Tag Archives: dictatorship

A Very Special Message

So I was happy to see the blog is once again getting a lot of engagement, seemingly due mostly to one of my recent posts, The Foreigner’s Guide to Appropriate Protests. I was a bit less amused to find that some of this attention is due to it being shared on several conservative and liberal subreddits. So while I made a decision to make this a humorous/satirical site a while back, forgive me for getting a bit serious for a moment.

If you’re one of those centrist liberals or conservatives who enjoyed the piece, here’s a special message for you: Fuck you, you hypocrite.

Yes, Western, particularly American leftists are ignorant about the situation in the rest of the world and arrogantly lecture people on how to behave in their own countries, but people like you not only do the same thing with protest movements abroad, but you even do it to your own people. You ignore the cause of a mass protest to focus on a window getting smashed or an upended trashcan. You whine about the lack of “civility.” Conservatives in particular are extremely fond of deliberately misinterpreting the message of a protest movement so that they can knock down a strawman, e.g. “All lives matter.”

And for the leftists whose nerves were struck by that satirical work- tough shit. You make fun of conservatives for not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunni (though you probably couldn’t say what that is if asked right now), or for not knowing that Iranians aren’t Arab, but the truth is that so many years after 9/11 and Iraq, you’re not really that much more informed. What you’ve got is a serious case of Dunning-Kruger syndrome about the outside world, which is what happens when your frame of reference for how informed you are is comparing yourself to the dumbest people in the country. Think I’m being unfair? I just spent about half of my Twitter day slowly explaining to a bunch of self-proclaimed leftists that no, the Taliban wasn’t created or set up by the CIA, that it in fact didn’t exist as a fighting force until 1994, well after the US had all but abandoned Afghanistan, and no, they didn’t fund Bin Laden and he and his Arab volunteers actually weren’t a significant force in the mujahideen. Yes, I’ve been reading a lot of books on Afghanistan in recent years, but a lot of this stuff isn’t too hard to find. For example, you can learn about the role of Afghan Maoists in the Afghan-Soviet War from Wikipedia, of all places.

These days much of my timeline is filled with Syrians, Venezuelans, and Afghans all making a futile effort to get Western, mostly American leftists to actually listen to them and acknowledge that they might actually know a little more about their own countries’ history than people who may not even have a passport. Indeed, they may even know more than Oliver Stone or…gasp! St. Chomsky! The really infuriating thing about this is how all that intersectionality and respecting “lived experience” flies right out the window when it comes to a foreigner voicing an “incorrect” opinion. Look, being from a country doesn’t automatically make someone right, but at the very least, it demands you act a little less arrogant, and maybe listen more than you talk. Ask some follow up questions for a change. Again, it’s amazing that people who will call out someone for “mansplaining” will happily lecture a Syrian or Afghan on the politics of their own country, to which they’ve never been, whose language they cannot speak, based on shit they heard on RT or Democracy Now! 

You want to know the secret as to why I’ve never been a Chavez/Maduro backer despite being a socialist and at one time a self-identified Marxist-Leninist? It’s not just because Chavista Venezuela was never even remotely socialist. Part of it has to do with Venezuelans I’ve met over the years (oh I’m sure they were secretly millionaires in disguise though, right?) of course. But one of the biggest reasons was simply living in another authoritarian state where the leadership blames all its failures on shadowy Western conspiracies. That, and I’ve had friends who either lived under similar regimes. What you learn from this experience is that virtually all these regimes operate the same way. They all have a ruling class that siphons off money, usually form the export of natural resources, into the offshore accounts of the leader and his cronies. When times are good and commodity prices are high, some of that does manage to trickle down in the form of social safety nets. But when times get rough and it comes down to social programs for the masses or more luxury villas for the ruling class, the latter wins every time. And if the US and its allies criticize this or better yet, levy targeted sanctions- so much the better.

All of these regimes use similar tactics. Harassment of dissidents with plausible deniability. Consolidation and control over the media. Pro-regime rallies consisting of paid pensioners, public school and university students, and state workers. Constant promotion of bullshit conspiracy theories. Most of all, there’s always some kind of narrative about how the regime is coming under pressure because it has some great worldview that is opposed to the greedy Yankee hegemony. In Venezuela it was “21st century socialism.” In Syria it’s Baathism. In Russia it was “sovereign democracy.” In virtually every case, we’re told that this is an expression of the country’s sovereignty and self-determination, and the only reason why the US or the West criticizes it is because this country is going its own way and now kowtowing to the imperialist hegemony. The problem is, that in most cases the vast majority of people in those nations were never asked if they wanted to live under a corrupt and authoritarian regime that steals their country’s national wealth in exchange for supposedly “standing up to the West.” Believe it or not, but most of these people want things like food, shelter, and the opportunity to better their lives without having to have personal connections to the right family, bureaucrat, military officer, etc.

