October 4, 2015


In Putin's Syria Intervention, Fear of a Weak Government Hand (STEVEN LEE MYERS, OCT. 4, 2015, NY Times)

The specter of mass protest -- of mob rule -- is one that has haunted Mr. Putin throughout his political life, and that fear lies at the heart of his belief in the primacy of state authority above all else, both at home and abroad.

The East Germans considered their protests an expression of popular will, just as many Syrians did when protests against Mr. Assad's government began in 2011. But Mr. Putin viewed them as an unlawful usurpation of government authority. And that, in his mind, leads inexorably not to positive political change, but rather to chaos.

"Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change," Mr. Putin said at the United Nations on Monday, where he spoke for the first time in a decade. "But what was the actual outcome?"

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos that followed darkened Mr. Putin's opinion of freewheeling democracy -- and of the character of his own constituents. He was deeply ambivalent about the protests that hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and as an obscure mayoral aide in St. Petersburg, cheered Boris N. Yeltsin's forceful response to the political uprising in the constitutional crisis of 1993, which culminated in the shelling of the Parliament.

In 1998, as the head of Mr. Yeltsin's security council, Mr. Putin had to mediate an electoral dispute in the southern region of Karachayevo-Cherkessia to prevent violence erupting between rival ethnic groups.

The lesson he said he learned was that only the strong hand of the state could avoid the economic and political chaos that consumed Russia in the 1990s. That belief is widely shared in Russia, and is one reason for Mr. Putin's genuine popularity at home.

"The Russian people are backward," he told a group of foreign academics in 2005, according to Marie Mendras's account in "Russian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State." "They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time."

This distrust of popular will has been the justification for laws that have throttled dissent at home. With each election, the Kremlin has tightened the rules governing political parties and public gatherings. When tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest fraud in the parliamentary election in 2011 and Mr. Putin's own re-election in 2012, the Kremlin responded forcefully to stanch the contagion.

The police arrested and convicted dozens of protesters over the next two years, while the authorities harassed the most prominent leaders of the opposition, like the anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.

And in February, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was assassinated outside the Kremlin.

What is striking, though perhaps consistent, is how Mr. Putin's view of public protest has become the basis for an increasingly assertive foreign policy, one aimed at countering what he views as efforts by the United States and others to violate the sovereignty of nations by encouraging political change.

Meanwhile, the entire point of the WoT is to destabilize those regimes where the "mob" does not get to rule, which is why the American alliance with the Kurds and Shi'a was natural.  Putin's support for dictatorship is likewise natural, just futile in the long run. Happily, it's also self-destructive.

Posted by at October 4, 2015 8:53 AM

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