Putin’s il­lu­sion of re­form

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Last Novem­ber, when the per­for­mance artist Py­otr Pavlen­sky set fire to the cen­tral door of Moscow’s Lubyanka – the head­quar­ters of the Rus­sian Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Ser­vice (FSB) and for­merly of the Soviet Union’s se­cu­rity ser­vice, the KGB – the state ac­cused him of de­stroy­ing its “cul­tural her­itage.” Ap­par­ently, the bru­tal in­ter­ro­ga­tion of world-renowned artists, from the poet Osip Man­del­stam to the theatre di­rec­tor Vsevolod Mey­er­hold, amounts to a pat­ri­mony wor­thy of the state’s strong­est pro­tec­tion.

Of course, the re­al­ity is that the Lubyanka has been an in­stru­ment of the de­struc­tion of Rus­sia’s cul­tural her­itage. But, un­der Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin – him­self an alum­nus of the KGB – Rus­sia’s govern­ment is not in­ter­ested in re­al­ity. It prefers Or­wellian dou­ble­s­peak, which, at­test­ing to the regime’s pro­pa­ganda skills, is more per­verse even than that prac­ticed in Soviet times – and pro­duces a ter­ri­fy­ing dou­ble­think among Rus­sia’s cit­i­zens.

Un­der Joseph Stalin, gen­uine achieve­ments – in­clud­ing in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and vic­tory in World War II – were played up in the ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle against cap­i­tal­ism, even as Man­del­stam, Mey­er­hold, and mil­lions of oth­ers per­ished at the hands of the se­cret po­lice. But Putin lacks any such vic­to­ries. The hol­low vic­tory that was the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, while pop­u­lar, pales in com­par­i­son to his pre­de­ces­sors’ great­est feats, so he has been forced to move be­yond dis­trac­tion to bla­tant dis­tor­tion, claim­ing that the West is de­lib­er­ately i mped­ing Rus­sia’s suc­cess.

Putin’s suc­cess in con­vinc­ing the Rus­sian pub­lic of ev­ery­thing from his own ap­ti­tude for ice hockey to the ex­is­tence of an­tiRus­sian West­ern plots re­flects his real tal­ent: like any good KGB op­er­a­tive, he is a mas­ter of façades. Most ob­vi­ous, be­cause the Krem­lin con­trols all ma­jor news sources, Rus­sians hear the ver­sion of events – whether the rev­o­lu­tion in Ukraine, op­po­si­tion protests in Moscow, or the mil­i­tary cam­paign in Syria – that Putin wants them to hear. Even moves that seem to run counter to Putin’s ob­jec­tives – namely, leav­ing the In­ter­net es­sen­tially free – are spun to his ad­van­tage. Us­ing his char­ac­ter­is­tic dou­ble­s­peak, Putin has man­aged largely to off­set the crit­i­cism and de­bate that Rus­sians find on­line by cit­ing it as ev­i­dence that he is a reformer.

Putin’s most re­cent move to re­in­force his pro-re­form façade has been to bring back to the Krem­lin Alexei Ku­drin, a former fi­nance min­is­ter known for his lib­eral views, sup­port for mod­erni­sa­tion, and oc­ca­sional crit­i­cism of the pres­i­dent. Plac­ing Ku­drin in charge of Rus­sia’s Cen­tre for Strate­gic Re­search ad­vances Putin’s claim that he is pre­pared to lead the eco­nomic mod­erni­sa­tion ef­fort that Rus­sia so badly needs. Of course, it is Putin’s govern­ment that, with the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex, suf­fo­cat­ing Rus­sia’s econ­omy.

Given such a glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion, one might won­der why Putin’s façade of en­light­ened and ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship doesn’t crum­ble. The ex­pla­na­tion can be found in a bill­board on the Rublevsky high­way lead­ing to Putin’s coun­try res­i­dence, which reads, “Rus­sia is a force for peace, the last hope of God on Earth.” Paid for by a pri­vate firm to please the Krem­lin, the bill­board high­lights Putin’s al­liance with the ultra-con­ser­va­tive Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church, en­abling him to fuse re­li­gious faith, pa­tri­o­tism, and blind trust in the state. This, to­gether with pri­vate com­pa­nies’ ea­ger­ness to curry favour, forms the foun­da­tion of Putin’s lead­er­ship.

Putin is now try­ing to use the same tac­tics with the rest of the world. Ku­drin’s re­turn has more to do with con­vinc­ing the West to lift the sanc­tions im­posed on Rus­sia fol­low­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea than with shoring up sup­port among the Rus­sian pub­lic, the vast ma­jor­ity of which con­tin­ues to ap­prove of Putin’s govern­ment.

West­ern lead­ers – start­ing with those in Europe who are al­ready be­gin­ning to soften on sanc­tions – must recog­nise that Ku­drin’s help

has of the

been re­turn is in­tended only to pre­serve the Krem­lin sta­tus quo. Ku­drin is a prop, whose role is to re­in­force Putin’s i mage as a “strong­man-reformer.” He is the “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop,” aimed at per­suad­ing the West that Rus­sia can be trusted, even as it de­mands re­spect. The West must not al­low it­self to fall for this tired rou­tine.

Within Rus­sia, breaking down Putin’s façade will be more dif­fi­cult. To be sure, the re­al­ity of life there to­day is stark. Be­yond the tank­ing econ­omy, Putin’s crit­ics have been sub­ject to ar­rest, im­pris­on­ment, and, in the cases of the jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya and the politi­cian Boris Nemtsov, mur­der. Then there are the in­creas­ingly fre­quent at­tacks on or­di­nary cit­i­zens – home breakins, prop­erty dam­age, and even pri­son terms – for pub­lish­ing anti-Putin, anti-Krem­lin, or anti-church car­i­ca­tures and blogs.

But, in a truly mas­ter­ful KGB-style move, Putin out­sources both the re­pres­sion and the lib­er­al­ism, thereby re­main­ing above the fray. The former is han­dled by the Rus­sian equivalent of Chair­man Mao’s Hong Weib­ings, the ide­o­log­i­cal vol­un­teers who, in the 1960s, car­ried out sanc­tioned at­tacks on free­think­ing teach­ers, sci­en­tists, artists, and stu­dents. The lat­ter is where the likes of Ku­drin come in. In the end, noth­ing changes; as the 2018 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion ap­proaches, Putin’s façade as the strong­man-reformer that Rus­sia needs re­mains in­tact.

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