A unit claiming to be Cossack and other citizen pro-Russian volunteers arrive to take up position outside a Ukrainian miltary base in the Crimea. Photo: Getty
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Why Vladimir Putin needs a poor, aggressive Russia

If you can’t improve people’s living standards, you can try to give them a sense of belonging to a great power.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

During his entire time as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has been trying to solve an unsolvable problem: how to consolidate his personal power, having eliminated all institutions that limit it, while at the same time achieving economic growth?

During the first stage of his presidency – between 2000 and 2007 – he was aided by skyrocketing natural resource prices. Putin concentrated control of all the largest companies in the hands of his clan, increased the state’s role in the economy, slashed political and economic freedoms and strengthened his personal power. The huge incoming flow of oil and gas money helped to raise people’s incomes in spite of everything he did. And, in the minds of many, it formed a false association between authoritarianism and rising living standards.

In 2008, with the onset of the global economic crisis, economic growth stopped. It became clear that in order to jump-start it, the country needed to liberalise. Many believe that Medvedev’s “modernisation” was an attempt to find an alternative to Putin’s vision of Russia’s development. They are mistaken. Medvedev’s modernisation was a false modernisation, like a false grill on a car. It was Putin’s attempt to substitute liberal rhetoric for real liberalisation, while not giving up an ounce of real power to anyone: not to the parliament, not to the courts, not to local governments, and not even to Medvedev himself.

It took Putin three years to understand that a dummy engine can’t make a car go. At the same time it became clear that the goal of doubling the GDP by 2010, which he had set at the beginning of his term, had not been fulfilled, despite an almost tenfold increase in the price of oil. Living standards began to fall, and if earlier Russia’s citizens had been prepared to trade their freedoms for improvements to their quality of life, in 2011, when it became clear that further improvement was a long ways off, some citizens demanded their freedoms back. That’s how the protests of 2011-2012 began, culminating in large clashes with police in the center of Moscow a day before Putin’s inauguration in May 2012.

It was precisely at this moment that Putin sharply altered his strategy of ruling the country and began to rapidly diverge from the model of a Russian Pinochet – an authoritarian leader in a country with a relatively free economy – towards a classical dictatorship, in which people receive orders about what to think, whom to sleep with, and whom to consider an enemy. Unfortunately, personal power in any country requires several elements in order to maintain itself: external and internal enemies, large celebrations demonstrating the unity of the nation, and short, victory-bringing wars.

If you can’t improve people’s living standards, you can try to give them a sense of belonging to a great power. Particularly in Russia, where many people pine for the Soviet era, when poverty and a lack of the most basic freedoms, such as the ability to leave the country, were compensated by the pride of belonging to a superpower that can build atomic submarines, launch spaceships, and win at sports.

There’s nothing better than the model of holding large events for a regime defined by personal power. First of all, the preparation of such events can be done personally, under emergency conditions: so much the better for securing one’s authority. Second, your closest friends can reap big profits from the bloated budgets of such events. For example, Putin’s childhood friend and judo sparring partner Arkady Rotenberg won about $7.5bn worth of contracts just from the preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi – an amount comparable to the total cost of the Vancouver Games.

After the Olympics, the next “event” is the Crimea, as cynical as that may sound. For foreign observers this was a surprise, but not for Russians. In the pro-government media (and in Russia, outlets expressing alternative points of view have been almost entirely eliminated) the rhetoric of living in a besieged fortress has reigned for a long time now. Moreover, the arch enemies the state points to are not countries with which Russia has actual territorial disputes, such as China or Japan, but the European Union countries and the United States. That is, countries that are culturally close to Russia, but with a much higher quality of life. Countries which made Russians realise – once they had seen them with their own eyes – that life in their own country could be very different: that a law-abiding citizen could live without fear of the police, or that the authorities could be accountable to their fellow citizens.

Over the past two months, with the intensification of the opposition movement in Ukraine, the search for internal enemies also became a feature of the Russian media – a sad and frightening throwback to the Stalin era. People who disagreed with the authorities became a “fifth column,” and one began to hear justifications of the repressions of Stalin, who of course “killed a lot of people” but among whose victims were “real enemies of the Soviet government and accomplices of fascism.” The fact that, having signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, Stalin had himself become an “accomplice of fascism” is delicately omitted in these films and TV shows.

The deployment of troops to the Crimea was not only an opportunity to raise Putin’s own popularity by pandering to national and imperialist sentiment but also an excellent way to crack down on internal enemies. In the midst of these events, Alexei Navalny, who had won second place in the Moscow mayoral elections just this fall, was placed under house arrest. He received about 30 per cent of the vote and almost forced a run-off election. Navalny had become popular by publicising his anti-corruption investigations in his blog. About a million people read him on some form of social media. Not surprisingly, one of the conditions of his house arrest is a ban on internet use.

The west has already begun to threaten Russia with political and economic isolation, but this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of Putin’s power. For example, Western analysts say that “Russia will not invade Crimea because Russia’s economy is in bad shape and this would only weaken it further.” They are mistaken. Putin no longer needs economic growth. He has grasped the contradiction between economic growth and the consolidation of his own power, and he has made his choice. He understands very well that in 2011-2012 it was the most economically active and wealthy segments of the population that protested against him. He understands that millions of entrepreneurs and workers of the knowledge economy had already emigrated to the US and European Union during his reign. And he understands that a solution that simultaneously halts economic growth and strengthens the patriotism of the poorest segments of the population is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

“Russia will not invade Crimea because there are insufficient medical units within the army groups which conduct exercises on the border with Ukraine,” write western analysts. Once again, this is western logic, through which it is very difficult to understand that, in order to secure personal power, gain territory and confirm superpower status, the lives of simple soldiers who will die from insufficient medical care can easily be sacrificed.

The same goes for isolation. Isolation is beneficial to Putin. He would gladly introduce exit visas, like the USSR had, in order to prevent the most active citizens from travelling to Europe and the US to see what life is like there. The EU and the US banning Russians from having foreign bank accounts and owning real estate spares him having to adopt unpopular laws to “de-offshore-ise” the elite. What could be better for uniting the offended and the humbled around the leader? Economic sanctions? An excellent way to demonstrate to Russia’s population that the US and EU are enemies who sincerely wish them ill.

Why am I, personally, against the war? Almost every day I see how regular citizens of my country suffer from a lack of rights and from fear of the government and its representatives. Despite a lengthy period of economic growth, Russia’s citizens are still, on the whole, very poor. A decade of boisterous growth has led to fantastic inequality and stratification because for Putin it is easier to manage 200 billionaires who control the entire economy. Which, in turn, creates a lack of opportunities. I understood a long time ago that democracy, freedom of speech, local government, and improving the citizens’ quality of life are in direct conflict with Putin’s desire to endlessly consolidate his own power.

PS None of this changes the fact that in the Crimea and in Ukraine’s south-east, there are real problems concerning the Russian language and people’s self-determination. And the citizens of these regions also have the right to self-determination through a referendum. But it must be held not under the watch of Russian soldiers, or Ukrainian soldiers sent from the new government in Kiev, but in the presence of a large number of international observers and journalists – first and foremost, from Russia. Moreover, the issues of administrative affiliation and language should be solved separately. It is possible, for example, that the citizens of the Donetsk oblast want to remain part of Ukraine while speaking, being educated, and doing business in Russian. And any Ukrainian government should give them this opportunity.

KermlinRussia is a satirical twitter duo that also writes influential columns on politics and the economy in outlets like Russian Forbes. You can read more about them here. Follow them @KermlinRussia

Translated by Ilya Lozovsky

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

 

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.