Do these experiences of mine make me an expert on Venezuela? Hell no. But living so long under Putin, plus the experiences related to me by people who lived under other dictatorial regimes has given me an ability to understand and filter information a little bit better because I’ve personally witnessed things that are near-identical to what these people are describing. Could I be wrong? Perhaps. Maybe these near identical things are just a coincidence, i.e. Maduro’s a genuine leftist who really is under siege by the US and this is responsible for his situation as opposed to his own mismanagement, while Putin is totally lying when he says similar things. But you know what? Occam’s Razor says we live in a capitalist world where states are run by ruling classes, not their working people, and it also says that if some country has some great popular ideology, it would probably be a lot more successful and the masses would support it. It’s a rule of thumb, but a pretty useful one.

The basis of a moral society, a socialist society, must in large part be empathy. It must be the concept that other people, in your community or thousands of miles away, have many of the same desires you have. If you have the desire for a better life and the will to resist oppression, you must recognize that other people also have a right to these things, regardless of their government’s relationship with the US. If not, you’re essentially dismissing those people as inferior, something less than human.

A while back, I encountered a rather burnt-out individual who turned on the left due to encountering so many leftists who refused to listen to anything Syrians had to say about their country, instead dismissing them as dupes of the CIA and Islamophobic caricatures of “jihadist headchoppers.” According to this individual, Western leftists are racists who “want these problematic people to die,” people referring not just to Syrians but also Afghans, Ukrainians, Nicaraguans, and other nationalities whose right to resist is denied by the privileged Western left.

I decided that person is far too burnt out and angry to have any use in politics, but after seeing how some icons of the American left write about Afghans and now Venezuelans, it almost makes me wonder if on some subconscious level maybe these people do want all those masses whose reality contradicts their personal narrative to die. Not so much to be killed, but to simply disappear, to be erased. If all these people would simply be silenced one way or another, the Western leftist would never have to struggle with the failings of their simplistic worldview. It’s so easy to dismiss someone’s lived experience, contemporary or historical, if you can just write them off as a kulak, a bourgeoisie, a jihadist, a dupe of the CIA. Then you don’t have to feel bad about your fetish for Soviet aesthetics or your admiration for a regime in a country you’ve never visited.

I realize this is a hard pill for a lot of the Western left to swallow, but look at it this way. You’ve been doing things more or less the same way for a long time now. Where are your results? What genuine US imperialism have you genuinely prevented? Who is in power in your country and what policies are they promoting? For nearly all my life, you’ve had a parade of neoliberals and fascists. You’re at a point now where voting for neoliberals has often becoming your only way to keep literal fascists out of power. Hell, the fascists in America are some of the dumbest people on the planet and yet they’re still running circles around you. So with that track record of solid failure after failure, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start reevaluating your movement and your ideology to see if there aren’t any flaws in there that might actually be benefiting the far-right and hampering your own success.

Or you can dismiss me as an “ultra-leftist” or “Ukrainian fascist” (because associating ethnic groups with political ideologies is fine for some countries!), and we can watch this all play out. Me, I’ve already seen this show. All those things you think can’t happen here; I see them happening. So if you don’t know what life is like under people like Yanukovych, Putin, Maduro, or perhaps worst of all, Assad, keep on doing what you’re doing, and one day you’ll get a taste of it right here.

 

Calvinball

Most Americans my age remember growing up with the comic series Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. We read the color editions in the Sunday comics and collected the books. Any fan of the series will surely remember “Calvinball,” a ridiculous made up game played only between the two title characters. The only rules of Calvinball were that you couldn’t play the game the same way twice, and you had to make the rules up as you went along.  It’s the perfect metaphor for the authoritarian Russian state today, if not many others.

Usually when we think of something being authoritarian, we imagine lots of rules, i.e. “Do this. Don’t do that.” Sure, such states do have lots of regulations, but a lot of times these are more aimed at maintaining the power structure. The myriad of regulations is what secures jobs for key people, establishes power relationships, and of course opens many opportunities for corruption. Of course rules can be used to repress, but as I’ve written before, this kind of thing doesn’t work so well for 21st century dictatorships. When you use the law to force people to do things, they notice it right away. Therefore the best avenue for repression comes not from imposing lots of rules but doing just the opposite. You don’t define the rules, the limits. You remind people that they are there, and that they are quite close, but you never say exactly where they are. The result is that people react as though they were walking through a minefield. They either tread at a snail’s pace with extreme caution, or they give up and remain still. Either way you remain in control.

