November 27, 2007

BARREL ROLL:

Russia's New Old Dissidents (Anne Applebaum, November 27, 2007, Washington Post)

Kasparov himself, still better known for his titanic battles against the world's smartest chess computer than for his political acumen, is sui generis. His allies in the Other Russia movement are an odd mix. Among them are formerly mainstream economic liberals, including Boris Nemtsov, once deputy prime minister; the would-be fascists of the National Bolshevik Party, led by Eduard Limonov, an ex-dissident, ex-punk, ex-writer; and the remnants of the human rights movement, most notably the Moscow Helsinki Group. Just as the old dissident movement was united only by its hatred of Soviet communism, Other Russia is an umbrella organization, united only by its hatred of Putinism, an ideology that has solidified in recent months into something resembling an old-fashioned personality cult.

Odder still is that we hear anything about them at all. Until recently, this ragtag group of elderly ex-dissidents and 20-somethings surely would have been tolerated by the authorities, whose attitude toward political opposition used to be a good deal subtler. During most of his presidency, Putin's "managed democracy" permitted many forms of political dissent, so long as they remained extremely small. Although most television stations are controlled one way or another by the Kremlin, a few low-circulation newspapers were allowed to keep up some criticism. Although anyone with real potential to oppose Putin was dissuaded or destroyed, a few unpopular critics, Kasparov among them, were allowed to keep talking. A bit of pressure was released, and the regime was never really challenged.

In the past year things have changed. The still-unsolved murder of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya was followed by regular physical and verbal attacks on the president's opponents. Typical of the latter was Pravda.ru, which last spring called the anti-Putin opposition a "motley army of deviants, criminals, wannabe politicians, fraudsters and gangsters on the fringes of Russian society." Putin himself calls them scavenging " jackals" who live on foreign handouts.

But if they really are deviants and jackals, why arrest them? If Putin really is wildly popular, why bother calling them names at all? Kasparov answers this question -- one of many political mysteries in Russia at the moment -- by arguing that Putin is far less secure than he appears to be.


Actually, the tragedy here is that Putin is far more secure than his authoritarian actions make him appear, even if it has little to do with him, In a Russian City, Clues to Putin's Abiding Appeal (Peter Finn, 11/23/07, Washington Post)
For the first time in post-Soviet history, a majority of Russians feel optimistic about their own and their country's future, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling agency. The sense of personal and national resurgence, clearly visible in long-depressed Nizhny Novgorod, with its now-plentiful factory jobs, foreign stores and construction cranes, is a key factor in the consistently high approval ratings enjoyed by President Vladimir Putin. [...]

[W]hile Putin -- who has never debated a rival during two presidential election cycles -- benefits from the country's closed political process and fawning institutions, his ratings cannot be dismissed as simply the fruit of propaganda, according to Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center.

"He combines the renewed hopes of the people and the restoration of authority," Gudkov said. "He spoke the language that many people could understand."

Putin's predecessor of the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin, had to contend with low oil prices, bankrupt state finances and an economic restructuring, including the world's largest sell-off of government property, that bred widespread resentment. Millions of Russians fell into poverty as well-connected tycoons became fabulously rich. An enfeebled Kremlin was seen by many Russians as the handmaiden of a triumphant West.

Now Putin is trading on an enduring nostalgia for the Soviet past, when Russia stood tall in the world. As the country grew to become the world's second-largest exporter of oil, he adopted a prickly and increasingly assertive foreign policy that is widely cheered by Russians.

At home, Putin has used careful stage management to position himself as a figure above politics -- the people's czar who reins in ministers, bureaucrats, tycoons and even the politicians of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party that he will head in next month's parliamentary elections.

"As a rule, all sorts of carpetbaggers try to leech onto" United Russia, he said this week, both echoing and playing down a popular suspicion that the party he has chosen to lead is a coalition of opportunists. "Their goal is not the good of the people, but their own enrichment. They compromise a party."

Putin has been extraordinarily lucky with timing, his tenure coinciding with the rising oil prices that have driven economic growth.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2007 8:34 AM
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