Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pussy Riot yet another example of how art is pitted against politics

For The enormous attention that the indictment against Pussy Riot has created in both Russia and internationally is an example of an increasingly widespread global trend, where politics and art are pitted against each other and the reactions of society become a part of both art and politics.

Yesterday, a two year's prison sentence was passed in Moscow against three members of the Russian "punk band" Pussy Riot. The trio was found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Reactions and condemnations against the sentence are manifold in both Russia and internationally, as it is evident that the penalty is not proportional to the alleged crime.

On 21 February this year - merely weeks before the Russian presidential elections - Pussy Riot made a mimic performance in front of the altar of Christ our Saviour Cathedral in Moscow wearing balaklavas and brightly coloured dresses. Within minutes they were seized on by security guards and thrown out of the church. Shortly thereafter, a video clip of the performance was published on YouTube, where music with a provocative song-text had been added. This so called "Punk prayer" was in the form of an invocation to the Holy Mother to drive out Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I, was portrayed as putting faith in Putin before that in God.

Undoubtedly, it was this video clip rather than the performance itself that made the Russian state and church react, as it spread like wildfire on the Internet. In March, three of Pussy Riot's members were arrested, while a fourth is still hiding from authorities. The lawsuit that has dragged out for almost half a year has now been accordingly finalised, where the treatment of the prosecuted has cast new light on Russia's legal decay. A mere 2.7 % of people prosecuted by Russian courts in 2011 were acquitted. 

The entire affaire has undeniably gained dynamics of its own, so one may assume that yesterday's verdict departs from the need of power to set an example. The increased confindence in the Russian legal system in recent years has thereby been turned into a setback in the politically directed jurisprudence, which since the process against former oligarch Khodorkovsky goes by the name of Basmanny justice. The trial against Pussy Riot has however taken the debate a step further, and several Russian liberal writers have compared the case with the show trials of the soviet era. The playback performance Pussy Riot made in Christ our Saviour Cathedral has thus also given rise to a historical playback.

It is also Russia's lack of due process that has caused reactions both in Russia and internationally. Already in April, Amnesty International characterized the members of Pussy Riot as prisoners of conscience. International organizations and artists are now joined by western public opinion, where the verdict against Pussy Riot become a symbol for all that is wrong with Russia. In this context, both strong and equally diverse  Russian reactions shuold be brought to the fore. A number of opinion polls during the process have shown both strong support for dismissing the case and for a guilty verdict. Russian public opinion is divided and varied in relation to a complex issue that has come to address religion, ethics, and politics more than actual law. 

That many believers in Russia have rightly felt offended by Pussy Riot's performance is beyond doubt, but this has been depreciated by the fact that a tasteless provocation has been overshadowed by an even more tasteless legal process. When the Russian Orthodox Church, in its condemnations of a feminist "punk band", has compared feminism with satanism, the Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill II, appears as the foremost representative of a patriarchic society. 

Then, what is Pussy Riot and what is it all about? Let us first put a myth to rest. Pussy Riot is not a punk band. It is a feminist art commune, dedicated to performance art in a wide sense, where provocation is a means to gain attention. 

Pussy Riot originates from the Russian street-art group Voina, which has produced a number of provicative and politically charged art projects. For the presidential installation of Medvedev in 2008, Voina made the performance "Fuck for the heir, Pussy Bear!", where five couples from the group - including a heavily pregnant woman - engaged in public group sex in the Moscow Museum of Biology, which was videotaped and published on the Internet. In 2010, the - then divided - group painted a giant phallos on a bascule bridge opposite the security service headquarters in St. Petersburg, where the result of raising the bridge should be obvious. Several members of Voina have previously been arrested for art projects. One of the now convicted women of Pussy Riot used to be a prominent member of Voina

The enormous attention that the indictment against Pussy Riot has created in both Russia and internationally is an example of an increasingly widespread global trend, where politics and art are pitted against each other and the reactions of society become a part of both art and politics. A parallel may e.g. be drawn to China's repression of the artist Ai Weiwei. In Sweden, the performance art project "Okänd kvinna, 2009-439701" of art student Anna Odell met with strong negative reactions the other year, not least from politicians. One should remember that Odell was sentenced to pay 50 day-fines for "dishonest conduct".It is far from a rule that artistic freedom of expression - as in the case of Lars Vilks' Mohammed roundabout dogs - gains strong public support. 

In this context, the perspective is not a comparison between preconditions of art in authoritarian and democratic states, but instead of how the margins of freedom of expression are tested as an effect of art regardless of the character of society. Thereby, the mechanisms of power and authority are illustrated - hopefully with different results in various political systems. That many of both Voina's and Pussy Riot's actions would be subject to public prosecution in most countries is evident. However, what differs is the legal process and the harsh sentence of the three members of Pussy Riot.