There are two very good, very recent examples of this phenomenon in Russia. The first occurred at Vladimir Putin’s press conference last Thursday. Putin was asked what constitutes a “fifth columnist,” and what constitutes an ordinary member of the opposition.  Now if Putin actually believed that the Russian system is democratic, he could have claimed that the KPRF and LDPR are oppositionists, since that’s what they nominally are. Of course Putin knows that there is no actual opposition in the government from his point of view; he made sure of that himself. Therefore he did something totally predictable- he started babbling about Lermontov and Pushkin. After going on about these two Russian historical figures, because we all know that you can’t possibly make any argument in Russia without referencing Russian and only Russian historical figures, he said that the line between an oppositionist and a fifth columnist is very thin. Shortly thereafter he abruptly said that a fifth columnist works for the interests of a foreign country and “alien political values” before asking for the next question.

Obviously this “answer” only provokes more questions, just like the one I already proposed regarding the governments de jure “opposition” parties. Who defines what the interests of foreign countries are, and which foreign interests? For example, if Putin claims he wants to improve the economy and bring prosperity to more of Russia, is that not serving the interests of foreign countries? After all, we saw how the prosperous Russian “middle class” of the mid-2000’s spent their money on loads of foreign products and services, not counting the money they spent abroad in those countries. Since Russian prosperity only benefits exporters like the US, are not Putin and his government essentially working for the interests of the US when they claim to be struggling to improve the economy?

What of the “alien” political values? Does Russia ever define it’s own political values? It seems Russian political values are always extremely vague and change drastically according to the needs of those in power. One year Russia’s economic success and wealth in consumer goods was proof that Russia was a real competitor in the global economy. Then as Russia started losing, suddenly consumer goods are “Western” and “decadent,” and people should be satisfied with what they have. Are human rights alien political values? Well they can’t be, because the Kremlin is only too happy to point out the human rights abuses of other nations when it suits its interests. Is caring about the human rights of Russians an alien political value?  All of these important questions went unanswered.

The other recent story was the unveiling of Russia’s revised military doctrine. This document details both external and internal threats, and strangely it actually lists terrorism as the second highest domestic threat. But a far more ominous passage mentions  “activities which influence the population, especially young citizens of the country, undermining the historical, spiritual, and patriotic traditions of the defense of the fatherland.” This opens the door to even more questions than Putin’s non-answer at the press conference. What kind of “activities?” “Spiritual” traditions? What does that even mean? “Patriotic” traditions? To have patriotic feelings for the Russian empire is to have antagonistic feelings to toward the Soviet Union. To have patriotic feelings for the Soviet Union is to have antagonistic feelings towards the current state. The Russian government and its pseudo-historians can try to smooth over these contradictions all they want; they aren’t going away.

The point to take away from this is that the state and its cronies are ever quick to inveigh and threaten the population for “betraying” their country, being part of a fifth column, incredibly vague “extremism,” and working for the interests of foreign countries, but they always avoid providing any sort of concrete definitions. If they were to do that, everyone would know exactly where the limits are. They might feel restricted, but they would be at ease and less paranoid, not so ideal from power’s point of view. Moreover, if you know the rules, you know the exceptions. Therefore it is much better to force everyone to guess where the boundaries, or more accurately the landmines, are.

In relatively free countries these kinds of rules are strictly defined. If you’re wondering what the US government’s definition of treason is, it’s crystal clear. What sort of work on behalf of foreign countries is illegal in the US? Well it sure as hell isn’t protesting against American police brutality, since that has nothing to do with foreign governments. Now if you were say, acquiring classified knowledge and selling it to the Chinese, well than that would be espionage. While I see Edward Snowden as being morally right, the instructive lesson at least for this topic is that he did break a law, and what happened to Snowden can’t happen to Joe Blow in the US who attends Tea Party rallies and blogs about what a Communist, Islamofascist traitor president Obama is.  Actually threaten the president or a public official with bodily harm and yes, you will get a visit from the Secret Service. Keep, sell, or manufacture illegal weapons without the requisite license, assuming such a license exists for the weapon in question, and yes you will be arrested. You cannot, however, be arrested for voting the wrong way in Congress. You are not accused of trying to overthrow the government for taking part in massive demonstrations. In short, the better the rules are defined, the less likely it is for people to break them unintentionally.

