Impotent

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And [Putin] just stands there and watches them destroy each other, and doesn’t interfere. Because then, on the one hand, he gets to maintain his position above the fray and watch all these ministries mutually weaken each other and become incapable of monopolizing power (which he’s afraid of). But on the other hand, he’s afraid even to give an order, because he senses that his orders have no weight anymore, that he can’t do anything. It’s a hideous situation, and as a result everyone turns into these trembling slaves who have no idea what will befall them, because there’s no one to appeal to, there’s no ordering principle to appeal to anymore. There’s no law, Putin is absolutely impotent, he can’t do anything.

I am sorry for writing what I am about to write, because I have a decent amount of admiration for the man who wrote the passage I have quoted, above, but if there is anything nuttier than thinking that Putin (or any other dictator) is absolutely powerful, it is thinking that Putin has no power at all.

The “impotency” heresy seems to be all the rage these days, because Putin was, allegedly, persuaded by his ex-finance minister and ex-Petersburg city hall colleague Alexei Kudrin to write not one but three official letters telling whoever has been hassling the European University in St. Petersburg to back off and leave it alone, and all three times these sinister forces (whom no one has yet properly identified, because no one believes federal education watchdog Rosobrnadzor and the courts could arrange this sick, nine-ring circus on their own) willfully ignored Putin’s instructions.

The explanation, given by Fontanka.ru investigative reporter Irina Tumakova in the latest edition of Novaya Gazeta v Petersburge—that the mess kicked off due to four complaints filed with the prosecutor’s office against the university by non-entities who now cannot even remember why they filed the complaints and have lost all the paperwork—may be factually true, but it will have the effect of reinforcing the “impotency” camp’s convictions.

In reality, there are as many ways to exercise power as there are ways to be impotent, and so it is easy to confuse the two, especially if you are naive enough to believe that when Vladimir Putin says or writes something, he always means what he says or writes.

Let’s suppose Putin really is not averse to handing over the two mansions on the corner of Gagarin Street and the Kutuzov Embankment to his arch-crony Gennady Timchenko or whomever else Tumakova mentions in her article, and, in the process, getting rid of the European University, towards which he, plausibly, only feels antipathy, since in the past it was involved in using European Union funds to study election monitoring, something Putin, who has stayed in power this long only by rigging elections on a massive scale, would hardly approve.

(Putin even publicly said as much at the time, in late 2007 or early 2008, and soon afterwards, fire inspectors showed up at the European University and shut it down for two months.  It was reopened after a loud, noisy, vigorous public campaign by its faculty, its students, and its numerous supporters in the local and international community. I took part in that campaign.)

More generally, the Putin regime has been engaged in a long-term, deliberate program of clamping down on any and all independent forces and entities in Russia, from small and medium businesses and NGOs of all stripes (even ones not mixed up in politics and without financial or other connections to foreign partners) to independent religious groups (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and independent educational institutions such as the European University. Hardly surprising for a regime chockablock with “former KGB officers” at all levels and led by another “former KGB officer,” it has increasingly come to regard everyone trying to operate beyond the Russian government’s overweening oversight as extremely suspicious at best, “national traitors,” at worst.

Putin could make large numbers of people loathe him more than they already do by openly issuing a decree closing the European University and turning over its building and the neighboring building to his buddy Timchenko. Or he could play it smart and make clear through all the hundreds of channels he has at his disposal that he wants to shut down the university and hand over the building to Timchenko, all the while feigning to Kudrin and his liberal fans that he is worried enough about that fine little university to write the “back off” letters Kudrin asked him to write.

But the fix is already in, because Rosobrnadzor, the courts, Timchenko, and everyone else who needs to know, know that Putin’s letters of “support” for the university are meant to be roundly ignored. They know this because he has somehow indicated they should ignore them. How he did this exactly is immaterial and, ultimately, uninteresting.

So, in reality, this is yet another example of Putin’s exercising his rather considerable power, not evidence of his impotence. Of course, like any reasonably smart dictator or just plain leader, he wants to appear to be above the fray, but that does not mean he really is above the fray. He is right in the midst of it, whatever “it” is: making peace among the made men in his mafia empire, awarding them for their loyalty, slapping them on the wrists for their lapses, and adjudicating their conflicts between each other as they arise.