The lawsut against Pussy Riot can only be characterized as a travesty of justice. The law against hooliganism that motivated the verdict has such a broad definition that it may more or less cover all "crimes" perpetrated in public space. Hooliganism has however so far not been applied to "crimes" related to religion. If one would have wanted to prosecute the group on religious grounds, the law against extremism would have been applied instead, which e.g. covers acts to incite ethnic or religious hatred among groups in Russian society. However, the Russian constitution is secular, why application of the law against extremism in such a high-profile case, could have resulted in questioning of its compatibility with the constitution. Already in the choice of law, it is obvious that the process has been politically directed and motivated. Where Pussy Riot has claimed politics, the court has claimed religion as motive for the action. By interpreting the law in such a way that defamation of religion may constitute hooliganism, the court avoids applying the more politically chared law against extremism. Thus, paradoxically, the intent of the court appears clearer than that of the convicted, as an avoidance at any price to represent the process as what it actually is - a political trial. 

The question is also to what extent Pussy Riot has had to answer to the previous "crimes" of their art movement. Is it a case of collective punishment? Is it art itself rather than its practitioners that stands trial? From the freedom of expression perspective, these questions are both central and complex, but when art is political, they end up in the background. Instead, focus has been at the intersection of politics and religion in Russia.

The issue of relations between church and state is very sensitive in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has developed into providing both legitimacy and identity for political power. The church has subordinated itself to the state, in a way resembling the soviet era, at the same time as it supports reactionary forces within the regime - with a background within the security structures - which at times challenge both Putin and Medvedev. It is thus evident that the regime's internal political considerations have dictated the application of the law. For what Pussy Riot has done is to pinpoint Russia's politico-religious symbiosis.

During the soviet era, the Orthodox Church was strictly directed by the KGB. The Russian journalist Yevgeniya Albats e.g. claims that some half of the clergy in reality were agents of the KGB. Inter alia, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church until 2008, Aleksy II, served the KGB for many years and made decisive steps in his career by denouncing opposition elements within the clergy. As Pussy Riot now sings about how the state and the church row the same boat, it is a political provocation that challenges mighty interests within Russian society, where relations between church and security interests are a taboo. The reactions of the church has therefore been powerful, but religiously motivated condemnations have carried a clear political undertone. The irritation is further exacerbated as Pussy Riot has compared themselves to Godly maniacs - a tradition of dissenters within Orthodoxy, which e.g. has manifested itself by crazy, but often tolerated, truthsayers. The truth said by Pussy Riot is however too stark for the church, and the parallel to Godly maniacs has thus been portrayed as further evidence of the group's disrespect for religion.

A danger in the process against the Pussy Riot trio lies equally in simplyfying and complicating the case. The simple approach, to consider the trio's destiny merely as political persecution, obscures more complex issues on how far society may allow art to go in its various expressions. To the contrary, the danger of complicating the case, lies in ascribing the group greater artistic qualities than it actually possesses. A rather simplistic art performance has here been regenerated and magnified by the mechanisms of politics and media.

How generously or narrowly the margins of artistic freedom of expression should be drawn is a question that concerns us all and lacks simple answers. However, Russia has for long stepped over the limits of what a purportedly democratic state can allow itself in curtailing civil liberties and human rights. In this context, Pussy Riot has had to pay a disproportionate and exceedingly high price for art as political provocation. In essence, the verdict against Pussy Riot can be summarized by the famous thesis of German author, Kurt Tucholsky: "A country is not just what it does, but also what it tolerates." In Russia, this thesis has been put to the test, and the result stands out as a strongly negative indicator of the country's continuous authoritarian decay.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Paving Political Potholes

For Global Voices Online: Say the word "roads" to most Russians, and you are likely to end up with an half-hour discussion. Throughout history, Russia has been infamous for its bad road quality. However, now Russian provincial city of Yekaterinburg seems to have come up with a solution to the problem, by making bureacrats get down to work. 

Being a road engineer in Russia must be a nightmare. The combination of harsh climate, mud and marshlands, with annual frost and thaw, makes the upkeep of many roads next to an impossible task. During spring, some roads simly float off. Recently, Russian roads were ranked 125 out of 139 in the world by the World Economic Forum 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report

One might assume that most Russians would have resigned to the task, but, whereas in a country like Canada, with similar conditions, few eyebrows are raised, in Russia roads have become a stain on national pride, in man's constant struggle to tame the forces of nature. Thus, last year, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a massive road construction programme, to double the rate of building. 

As with most overambtitious plans, Russians exercise some sound skepticism to its realization, and instead are beginning to take matters into their own hands, such as is the case in Yekaterinburg - Russia's fourth largest city. 