I am part of that generation who truly came of political age in the aftermath of September 11th. We remember the introduction of the Patriot Act and all the questions it raised. Warrant-free wire taps? For whom? Why? Indefinite detention without access to legal council for terrorists? Who exactly is a terrorist then? Request for library records? What exactly are we allowed to read without attracting suspicion?  The justifiable fear associated with the Patriot Act wasn’t so much a matter of “Damn, now we can’t do such and such anymore,” but rather “What can we still do, without being arrested or at best, spied on?” The Bush administration wanted to play Calvinball with the American people. Indeed, that is what all bourgeois governments are prone to do, even in the most liberal states. If you’re not overthrowing them outright, something I don’t discuss on this blog, the only recourse against this is to continually fight within the system against those who try to amass more power and authority. Those countries whose populations have continually fought to limit the power of their rulers tend to be the most successful in the world today.

Unfortunately, this avenue is denied to the Russian people, who years ago traded their freedom and dignity to Putin and his inner circle in exchange for “stability,” which proved to be short-lived in the end. No one knows what they can do, because the government is playing Calvinball. The only rule is that the rules always change. Yesterday’s humor website can be tomorrow’s “extremist” propaganda network. The blogger who jokes about a park bench in Khabarovsk can be accused not only of “inciting hatred,” but of being the leader of a terrorist underground and plotting to overthrow the Russian government…from Khabarovsk.

The most tragic thing is that it seems the tactic of constantly preaching about the law without actually defining it in concrete terms has worked, and spectacularly so. There are now far too few Russians still willing to carefully pick their way through the minefield. The vast majority, unable to see Putin’s “thin line” and burdened with fear and uncertainty, seem resigned to their fate. They plop down in the mud where they were previously standing, knowing that this immediate patch of ground is safe. There they sit, sinking deeper and deeper into the muck, waiting for their hero to swoop down and pull them out, though it was him that they scorned just a little over a year ago. They don’t understand that their rigid adherence to the rules won’t save them from the elements. When they are finally forced by sheer necessity to shift from their position, the rules will change again and they will step on a mine. The only rule is that there are no rules.

But they have newspapers! – Misconceptions about modern dictatorships

A typical Western Russophile argument, launched whenever there is talk of Russia being a dictatorship, is that Russia can’t possibly be a dictatorship because it has lots of different newspapers. Indeed, there are many newspapers in Russia and a few of them are quite critical of the government. I often find this argument amusing, if only because were the Russian government to shut down any of these newspapers, those same Russophiles would be the first in line to declare that this was totally justified, as the paper in question was no doubt a foreign-financed propaganda organ aimed at supporting the overthrow of the government.  Nonetheless, so long as there are critical publications like Novaya Gazeta, Team Russia will uphold this as proof that Russia as has much freedom of press as the US or any European country.

Of course this claim is nonsense. It doesn’t take much searching to find yet another story about the Russian state harassing independent media sources, or mysterious violent assaults on people who work for such outlets or independent organizations. But if we ignore all the harassment, assaults, and selectively applied laws and regulations, this argument does nothing to prove that Russia isn’t a dictatorship. The problem is that our understanding of dictatorships is totally flawed. It proceeds largely from Hannah Arendt’s deeply flawed concept of “totalitarianism” at best, and at worst it comes from dystopian science fiction like 1984 or the far more recent V for Vendetta. We have been conditioned to assume dictatorships must consist of uniformly grey apartment blocks, murals of the Great Leader, and loudspeakers blaring political propaganda.  The state ceaselessly works to stamp out any dissent, even unvoiced mental dissent, i.e. “thought crime.” The media, apart from the aforementioned ubiquitous loudspeakers, consists of omnipresent TV screens with presenters blathering on and on about the Glorious Great Leader’s most recent accomplishments and the need to weed out enemies of the state.

Books and films about this sort of dictatorship appeal to us because their heroes are always vastly outnumbered underdogs challenging the system. We have been taught that dictatorships and oppressive systems thrive off of conformity, and of course we don’t want to conform. We’d like to believe that we’d be that one person who, in spite of the threat of torture or death, would defiantly shout that 2 + 2 = 4. Unfortunately, this sort of dictatorship, particularly in the post-war era, is virtually non-existent. The closest you get is North Korea. Few dictatorships ever achieved that level of control.  What is more, dictatorships of this sort don’t manage to get join the ranks of the wealthiest industrial countries; more often than not, they are financed and controlled by them instead.

