Political Autumn in Russia Blows Hot and Cold

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 160

Vladimir Putin at the Borodino Battlefield, September 2 (Source: ITAR-TASS)

The end of summer has instantly switched Russian politics to full gear as events and challenges are crowding the agenda and confusing the trajectory of the oscillating but not dissipating crisis. The Borodino battlefield outside Moscow saw over the weekend celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the victory over Napoleon, and President Vladimir Putin was there perhaps reflecting on his own electoral “battle for Moscow,” which he also did not exactly win (Kommersant, September 3). More current political engagements have been unfolding since Monday in Vladivostok, where Putin is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. US President Barack Obama will not attend this mostly ceremonial gathering, but for Russia the event provides a rare opportunity to gain a bit of prestige in the hyper-dynamic region where its position is far from solid (Gazeta.ru, September 3).

Moscow has invested more money in the preparations for this summit than London did on the Olympic games, and not all of these “Potemkin venue” construction funds were wasted or stolen (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 3). Vladivostok is indeed starving for investments in city infrastructure, and even if many planned projects, including a gas pipeline and a sewage treatment plant, are only half-ready, the benefits from staging the “photo-op” are significant. Far more difficult is the issue of advancing Russia’s interests in the highly competitive neighborhood of East Asia where historical animosities translate into territorial disputes over tiny islands. Russian leadership rejected the role of being a “raw material appendage” to other countries as incompatible with Moscow’s “great power” ambitions, but it is discovering that this role is now claimed by states like Australia, leaving Russia out in the cold of disengagement (Kommersant-Vlast, September 3). The expensive fireworks and “pokazuha” (shallow show-off) of the summit will neither help Russia to get real about its punching weight in the Asia-Pacific nor get the heavy-weights interested in turning Vladivostok into Singapore.

The inhospitable Siberian investment climate in the Russian Far East is determined not by local gangsters (who have taken such a cut from the summit budget that a curfew is benevolently observed) but by rigid state control in the absence of a responsible economic policy. Upbeat official assessments of the macro-economic trends depart from business expectations of contraction caused by disinvestment, while expert groups working for the government compete in predicting the depth of recession (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 29). Putin is curtailing the feeble efforts of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to preserve some guidelines of the “modernization” strategy, while the presidential distaste to private enterprise and independent innovations amounts to a counter-modernization course (Novaya Gazeta, September 2). It was emphatically reaffirmed at the Russian Security Council meeting on strengthening the defense-industrial complex, which was praised by Putin as a “locomotive” for the too vulnerable petro-economy (Gazeta.ru, August 31). Taking a leaf from Stalin’s book, Putin argued for a breakthrough comparable with the industrialization of the 1930s, failing to mention the social costs of that recasting of the traumatized agrarian country into a military machine (Kommersant, September 1).

Many among the stake holders in real modernization are not amused by this reference, and the ranks of the “white opposition” are reforming for a new offensive, which is supported by 33 percent of Russians (down from 43 percent in January; Levada.ru, August 28). The Kremlin has invested a lot of effort in discrediting the protesters and intimidating their leaders, so the rallies scheduled for September 15 in Moscow and St. Petersburg are shaping up to be an important test for the endurance of street power. Another opportunity for the opposition to prove its political maturity comes in mid-October with a series of local and regional elections. The point of maximum impact will be Khimki outside Moscow, where Yevgenia Chirikova stands as an inspirational candidate for mayor (Gazeta.ru, Kommersant, September 3). What plays into the hands of the opposition is the growing discontent with falling incomes and rising communal tariffs that derail Putin’s attempts to mobilize support among the “have-nots” against the seditious urban middle classes.

Fearing a hot political autumn in Moscow, the Kremlin pays scant attention to the ever-smoldering civil war in the North Caucasus, expecting that the “Caucasus-2012” military exercises will suffice to deter an escalation. What has aggravated the “usual” violent clashes to the brink of a full-blown disaster was the assassination by a suicide bomber of Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, an influential spiritual leader of moderate Muslims in Dagestan (New Times, September 3). The steady growth of Salafi networks and reproduction of Islamic extremist groups is driven by the rotten corruption of ruling clans that have privatized the distribution of federal grants and subsidies. But the presidential envoy to the South Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, cannot invent any alternative to this policy of buying loyalty and appears to be a helpless observer (Novaya Gazeta, August 29). He can hardly explain to Putin that the exploitation of Christian Orthodox themes for “patriotic” mobilization against the liberal opposition, as exemplified by the persecution of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot, is also alienating Russian Muslims.

The only issue that attracts Putin’s attention in the Caucasus is the preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which should crown the series of “exhibition” events in Russia that has started with the APEC summit and will include the 2013 G20 summit in St. Petersburg and 2014 G8 summit in the “wonder-village” of Skolkovo outside Moscow. This expensive profiling will hardly replenish Russia’s depleted “soft power.” Indeed, Putin’s irreversible drift toward “unenlightened authoritarianism” ruins this resource so badly that no amount of propaganda and “pokazuha” can help (Gazeta.ru, September 4). The Russian president has apparently concluded that the weakened West needs to swallow its disgust and embrace his true illiberal self; he fails to see, however, that the rulers of the Asia-Pacific, while not necessarily paragons of liberal values, have little respect for ailing dictators who plunder their countries and cling to power out of fear of releasing it. Putin’s best hope is a “freeze” of the domestic political awakening, which would condemn Russia to slow degradation. Yet, the hundreds of thousands of contributors to the warming of this autumn hope to convince millions more that the resource- and talent-rich country deserves better.