There is no August lull in Russian politics this year, and the atmosphere in the country is thickening as President Vladimir Putin resorts to tougher and dirtier methods of upholding his eroding authority. Persecution and police pressure on prominent “rebels” – from the fierce blogger, Aleksei Navalny, to media celebrity Ksenia Sobchak – are intended to put fear back into the audacious “white opposition.” But it is the trial of the three young women from the Pussy Riot punk band that has acquired most massive resonance (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 9). The punishment of Maria Alyokhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – who used their final statements to condemn the intolerance and obscurantism of the ruling regime – instead of demonstrating the power of the “holy alliance” between the Kremlin and the Orthodox church, produced a wave of negative publicity, to which Björk and Madonna added their voices (Moskovskie Novosti, August 10). Many stake-holders in Putinism are deeply uncomfortable with this “tightening of screws” and suspect that their leader is gaining a pariah status similar to that of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is outraged with Swedish activists for parachuting a troop of teddy bears over Minsk (Gazeta.ru, August 10).
Disappointment in Putin does not translate into a better liking of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who has too easily abandoned his “modernization” agenda and very often serves as his senior partner’s means of asserting Putin’s supremacy. The improbable vehicle of the current intrigue is a quasi-documentary on the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008, in which retired generals claim that it was only Putin’s “kick in the bottom” that prompted cowardly Medvedev to give the order to repel Georgia’s “aggression” (see EDM, August 9). This “black propaganda” trick sheds little new light on the war-making and omits any mention of the profound disorganization of the Russian General Staff and Army Command caused by severe cadre purges in summer 2008. But it grants Putin all the credit for preparing and orchestrating the only “victory” that Russia has scored for many years (Gazeta.ru, August 8). Indeed, only 28 percent of Russians still believe that the recognition of the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was the right thing to do for Russia, compared with 40 percent in September 2008 (Levada.ru, August 8).
Medvedev tried to defend his performance as the Commander-in-Chief, but Putin dismissed these feeble efforts and confirmed his own unconstitutional primacy in the chain of command (Vedomosti, August 10). He actually went into details that should have remained in the “no comment” category, like the fact that Russia augmented its peacekeeping role by training the South Ossetian militia. Yet, his key message was that he had never shared power with Medvedev (Moscow Echo, August 10). There is certainly more than just vanity in this self-promotion, and Putin apparently seeks to preempt the appearance of a group of “modernizers” in the government who are encouraged, rather than led, by Medvedev. One particular point of contention has been the proposal, advanced by the Finance Ministry, to trim the mammoth rearmament program. This has raised the alarm in the bastions of the military-industrial complex and could have mobilized the opinions of any number of disgruntled generals (Kommersant, August 6).
Putin positions himself as the supreme defender of the corporate interests of state bureaucracies and monopolies, but he is unable to check the rampant waste and misappropriation of resources in this sprawling super-structure. It was a letter from the aging rocker Andrei Makarevich that brought corruption into focus last week with the plainly obvious point that the economy in which kick-backs have reached 70 percent cannot function (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 7). Putin found it appropriate to respond by putting the blame on dishonest entrepreneurs and emphasizing the importance of changing the attitude in the society to this well-known problem. A swirl of media debates ensued, and the bottom line was that Makarevich was naïve to appeal to the Kremlin, believing that Putin would take action because he “was not entirely spiteful at the country that has elected [him] president.” Instead, Putin implicitly asserted that he was (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 9).
Fresh evidence of a derailment of Putin’s petro-rent-extraction economic model has been the disintegration of the long-stalled Shtokman project (Kommersant, August 8; see EDM, August 10). Norwegian energy company Statoil had explored every option before being forced to write off its investments in its joint venture with Gazprom as losses. But it was Putin’s personal involvement that condemned the Shtokman project to failure. Had Gazprom organized a joint venture in 2005, the first gas would have already been in the pipeline. But Putin interfered and declared that Russia would develop the giant gas-field on its own. When the impracticality of this ambition was impressed upon him, he sought to reduce the role of foreign partners to providing technology and services, which was barely acceptable in 2007, and has become an increasingly unappealing prospect against the background of the “shale gas revolution” in the United States, along with depression in the European gas market. The Russian gas industry is in serious trouble caused by the steady climb of Gazprom’s operational costs, but Putin persists with his “manual management” of every price bargain and pipeline (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 3).
Putin increasingly suspects that something is wrong outside of his comfortable “cocoon” of presidential dachas and servile courtiers, but he does not really want to know what. He communicates with the troublesome outside world through signals affirming his centrality, vitality and brutality but blocks out all the unpleasant feedback. He used to fancy himself as a true Europeanist, presiding over a backward country. However, now he finds Asiatic paternalism as answering better to his self-perception and frowns at the habits of his minions to visit their real estate in London or Côte d’Azur. Everybody – even timid Medvedev – is under suspicion of harboring treacherous intentions, and the opinions of European peers now matter little if at all for Putin’s urge to restore discipline by doling out punishment against the recreant opposition. It is indeed the disorganized but vibrant “white camp” that stays on message. The opposition asserts that Russia is a European state and finds the resolve to counter every abuse of force and travesty of injustice with creative ridiculing. Putin appears to control every political resource but cannot change the course that is delivering his regime to the famous ash heap of history.