In the post-war era, every country needs to portray itself as a democracy, no matter how spurious the claim might be. In the post-Cold War era, countries are expected to attract foreign investment, tourism, and to allow their citizens to travel. South Vietnam was a dictatorship, but I think their are few who would have claimed that it had strict rules and regulations. On the contrary, it was famous for graft, corruption, and nepotism. The same could be said for Iran under the Shah. Yes, these governments cracked down hard, but on dissent, not so much in general. They always put on a show for their Western patrons. This modern reality has made life very hard for more traditional dictatorships such as that of the late Saddam Hussein. The secret to running a successful modern dictatorship comes not from crackdowns, mass arrests, and loudspeakers, but rather from the absence of rule of law. For this reason, a modern dictatorship can sometimes seem freer than countries where rule of law exists.

To take one simple example, one of the most striking things I noticed about Russia when I returned in 2006 was the lax attitude toward intellectual property. In open markets, in little kiosks dotting the streets, and sometimes even on tables in underground crosswalks, one could find people hawking not only pirate DVDs, but even pirate software and games. I’m not complaining; I lived alone in a small town and I was thrilled that I could buy the entire Call of Duty series on one disc for about 150-200 rubles.  By contrast, the entertainment lobby in the US kept pushing for more and more Draconian laws against piracy. Do I need to bring up SOPA here?

While pirate movies and software might seem trivial, Russia has also been known for businesses keeping rather creative books, black salaries which are exempt from taxation, and attempts to get apartment owners to pay taxes on their property has often proven fruitless. Tax evasion in Russia is actually a necessity. The economy and millions of workers literally depend on it, and thus the government usually turns a blind eye. It also, of course, turns a blind eye to bribery and embezzlement, almost.  Due to the masses of bureaucrats with their hands out, business in Russia entails bribery and graft as a necessity, but of course this is against the law.  This means that everyone who does business of any sort must become dirty, and if they should run afoul of the wrong person, that dirt can be used to hang them.  It worked on Khodorkovsky, it worked on Navalny, and the latest victim might be Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

Whether you’re a businessman, a journalist, an entertainer, or even a performance artist, you can’t be sure as to where the boundaries lie. The modern dictatorship doesn’t necessarily crush you under the weight of countless rules and regulations; they may exist but be rarely enforced. It’s only when you cross the wrong person, someone with power, that you suddenly find yourself getting the hammer. Thus, instead of being controlled by the state, you control yourself because you’re afraid of crossing one of those invisible lines. Not that staying within the lines will necessarily save you. In short, there’s a reason why I decided not to have anything to do with any political activities in Russia whatsoever several years ago. There’s a reason why I don’t translate my work into Russian and distribute it more around the Russian internet. There’s a reason I don’t go seeking lots of attention in the media for “exposure.” And there’s a reason why I wrote all of that just now. It pays to be the “grey man.”

What of politics then? Successful modern dictatorships are those which can create a plausible illusion of liberal democracy. Russia does have, in theory, opposing parties and contested elections, does it not? Well if we ignore the ridiculously strict rules about party and candidate registration and the constant accusations of rigged elections, Russia’s mainstream opposition parties don’t offer much opposition. KPRF, the so-called Communist party seems happy to support the Russian oligarchy now that the Crimea has been annexed. Liberal Democratic Party leader Zhirinovsky has suggested that elections be done away with entirely, and that the rank of “Supreme Commander” be conferred on Vladimir Putin.  Strange actions for supposed opposition parties.  The one member of the Duma who dared stand against the tide now fears for his life. In the US, failing to vote your party line can get you into some hot water, at least with your own party, but you won’t be accused of treason and be forbidden to leave the country.  Yeah yeah, I know. Information war. Russia’s surrounded by enemies! But I thought that Russia has risen from her knees? I thought Putin saved Russia from the chaos of the 90’s and now it’s the West that’s decaying. So shouldn’t it be the West clamping down on their press and forcing their politicians to stay in line?  Aren’t they afraid of the rising Russian bear? If Russia is still fighting from an unequal position, why is it still unequal? Has Russia risen from her knees or not? Are the 90’s behind Russia or not?  Fuck it. Don’t even answer.