"Make the bureaucrat work" is the slogan of a local campaign [ru] run by the regional Internet news agency, Their solution to the road problem is as simple as it is elegant: They simply spray-paint the portraits of local dignitaries around potholes, with their quotes of promises to fix the problem, and guess what - problem solved! What has taken local politicians years not to do, is now done overnight. The embarrassment of having their portraits so concretely fixed to the potholes of their power, has seemingly made authorities run about like mad to pave over their portraits of impotence, filling the holes in streets and roads.

So, what have been the reactions in Russian social media? 

Tweeter @ekalmurzaeva shouts out [ru]:
Вот как заставляют работать чиновников! Портреты чиновников помогли отремонтировать дорогу.
That's how to make bureaucrats work! Portraits of bureaucrats helped repair the road.

LJ user salvatoreha underlines the efficiency of the campaign, but also points out [ru] that it was not a one-hit overnight victory for the campaign:
Напомним, что художники нарисовали на дорогах городских чиновников, причем ямы и пробоины попадали им в рот. Акция оказалась не только эффектной, но и эффективной. Сначала коммунальные службы закрасили рисунки либо удалили слой асфальта. Ночью авторы оставили дополнительное граффити «Закрашивать – не чинить!» К утру коммунальщики полностью заделали все дыры.
Remember how artists painted city officials on the roads, with pits and holes filling their mouths. The action proved not only effectful, but also efficient. At first, municipal services either painted over the pictures or removed a layer of asphalt. At night [campaign] initiators left additional graffiti "Paint - don't fix!" By morning, municipality workers had fully patched all holes.

Others, like Yekaterinburg LJ user Ivan Dmitriyev, adds [ru] some local colour and humour to the affaire:
Десятки информагенств осветили данную акцию. Но в администрации города отнеслись с юмором к произошедшему, сказав, что Евгений Куйвашев собирается вечером гулять по городу пешком, и ему было бы любопытно взглянуть на одну из карикатур. Но кто-то из высокопоставленных коммунальщиков все-таки решил не травмировать психику родного начальника. Уже к следующему утру все дыры были залатаны, асфальт уложен, а лица, с кричащими ртами-ямами, были, следовательно, закрашены. Результат получен – дело сделано, дыр нет. Вот и благо для родного города. Видимо, когда чиновники закрывают глаза на городские проблемы, необходимо им их раскрыть, а к своему «лику» они, как показал екатеринбургский опыт, относятся трепетно.
Dozens of news agencies highlighted this action. But the city administration reacted with humour to what had happened, and said that [Governor] Yevgeny Kuyvashev was to take an evening stroll through the city, and that he was curious to take a look at one of the charicatures. But some senior municipal official still decided not to traumatize the psyche of his local boss. Already by next morning all holes were patched up, asphalt laid, and the faces, with screaming mouth holes, were consequently painted over. The result was achieved - done deal, no holes. What a blessing to one's hometown. Apparently, when bureaucrats close their eyes to city problems, it is necessary to disclose them, because to their own "ranks", as the Yekaterinburg example shows, they remain in awe.

What is not said, is often more interesting than what is actually said. Critical voices to the "Make the bureaucrat work!" campaign are hard to find in social media. As noted by one blogger, even attacked politicians appear to look positively on the action, making their bureaucracy get down to work. 

As a matter of fact, the method seems so efficient that one wonders how long it will take before the campaign is taken to a countrywide scale, possibly by the lively Russian motorists' movement. As Russia's legislators and police clamp down on political rights these days, perhaps this campaign indicates the growth of alternative popular action, a spontaneously evolving civil society, aimed at solving actual problems in people's everyday lives.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Medvedev and the "Belarusian Circus"

For Global Voices Online: A picture says more than a thousand words, the saying goes. An Instagram snapshot that the Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev tweeted as a tacit comment to his visit to Minsk sure does: the "Belarusian Circus." 

During Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Minsk on Wednesday, July 18, he tweeted [ru] an Instagram snapshot with the comment: "In the streets of Minsk." The problem with the picture is that it portrayed the Belarusian State Circus, which could be interpreted as a tacit comment on Medvedev's meeting with the Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and senior state officials. 

 Medvedev's visit to Minsk was no courtesy visit. A recent smuggling scandal has aroused much anger in Moscow, and Medvedev used the meeting to bring Lukashenko to account for the export of chemical solvents produced from the Russian supplies of duty-free oil. Another item on the agenda, according to RIA Novosti [ru], was the recent intrusion into Belarusian airspace by a Swedish plane dropping teddy bears with anti-Lukashenko slogans. The bear incident was a major embarrassment for Belarus in view of the two countries' joint air defence system. As a consequence, a student [ru] who published a photostory about the bears, and a 16-year-old girl [ru], who allegedly took a photo of one of the bears, got arrested by the KGB.  

