Lilia Shevtsova: Gutting Russia

1535459018_stena-1The Wall, one of the Russian National Guard’s new toys for crushing popular unrest. Photo courtesy of Voennoe obozrenie

Lilia Shevtsova
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September 27, 2018

Gutting the State
“They are crazy!” we wail as we gaze at the regime’s latest stunts.

“What stupidity!” the commentators exclaim in horror as they compile the Kremlin’s list of shame: raising the retirement age; a high-ranking silovik threatening to kill Navalny in a duel; the fiasco of the so-called Salisbury tourists; vote rigging in the Maritime Territory; the Russian fighter plane shot down by the Syrians with our own rocket; the hole in our spaceship, patched up with epoxy; threats to ban use of the US dollar in Russia; more lies about Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; and Navalny’s latest arrest.

The regime’s attempts to rectify its blunders only exacerbate the circumstances, turning them into farces. Did annulling the election in Vladivostok restore people’s faith in elections? Were the elections in Vladimir Region and Khabarovsk Territory not turned into farces when the winners did their level best not to win? And what about the televised interview with the Salisbury tourists? What should we make of attempts to blame Israel for downing the Russian warplane, and the Americans for punching a hole in the Soyuz capsule? The latest act of shooting ourselves in the foot was supplying the Syrians with a S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which is a threat to Israel and, of course, the US. (The Israelis will most certainly respond.)

If we regard all these topsy-turvy achievements as the outcomes of stupidity, the hope emerges that we can fix the stupidity by purging the ranks of officialdom, which is exactly what the Kremlin, in fact, sunk its teeth into today. Actually, what we regard as failure and stupidity have long become the new normal. What we see are the outcomes of a monopoly on political power, which has turned its own replication into an end in itself, and of a negative selection of members of the political elite based on the loyalty principle. In short, a duelist in charge of the Russian National Guard, and poisoners disguised as tourists are the new Russian normal. They are logical and inevitable consequences.

The wailing about a crisis at the top is, therefore, groundless. Russia skipped over the crisis stage. A crisis is a natural turn of events that compels society to look for new solutions and new people to implement them. When this does not happen, society and its superstructures rot. This stinky viscous goo is our current location. Decay prevents collapse: what is rotting cannot collapse. But decay also prevents our country from finding the strength to change.

The ruling class can seemingly take it easy, for the system somehow hobbles along. There are no large-scale protests, and the protests that do occur can either be ignored or quashed, especially since the National Guard has special new crowd-control armored vehicles at its disposal like the Shield, the Storm, the Wall, and so on.

In reality, things have taken a serious turn for Russia. By seeking to ensure its endlessness, the regime has been destroying the Russian state. That is a whole other ballgame. We have reached the point at which the ruling class has been rocking the pillars of statehood, destroying its own guarantee of survival in the bargain.

By outsourcing violence to volunteer oprichniki, the regime has deprived the state of one of its vital attributes: a monopoly on violence. By making Russia a global scarecrow, the regime has undermined the country’s international status and the external habitat in which it dwells. By rejecting strategic planning in favor of tactical maneuvers, the regime has stripped the country of the capacity for progress. By making the Russian state a tool of clan domination, the regime has destabilized the country, since society has been forced to defend its own interests by protesting on the streets.

Finally, by destroying institutions and making the rules of the game relative (there is more than one way to “get things done: in Russia), the regime has plunged the country into a state of lawlessness. When lawlessness ensues, no one is safe from it.

Do the guys in the Kremlin not realize how things will end? Apparently, they do understand, but they are incapable of stopping.

The autocracy survived in 1991 by scrapping the Soviet state. The autocracy has now been trying to survive by turning the post-Soviet Russian state into a lip-synched song about superpowerdom.

Lilia Shevtsova is a well-known Russian political scientist. Translated by the Russian Reader

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How to Be a Useful Idiot

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1.  Jump on the “Putin is genuinely popular” bandwagon.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.”

Putin is not genuinely popular. As in other pseudo-populist dictatorships and autocracies, the alleged popularity of Russia’s president for life is the product of a thoroughgoing war against all dissenters, dissidents, and free thinkers, and an ever-evolving personality cult, produced by carpet bombing the populace with TV, radio, social media, and print propaganda twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

The mental carpet bombing is periodically punctuated by two rituals, designed to confer “popular legitimacy” on the rampantly undemocratic regime: massively rigged, unfair “elections,” and plainly hokey and methodologically unreliable “public opinion polls.”