Of course Team Russia always swears up and down that they have criticisms of the government. Oh they’re just bursting with all kinds of scathing criticism! Turns out though, the criticism is always safe. The problem with Putin is always that he’s not being tough enough. He’s not doing enough to ram some contrived “ideology” down everyone’s throat. That way, in case he does decide to do that at a later date, he can always claim that he is giving in to popular demand.  “They wanted me to censor the internet! They wanted me to make religious schooling mandatory! They wanted me ban this or that.”  Any truly scathing criticism of Russian society is met with, “But that happens in America too,” even when it doesn’t, or at least not to that degree. As if that is supposed to solve any problems here.  So much for criticism.

Western journalists do carry a heavy share of blame for misrepresenting the nature of Russia’s dictatorship. They seem to be stuck in a Cold War paradigm, with the USSR as a model. They invoke Stalin even as the Russian state increasingly yet subtly erases the vestiges of socialism and replaces them with the glorification of Tsarism, imperialism, and clericalism.  Worse still, every time they try to portray Russia in that sci-fi dictatorship mold, even casual observers and short term visitors to Russia get confused if not offended. Casually browsing groups on the Russian social network VK.com is enough to dispel the idea that life in Russia resembles a dystopian science fiction novel.  The most offensive dissent is tolerated, so long as it is rendered impotent and disorganized. Then again, you still have to be careful.

That is the last feature of the modern dictatorship. These states love to portray themselves as strong, but they cannot help but reveal their weakness. Only a weak state fears bloggers, performance artists, and old women running charity organizations for soldiers.  More specifically, those in power realize that they are trapped in their position. At first they felt secure because they eliminated any real political opposition. Unfortunately, in the process they eliminated not only any potential leader who could carry on the business of running the state after they leave, but they have also eliminated every mechanism of changing the political system besides violent revolution.  They now have a tiger by the tail and cannot let go. That is why they gambled on the disastrous seizure of the Crimea, and the bizarre tragic comedy of “Novorossiya” in Eastern Ukraine. Like a compulsive gambler tossing the keys of his car into the pot, they’re willing to do anything to distract the people just a bit longer, anything for a few more months of high approval rating in the polls. If the people get fucked six months to a year down the road, who cares? What will they do? Vote for someone else?

There’s the paradox though; they can’t vote. They can only rebel. Friends could stab you in the back and ride the masses’ rage to power, and as soon as they get that power, they’ll deliver you up to a crowd that’s demanding blood.  So that’s why you’ve got to crack down on bloggers, mimes, people holding invisible placards, musicians, journalists, artists, doctors, and so on. That’s why yesterday’s regime supporter needs to be careful about what they say today or tomorrow. Everybody must be kept in line with those invisible borders. Mass protest movements which topple governments can start with the most innocuous incidents, as both Arab Spring and Euromaidan proved. Those in power in Russia know damned well that people don’t throng to public squares and riot simply because the US State Department is paying them. They also know full well that they pay people to show up to their rallies, or compel or at least cajole state employees into attending such events. They know the grievances of many of these people are real, probably better than the protesters themselves.

Worse still, they know that many of their citizens have been abroad, and whether they will admit it in public today, they know deep down that something is very wrong with Russia’s way of life. In spite of being one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, you wouldn’t know it driving through provincial Russia or even walking through some parts of the capital. You wouldn’t know it from the fact that Russia’s economy barely tops that of the state of California.  No Russian citizen can be blind to the fact that in other industrialized countries, politicians and leaders change every few years. Even in China the leadership is almost entirely cleaned out and replaced with some regularity.  But in Russia there’s only Putin. Even Medvedev wasn’t good enough for a second term. It’s got to be Putin. He’s the only choice; he saved Russia. Yet if he saved Russia, why has it only produced one person capable of leading the state in over a decade?  Never mind, it’s just another one of those inconvenient questions.

Taking into account these facts, it’s no wonder the government is tripling the budget for its media machine and massively increasing military spending in spite of the fact that the finance minister has already declared the spending unrealistic. No wonder they’ve enacted more laws against the poorly-defined “extremism” and against independent media. To stave off the inevitable, they’ll resort to more traditional dictatorial methods, but none of it will work in the end. The USSR tried to fight against popular force and did so from a much more advantageous position. This was not enough to save it. I’m afraid all these traditional dictatorship tactics, dredged up by minds who have long since departed from reality and which took the wrong lessons from history, will only prevent Russia rising from the ashes after it’s all over. More likely than not, the man who usurps Putin will do so based on the promise that he will be the strong hand Russia needs, that he is a true patriot, and that he, not Putin, is capable of restoring Russia’s empire. Then the cycle of theft and corruption will begin anew with different names, and the process of decay and destruction of Russia will continue unabated.