Then, how did social media react to the "Belarusian circus"? Twitter user @minssk united [ru] the two themes of the circus and the teddies:
Медведев прилетел в Минск, сфоткал цирк. До этого прилетали медведи, тот ещё цирк был, но с фотографом там не хорошая история получилась.
Medvedev flew to Minsk and photographed a circus. Before this, bears flew in, which was quite a circus too, but the story with the [detained] photographer wasn't good.

Some, like @Dubovnik_Dmitry, turned to sarcasm [ru] when commenting:
Медведев отметил минский цирк твитом:-) видно для того чтобы подчекнуть куда он приехал.
Medvedev mentioned the Minsk circus in a tweet:-) obviously to underline what kind of place he had come to.

Twitter user @daphnis_nerii assumed [ru] a more ironic tone:
Информационные порталы страны разместили новость о том, что Медведев сфоткал цирк. Что было бы, если б он в Беларуси в туалет сходил?
Information portals spread the news that Medvedev photographed a circus. How would it have been if he had gone to the toilet in Belarus?

Still, as Twitter user @yurok1521 asked [ru], the question on everyone's lips is this:
Медведев намекнул на «цирк» в правительстве Беларуси?
Did Medvedev hint that there is "a circus" in the government of Belarus?

What Medvedev's intention with the tweet was, only he knows, but if it was a joke, it testifies to a certain sense of humour of the former Russian president with the nickname 'iPhonchik'.

Monday, March 05, 2012

A Disgruntled Middle Class May Cause Putin's Fall

For Putin's inability to deliver on his promises sows the seeds to the civil society thay may cause his downfall. It does not suffice anymore to throw out bones to the middle class.

Yesterday, Russia headed to the polls with no real choice. The winner was predetermined. Putin moves in to the Kremlin again, this time with a six year mandate and an option for another presidential term until 2024. A quarter of a century with Putin however appears increasingly unthinkable. The reason is not popular protest, but because Putin's policy is passé. The soviet structural legacy has caught up with Russia and plans to solve problems turned into idle talk. Russians want what Putin cannot do. Instead, people choose their own solutions. Personal interest is turned into societal interest, and the seeds of civil society are sown. 

Largely, Russian challenges reflect western, in terms of an aging population, deficient infrastructure, environmental problems, health and education, but on a much deeper level. Consequences of decades of lacking investment become all the more intrusive into Russian everyday life. Politics turns into an arena of what one must do, and not what one wants. When what one must is not possible, power turns irrelevant for the citizens.

Few things in Russian societal discourse has been discussed with such obsession in recent years as all the plana that necessarily must be realized to meet the challenges of the future. Plan succeeds plan, but results are lacking and the country is sliding deeper and deeper into stagnation. Plans have made politics a prisoner of its own rhetorics, and reality has overtaken Putin in his zeal to catch up. The result is threading on in the same old tracks until running in circles. In practise, there has been a single political priority - stability - that has crowded out all plans for change. Putin's political stability thus paradoxically leads to the opposite - political instability. 

Some events define a regime regardless of whether perceptions are real or not. For Putin, it was terrorism and coloured revolutions. Thus, the play of circumstances set preconditions for an entire political era. Thus, a pathological obsession with internal and external enemies has turned Russian politics insane. Thus, fears of a flawed perception of reality arise. Because when threat turns into norm, the desire for normality rises. The western threat appears as paranoia. Terror becomes all the more tragic when authorities fail - as in Beslan and at the Dubrovka theatre - to deal with it, with an increasing sense of powerlessness as a result. The power of habit is great and the mantra of threat makes realities unreal when rhetorics turn danger into myth. Everyday threats become more real than those of the world, when causes of accident, unhealth, and insecurity are found in the inactivity of a state that self-centredly reflects itself in its own greatness instead of creating a better society for its citizens. 

Because it is a state that grows and grows but is capable to do less and less. When urgency is growing, it is not the state that puts down the fire. This realization grew during the great wildfires that ravaged central Russia during summer 2010. The state not only stood idly by faced by catastrophe, but withheld information that in too many cases could determine life or death to the public. The silence from authorities in connection to major accidents and disasters previously experienced now assumed massive proportions. However, people refused to passively stand by and watch their homes burn to the ground, and instead voluntarily joined together to fight approaching danger, e.g. with the use of social media. Information about the fires was gathered, fire-fighting coordinated and fighting equipment purchased - all on the initiative of ordinary people. The inactivity and incapability of the state forced people to voluntarily help each other. Society turned out to be greater than the state. 

The 2010 fires have ignited a flame that glows brighter and brighter in Russian sosciety by various big and small efforts. Many small and inconspicuous initiatives have been made previously. It may e.g. be policemen and security servants, who informally try to fight corruption and flaws within their own professions. It may be motorists, who inform each other about the corruption of traffic-police. Examples are growing in numbers, and so far it is more a matter about disclosing than fix the flaws and failures of society. What is decisive is that this type of citizen initiatives are not fundamentally political, or at least not perceived as such by participants and surroundings. You simply wants to solve the concrete problems that sorrounds you in everyday life. However, the effect is political in a way are difficult to master by state and authorities, because how does one accuse peole who merely want to improve their country. Many are patriots and honest people. Many also support Putin and his regime.

