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Ukraine: Provoking the Euromaidan

By Blog Admin, on 3 December 2013

Far-right activists have been infiltrating the protests in Ukraine and provoking  police and demonstrators to violence reports  Anton Shekhovtsov.

The U-turn on the Association Agreement with the EU by the Ukrainian government has sparked the most massive social protests since the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. Unlike the ‘Orange revolution,’ however, the new protests, named ‘the Euromaidan,’ have been marked by the government’s disproportionate use of violence against the non-violent protests. The authorities have been making use of paid instigators who infiltrate the protests and then start attacking the police to provoke a ‘retaliatory’ suppression of ‘violent protestors.’

1 December was a day of blood and violence. The Ukrainian opposition had planned a peaceful protest against the brutal beating of several hundreds of protestors, the day before, by 1,000-2,000 members of the ‘Berkut’ special police unit. However, the gathering of hundreds of thousands of people was overshadowed by the clashes on Bankova Street leading to the building of the Presidential Administration, where the Berkut held the line against an extremely violent 200- strong crowd.

Media reports at first referred to this hardcore group – many of them masked – as ‘unknown activists;’ unknown because nobody knew if their actions were, in fact, sanctioned by the opposition. Since the opposition had specifically renounced any use of violence, the media soon started to refer to these men as ‘provocateurs.’ They threw flares, smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and stones at the police, beat them with chains, fired tear gas, and brought up an excavator to break through the police cordon.

The police did not respond, stood their ground and used megaphones, urging the troublemakers to stop. Some other protesters, later joined by businessman and politician Petro Poroshenko, understanding the deliberately provocative nature of what was happening, tried to calm things down, which only resulted in fights between protesters. Eventually, the violent crowd again started attacking the police. This time, the police were replaced by the Berkut troops, which dispersed the crowd severely beating dozens of people including 40 Ukrainian and foreign journalists. Guilty or not guilty, everybody in the wrong place in the wrong time was beaten up. The opposition’s leaders, Vitali Klitschko (UDAR) and Oleh Tyahnybok (far right Svoboda) themselves went to Bankova Street to urge the troublemakers to join the peaceful protests on Maidan (Independence Square).

Who were these troublemakers? (more…)

Postcard to Khodorkovsky

By Blog Admin, on 21 October 2013

Pussy Riot Global Day

London has become home to a growing, but fractious community of political activists opposed to the Putin regime, finds Darya Malyutina. 

With its long history of serving as a refuge for disaffected Russians, London today hosts a sizeable and heterogeneous Russian-speaking population.

Many of them express casual anti-Putin sentiments; some of them are more actively trying to unseat him. How effective is this activism? Is it helping to bring democratic change to Russia, or raising awareness of what is happening in Russia to the British public; perhaps, at the very least, gaining some moral authority in the eyes of Russian society, or is it just so much wishful thinking and hot air?

In the autumn of 2012 Andrei Sidelnikov, the leader of London-based Russian opposition group Govorite Gromche [Speak Up], decided that, after a couple of years of organising regular rallies and various protest demonstrations, the format of their activity should be changed to ‘intellectual discussions and educational meetings.’ Some of these meetings took place in a small basement bookshop in Central London.

The meeting I attended took the form of a Skype conversation with Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. About twenty Russians gathered in the shop and listened to Pavel speaking about his father: how he has managed to write a book; how ‘Putin and his gang’ have no intention of letting him out; and how he continues to be a ‘moral leader,’ even from his prison cell. ‘What can we, Russians living in the West, do to help fight for rights and freedoms of citizens? How can we move Russia back to the democratic path of the early 1990s?’ asks Sidelnikov. ‘We understand that our actions do not have much impact,’ replies Pavel. ‘But we provide inspiration for those who are in prison; and our actions establish a moral authority. And, of course, we might be able to influence Russia’s foreign relations, because protest can be a catalyst for solving political problems….’

We could have been in the London of Alexander Herzen, in the 1850s, discussing overnight ways to make the autocratic Tsar, a liberal. ‘And maybe,’ said Sidelnikov, ‘we could send Mikhail a postcard for the New Year?’

‘He would be very pleased,’ replied Pavel. The meeting was declared closed, and the evening ended in the traditional way – the democracy fighters headed to the nearby pub. (more…)

Alexei Navalny: Could a politically self-made man make it to the Kremlin?

By Blog Admin, on 7 October 2013

Alexey Navalny

Photo: MItya Aleshkovskiy [CC BY-SA-3.0]

The leading anti-Putin blogger and activist Alexei Navalny was recently handed a five-year jail sentence following a widely criticised trial. But his mix of hard-headed anti-corruption politics and internet-based mobilisation may yet pose a challenge to the Kremlin, writes Ekaterina Besedina

On 8 September 2013 Alexei Navalny officially received 27.2% in the Moscow mayoral election, while the incumbent Sergei Sobyanian – one of President Putin’s closest allies – gained 51.2%. This narrow absolute majority meant that the second round run off expected by Navalny supporters was avoided. The Moscow Electoral Commission subsequently declared Sobyanin mayor. Navalny is still trying to challenge the vote in the courts with evidence of voter fraud and ballot stuffing.

