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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Kiselyov on the Neo-Bolshevik State

Writing in the Moscow Times, leading opposition pundit Yevgeny Kiselyov explains the rise of the neo-Soviet state. It turns out it was never really gone at all.

Wednesday is the 90th anniversary of the date when the Bolsheviks came to power with Vladimir Lenin as their leader. And if we believe the apocryphal version of the country's history, then we know President Vladimir Putin's grandfather served as a cook for Lenin's family.

Had the Communist Party remained in power, we would have seen to this day grandiose ceremonies with military parades and mass demonstrations like we saw during the 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries of the Great October Revolution.

But the Communists fell from power long ago, and the Nov. 7 anniversary is no longer an official government holiday.

The paradox is that the Bolsheviks, in a sense, haven't gone anywhere. They remain in power even today.

Putin's Kremlin has adopted many of the Bolsheviks' worst traits by its disdain for the opinion of the minority, parliamentary government, fair elections, an independent judiciary and a free press. The other Bolshevik trait is the Kremlin's willingness to use force to suppress political opposition.

After the Soviet collapse, several former Soviet-bloc countries passed laws that banned leaders who held high posts in the Party leadership from holding a future political position. Russia, however, never instituted this ban on former Soviet leaders and nomenklatura. The result is that we now have many Soviet-era Communist functionaries occupying high-ranking posts. The freshest example is the new prime minister, Viktor Zubkov. Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Zubkov headed the district committee of the Communist Party on the outskirts of Leningrad, and he later worked as head of the agricultural section of the Leningrad regional committee of the Communist Party.

And, in contrast to Gorbachev, who ultimately separated from the Party -- albeit very late in the game -- Zubkov never expressed these sentiments.

In fact, you can count on the fingers of both hands the number of officials in power today who actively supported the democratic policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of these is the current president. Putin served as an assistant to the late Anatoly Sobchak, who was the first mayor in the history of St. Petersburg to be democratically elected. But no one can exclude the possibility that Putin in 1990, when he was still an acting KGB officer, was placed in that post by the KGB to keep an eye on the new, democratic city leader. But the fact of the matter is that Putin -- who resigned from the KGB in August 1991 after a group of conservative Communist leaders tried to organize a putsch against Gorbachev to forestall the collapse of both the Party and the Soviet Union -- now speaks with regret about what he calls the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

But some people consider that the complete opposite case is true -- that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century was actually the October Revolution, which meant decades of totalitarian Communist rule that resulted in countless suffering and tragedy not only in the Soviet Union but in many countries where the Soviet influence spread. But these people are in the minority in Russia.

As soon as the Bolsheviks seized power on Nov. 7, their main concern was how to maintain and strengthen it. On Dec. 20, 1917, they created the Cheka, a brutal secret police force that served as the primary tool for fighting counterrevolutionaries and for increasing their power. Then came the Red Terror, the appearance of the gulag and Stalin's purges and repression. The name of the secret police force changed several times throughout that period until it ultimately became the KGB in 1954.

Ninety years since the creation of the Cheka, a countless number of former members of the KGB occupy positions of authority, with the president at the head. They proudly refer to themselves as Chekists, a reference to members of the Cheka under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a notoriously bloodthirsty Communist fanatic. Some still hang Dzerzhinsky's portrait in their offices.

It is unlikely that these modern-day Chekists are willing to employ the same harsh measures of the Cheka and KGB, but they are nevertheless trying to create a "Chekist corporation" as a mechanism for holding on to power for as long as possible.

And the closer we come to May 7, 2008, when Putin's second term officially ends, the more urgent the issue of staying in power becomes for the members of the Chekist corporation within the Kremlin. Political analysts have lost count of the number of times Putin has said he will not stay on for a third term or amend the Constitution, but for some reason the question of a third term never seems to go away.

It seems that almost every day another prominent cultural or political figure makes a public appeal for Putin to stay on as president or some kind of meeting or demonstration -- obviously organized with the blessing of the authorities -- is held across the country under the slogan of "Putin for a third term!"

What is happening?

First, I wouldn't attach too much significance to Putin's numerous statements that he plans to leave his presidential post. He has frequently acted in direct contradiction to what he has promised on record. Recall, for example, how Putin said the direct election of governors would not be abolished or that the government had no interest in the bankruptcy of Yukos.

It could very well be that Putin sincerely believed what he said at the time, but at the end of the day, he changed his mind. And with the question of a third presidential term, perhaps something hasn't worked out as expected. For example, maybe Putin couldn't find a successor who was satisfactory to all Kremlin factions.

Perhaps there is some doubt that Zubkov, the most probable successor, will manage to win this election. Even the huge pro-Kremlin media and administrative resources may not be enough to put a positive spin on Zubkov and turn him into a popular presidential candidate. In addition, Putin cannot be certain that even the most loyal successor will not follow his own, independent path once he samples the sweet taste of power sitting in the presidential chair.

Moreover, what exactly is a third term? What does it mean when people say, "Putin is leaving office"? Judging from Putin's behavior, he will hardly want a life of retirement, watering the flowers in his dacha garden. His supporters are taking every possible opportunity to make it clear that the president intends to remain the top politician in Russia and to influence all of the most important political decisions directly, even if his official job is ostensibly nothing more than chairman of the 2014 Sochi Olympics commission.

In this sense, it is already clear that a third term is probably unavoidable, regardless of what Putin's future job title might be after May. This means the country is doomed to live under dual power -- something that has always ended tragically for Russians.

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