Here, the Internet has become both a tool to find likeminded people and to build platforms for information and action. It is this type of ideas and initiatives that the famous oppositional blogger Navalny has collected and built his fame on. Thereby, he has made the apolitical political, and turned apathy into sympathy for a spontaneous movement, first with the aim to achieve free and just elections, and then to depose of Putin. The same type of Internet platforms that previously were used to report fires are now used to coordinate voluntary election observation and to report irregularities and fraud at the ballots of Sunday's presidential elections. 

This is a development, which is hard to curb. To crack down on the opposition in the aftermath of elections is one thing. To crack down on those who only wants to do good is a completely different matter. As logics and mechanisms of citizen initiatives are the same, it is next to impossible for the regime to distinguish friend from foe. Already the protests planned for Monday may put the loyalty of police and security service to its test. Opposition demonstrations have gradually turned into festivals. To meet people with violence and brutality is something one for good reason hesitates to do, and it is probably seen as a last way out, both because of the message it would send and for fear of losing control over developments. Even if the opposition gathers masses in the tens or hundreds of thousands, demonstrations only affects relatively few. Many simply do not understand or care what it is all about.

Sunday's elections may not change Russia on the surface, but at its dephts it is a society that gradually is changing at its core. We are witnessing the growth of Russian civil society. Its significance should not be exaggerated, but neither should it be underestimated as both the plan and the rules of the game are changing. The discontent of a growing middle class must be taken seriously and the forms and contents of politics change when people organize. It does not suffice to throw bones around every now and then. Citizens want to sit at the tables of power in a way Russian politics do not understand. It is a question of power over everyday life, about close and concrete problems. Who is in the Kremlin is less important, but power must understand that the needs of the people must be reckoned with. The people deserves to be taken seriously and the needs of society cannot constantly come last in turn. 

Are we then witnessing the end of the Putin era? The truth is that there are no good answers. Still, the Kremlin's communicative disaster in relation to a discontent and protesting middle class cannot go on, as it is now increasingly assuming the forms of political schizophrenia. The middle class mania of power is a constant theme of societal discourse. Now, the middle class is regarded as preservers of society and a self-interested guarantee for continued stability. Now, it is seen as movers of society and a source of Russian reform policies. Now, it is portrayed as subverters of society and traitors, when it demonstratively makes reasonable and righteous demands on politics. At length, the effect is that power turns the middle class away from itself, adds to uncertainty and insecurity, and makes the unthinkable thinkable - a Russia without Putin. Because the more the Kremlin fear propaganda adds to the image that Putin is the only alternative to chaos, crisis, and war, the less serious and credible will he appear as a politician. Propaganda risks turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the personalization of Putin into an icon of a Russia in decay.

The rifts in Putin's coulisses grow and it becomes increasingly difficult just to patch up. Through the growing holes nothing and no-one is seen. The future scenery is dark and gloomy, against a towering warfare backdrop. Many also remember how Putin once sprung out of nothing onto the scene to play the lead role in more than a decade's Russian politics. A new cast for the play may by extension not be excluded, even if it is improbable that the curtain will drop for Putin. Still, it is a changed country that now emerges. We may not trust Russia, but does that mean that we do not trust the Russians when people now rely on their own abilities instead of state stagnation. When Russians are not given any choice, they make their own choices.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

State is Greatest Enemy to Russian Economy

For Veckans Affärer: In 2010, business paper Euromoney Magazine awarded Russia's Alexei Kudrin finance minister of the year in the world. Less than a year later, he was sacked by president Medvedev and joined a fragmented Russian opposition. This is just one example of how state and politics become Russian economy's greatest enemies. Growing political unrest in the runup to Sunday's presidential elections emanates from middle class discontent with failing governance, corruption, and political parasitism. "Stability, stagnation, and then what?" is what an increasing number of Russians ask themselves. Uncertainty about the future has suddenly increased the political risks with Russian economy.

Russian economy is in good shape. With a budget in balance, one of the lowest state debts among major countries, just over 4% growth and 5% inflation in 2011, the country's prospects seem bright. Threats are the usual: Falling oil prices and turbulence in the financial markets. Despite positive signs, we now see a lapse in recent years' dynamic developments. A temporary "wait and see" in the runup to Sunday's elections may lead to a more permanent economic slow-down because of political inability to cater for long-term economic needs.

January witnessed the greatest financial outflow from Russia since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Growth was at zero and inflation is expected to rise during 2012. Where political analysts are silent, the market speaks out clearly. Trust in state and politics plummets, as the failed December parliamentary elections have dislodged the power and interest balance within United Russia - the country's ruling politico-economic cartel.

