Russia moves into a "high turbulence zone"


“For several months now, active efforts to ‘reheat’ our society have been under way. After a lengthy period of ‘stabilization and calm,’ Russia is being rocked by murders, poisonings, arrests, purges, and dismissals,” says the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. These developments are attributed to the approaching parliamentary and presidential elections.

According to Novoe Vremya magazine, “it’s a transition from the familiar, almost comfortable Putin era into a new and mysterious era, with no name or style as yet. There are three streams to this transition.

“First: reconfiguring the political system, in order to prevent any and all glitches at the most delicate moment. Second: redistribution of all things valuable and pleasant which can be passed from one person to another: spheres of influence, jobs, tempting sectors of the economy, tempting plots of land. Third: a stream of gestures, pacifying and reassuring for most, if not all, influential figures – in order to prevent any premature dashing about that might unbalance the ship of state.”

Novoe Vremya magazine’s ear for music has enabled it to link the events of autumn 2006, taking place with varying degrees of success and a low level of coordination, into some sort of “transition-period symphony.”

The requirements of this period have dominated the latest round of changes to electoral legislation.

“Like a good sedative injection, all the changes strike at the same point: abolishing the minimal voter turnout threshold for all elections; additional regulations requiring complete sterility for election campaigns (no calls to vote against specific candidates or parties, no negative information permitted about candidates or parties), and a sterilizing selection system for those who are permitted to take part in elections,” says Novoe Vremya.

And the result: “The campaigns will be barely discernible, and the candidates will be uninteresting. Citizens will keep watching entertaining TV series and exciting sports programs; the only voters will be people who take the bosses seriously, including the bosses’ multi-party system.”

Parts of the “redistribution of all tasty morsels,” according to Novoe Vremya, are the Sakhalin oil fields saga and the recent arrests of some officials from the Federal Compulsory Medical Insurance Fund, closely linked to the clan of Healthcare Minister Mikhail Zurabov. The Sakhalin oil case involves the use of straightforward tactics which have already proven valuable elsewhere: “Moldovan and Georgian wines have been banned on the grounds that they contain toxins. Borjomi mineral water has been banned on the grounds that it contains toxins. Similarly, the foreign companies operating on Sakhalin Island should hand over some of their shares because they’re poisoning the environment.”

But the United Russia party’s decision to officially reject a bill that would have abolished direct elections for the mayors of regional capitals shows that the Kremlin had the good sense to restrain its own mania for centralization, and deliver “an injection of kindness to authoritative individuals at the regional level.”

An editorial in Novaya Gazeta presents its own theory about the “autumn escalation” of 2006: “Many features of the current effort to stir up society suggest that there’s something like a ‘third term party’ among the authorities.”

This “party,” according to Novaya Gazeta, is doing all it can to goad Putin into discrediting himself within the club of Western leaders and make him retract his repeated public refusals to seek a third term.

So who is included in this “party”? Novaya Gazeta drops a very transparent hint about one member’s identity: “Indeed, why would the heavily-armed billionaire leader of today’s Chechnya want anyone other than Putin as president of Russia? With Putin in power, Russia has become the Chechen leader’s hunting-ground.”

“It’s not certain,” says Novaya Gazeta, “that the ‘third term party’ is capable of achieving its aims; Putin himself, and many of his allies, have too many interests which depend on Putin retaining his ‘international legitimacy’ – so why would they make any suicidal moves? However, it seems to us that the potential danger of such a party’s existence is entirely realistic. Many politicians agree that the situation in Russia is being deliberately destabilized.”

Novaya Gazeta predicts: “In the immediate future, we’re likely to see much more that is new. New and scary.”

Here’s something scary: on November 24, the day former FSB lieutenant-colonel Alexander Litvinenko died in London, former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, now director of the Transition Economy Institute, was hospitalized. He started feeling unwell during a presentation of his new book, “Death of the Empire,” in Dublin.

His daughter, Maria Gaidar, told the Gazeta newspaper that this has nothing to do with food poisoning, saying that Yegor Gaidar had only eaten some fruit salad and drunk a cup of tea that day.

In an interview with Kommersant, Maria Gaidar said that the final diagnosis would be made public on December 1: “The doctors need time to rule out anything that differs from their main theory: poisoning with a toxin unknown to civilian medicine. The doctors are inclined to believe that all the symptoms indicate poisoning.”

Gazeta provides an opinion from Yegor Gaidar’s close friend and political ally – Anatoly Chubais, chief executive of RAO Unified Energy Systems. Chubais said: “By some miracle, the Politkovskaya-Litvinenko-Gaidar sequence of deaths has remained incomplete. It would have been extremely attractive to proponents of unconstitutional and forcible options for regime change in Russia.”

“It’s noteworthy that Chubais didn’t explain exactly what he meant by this, and it’s open to interpretation,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “On the one hand, it might be viewed as a hint at actions taken by Russian political emigres.” This seems to be how Chubais’s statement is perceived by Alexander Goldfarb, head of the Civil Liberties Foundation, who described it as “political speculation.”

On the other hand, as political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky told Gazeta, “Chubais certainly wasn’t hinting at Berezovsky and his crowd. Chubais indicated that there’s a certain column within the Kremlin that wants to seize power by force.” Perhaps Piontkovsky meant the abovementioned “third term party.”