Neither is there any empirical evidence that “young educated Russians” are more critical of Putin than cranky old ladies in Petrozavodsk and Perm. My educated guess would be that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Finally, it is sheer insanity to argue that Putin’s departure is not an “inherently desirable outcome.” Every day Putin is in power is a decisive step backwards in the country’s political and social progress.

Not even the most milquetoast progressive reforms have been possible while Putin and his clique have been in power (i.e., the last eighteen years), and there is every sign that, during his next term, things will go from very bad to incomparably worse.

By the way, why is the writer so certain “Putin will eventually leave power”? If he means Putin is a mere mortal, like the rest of us, and will die sooner or later, this is a factually correct but politically vacuous claim. If the writer means Putin is planning to leave office in the foreseeable future, he must have psychic gifts that most of us do not have. There is no evidence whatsoever Putin is planning to go anywhere in the next twenty years.

But it is easy to engage in free verse exercises like this one when you live and work in Brooklyn. You just make up the facts as you go along, because you will never have to face the consequences of your irresponsible, shambolic analysis.

2. Blame the US government for everything that has gone sour or wrong in Russia, the world’s largest country, a land blessed with natural resources and human resources beyond measure, and thus certainly capable of making its own fortunes and forging its own destiny, which nothing whatsoever prevents from being democratic and progressive except the current regime and its mostly pliable satraps and timeservers. “Genuine popular support” for Putin would vanish in a second if his regime were ever challenged by a strong, broad-based, grassroots democratic movement determined to remove him from office and steer the country towards a different path.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.

“The United States should not ignore human-rights abuses in Russia. But principled criticism is only undermined by the perception that civil-society groups in Russia serve as fronts for US intelligence, and Russia has become increasingly hostile to such groups. The next administration should make clear that the United States is not trying to bring Putin down, and that its support for human rights is genuine. It should be wary of directly supporting opposition figures, who are easily tarred as American puppets. And it should lead by example and hold its allies accountable for their human-rights abuses and elite corruption as well.

“Ultimately, the best way the United States can help civil society in Russia is by normalizing relations enough that private civil-society groups from the United States and other countries can more effectively work in tandem with Russian counterparts. It is hard to argue that the US-Russia tensions following the failure of Obama’s reset have done Russian civil society any favors.”

What real evidence is there that civil society groups in Russia serve as “fronts for US intelligence”?

None.

Who has actually been working day and night to generate this “perception”?

The Putin regime and its media propaganda outlets.

Why has “Russia” become “increasingly hostile to such groups”?

Because the Kremlin perceives them as direct threats to its authoritarian rule. It has thus declared them “enemies,” “national traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “undesirables,” and gone to war against them. This blog has published numerous articles detailing this “cold civil war” between Moscow and Russian civil society.

What evidence is there that any US administration has “[tried] to bring Putin down”?

There is no such evidence.

What Russian opposition figures have US administrations “directly supported”?

None.

Aren’t civil society groups “private” by definition?

Yes.

Was Obama’s so-called reset the only or even the primary reason that tensions between the US and Russia increased?

No. Even before Putin went ballistic, invading Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, shooting down passenger planes (e.g., Flight MH17) and gunning down opposition leaders right outside the Kremlin (i.e., Boris Nemtsov), his minions were harassing the then-US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, the co-author of the miserable “reset,” whose purpose was to decrease tensions with Russia, not stoke them. There was no chance of this happening, however, when the Kremlin had long ago made rabid anti-Americanism the centerpiece of its public foreign policy.

Why do I call it “public” foreign policy? Because nearly everyone in the Russian ruling elite has made numerous junkets and trips to the US and other western countries over the years and has lots of personal and business connections to their boon enemies. They have extensive real estate holdings in the west. They educate their children in the west. They park their ill-gotten lucre in the west. In some cases, their families live in the west permanently, while they shuttle between the west and Moscow like some less fortunately people commute between Gary, Indiana, and Chicago.

The Russian elite’s anti-Americanism and anti-westernism, therefore, is a put-on, a hypocritical pose mostly meant for public consumption.

Has the Putin regime done Russian civil society “any favors”?

No, it has done its utmost best to destroy independent Russian civil society and coopt the remnants it has not killed off. If you want some of the particulars, read what I’ve been posting on this blog for the last six years and, before that, on Chtodelat News, for five years.

Why did the guy who wrote the passage quoted above write what he did?

It is hard to say. The article is a very clever whitewash job for the Putin regime, all of whose high crimes and misdemeanors against the Russian Constitution and the Russian people are passed off as understandable reactions to the alleged predations of the US government against the Putin regime.

Where was this article published?

In The Nation, of course. Who else would print such crypto-Putininst tripe with a straight face?