Even if fears prove exaggerated, it will take much time before the system reaches equilibrium again. The effects of prominent politicians' resignations become increasingly clear. Above all, Kudrin's sound financial policy has been replaced by overbid policies and pork-barrelling. Increased state expenditures is like throwing money into a black hole, believing it is a wishing-well. The flow of money instead runs from the oil wells, where energy constitutes a third of state income. Outside the energy sector, only middle class consumption drives the economy.

Putinism's political strategy - to promote the middle class in exchange for power - has failed. Instead, they have to bear the burden of a bureaucracy, which has grown by 40% since 2000. State efficiency has constantly fallen since 2003, with a corruption that affects everyday life of an increasing number of Russians. Only during 2011, the level of bribes tripled, accordning to the Interior Ministry. Bureaucracy and corruption are poisoning the flexible and dynamic business climate, where everything was forbidden, but everything also possible. Opportunities have decreased and hopes for the future changed to skepticism and discontent. Recent popular protests have thus greater depth than ordinary political opposition, as the state obstructs basic preconditions to earn money and make a decent living.

Except for the country's dependence on oil prices, Russian society is confronting fundamental structural challenges, which demand an increase in economic diversity. Declining demography reduces the number of Russians of productive age. Mounting flaws in infrastructure, health, environment, and education threaten to shrink productivity. Politics has not only failed to address these flaws. It has also reduced the economic incentives of the middle classes to contribute to diversification. 

What worries most, is the increase in political polarization that Putin now propels. The protesting middle class, with reasonable demands on those in power, is portrayed as traitors. This is a dangerous message and illustrates a contempt for those, who until recently were seen as Russia's future. As derision turns into threats against protesters, Putin alienates and provokes the very groups that have greatest potential to contribute to the country's further development and shows that material more than human resources are seen as the source of Russian growth. The economy may be sound, but as long as political malaise is spreading in the social body, risks will grow for Russian economy as people now have had enough of Putin.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Saturday May Show the Way for Russia's Spring

For The political landscape is characterized by an uncertainty without comparison during the Putin era. How the Russian leaders will handle continued mass protests, they probably do not know themselves. We are heading towards an uncertain spring.   

It was said about Hilding Hagberg, the Swedish 1950s communist leader, that he used to unfold his umbrella when it was raining in Moscow. Kremlin interest in the powers of weather has seldom been as great as now, for the Saturday 4 February opposition protests. Weather might decide the size of demonstrations and thereby the power in demands for Putin's dismissal. On Christmas eve, 100,000 gathered for the largest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union - an unwelcome reminder for the country's leadership that power is not a given.

A prognosis for continued developments up until the 4 March presidential elections is something few want to make today. The political landscape is still characterized by an uncertainty without comparison during the Putin era. How the Russian leaders will handle continued mass protests, they probably do not know themselves. We are heading towards an uncertain spring.

The Russian "tandemocracy" - with Putin at the handlebar and Medvedev as navigator - is swaying precariously when the map does not match reality. The roadmap has been thwarted and where things are heading, nobody knows. No wonder the passengers protest.

Russia during Putin may be read as a success story for a country in chaos and disarray after the collapse of the Soviet empire. A political mess and economic crisis turned into stability and growth, with the emergence of a thriwing middle class - although under increasing authoritarian rule. However, the Russian power paradox remains: The more formal state power, the less ability to exercise it. With the exception of political stability and some recent improvements in the rule of law, state governance capabilities have deteriorated since 2004. In Russian everyday life, this means constant encounters with corruption and wrongs without limitations or end. With falling energy incomes, power may no longer compensatre for discontent, at the same time as an increasingly affluent people demands more from those in power. Stagnation is seen in a system and confidence crisis.

When Putin's presidential candidacy became clear last year, to many it was a sloping road without end. With twelve years in the rear mirror, six year terms and two terms, the perspective of Putin as president was 2024 - half a lifetime for many Russians. The temperature in public opinion - the state of the nation - fell under zero in late summer, with some mild weather during autumn, to turn to new winter cold  after the botched December parliamentary elections, with Putin's support for "the party of crooks and thieves" - United Russia. The voter barometets of the polling institutes are uncertain and at times inflated. Still, approval ratings for Putin have been halved over the last year from 60% to 27%. All the same, he would - lacking alternatives - get half the votes. 

It is thus the lack of alternatives that Putin now attacks. He puts stability, prosperity and national unity against the opposition's chaos, crisis, nationalism and disarray. Is that enough for a victory or must he rely on the system - aimed at fighting "coloured revolutions" - that he has built? The answer is uncertain. On the other hand, crisis is not Putin's greatest talent, with a record of bad judgement, bad information processing, hasty decisions, and sometimes ruthless brutality. Caution and apprehension thus signify regime reactions in the hope of improved sentiments. At the same time, the threat of confrontation is in the air. The question is if the system trusts itself anymore.