A real example of impotence are tenured and celebrated academics who persuade themselves, after being suckered by one of the oldest cons and mythologemes in Russian history (the powerless tsar surrounded by perfidious boyars), that since the allegedly powerful Putin is, in fact, impotent, they can be excused from empowering themselves and their students, and mobilizing them and the rather large community of people in Petersburg and around the world who are sympathetic to the European University to fight the power and get the university’s full rights as a research and teaching institution reinstated, while also forcing the powers that be to have the university’s grand old building restored to it and let it go ahead with renovating the building, as the university had carefully been preparing to do for several years.

That would be a real cause to rally round, but instead we have been treated, in turn, to long bouts of radio silence, various implausible conspiracy theories, and self-defeating disempowerment sessions, disguised as the worldly-wise acceptance of defeat and the lowly station of academics in Russian life.

But we have not seen the slightest hint of a coherent, militant public campaign to save the university, most of whose seemingly feeble supporters have the temerity to call it the “best in Russia.”

If it is really the best, it should be worth fighting tooth and nail for, no? Even and especially if you think the emperor has no clothes. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

“Senators” vs. “Undesirables”

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The Russian Federation Council,* whose members have a penchant for calling themselves “senators,” even though they are not a popularly elected body nor a body known as a “senate.” This peculiar fashion has been picked up by the Russian media and, now, even some foreign media, thus reinforcing the fallacy that Russia is governed democratically. Photo courtesy of Izvestia and Zurab Dzhavakhadze

Media Learns about Idea to Expel People from Russia for “Undesirable Behavior”
RBC
September 4, 2017

The Federation Council’s Committee for Defending State Sovereignty and Preventing Interference in Russian Domestic Affairs [sic] has been drafting a law bill that would stipulate expulsion from Russia for “undesirable behavior.” Izvestia learned about the bill from sources in the parliament familiar with the drafting of the document.

Acccording to the newspaper, the penalty of expelling people from Russia for “undesirable behavior” would be stipulated by a law bill that could be tabled in the State Duma as early as next year. It would amend the current federal law “On Undesirable Organizations,” adopted two years earlier.

The newspaper’s sources said that expulsion for “undesirable behavior” would be applied to individuals, mostly foreigners. However, the sources noted the term could be applied to Russian citizens and legal entities.

The newspaper notes that “undesirability” would be determined by whether the actions of the persons caused real harm to Russia’s national security. It could be a matter of “inciting ethnic and religious hatred and political discord,” as well as potential interference in Russia’s electoral process. The newspaper likewise notes that “outside work” with Russian educational institutions and young people could be deemed “undesirable.”

According to the sources, several options for how the law would be applied were currently under consideration. One of them would involve empowering State Duma and Federation Council members with the capacity to send requests to the Prosecutor General’s Office to check whether a person’s activities were “undesirable.” If the audit turned up a violation, Russian citizens could be accountable. [sic] Foreigners, on the contrary, would be threatened with expulsion from the country.

Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs confirmed that the amendments to the law were being drafted.

Translated by the Russian Reader

*Сritics of the Federation Council stress that it is an inherently undemocratic body made for regional elites, with little say from the Russian people. Since the reforms advocated and passed by President Putin in 2000, critics have also charged that the Council resembles more of a rubber stamp body for the Kremlin than an independent legislative body. Many senators are viewed as close allies of Putin and the United Russia party, despite rules which explicitly spell out that political factions are not allowed. Since Mironov’s rise in the Council in 2002, the Kremlin’s position on impending legislation is closely communicated to and coordinated with the Chairman and the committee and commission chairs. This top-down approach has meant that the Council votes with extreme efficiency, backing Kremlin positions on legislation nearly all of the time.

Critics also point to how long the Council convenes, meeting only one day every two weeks, speeding through legislative analysis and providing lop-sided majorities for each vote. Many blame this speedy legislation on the enormous influence the Kremlin exerts, who they charge have already instructed Council committee and commission chairs on how to vote. Several left-leaning State Duma deputies have lamented that Putin has stripped away the Federation Council’s last hold on checks and balances.

Since Putin’s restructuring of provincial executives in 2004, placing them under direct appointment by the Kremlin upon approval of their legislatures, federalist supporters have also charged the president in reducing the provincial role of the Federation Council. Where Yeltsin had envisioned a chamber [addressing] regional concerns, they argue, critics view Putin’s restructuring as deeply centralizing the Council to reflect the president’s and United Russia’s political interests, taking away provincial voices. Putin supporters counter these criticisms by acknowledging that Yeltsin had also appointed governors to Russia’s federal subjects in the early days of the Federation.

