Something happening here

The Russian government has been acting pretty strange despite Putin’s supposedly high approval ratings. The prosecutor general’s office has put forth a decree to block websites promoting “large scale civil unrest” with five days of being reported. On Saturday, a small, almost entirely silent group of protesters supporting the Russian constitution (on constitution day, no less) were trailed by police, with numerous people being dragged away into waiting buses. Razor wire was added to the fences surrounding the TV center at Ostankino, and military parade rehearsals were announced, curiously coinciding with the protests of independent truckers against the Platon fee system. Meanwhile, even more repressive laws are being talked about, while Putin’s guard service runs around the country playing fire brigade to nip unrest in the bud before it starts.

What exactly are Putin and his cronies afraid of? Russia’s opposition has never been terribly popular, and they are often better at articulating what they are against rather than what they are for. Even many groups who do protest are always quick to declare their undying loyalty to the president, in spite of his obvious responsibility for the system being the way it is. Why is it that the government acts as though the country is about to go from zero to Maidan? There are several factors to consider, and combinations are possible.

First, the idea that there needs to be some large, well-organized opposition to start a revolution is a misnomer. I could use the example of the Bolshevik, but I’m not because although it was a small organization which achieved major results, it did so because of its peculiar, theoretically grounded organizational methods and discipline. I simply don’t see such a group in Russia today. The Bolsheviks were also pushing for a very different kind of revolution, a real revolution overthrowing a social order and a mode of production as opposed to merely replacing a government. But even if we exclude the Bolsheviks, small groups of people can become a catalyst for change without being extremely popular.

Personally I don’t see any mass upheaval in the near future (barring catastrophic economic events), if only because many of the things people still protest in Russia these days tend to be limited in scope. Capitalist Russia is a highly atomized society, so what happens to teachers in Siberia, long-range truckers, or the mothers of soldiers who died in mysterious training accidents is likely to go unnoticed by many people. This is the beauty of Putin’s system. Everyone keeps their heads down and hopes that the worst won’t happen to them.

What will bring people out into the streets has to be generalized suffering. When food prices skyrocket and people’s grandparents are freezing to death in a country so rich in natural gas, the “blame the West” rhetoric isn’t going to be so effective. Note that I didn’t suggest it won’t be effective at all. There will still be plenty of people who think they just need to “endure” a little more in order to defeat the imaginary Western onslaught, but their numbers will dwindle.

Another factor to consider is that many of these measures we see may have been taken on the personal initiative of underlings in the government. Putin isn’t particularly decisive. He doesn’t hand down direct orders to each and every bureaucrat. Instead, these people take it on themselves to be proactive and show what great team players they are. As such, they often overcompensate, but this also benefits Putin because if some measure proves too unpopular, he or his press secretary Peskov can criticize the idea and try to play the moderate again.

There is one wildcard I can think of, and that would involve Russia’s “opposition” parties actually opposing Putin and his party. Obviously Putin’s cronies will start cracking down on them, but a party like KPRF can put a lot of people out in the streets. What is more, a crack down on official parties will basically kill one of the illusions of Putin’s state, namely that it is a multi-party democracy.

Lastly, there is a possibility that the authorities aren’t overreacting. They are privy to information the rest of us don’t see, and they may be able to see serious stormclouds on the horizon, if not a credible opposition movement ready to rise up. I suspect this is what Putin saw when he started to tighten the screws after 2012. If people were protesting during what were essentially good times, what would they do when those storm clouds arrived? Massive capital flight started in Russia before the annexation of the Crimea. Oil prices probably would have taken a nose dive either way.

Is 2016 the year? Personally I doubt it. There are still too many people with the mentality that it is better to live in shit than letting the Americans “win.” Still, unexpected things can happen and speed up the timetable. Look how little time it took for Putin’s gambit in Syria to go off the rails. This may end up being another year of wait and see.



13 thoughts on “Something happening here

  1. AnonymousExpat

    Interesting that you highlight KPRF in particular — after initially dismissing the trucker’s protests as being of “petty bourgeoisie” (while climbing into their luxury cars on way to their mansions, no doubt) — they seem to have switched over to their side, and now seem heavily involved in those parking costs protests in Moscow, too. Of course, it’s more likely to be just to give appearance of actually caring about things like that than an actual attempt to flex political muscle…

  2. Asehpe

    Do you think Putin’s Syrian adventure has gone sour? True, they don’t talk about it so much in the Russian media these days…

  3. Estragon

    One thing I’ve been reading about recently is a general BRIC slowdown. Don’t know how accurate it is, but it stands to reason that if China sneezes, Russia catches cold.

    1. A.I.Schmelzer

      The slowdown isnt just Brics. Risks for major wars are only good for some select few businesses.

      Chinese situation is complex. Mid run, they will face a huge issue with their pension system (or lack thereof) due to 2 working age parents having to support their retirement age parents as well as their predicted 2 children.

    2. Asehpe

      Speaking of BRICS slowdown, at least as far as the B(razil) is concerned (I’m Brazilian), clearly things are going down — Dilma Rouseff’s government has been quite the failure in helping the economy develop, and impeachment procedures are being considered in parliament. Meanwhile, we have the highest inflation and unemployment rates of the last couple of decades, and the participation of industry in the Brazilian GDP is at its lowest since the 1960s. Do the BRICS even still exist as a block?

      1. sglover

        I haven’t followed events in Brazil that closely, but how much of your current difficulty is due to plummeting commodity prices? If memory serves, Brazil put an awful lot of hope and money into offshore oil development (some major scandals came out of that, too, right?)

        I’m also curious if the big sports spending spree factors in. Things like the Olympics and the World Cup, (here in the States, major league sports stadiums) are the surest, best way for a community to piss away oceans of money for a “return” (in the best case) of zilch. And there is **always** vast corruption associated with it, which inevitably leads to socially cancerous scandals.

    1. Estragon

      From the link: “they [i.e. evil foreigners] don’t envy our material prosperity but our spiritual qualities” – this is a constant with folks like this. I think I posted that Starikov interview somewhere, where he goes on about the superior spirituality of the Russian people.

      They do like to go on about “Russophobia,” but counter it with their own form of phobia that depicts Westerners as soulless materialists, in thrall to the consumer society.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Right- which is funny because Russia is notorious for conspicuous consumption. You were here during the “good old days,” so I’m sure you remember well all the glitz and promotion of “VIP”, “elitniy” goods, etc.

        Let’s face it- the elite in Russia doesn’t rob their own people to buy Ladas and pelmeni. That money always ends up in the West one way or another.

      2. Asehpe

        Indeed. I wonder how the ‘Russian world’ would react to the idea of ‘Westernophobia’ (or maybe ‘Dyseophobia’, from δύσις ‘sunset area’, ‘west’) as a concept relevant for describing Russian attitudes (at least in the Russian media). What would happen if someone proposed to start an institute for the study of Westernophobia in Russia? I can imagine Sputnik’s reaction: “Yet another attempt by Western mainstream media to demonize Russia”, etc., totally oblivious to the same accusation being plausible for the concept of Russophobia…

    2. Asehpe

      “Let’s face it- the elite in Russia doesn’t rob their own people to buy Ladas and pelmeni. That money always ends up in the West one way or another.”

      Ah, the irony! I hope Navalny is making this as clear as possible…


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