For many, an end of the Putin era would be dangerous and unrealistic wishful thinking. However, the power of wishful thinking should not be underestimated, when feelings replace the rationality Putin appeals to. The opposition is no realistic alternative, but the Putinist regime's lack of openness, new thinking, and perspective, carries as little allure. Eventually, one may simply rely on the gut-feeling, as Russians have always done - putting trust in yourself instead of those in power, who only offer more of the same.

Feelings are like weather. No one controls them, not even in a managed democracy. Dark clouds are piling up, but perhaps a ray of hope glimmers out of the dark skies of Russian democracy. Are we heading towards a Russian spring, or will there be a new front of Russian cold? The answer will be given after the 4 March presidential elections, but perhaps we will get an advance glimpse already on Saturday 4 February, as people gather in protest against corruption and misrule in Russian streets and squares. The Kremlin can no longer simply unfold its umbrella and pretend it is raining. Can we?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why Putin Receives Popular Support

For If not Putin - then who? The bitter truth is that twelve years with Putin have eradicated next to all viable alternatives in Russian politics.

"Resign Putin!" has been the primary popular demand of the protests that have shaken Russia ever since the country's farsical parliamentary elections at the beginning of December. An increasingly clear dividing line is now drawn between constructive and destructive interests in Russian politics, where the power's mudslinging of the opposition is a double-edged sword in the political battle that is now underway before open curtain in Moscow, but where the question also is whether the opposition can and wants to shoulder the responsibility that a revolution would involve. Here an open letter from Boris Berezovsky - an exiled oligarch - risks setting the tune to portray the opposition as irresponsible western lackeys with the single aim of causing chaos and set fire to Russia.

When one of Russia's most hated men, Boris Berezovsky, in an open letter to Putin appeals to him that he should resign, the question is whether the purpose is that he should meet popular demands or if the oligarch simply wants to throw a torch at the powder keg that Russian politics have evolved into over the last one and a half month.

Abandoned by both friends and enemies, Putin soon has only the Russian Orthodox left to turn to for protection, as Berezovsky portrays it, and the oligarch turns to the Russian leader in a prayer that he will save the country from a bloody revolution. The reply from the Moscow patriarchate was swift: "All the previous doings of this man prompts a single thought. Listen attentively to this gentleman and do exactly the opposite of what he proposes."

As is so often the case in Russian politics, it is at the same time a both skilled and primitive game that is played out and, of course, this may be viewed merely as yet another cynical ouverture from an exiled oligarch, who seizes every opportunity to sow conflict among the Russian elite from which he himself has become an outcast and now has no influence over.

Berezovsky's ouverture puts the finger on a crucial point in the pre-election debate: "If not Putin, then who?" The bitter truth is that 12 years with Putin have eradicated next to all alternatives in Russian politics. Both history and the present show that opposition leaders either are those who have not been able to get along with Putin or they are marginalised and compromised politicians from both left and right, who have long been thought obsolete.

On two points, Berezovsky is right. The first is that the party in power, United Russia, stands on the brink of disaster. Several of the party's most prominent representatives have been forced to resign and the internal conflicts of interest, that Putin for so long has either skilfully balanced or swept under the carpet, are now out into the open. The second is how the Orthodox church is a power that stands above politics. If the United Russia power coalition collapses under internal and external pressure, then it is possible that the church will stand out as the single unifying force, which may act with sufficient moral weight to avoid chaotic and potentially violent developments.

With the December protests, bottled up discontent has been unscrewed and the spirit has been let out. The current critical media coverage - even on television - would not have been possible or even conceivable a mere month ago. There is discussion about a second glasnost - openness. People in common welcome a lustration and weathering of the stale smell of power, which for so long has lain like a wet blanket of corruption over Russian everyday life. At the same time, Putin and his forces have begun to mobilize a counterattack. The further course of the battle and its final outcome remain uncertain.

When Berezovsky from his western exile pleads with Putin to save Russia by sacrificing himself, he does not only play with a Putinist system on an increasingly loose foundation, but he also plays into the hands of the Russian leader's attempts at blackening the opposition. The motive for an otherwise impotent Berezovsky wants to add to the confrontation of Russian society in order for it to collapse under its own weight.

That the fallen oligarch's, Berezovsky, letter to Putin has been published by the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, has opened the watergates for a crackdown on this leading alternative news outlet. Recently, Putin accused the radio station for "pouring diarrhoea on him all day long" and to b on a western leash. Also other opposition leaders have come in for their shares after a meeting with the new US ambassador to Russia. A picture of the well-known blogger and opposition activist with the (Jewish-born) Berezovsky was also recently published later to be found photoshopped with. The theme is familiar and alludes to the foundations of the Putinist system, namely that oligachs in association with western interests want to plunder and weaken Russia by usurping state power. From the oligarch rule of the Yeltsin era to the coloured revolutions of Eastern Europe, the western threat - often with an anti-semitic undertone - has been drummed into public consciousness in order to legitimize an increasingly corrupt regime. When the backwash of the Arab spring and popular protests in other parts of the world now rolls in over Russian shores, it is a short step to pull off some old tricks.

