The news that the Boston terrorists are ethnic Chechens who have lived in the United States for many years may be shocking for many Americans, but in Russia it does not seem that surprising. How Tamerlan Tsarnaev had become so alienated from the country that became his home that he made his younger brother Jhokar an accomplice in the crime of murdering innocent people at the finish line of the Boston marathon is a mystery of a distorted mind. However, Russians see the alienation of ethnic communities under the threat of xenophobia in every large and small city—and are well aware of the smoldering civil war in the North Caucasus (Colta.ru, April 20). Dagestan is a cauldron where crime and corruption blend with religious extremism to produce toxic radicalization; officially sanctioned terror rules in Chechnya; and other forms of violence flourish across the region. The news about the criminal gang that ruled the resort city of Anapa near Sochi and dumped bodies of opponents in mass graves broke in parallel with the updates on the manhunt in Massachusetts (Novaya Gazeta, April 19). Russian authorities worry primarily about bad publicity for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games and recycle the denials of a deepening destabilization in the region.
This simulation of normalcy and sustainable prosperity starts from the very top as the Kremlin maintains pretenses of executing effective control over political trepidations and economic calamities. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a report to the State Duma last week (April 18) and did a reasonably good job explaining away the country’s sluggish growth and painting cloudless prospects (Kommersant, April 18). However, the day before, President Vladimir Putin fully undermined Medvedev’s message with his severe criticism of the government’s miniscule efficiency and his direct threat to dismiss it (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 18). Putin’s harsh words, uttered at a “closed to the media” meeting, were supposed to frighten the ministers and governors, but the “leak” of the president’s remarks was too orchestrated to be accidental (Kommersant, April 17). In fact, Putin hardly entertains ideas about disbanding either the government or the State Duma because he can preserve the illusion of his leadership only by channeling public resentment toward these institutions.
Putin’s irritation over the advancing stagnation and his helplessness in reviving the economy by his trademark “manual management” are no secret to the higher echelons of the political elite, who themselves worry about their leader’s erratic decision-making while at the same time fearing the survivability of their plutocracy without Putin (Svobodnaya Pressa, April 19). Many of the Russian elite have indeed amassed fortunes that should have guaranteed them the highest international respect, but in fact, they are shunned in the West as corrupt marauders. And at the same time, fast changes in their ranks are caused not by market volatility but by the very nature of Putinism, which spurns property rights (Vedomosti, April 19; Forbes.ru, April 18). They understand perfectly well that by rushing from one political blunder to another, the Kremlin accumulates a critical mass of broken promises and frustrated expectations that grows too heavy to carry forward on the old cart of a “petro-economy” (Gazeta.ru, April 19). They are, nevertheless, as helpless to check the trend of degeneration toward an utterly anti-modern authoritarianism as Putin is in implementing his populist prescriptions.
Facing the growth of discontent, Putin’s lieutenants started experimenting with targeted repressions, and by now this habit has turned into an addiction, which dictates a blunter execution of Russia’s increasingly repressive legislation. The central political event last week was, therefore, not Medvedev’s address, but the opening of the trial of blogger-turned-politician Alexei Navalny, which brought such a crowd of supporters and journalists to provincial Kirov that the authorities opted to postpone the proceedings (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 19). Few doubt that he will be found guilty on the flimsiest of evidence and put behind bars, which is certain to propel a further radicalization of the opposition of various persuasions (New Times, April 15). In the words of popular author Boris Akunin, the idea of “centrism,” which appeals to a great many seekers of a non-violent transition to a democratic future, will collapse if Navaly is sent to prison (Moscow Echo, April 17). “Revolution” remains a scary prospect for the standard-bearers of liberalism; but in-depth research shows that the younger generation—and particularly students—sees no other way forward than a total dismantling of the existing system and is not particularly concerned about the consequences of such a political catastrophe (Gazeta.ru, April 19).
This escalation of domestic tensions in Russia poses a serious problem for the Barack Obama administration, which seeks to proceed on the “reset” track in US-Russian relations. New proposals for advancing arms control were elaborated in the message, which US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon delivered to Moscow last week. And his discussions with top Russian officials, into which Putin opted to pop in, were described as “constructive” (Kommersant, April 16). Putin also called Obama after the tragedy in Boston, stressing the need for closer anti-terrorism cooperation, while omitting the point that both the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had committed grave mistakes in monitoring the activities of the Tsarnaev brothers (Lenta.ru, April 20). Russian officials tend to interpret the signals from Washington about downplaying mutual irritants as US indifference to violations of human rights in Russia—regardless of what State Department reports on this matter might contain. Yet, many pro-Western activists in Moscow are dismayed by the White House’s renewed courting of the self-serving “decider” in the Kremlin (Gazeta.ru, April 20).
Putin’s centrality in Russian politics is indeed itself becoming increasingly fictional as the over-centralized system of power proves unable to cope with the complexity of economic and social tensions and turns to ignoring the confusing orders issued by the disorganized center. Bureaucrats are in an ever-greater rush to “privatize” the budget appropriations and to evacuate the loot to whatever “tax havens” remain operational after the Cyprus bankruptcy—despite the Kremlin’s pledges to quash corruption, which Putin will definitely redouble during his traditional “conversation with the people,” suddenly announced for April 25 (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 20). Putinism has developed an inexorable resistance to reform or modernization and is irreversibly on track toward implosion, in which the system’s leadership is redundant and reduced to a figurehead.