Why all the needless hyphens, e.g. “civil-society groups,” “human-rights abuse”?

Sheer snobbery, meant to intimate to the magazine’s hapless readers they are dealing with real smart cookies, not tiresome neo-Stalinist windbags.

3. Publish wholly misleading articles about Russia, like the one quoted above. If you cannot manage that (because your readership would notice), publish wholly misleading headlines. They are even more effective than longwinded articles in The Nation, a pro-Putin magazine no one in their right mind has read in the last ten years or so.

People scan headlines, however. It is much easier than reading the fine print.

“US Drastically Reduces Visa Services in Russia after St. Petersburg Consulate’s Closure”

This is exactly the headline Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would want to appear in the Moscow Times, because it places the onus for his government action’s and his own actions on the US government.

How could visa services not be drastically reduced if the Russian Foreign Ministry closed the US consulate in Petersburg and gutted the staff at the US embassy in Moscow once again?

But let us by all means imply, because this IS the message the Putinist tyranny wants its own people to hear, that the US did everything on its own as a way of punishing ordinary Russians. Sadly, a fair number of Russians will believe this.

4. Join a so-called leftist group in the west. Most of them behave as if the Comintern still existed and they were taking their orders from the Kremlin.

Most western so-called leftists these days are boring, uneducated morons. The most boring thing about them is their unshakeable reverence for the Soviet Union, a country about which they donot have the slightest clue, and for its woebegone “successor,” the Russian Federation, which has literally nothing in common with the long-dead Soviet Union.

So, they are just as defensive of Putin’s shambolic hypercapitalist despotism as they are of the country that killed off socialism once and for all by going on a murderous rampage in the 1930s.

The really hilarious thing is that most of them manage to maintain these cultish attitudes without ever having set foot in either country and without speaking a word of Russian. Star Wars fans have a more down-to-earth and coherent ideology than the post-Stalinists who pop up to crush you with their Anand Sheela-like rhetorical flourishes (i.e., truckloads of vehement slander and furious personal insults) if you so much as mention as their imaginary Motherland in a slightly untoward light.

I want to live long enough to see the influence of these dead-enders on progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics die off altogether. That would make me really happy, if not genuinely popular, like Vladimir Putin. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Why Bother Reporting the News When It Reports Itself?

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If I were an MP in the Commons or a peer in the Lords, I would ask for a formal inquiry into how the BBC is wildly and, apparently, deliberately misreporting the so-called Russian presidential election campaign by constantly asserting that Vladimir Putin is incredibly popular, that his message of “strength and stability should be enough to persuade voters to give him another term” (I heard that gem on the late late news on Radio 4 last night) and that Alexei Navalny was not admitted to the race because of “previous corruption convictions.”

Only in every third or fourth report do BBC reporters and presenters even bother to hint vaguely that Navalny’s so-called corruption convictions were on trumped-up charges and explicitly meant to hobble and disable him at moments like this, when he is literally the only person in Russia with a political organization and campaign strategy capable of putting a serious dent in the myth of Putin’s popularity.

And it is a myth. A free and fair election—after a campaign run without assistance from the so-called law enforcement agencies (who now, apparently, are gearing up to go after Navalny for calling a boycott) and the other assorted thugs who have been routinely arresting and assaulting Navalny’s campaign workers and volunteers in large numbers all over Russia during the past year, and without a giant leg up from a mainstream media, especially the national TV channels, whose general demeanor gives you a sense of what television would have looked like had the Nazis had it in their agitprop arsenal—would return results that would surprise all the lazy reporters and “Russia experts” who have been aping the discredited pollsters at Levada-VTsIOM-FOM by perpetuating the Putin popularity myth these past seventeen years.

The fix was in from the moment the Family chose Petersburg’s incredibly corrupt ex-deputy mayor to succeed Yeltsin, and truly awful things for which lots of people should be serving life sentences were done to cement the succession in blood.

It’s only been downhill from here, including the period when oil prices were high, because they only discouraged whatever impulses for reform Putin may have had (although I see no evidence he had any such impulses).

There’s no reason to like Putin unless you’re a member of his inner circle, because the real economy has tanked long ago, rampant corruption has become the supreme governing principle, and the security services have launched a selective, targeted Great Terror Lite to remind anyone with a brain what “stability” really means: Putin and his criminal clique are determined to remain in power until they die of natural causes.

This stunning plan will have terrible consequences for Russia and the world. The very least honest news reporting organizations, supposedly devoted to balanced, objective journalism, can do is report the whole story I have just told in brief, instead of repeating the dangerous truisms and outright lies generated by the Kremlin and its minions. TRR