The system to exercise power that Putin constructed during his presidential reign departed from the role of the office as guarantor of the constitutional order in a very thwarted interpretation. To safeguard the internal and external sovereignty, the constitution was interpreted in a way that gave the president a constant and pragmatic right to declare a state of emergency in both small and big matters. This interpretation was accompanied by systematic legislative work, where basic civic rights and freedoms were limited to the point that they were under constant threat of being repealed in practical legal application. The motive was to prevent illegitimate interests from usurping state power, because without sovereignty - the capacity to self-rule - there could be no talk of civic rights and freedoms. This meant centralization of power and intolerance towards dissent. The result is evident today in a system with both the right and resources to repression, ready to nip any negative manifestation of views in the bud.

What recent events have illustrated is a disorientation and a faltering will to exercise this power. When police and security services stand idle in front of mass protests the fears and apprehensions of repression and retaliation have faltered. It is an inner struggle of popular conscience, filled with undecisiveness to stability or change, where questions of courage, morale, and conviction are put to the test not only among those in power or in opposition, but also to a greater extent among ordinary people. It is simply difficult to picture a future without Putin - to thread into the unknown. One knows what one does not want, but not what one wants. This uncertainty is now used by Putin by urging, in his recently published electoral platform, for reform instead of a repetition of the mistakes committed in the wake of the country's previous revolutionary convulsions. How successful this tested formula will be this time is yet to be determined, as an increasing number of people associate continued stability with increasing stagnation.

Putin's credibility as a reformer is limited, as twelve years in power have shown little result despite recurrent plans and persistent attempts at reform. The division of powers between an executive Prime Minister and a reformatory President, which would have driven change, has moreover led to an increasingly marginalised Medvedev, despite the latter's attempts at forming a higher profile and greater independence during the last four years' "tandemocracy".

With the December events, Putin's popularity figures have reached a low. From a persistent support of some 70% of Russians, figures now oscillate around 50%. Additionally, in the latest opinion poll - from a state-directed institute - a quarter of respondents state that they have lost confidence in him. Much thus indicates that the results of the 4 March presidential vote will determine whether Russians will consider the elections as legitimate or not. If Putin receives more than 50% of votes and the election is decided by a single ballot, people are likely to question its validity. Being forced to a second round might however also be construed as a sign of weakness, which could strengthen the opposition in the runup to the final ballot. The temptation to tamper with the vote to gain a appropriate result may therefore increase in the eyes of power.

Putin's leadership will be put to a hard test in the coming months. Previous experiences have shown that he has difficulties in coping with crisis situations, which either have caused passivity or rash decisions. There is good ground to assume that Putin under such circumstances has trouble to reconsider and act in changing and unclear situations. The Russian leadership currently appears fumbling to grasp various ways of handling popular protests, with both concession and confrontation. The overarching tendency though seems to be to tighten the screws on the opposition. Several representatives of the opposition and their relatives have become subject to direct or indirect threats and reprisals. The great protest manifestation planned for February 4 has also been banned by Moscow authorities.

As Russia now is likely to meet with continued popular protest, it constitutes a balance act for Putin and his power apparatus. If he chooses to be too tough in quelling the opposition, the popular reaction may lead to greater protest to the extent that it threatens the regime. The risk is then that loyalty to power will collapse like a house of cards. At the same time, it is hard for Putin to allow continued public critique of how Russia is ruled, as it may lead to the same result in an avalanche of discontent over social evils disclosed. The question is if he will be capable of balancing between confrontation and tolerance.

That most people seem to take it for granted that Russia's next president will be called Vladimir Putin is also rather a curse than a blessing, as it creates unclarities as to which voter groups will be activated or become passive - regime supporters or opponents. The question here is if the mere threat of instability may drive the people to the ballots in support of the prevailing order. Will Putin be able to portray his policies as constructive and that of the opposition as destructive, there is still a chance that he may conquer a positive agenda in relation to the electorate. Here, it appears that the letter of the widely hated Berezovsky comes as a godsend, but at the same time sows a seed for a dirty election campaign, which may eventually be a curse to Putin.

What the outcome will be may be indicated at the 4 February opposition protests - already the next weekend.The final say will however be made only by the 4 March presidential elections. The question then is if fears for a white revolution and instability or the wish for free and fair elections will emerge victorious. Because, regardless of how one judges the Russian regime's ability to weather the storm, the recent protests mean that Russia stands at a crossroads between repression, revolution, or reforms.