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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Annals of Neo-Soviet Paranoia Part I: Bovt on the Moscow Crackdown

Writing in the Moscow Times, Profil editor Georgy Bovt exposes the hysterial paranoia that is now sweeping the Kremlin's corridors of power:

Police detained more than 200 participants of Moscow opposition rallies on Saturday, and almost the same number Sunday in St. Petersburg. These were the government's official totals for the weekend. Both the preparations on the part of the authorities' ahead of the protests and their conduct during them were unusual and telling.

First, the authorities forewarned opposition organizers that they would be held responsible for anti-governmental activities. On Friday evening, National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov was having dessert at a Moscow restaurant when he was presented with a warning from the Prosecutor General's Office stating that he would be held accountable for any acts of "extremism." The threat might have worked: The next day he showed up late for the demonstration. Authorities detained him anyway during the Dissenters' March in St. Petersburg. Other opposition group leaders, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, received similar warnings.

Second, the authorities tried to limit the profile of the protests, both in their form and where they could be held. Protesters were forbidden from gathering in the city center, being offered distant Tushino airfield as an alternative, and were prohibited from holding a march.

Third, law enforcement agencies dealt severely with all infractions. Moscow court officials were brought in to work on Saturday to render any necessary decisions regarding protesters who were detained. Riot police from other regions were brought in to bolster the Moscow force, and they were liberal in their use of force against the protesters, beating them with truncheons. The police didn't use tear gas or water cannons, although both were on hand.

It all seemed pretty excessive given the marginal nature of the threat the protesters represented to the powers that be. Dissenters' March leaders are relatively unpopular with the general population, the various groups are not well coordinated and they have no distinct platforms other than their opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, they seem very nervous in the face of even this ineffectual form of opposition.

The government reacted just as nervously to a U.S. State Department's annual report earlier this month on the worldwide state of human rights. It was a standard report, one of many such statements issued since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The report contained no new or particularly pointed criticism, at least not in comparison with what had already been said in other U.S. statements. The document was, nonetheless, the object of angry debate and condemnation in the State Duma and Federation Council, where far too much time and energy were spent on the subject.

Why is all of this happening?

The reason is that Russia's political elite is growing increasingly nervous in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections and the March 2008 presidential election. Politicians face uncertain futures because they don't know whether Putin will choose to remain for a third term. If Putin decides to go, they are worried over whom he might chose as his successor. As a result, just about everyone in power seems to have been seized by conspiracy mania.

High-ranking officials openly accuse Russia's enemies of preparing a revolution akin to the one that occurred in Ukraine, which explains why they devote so much hysterical attention to happenings in Kiev. The political leadership is convinced that the opposition is being financed by the West in the hope of destabilizing the political system, and that high-ranking diplomats, led by the ambassador of one of the Group of Eight countries, are coordinating the distribution of funds to the opposition. According to this theory, demonstrators deliberately bring women, children and the elderly to their protests in hopes of provoking the police into attacking those less able to defend themselves, thereby proving to the world the "bloodthirsty" nature of this regime.

Thus, a statement from the U.S. State Department's that it would support Russia's nongovernmental democratic organizations was perceived as a direct confirmation of the existence of an "Orange conspiracy" that was being supported by the West.

This is the mood among Russia's political elites prior to the elections. As the elections draw nearer, this mood is bound to intensify, and it won't stop building until the Duma issues a plea from the people for Putin to stay on for a third term and for the Constitution to be amended accordingly. The politicians will present more and more "proof" to Putin that, without him at the helm, nothing in the country will work properly. They'll tell him that disorder will reign unless he agrees to stay. If and when he does so, the relations between Moscow and the West will fall to such a level that the reactions to what is happening in Russia will finally become absolutely unacceptable from a political standpoint.

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