Another theory expressed by pro-Kremlin representatives – Duma members Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Khinstein – blames Yegor Gaidar’s illness on the West. Zhirinovsky told the RIA Novosti news agency: “This is the work of external forces from London and other European capitals, aimed at creating a nervous atmosphere in Russia, destabilizing the situation, or establishing a background of suspicion that this is being done within Russia itself.” Khinstein said he doesn’t rule out “some sort of systematic plan, developed in the West, to discredit the entire Russian leadership and the special services, as well as President Putin, by means of demonstrative attempts to eliminate representatives and ideologues of the liberal wing of Russian politics.”

Khinstein’s view is partially shared by philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose article appears in the Vremya Novostei newspaper. In his view, discrediting the Putin regime could be advantageous for the “Atlantist fifth column”; in other words, as in Khinstein’s theory, the West plays the role of opponent here. According to Dugin, however, the opponent intends to achieve its goal by activating extreme Russian nationalism.

Dugin says that the topic of a conspiracy against Putin and his successor in 2008 is becoming increasingly relevant in Russia today. And the most popular idea concerns a conspiracy by the “Atlantist fifth column,” or “the hand of Washington.” Dugin notes: “According to this myth, the ‘fifth column’ destroyed the USSR and brought Boris Yeltsin to power.” The assumption is that the Atlantists seized power in Russia from that moment and started leading Russia along a course charted in Washington.

Dugin goes on to say: “In the late 1990s, however, this allegedly almost completely successful Atlantist conspiracy, which was about to dismember Russia and finish it off forever, ran into an insurmountable barrier. A modest man with no political past became the head of state: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. As a result, Russia made an abrupt change of course and the ‘Atlantist conspiracy’ was driven underground.”

In line with all the laws of conspiracy theory, 2008 is a vital moment for the conspirators, who are coming up with “another instrumental conspiracy – a conspiracy to play the card of extreme Russian nationalism, bordering on xenophobia, racism, and neo-Nazism.”

The Vremya Novostei article says: “This will help to achieve a number of objectives: thoroughly tarnishing the image of Putin’s Russia, provoking separatist moods among non-Russian ethnic groups within Russia, repelling other CIS countries from Russia (even the pro-Moscow countries), destabilizing society, and leading to controlled – or perhaps uncontrolled – chaos.”

Dugin notes: “Limited nationalists will make entirely suitable tools for this high-risk venture – they can be recruited easily among Russia’s confused young people, who can’t think for themselves very well.”

The conspirators, according to Dugin’s reasoning, should rely on movements that aren’t supported by the official authorities – such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). But the authorities, seeking to play the nationalist card in their own interests, are also relying on “young people who can’t think for themselves very well.”

As recently as November 26, around 6,000 members of the Locals (Mestnye) youth movement, apparently acting in line with President Putin’s directive to “put an end to lawlessness at produce markets,” organized their own event: “Local order at local markets.” Kommersant notes that this resulted in “the operations of twenty markets near Moscow being paralyzed, with 73 migrants and three members of the Locals hospitalized.”

At the Reutovo market, Locals leader Sergei Fateyev declared that his movement is launching “a new Russian game – ‘find the illegal alien.'”

The Vedomosti newspaper says: “Attempts by Locals activists to check the identification papers of migrants, without any legal authority to do so, ended predictably in clashes with the migrants.”

“This event turned into something disgraceful,” an official who came to the Reutovo market told Novaya Gazeta. “A report for the Reutovo municipal administration will be prepared. We hope the city will take heed of this precedent.”

Vyacheslav Saveliev, Reutovo market manager, expressed himself even more harshly: “These kids weren’t even told what kind of ID papers they should be checking, or how to do it. As a result, the young people behaved very emotionally, not to say aggressively. The activists were around 15-18 years old. I’m not sure they really understand migration policy.”

According to Kommersant, DPNI leader Alexander Belov expressed approval of the Locals event: “It was a good thing to do. We’re glad to see this movement putting our ideas into action.”

Kommersant notes that only a month ago, the Locals movement appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office to declare the DPNI an extremist movement and ban it. “This isn’t a metamorphosis,” said Belov. “The presidential administration has instructed the Locals to compete with us, copy our slogans, organize similar events. The authorities think they can bring the situation under control in this way.”

Ilya Yashin, leader of the Yabloko party’s youth branch, also believes that the Kremlin has entrusted the Locals movement with handling the nationalism topic. “They’re common thugs from the Moscow region – they’re used to this kind of thing,” says Yashin.

Vedomosti warns: “Attempts to cultivate some tame, harmless xenophobes and use them to replace the aggressive fans of quasi-Nazi insignia are doomed to fail. Pseudo-patriots, assembled via directives from employers or university administrators, will either ‘lose’ to real migrant-haters or be forced to become even more aggressive than their rivals, so that their handlers lose control of them.”

Vedomosti notes that the authorities are trying to maintain their own popularity by manipulating irrational distrust of and hostility to outsiders. Indeed, such a policy can yield some short-term results: “Even in France, inciting anti-migrant slogans enabled French nationalist leader Le Pen to get 17% of the vote in 2002 and move into the second round of voting in the presidential election.”

In the long term, however, the authorities “would have to forget about improving Russia’s image, persuading compatriots to move back to Russia, and attracting the labor migrants Russia needs – and consequently, they can forget about economic growth as well.”

All we can do is guess whether this was the result of plotting by the “third term party” or the “Atlantist fifth column,” or a “successful” policy implemented by the current authorities.