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Monday, October 16, 2006

Russia and the F-word: Perfect Together?

The Economist blasts Russia with the F-word:

“PROVOCATION” is an old Soviet game that can be hard to follow. When two countries employ the same techniques, luring the other into useful folly, it is harder still. In the spat between Russia and Georgia, it has begun to seem that what looked like an overreaction by the Kremlin—and thus a victory, however pyrrhic, for the Georgians—may have a very different purpose and meaning.

The Kremlin loathes Georgia, once a cherished vassal, with the special wrath reserved for wayward loved ones. To the Russians, Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's president, is an American puppet, hell-bent on taking his country into NATO, and the arch-carrier of the germ of post-Soviet revolution. For his part, Mr Saakashvili is irate over Russia's meddlesome backing for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions of Georgia that broke away in the early 1990s.

Georgia's arrest last month of a handful of Russian intelligence officers (terrorists, insists Mr Saakashvili) may have been a counter-provocation, aimed at garnering international sympathy.
If that was the plan, it probably worked: the Russians went berserk. Even though the men were swiftly deported, Russia recalled its ambassador, evacuated other Russians, severed transport and postal links with Georgia—and then imposed a raft of punitive measures against the legions of ethnic Georgians (many of them Russian citizens) living and working in Russia itself.

In Moscow, hundreds have been arrested and deported (pictured above); celebrities with Georgian names harassed; Georgian-owned businesses raided and closed. The manager of one Georgian restaurant says the staff are in hiding; another says the water has been turned off. The police, meanwhile, asked Moscow schools for lists of children with Georgian surnames, though Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, terms the request a “disgusting” excess of zeal. Now we understand how Chechens living here feel, says a doctor, who like many Moscow Georgians is a refugee from Abkhazia.

New immigration laws, explicitly targeted against Georgians, are promised; so are restrictions on the remittances that help prop up Georgia's economy; Russians allege they contribute to its militarisation. Another hike in the price of Russian gas seems likely (there was one last winter, along with mysterious simultaneous explosions in both export pipelines). Mr Saakashvili may have underestimated the further damage the Kremlin can do to Georgia. He may also have over-estimated the outside help he can expect. “Russia sees Georgia as a bastion of the West,” he complains, “but the West doesn't.”

For all that, Georgia will survive the confrontation. But can Russia? The Kremlin's escalation of it is an extreme example of another Soviet habit Mr Putin has inherited: using foreign enemies as scapegoats and tools in domestic politics. Past targets have included America, Ukraine, and foreign do-gooders allegedly engaged in espionage. This row comes as anxiety mounts over the question of the succession to Mr Putin when his second (and supposedly final) presidential term ends in 2008. A foreign threat, even a bogus one, will help keep the electorate pliant, whatever the Kremlin decides to do.

This scaremongering is matched by the Kremlin's shifting stance towards xenophobic nationalism, already starkly manifest in a plague of racist murders by skinheads (often un- or under-punished). An anti-Caucasian riot in Kondopoga in northern Russia last month was what once would have been called a pogrom.

Until recently, the Kremlin has tried to “ride the tiger” of extreme nationalism, as Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie think-tank in Moscow, puts it, through a risky double strategy: portraying itself as a bulwark against extremism, but also trying to harness nationalist instincts for its own ends. It is widely thought to have created the nationalist Motherland party to siphon votes away from the Communists. (Motherland is now being merged with two other parties into what will become the main “opposition”—almost certainly a completely loyal one). Mr Putin seems now to be giving the tiger freer rein.

For example, he last week enjoined his ministers to protect the interests of “Russia's native population” against the ethnic gangs who, he said, control the street markets. Such gangs are “a reality”, says the Kremlin's Mr Peskov, in justification. But after a racist bombing in a Moscow market killed a dozen people in August, Mr Putin's remarks were at best inadvisable; and in what is—however much some ethnic Russians might wish otherwise—a multi-ethnic country, potentially disastrous.

So, in a different way, might be the growing squeeze on foreign energy firms. Big investments are running into trouble, and after years of dangling the carrot of outside involvement in the giant offshore Shtokman gasfield, Gazprom, the state-run gas giant, now says it will go it alone.

The state's attitude to both business and Georgia demonstrates Mr Putin's failure to create the “dictatorship of the law” that he once promised. Untrammelled by normal constraints such as an independent judiciary or a genuine opposition, the Kremlin makes and breaks laws as it pleases. The growth of racist violence is both evidence and result of a broader lawlessness. Lack of faith in government institutions, and especially in the police, says Eduard Ponarin of St Petersburg's European University, leads some to seek other forms of redress. A recent string of high-profile contract-killings—of a top central banker and of an engineer for a gas company that is in dispute with the government—are another sign of this lawlessness. On October 7th, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and campaigner (see our obituary), died in the same way.

According to some (including Mr Putin), her murder was another provocation, designed to discredit the Russian authorities whom she bravely criticised. But whoever killed her, Mr Putin shares the blame for having made independent journalism both rare and perilous.

Dictatorship of the lawless

Russia's huge size and troubled history make any comparisons risky. Yet some see historical parallels in present trends. Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, draws an analogy with inter-war Germany, which like post-Soviet Russia experienced economic chaos, then a period of stabilisation in which post-imperial nostalgia took hold. Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining independent parliamentarians, worries that Mr Putin seems to be switching from an imperial idea of Russia towards one more resembling a “Reich”.

History also offers a term to describe the direction in which Russia sometimes seems to be heading: a word that captures the paranoia and self-confidence, lawlessness and authoritarianism, populism and intolerance, and economic and political nationalism that now characterise Mr Putin's administration. It is an over-used word, and a controversial one, especially in Russia. It is not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading towards fascism.

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