An interesting read

“Putin’s Coup” by Ben Judah is a long but interesting analytical piece. I highly recommend taking the time to read the whole thing, and for sake of brevity I have organized my commentary into a modified form of the dreaded listicle format.

Preliminaries

The article is largely based on the opinions of one Radek Sikorsky, ex-Polish foreign minister. Sikorsky believes Europe will be facing a more “menacing” Russia in the future. I, for one, maintain some skepticism because this opinion is coming from a Polish politician and to be honest, Poland has an obsession with Russia similar to Russia’s obsession with America.  They have a stake in getting the world to see Russia as they do. In reality, Russia is not nearly the threat they claim. Like a belligerent drunk man flailing his arms around wildly, he could be mildly dangerous to anyone within reach, but eventually he’ll lose his balance and collapse, prompting him to piss himself and vomit.  It’s important to note that the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq stretched the logistical resources of the best-funded military in the world to the brink back in 2007-2008. That being the case, what chance does Russia have militarily? The occupation of the Crimea has already put Russia’s economy on the road to ruin, and any attempted offensives elsewhere will simply hasten the government’s destruction.  Russia simply doesn’t have the military to keep this up. It’s strategy of “secret” wars in the form of supposedly local insurrections failed to fool anyone and failed to achieve  its objective in the Donbas region.

So as you read the article, try to take some of the more alarmist claims with a grain of salt.

Class action

The article suggests there may have been a break between Putin and some of Russia’s top oligarchs, with the president consolidating power via control of the state security services, i.e. the FSB and military intelligence, the GRU.  It is generally accepted that Putin’s model of statecraft involved kicking out the old oligarchs and bringing in a new, loyal batch. The deal was simple; line your pockets all you want, but stay out of politics and keep your hands off the media.  Now there’s apparently a notion that this relationship may be over due to Russia’s rapidly declining economy, particularly due to the sanctions. Indeed, some of these oligarchs have been the target of sanctions. Now there is a contradiction because the oligarchs obviously want to keep their hold on power, but Putin needs to keep playing this role of the patriot in order to ensure support. While some measures have been taken to bail out the oligarchs, Putin cannot risk spoiling the whole game by openly siding with the businessmen over the welfare of the population as a whole.

Obviously one answer to Putin’s problem would be to basically do what this article suggests he’s already doing- keeping the oligarchs in check and building a more conventional dictatorship ruled by members of the military and state security establishment.  The problem with this theory is that while Putin may indeed attempt to transform the country in this way, it won’t last much longer after he does so. State workers and generals are not a class, and we live in a class-based society, specifically a capitalist society. He cannot do away with the oligarchs entirely, and that creates another problem because the people he would depend on, high ranking FSB, military, or GRU personnel could very quickly come to the realization that Russia’s oligarchs can offer them a life of luxury, whereas Putin cannot.

The article mentions how thousands of police and security workers are no longer allowed to leave the country, a provision once limited only to people working in certain sectors of the defense industry. Indeed I myself have met such people who are forbidden to go abroad. Any expansion of this provision would obviously be aimed at keeping Putin’s new power brokers loyal to him. What is possible, however, is that they will look at the oligarch class and eventually understand that these businessmen will handsomely reward them if they work to overthrow Putin.  With Putin, they’ll have a nice house, a dacha, and perhaps some luxury cars, but they’ll be trapped in Russia where all that could be taken away at a moment’s notice.  With the oligarchs, they will have a shot at the real life of the Russian elite in the 2000’s- Swiss chalets, vacations in the south of France, emigration to London.  All it will take is for the right “siloviki” to start talking to the right businessmen, possibly friends of Putin, and the emperor could be brought down. Of course Putin must be aware of this himself, which is why he won’t be able to trust this new power base of his.  Unlike in the past, the rewards for supporting Putin are rapidly diminishing.

The article offers as evidence of this break between Putin and the oligarchs a quote from an unnamed Kremlin adviser about how the London-loving businessmen are going to be a thing of the past. Alexander Dugin is credited with forming this ideology. There are a couple problems with this, however. First of all, Dugin has been ranting against globalization and the West for years, in spite of the fact that the whole time those London-Moscow oligarchs were enjoying the favor of Putin. Men like Dugin are tasked with distracting Russian youth from this fact, the fact that every Russian with power does his utmost to distance himself from Russia, be it with the products he consumes or where he spends his free time.  Second, Dugin was recently fired from his post at Moscow State University, under rather unclear circumstances. This means there’s a possibility that his rhetoric against Russia’s rich and powerful overstepped an invisible line, and thus the relationship between Putin and his oligarchs isn’t as strained as some might believe.  Only time will tell.