The Kremlin had to demonstrate its power and majority support in Russia. This was one of the reasons why the run off did not happen. But Navalny managed to get on the ballot, win a large percentage of votes, and challenge Sobyanin. Despite the a fraud trial still threatening Navalny with five years jail, he has built up a substantial base of support, proving it possible to build a large scale political campaign without access to federal TV channels.

Navalny, a lawyer and high-profile blogger, is the first Russian politician to be created by the internet. His mayoral campaign was based on the internet, social networks and the enthusiasm of supporters. He started gaining popularity two years ago during major opposition protests, becoming a key figure in a growing movement for change that has a potential to challenge the Kremlin and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. (more…)

The Russian left has hardly escaped Stalin’s shadow, but there are signs of change

By Blog Admin, on 30 September 2013

RIAN archive 535278 Laying flowers and wreaths to Iosif Stalin's grave at Kremlin wall

RIA Novosti archive, image #535278
Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0

How are left-wing parties and movements faring in Russian politics? Luke March argues that despite the strength of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), the left in Russia remains remarkably weak and fragmented. Nevertheless there is evidence of a shift towards contemporary European patterns with a stronger social-democratic movement and less reliance on the KPRF.

Over two decades after communism’s collapse, commentators rarely tire of pointing out the obdurate survival of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), which remains Russia’s second-largest party. But it is not the strength of the Russian left that is most remarkable – rather its weakness. After all, sociologically, Russia remains rather a left-wing country, with opinion polls showing high support for social equality and a paternalist welfare state. Even former plutocrat-cum-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky has repeatedly called for a ‘left turn’ in social policy. Arguably then, the Russian left should be much stronger than the still-large but now much denuded KPRF. So what is the current situation of the left and why?

The parliamentary ‘opposition’

Symptomatically, the dominance of the KPRF is a major sign of the left’s weakness. This party has long been regarded by left-wing activists as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, essentially unable to evolve but blocking newer left-wing trends, because of its intrinsic Stalinism, loyalty to the state and ‘right-wing’ nationalist/religious rhetoric. Although in the 1990s this view was somewhat caricatured, the party has signally failed to evolve in the Putin era. After 2003 it was reduced to its core vote and it has gradually lost all of its interesting and/or reformist figures (who were either purged or left). It is bereft of any political influence (even losing its last governor in 2013).

Under the 20-year leadership of Gennadii Zyuganov, the party now barely pretends to contest for power. Indeed, whereas the KPRF used to advocate fighting the ‘anti-national elite’, it has latterly advocated a ‘popular front’ with Putin at the helm and Zyuganov (who has never held executive office) as PM. The KPRF does remain the only Russian parliamentary party (occasionally) to criticise Putin, which accords it increased support from younger voters.

But its endlessly recycled policies (of which ever-more overt Stalinism is just one example) means that political scientist Vladimir Gel’man’s claim that it is Russia’s ‘most boring’ party is apt. Nor is it in any sense a real opposition any longer. Despite griping about presidential dictatorship, the party distances itself completely from the street opposition, which it sees as ‘orangists’ (i.e. pro-Western forces behind ‘coloured revolutions’). (more…)

Putin’s Russia: The view from unglamorous places

By Blog Admin, on 23 July 2013

Church View

Photo: Igor Mironovsky via Flikr  CC-BY-2.0

Ben Judah’s new book  seeks out the view of ordinary Russians  to offer an insightful and readable account of Putin and the Putin regime. It nevertheless over-estimates the potential of civil society as an engine of change, finds Imogen Wage .

For journalists, commentators, academics and the general public Vladimir Putin never fails to intrigue. There has been a proliferation of recent books looking at Putin’s life, rise to power and the system he has created. Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin presents a new angle.

It examines not only Putin’s popularity and rise but also his relative decline, marked by the popular protests that started in the winter of 2011-12. The book tries to explain how and why Putin became so popular and powerful, and how and why his system started to decay from 2011. Judah finds that Putin rose to power because of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s and managed to create a sophisticated regime that is at the same time deeply backward.

Putin’s regime was sophisticated because it was a ‘videocracy’ which gave censored TV to the masses but allowed free newspapers and blogs for the intelligentsia’ (p.325). The regime was, however, simultaneously deeply backward because it built inefficient institutions and an obsolete structure of power, and because Putin is a bad bureaucrat: much money was put into a poorly performing system, but because of corruption few results were produced.

Judah’s argument echoes that two recent books on Russia. In Can Russia Modernise? , Alena Ledeneva argues that informal power arrangements in the form of the ‘sistema’ explain the failure of well-intended modernisation programmes in Russia. Like Judah, her focus is on modernisation and Putin as a person, rather than on institutions. Similarly, in Russian Politics: the Paradox of a Weak State Marie Mendras takes a statist approach to explain what kind of a state Russia is and how social freedoms (widespread Internet usage, cooperation with the West, high consumption) can coexist with political repression. She, like Judah, highlights the different between a civil society and political society and emphasises Putin’s role, but unlike Judah devotes more time to analysing the question of whether Russia is a strong or weak state. (more…)

Russia: Back to no future

By Blog Admin, on 18 June 2013

Moscow Russia anti-Putin Graffiti R-EVOLUTION-2

Photo: Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons

With his regime running out of steam, Vladimir Putin is resorting to the rhetoric of the past and traditional values. Marie Mendras sees little future in it. 

