure that their Russian partners are loyal to the Kremlin or to Kremlin-linked security and law enforcement people (siloviki) – whether they’re operating in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or the provinces. Thus, the regime will control foreign investment just like it controls practically all other business activity in Russia.

First again

It’s hard to find any basis of comparison for such a form of capitalism. It’s fashionable to liken it to unfortunate Latin American regimes, or Haiti under Duvalier, but I’d refrain from such analogies. The KGB marketplace outside our windows can’t really be compared to anything.

Great unknowns lead to great alarms. This seems like an unprecedented phenomenon in world history. Neither are there any similar examples in Russian history. The oprichniki never sought to promote one of themselves as Ivan the Terrible’s successor. Benckendorf never dreamed of taking the Tsar’s throne. Stalin had his loyal chekist supporters shot like mad dogs. Beria’s brief moment of illegitimate triumph ended with a bullet in a prison cellar. Andropov moved from the Communist Party to the KGB, then from the KGB to the post of CPSU Central Committee secretary; only then was he promoted to general secretary. The rule of the secret services is a unique political development. Yet again, we are first.

Hence all the gloom and incomprehension in the expressions of ordinary citizens and ordinary political analysts. Hence the bewilderment in society, and hence the torrent of curses from the nation’s very best people. In discussing this experiment, we’re forced to set aside the usual assumptions about what is or isn’t appropriate in politics, along with the usual terminology. In drawing a portrait of political power in contemporary Russia, we need to abandon ordinary political analysis. If we allude to history at all, it can only be the history of the secret services – mostly from the Soviet era.

They hold power in an impoverished country, where it’s so easy to intimidate the people with an endless war, instilling never-ending hatred for enemies who are few in number, impossible to capture, and impossible to defeat.

They have enough money to distribute resources in a way that will keep the overwhelming majority of citizens living in poverty for decades to come, without allowing poverty to reach desperate levels – as in the USSR. As soon as we lost the USSR, we immediately forgot what its living standards were like outside a 30-kilometer radius of Moscow.

Denis Dragunsky has said that dictatorship is already knocking on our door; but the masses will not be fed by totalitarianism. Our state doesn’t have the guts to rule and feed at the same time. We won’t have liberty, but we won’t have cheap food and health care either – that’s the forecast.

As far as I can tell, however, the chekist ideology has been paternalist from the very start. The lean, bearded man in a long cloak who looks after waifs and strays – that’s as much a symbol of the KGB as the sword and shield. In today’s circumstances, of course, the chekists in power find stealing more convenient than feeding the needy; but the ideal in their hearts remains the same. Pay close attention when Putin speaks of poverty as Russia’s biggest problem. Putin and his ilk may be prepared to take everything away from the people, starting with liberty – but their ideal is all about herding, educating, and feeding the people. The chekists aren’t complete beasts, after all.

They will not go

The logic of historical developments is also pushing them in the same direction. In its battle against the active part of society, the authorities have no one to rely on but the very rich and intimidate, along with the poor and aggrieved. For the benefit of the rich, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned, while Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Leonid Nevzlin are in exile. For the benefit of the poor, there are the regime’s anti-West diatribes and Freudian slips about “Zionists within Yushchenko’s team.” If the Kremlin declares the reforms complete, the electorate will vote for the United Russia party – or for the parties led by Dmitri Rogozin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which also amounts to voting for the regime, thus propping up the hierarchy of governance within the framework of the democratic process. And the younger generation is being educated in the same traditions, with the Walking Together pro-Putin youth movement following wherever their pagers lead them. After that, all that remains to be done is to feed the people – without overfeeding them, of course. Those who control the pipelines will help those who are walking together.

Obviously, if this situation is considered from the standpoint of the nation’s development, progress, and making Russia globally competitive, the consequences will be disastrous. But we lived with this kind of disaster for 70 years in the Soviet Union – and somehow managed to get by, successfully mastering the role of raw materials appendage and arms exporter. Besides, what choice does the present regime have? Either total control, or total departure. And anyone who’s waiting for Putin and his chekist clan to step down voluntarily will be waiting forever.

The main problem is that they’re so very much inclined to take things personally. Normal politicians in normal countries leave office when they fail, like Gorbachev or Yeltsin, making way for the opposition or whoever. This is the message behind the optimistic pathos of recent articles in democratic newspapers: everyone’s sick of this regime, and the regime ought to realize that. For professional intelligence agents, however, failure means personal disaster – and such articles aren’t food for thought, but a heavy blow to their self-esteem. The list of Putin’s foreign and domestic policy failures is long, but I think the democratic newspapers are drawing the wrong conclusion. In fact, it’s really just the opposite: these people will not step down, even though they have already failed. They simply will not give up power, because these people are outside politics and outside history. And they have a number of possible scripts available, from the bloodiest to the relatively merciful. They could even continue the present combination of stagnation and war – for decades, with the Internet, and a few opposition newspapers with small print runs, and open borders. But they will feed us. Oppress us and feed us.

Politics no longer exists, because there are no longer any politicians.

United Russia members are ridiculous – running out of the Duma to avoid having to vote on a motion of no confidence in the Cabinet. Motherland leader Dmitri Rogozin is ridiculous – declaring a hunger strike for the sake of nebulous potential gains in the future. Boris Nemtsov is ridiculous – advising Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on liberalism. The latest round of negotiations between Grigori Yavlinsky and Anatoly Chubais, under the patronage of Vladimir Ryzhkov and Garry Kasparov, looks tragi-comic. The circus has burned down; voters have wandered away; but our idols are still “upholding the need to use one of these two parties as a basis for uniting all democratic forces,” as Kasparov puts it – unification around Yabloko or the Union of Right Forces.

The emptiness where the liberals used to be is a guarantee of the Putin regime’s victory. Partial credit for this belongs to the Kremlin’s political consultants, from Boris Berezovsky on; but it is also a measure of our shame. Russia’s democrats are now paying for their servility at the start of this decade. Paying for that statement about the Armed Forces experiencing a revival in Chechnya. Paying for participating in the destruction of NTV. Paying for supporting Putin. Paying for their conformity and silence in the years when it still wasn’t too late to raise an outcry. Paying for their chronic inability to reach agreement amongst themselves. And demoralized democratic voters are paying a very high price as well: their own future.

Putin was very calm as he received the leaders of Duma factions for their latest permitted meeting with him at the Kremlin. Gennadi Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky argued over which party does less harm to the regime: the Communist Party or the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Dmitri Rogozin, looking well-fed after ending his hunger strike, pouted. Boris Gryzlov radiated state wisdom, along with severe alarm – the “oppositionists” were obviously pushing him away from Putin.

Having recovered from its slight scare over the government crisis, the regime is now feeling stronger than ever. It’s weak, of course. It’s incompetent, no doubt about that. But it is still the sole player in the empty space known as “politics.” Putin and his clones occupy the Duma, the Cabinet, and big business. Are they out of touch with the people? Yes – but there are no other players. It’s like living under a tyranny. It’s like living under totalitarianism. The sole player makes all the choices.

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