Source: Wikipedia

When the Masks Come Off

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Alexander Skobov
Don’t Underestimate the Enemy
Grani.ru
May 14, 2015

Igor Yakovenko has questioned the sanity of those MPs who supported Red Guardist Irina Yarovaya’s latest amendments to the anti-extremism laws. At issue is a ban on travel abroad for people whom the FSB has issued a warning about the inadmissibility of activities that, in the FSB’s opinion, are potentially fraught with terrorism, war, and genocide. Under the current rules for issuing warnings, no formal grounds are needed except the opinion of the agency issuing the warning. Meaning that if it wishes, the FSB can crank out warnings to anyone whose activities the authorities simply do not countenance.

Yakovenko asks, why not let the undesirables leave the country if you cannot stand them? Let them leave and thus reduce the ranks of the so-called fifth column. These measures will not stop an increase in protests, and if protests do kick off, they will only add fuel to the fire. Yakovenko’s conclusion is that the folks on the other side of politics are completely off their rockers. But I would not underestimate the enemy’s intellectual capacities. Yes, they suffer from an acute totalitarian itch to ban and restrict. But they know what they are doing.

In my opinion, Yarovaya’s notorious amendment to ban travel for “warnees” is absolutely rational and quite precisely calculated. It is targeted at the segment of Russian society that,  according to Yakovenko himself, suffers from pathological anemia and dystrophia of the will. These are successful and well-off people who still believe that if they have done nothing unauthorized, they will get off scot-free for their not entirely loyalist public activism. They have become accustomed to the fact that one can be involved in not entirely loyalist but quite respectable and moderate media, cultural, and human rights projects without especially risking one’s own comfort. Our stunted civil society largely rests on such lovers of performing  “small deeds” in their spare time.

And now take a guess at what percentage of these outstanding people would be willing to sacrifice travel abroad for the sake of continuing their outstanding social activism, who would be willing to sacrifice the principal attribute of the post-Soviet lifestyle, without which life would be unthinkable? Anyone like Yarovaya would realize that the majority of them will choose either to give up their activism or leave the country before receiving a warning. To predict these people’s future behavior it suffices to recall Ksenia Sobchak’s recent philosophical musings about the lives of frogs.

And where will all these popular newsmakers find themselves if they are banned from leaving the country for the piquant statements they occasionally permit themselves in public? This is not to mention the fact that many civic initiatives will simply be paralyzed if the people involved in them cannot take numerous business trips and attend various international clambakes.  The current regime is quite consistently pushing for the complete suffocation of not only the independent but even the semi-independent civic organizations that have managed to stay afloat. The period when Putin’s clique had a stake in maintaining a legal oppositional ghetto on the margins of public life, thus imparting a certain seemliness to its own image, has come to an end. In recent years, this image has become so disfigured the Kremlin has lost interest in touching it up. It has realized it no longer has anything to lose.

And so there will no longer be any legal bounds vouchsafing the opposition from crackdowns. Any public organization that violates the informal ban on discussing issues the regime finds touchy will be crushed. All the Kremlin’s recent significant steps, beginning with Moskalkova’s appointment and ending with the latest round of purges of semi-independent media, have been focused on this. In this long series of steps, however, the ability to ban any undesirable from traveling abroad is a symbolic step. It finally undermines the social milieu whose entire life strategy was built on the proposition that however disgusting Putinist authoritarianism was, it was better than Soviet totalitarianism because the freedom to travel abroad existed. That meant one could live with it, adapt to it, and come to terms with it. By obeying certain rules imposed by the regime, one could maintain a minimal amount of freedom.

This slightly dissatisfied milieu has become used to living high on the hog. Our consumptive civil society must come to its natural biological end. It must be replaced by professional revolutionaries who will have no such problems since their activism conforms with the law as interpreted by people who have arrogated to themselves the exclusive right to interpret it. For them, Yarovaya’s fascist laws will be neither more nor less than a profound insult to their moral sensibilities.

Alexander Skobov, a left-liberal writer and activist, is a former Soviet dissident and a political prisoner. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AM for the heads-up. Image courtesy of Wikipedia