Russia is getting weirder and scarier by the day.
Governance in that country, of course, is so opaque that the discipline of Kremlinology had to be created to study it. Teams of Russia watchers have for decades pored over official newspapers, journals and government documents to pick up a hint here or there about what to expect next from the Kremlin.
But a recent string of bizarre events in Russia has left experts scratching their heads about what is now going on behind the Kremlin’s red walls.
For one, there was the odd disappearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin for 11 days in March. It appears Putin’s absence had been planned ahead of time, as photos of some of his earlier meetings were presented as having taken place during his absence. State TV channel Rossiya 24 aired a report, in the past tense, about a meeting between Putin and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev that hadn’t even taken place yet. The station retracted its report as “a mistake” when the discrepancy was noticed, and Putin duly showed up for the meeting, looking strangely ill-at-ease but definitely alive. No official explanation for his absence was ever given.
More recently, the world has been subjected to farcical images of three frozen geese being “arrested” by officials in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, who then ordered that the birds be run over by a bulldozer. The birds’ crime? They were improperly packaged and illegally imported from Hungary, one of the countries that has sanctioned Russia for its invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March last year. Putin has signed a decree ordering the “extermination” of food imports from countries that indulged in “anti-Russian” sanctions over the Crimea issue. Officials eager to please their Kremlin master then launched a “War on Food” in Russia - a country sadly familiar with famine - that has seen tons of cheese bulldozed, bacon incinerated and assorted vegetables buried.
According to Ivan Krastev, writing on Aug. 13 in the Financial Review, the odd events are a symptom of Putin’s withdrawal from day-to-day decision-making. With Putin “absent,” the rest of the Russian elite, traumatized by memories of the collapse of the Soviet Union and wracked with anxiety over the turmoil that might follow once Putin goes, are in crisis mode, improvising policy as each new setback occurs, and positioning themselves against rivals in a coming war of succession, Krastev writes.
Add to that the stoking of Russia’s paranoid nationalism in the wake of the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, combined with Russia’s increasingly brazen disregard for international law, and the world can only expect more bizarre behavior from Russia’s ruling elite. It could hit fever pitch again ahead of the Dutch Safety Board’s release of its report on the crash of MH17 in October.
Meanwhile, Kremlinologists risk scratching their heads bald before the uncertainty and crisis management end and Russia settles back into its predictably enigmatic state.