Media, censorship, and control over the internet

The article brings up a whole slew of recent legislation aimed at more closely controlling media in Russia. I have to take issue with one line, however, where the author said this:

Draconian laws have been passed enabling the regime to arrest anyone for anything said online. 

Pro-Kremlin hacks will jump all over that, if only because it’s easy to find all kinds of anti-government, pro-Ukrainian material all over Russian social networks and other Russian sites. Their typical position can be summed up by the following formula: “Russia’s not a dictatorship because it allows all these anti-government views, but if the government wants to censor any of those views at any time, this is perfectly fine because we’re in an information war!”

In truth the laws banned things such as publishing material suggestion greater federalization or autonomy for regions in Russia, in other words advocating the same thing the Donbas rebels initially demanded and eventually got. I believe the author here was referring to laws banning “extremist” material, which is problematic because “extremism” is rarely defined in Russia.  All kinds of racist and antisemitic material is tolerated, so long as it is pro-government or anti-opposition.  By contrast, liberal, pro-European material could be called “extremist” because it is probably the work of paid-agents trying to start an Orange Revolution to overthrow the Russian government.

Once again the fear of internet censorship is raised, but to be fair to Putin he hasn’t gone that far yet. The main fear is that when he needs to censor or block the internet, he will.  In the mean time, I don’t think crying wolf helps anything. As I said before, this only helps the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

China fantasies, again

The article offers disturbing quotes which demonstrate how powerful people in Russia are deluding themselves into thinking they can replace Europe with China.  Once again we are given more hard evidence as to why this is a pipe dream. As plenty of people have pointed out before, China’s relationship with Russia is a dominant one. Obviously China views the US as a competitor, but the relationship between the US and China has been mutually beneficial thus far. China simply has no good reason to ruin that just to maintain the fantasy of Russia’s ideologues.

Conclusions

There is a very real danger that Putin’s system, in desperation and in dire need of a loyal support base, could go off the rails and begin turning into a dictatorship more along the lines of Iraq or Syria. Putin fans are so fond of quoting polls showing his approval rating at about 84%, but if we ignore the fact that this is already starting to wane, there’s the more important fact that there is a huge gap between what Russians say in public to pollsters, and what they actually do. The approve of the annexation of Crimea, but they’d still rather vacation in Europe, Turkey, or Egypt. They say they support the state, but they’re still mad about tax increases and the robbing of their pensions. They also continue to receive most of their salary under the table to avoid paying taxes.  Putin’s system still suffers from the paradox that the economy can only survive via turning a blind eye to tax evasion. With 80% of the wealth being concentrated in Moscow and with Moscow being the only opportunity for social advancement, the economy would simply collapse if everyone were made to pay their taxes on salaries and apartments.

Obviously through its state media organs and various astroturf organizations, the Kremlin will continue to encourage people to endure any hardship lest big bad America destroy this paradise on Earth. But the Soviet Union was unable to last under similar conditions in spite of having a much better economic and political foundation.  In the USSR, there were still many bureaucrats and KGB officials without a real experience of Western life, much less luxury. That’s not the case today. Russia’s upper-class and super-rich have not only experienced life outside of Russia, but they have in fact experienced an elite lie beyond that which ordinary Americans, Britons, or Europeans could ever imagine. Eventually, to save his own ass, Putin will have to ask a portion of these people to forego all of that. They will do it for a while, especially when they don’t know who they can trust. In the long term though? Fat chance.  Rich Russians love them some iPads, BMW, country houses in France, London flats, and New York penthouse apartments.  Russia’s oligarchs can reward those loyal to them with all of those things and more, Putin cannot. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

As for opposition in Russia, it’s still pretty much bankrupt in terms of leadership and ideology. Alliance politics, whereby you unquestioningly side with anyone or anything that also opposes your target, still seems to be the order of the day.  A great deal of anti-Putin rhetoric comes from right-wing nationalists who have once again fallen out of love with their leader. Thus while the regime will not last much longer, there is a real danger that some demagogue will use similar rhetoric to swindle the masses and secure his place at the trough.  Western well-wishers need to be aware of this and encourage Russian oppositionists to exclude groups which divide the people and preach what is essentially the same rhetoric the Kremlin has endorsed for years. Otherwise the collapse of the Putin regime could indeed lead to a much worse situation.