Friday, October 18, 2013

Russian Time

After watching the inept political maneuverings in Washington it was interesting to see Putin's skilled hand at work in the old country.

A Russian court has suspended a five-year prison term for Putin's most powerful political adversary, Alexei Navalny.

The threat to Putin's power comes from two places. On one side are the Western-oriented liberals who rail against corruption and want to see their motherland enter the mainstream of Europe, their base of power are Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two behemoth cities of Russian history with their growing and increasingly dissatisfied middle-class citizenry.

From the right, Putin faces opposition from the increasingly vocal Russian nationalists who are angered by the influx of foreign migrants into Russia; the nationalist see the migrants as a threat to Russian culture associating them with crime, Islamic extremism and reduced wages for the Russian working class.

Navalny is the only leader who could bridge the gaps between these two groups who often despise each other. He is not an eloquent speaker but his blunt criticism of the governing regime does resonate. He speaks in absolute, unconditional and uncomplicated ways of a non-politician, like an average young Russian railing against the system at the kitchen table. He has labeled Putin's United Russia party as the Party of Crooks and Thieves and this simplistic designation has done considerable damage to the party's brand.

In choosing corruption as his single point of criticism he tapped into a universal vein of discontent. Whether one is a Russian liberal or a foaming nationalist, watching government officials in expensive suits giving dull proclamations on state television makes both groups feel like powerless outsiders in their own country.

Corruption is the one issue that unites the whole of Russian opposition and by being corruption's most vocal opponent Navalny has made himself into the closest thing the chaotic Russian opposition can have to a leader.

Putin has aptly dealt with the challenge posed by Navalny.

Navalny has been accused of theft in his past work in regional government, a court convicted him but then -surprisingly- as Navalny filed for appeal, the court has set him free and allowed him to run as a candidate for the mayor of Moscow.

Navalny has lost his race to a relatively popular establishment candidate while gathering an impressive 30% of the vote.

In the opinion pages of American newspapers, Putin is routinely dismissed as a thug or a dictator. But this episode with Navalny shows that when Vladimir desires to apply the use of force against his opponents he prefers the surgeons scalpel to the butcher's knife. Rather then eliminating its opponents, the Kremlin prefers to sideline them into irrelevance.

First the government went for Navalny's moral high ground.

By convicting him of theft they sought to make a moral equivalent between him and the corrupt bureaucrats he rails against. Russians are cynical when it comes to the judicial system and are unlikely to take this conviction at face value and yet many people do believe that where there is smoke there must be fire.

By allowing Navalny to run for mayor of Moscow, the Kremlin created an illusion of democracy, allowed the opposition to vent their anger in a sanctioned way and discredited their critics by showing them to be in the minority when the ballots were counted.

In effect, Navalny was used to prop up the facade of Russian democracy without Putin having to sacrifice any real power.

After the elections, the appeals court upheld Navalny's conviction for theft, suspended his prison sentence, barred him from politics and traveling outside of Moscow.

Thus Navalny was not shipped off to prison and made a martyr, instead his reputation amended by a corruption conviction and a lost election, he was sidelined and unable to grow his base of support outside of the Russian capital.

Meanwhile Russian state television is filled with news reports of federal officials courageously fighting corruption. Every few months the viewers are treated to Vladimir Putin himself berating some regional officials from behind his desk, warning that heads will roll unless they clean up their act.

Contrary to the impression in the West, Vladimir Putin did not destroy Russian democracy (not that there was much to destroy anyway). Instead he froze the democratic consensus in a place of his choosing.

After the chaotic post-Soviet period, Russians wanted stability. If democracy is a system of supply and demand, then Putin provided amply to the demands of the majority. In his first years in office Putin has been a insanely popular leader. He has used his power to take control of the television channels and regional elections, morphing his popularity into total institutional control. The clock stopped while Putin was on top and the hands of time haven't moved since.

Putin's power raises an interesting philosophical question. If a leader is continuously supported by the majority of the population but that support is achieved by unfair means, can that leader be considered an illegitimate dictator?

For me, the answer is no. Dictatorship achieves power solely through the use of force against its population. Putin exists in a state of power for which the English language doesn't provide a credible word.

And yet Buddha taught his disciples that impermanence is the quintessence of our lives.

Inevitably,  Russia's support for the leader will erode. In fact, this erosion has already begun starting with the fed-up Moscow middle class. Putin's clever political maneuvers will undoubtedly delay this erosion but they can't halt it entirely.

There will be a point where the majority will be against him and then he will be forced to either dismantle the remaining facade of democracy or leave his power behind.

The hands of time will move once more but whether they will move forward or not remains to be seen.

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