The moment of truth for a non-democratic leader is when he needs to revive his fading authority and legitimacy. A snatched electoral victory over a year ago brought Vladimir Putin no new popularity, indeed quite the opposite.

Since his return to the Kremlin, his words and actions have reflected entirely negative emotions, such as fear of his own people, distrust of the elites around him, and a desire to avenge himself on those who have dared oppose him. Much of his energy goes on proving himself right and his critics wrong: he even accuses these of working for foreign powers and endangering national security. Putin has not recovered from the humiliation and scare of last year’s political contest, and is now facing tough economic and social challenges. The choice he has made is to try to restore his authority with a combination of targeted repression, doctrinaire ideology and an increase in control over institutions and companies. This is an unlikely recipe for success.

Weakened legitimacy

Vladimir Putin was re-elected on a controversial vote in March 2012. He could have won his new mandate more honestly, had he accepted the possibility of a second round runoff, but he was determined to win an absolute majority in the first round. He wanted to humiliate the other ‘authorised’ candidates by raising himself high above them, proving that he was the one and only – and a loyal Central Electoral Commission conferred on him a generous 63% of the vote. A year on, all the voters’ associations and NGOs that investigated election fraud are being harassed and some, like the Golos association, might have to close down. Key figures in the movement for free elections are also being prosecuted.

Putin’s election in 2000 and 2004, and Dmitry Medvedev’s election in 2008, were ‘managed’ ballots as well. This time, however, things turned out less manageable than usual. The widespread and vocal public protest of the winter of 2011-12, news of which flew around the country in a few keystrokes, exposed all of the regime’s rottenness and trickery. And the anger of a revitalized civil society was directed at the leader in person, under the ubiquitous slogan: ‘Putin, ukhodi!’ [Putin – out!]. His party fared badly in the parliamentary elections of December 2011, and in Moscow itself its performance was a complete disaster.

Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin built his power and legitimacy on order, rising living standards and Russia’s growing global status. However, he will have more difficulty delivering in all three of these areas in the months and years to come, and he will be held to account for it. (more…)

Moldova: An unravelling success story?

By Blog Admin, on 5 June 2013

IMG_9953

Photo: Anna Woźniak via Flikr  CC BY-SA 2.0

Vlad Filat, until recently Liberal Democrat Prime Minister of Moldova, is locked in a power struggle with Vladimir Plahotniuc, the country’s one and only oligarch. This war of attrition threatens the Eastern Partnership’s ‘success story’ and with it Moldova’s reform project says Andrew Wilson.

Not every policy detail may have been perfect in Moldova since 2009, but at least the narrative seemed right. Eastern Europe’s only ruling Communist Party fell from government. The changeover was mythologised as the ‘Twitter Revolution’ – a precursor of the ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Moscow Winter’ – although in fact it was a prosaic process of elections and parliamentary arithmetic. The Communists were replaced by the smooth-sounding Alliance for European Integration, which was soon getting rave reviews for its reform efforts from the EU. Tiny Moldova leapfrogged the other five states in the Eastern Partnership and seemed to be first in the queue to sign an Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at the Vilnius summit in November 2013.

 By 2013, however, reviews were getting more mixed. Since the beginning of the year, Moldova has plunged into the kind of political infighting reminiscent of Orange Ukraine at its worst. After a previous crisis over the presidency was solved in 2012, it had seemed the current parliament would sit out a full term until the next elections are due in 2014. Today, Moldova has to sort out three simultaneous problems: it has no stable government, new elections are threatened and it is limping toward the November summit. It might collapse over the finishing line or just before; it might have a sudden burst of energy in the finishing strait; or it might fail a last-minute dope test.

So what went wrong? In reality, the three-party Alliance for European Integration was badly designed at birth; more exactly, at its rebirth. The first incarnation of the AEI in 2009-2010 struggled with a minimal majority over the Communists. That majority was improved at new elections in November 2010, but the elections also gave Russia the chance to push hard for an alternative alliance between the Communists and the pivotal Democratic Party (which includes many ex-Communists). Vladimir Putin sent his right-hand man, Sergei Naryshkin, to Chisinau to seal the deal. He didn’t succeed but encouraged the Democrats to secure a high price for not defecting back to the Communists, with the signing of a secret agreement in December 2010, leaked in 2012, to partition not just ministries but also supposedly neutral state institutions and revenue streams among the AEI’s three component parties.  (more…)

Is culture the new politics in Russia?

By Blog Admin, on 17 April 2013

How far has culture become a frontline in Russian politics? And how does it compare to earlier periods in the country’s history? Artemy Troitsky,  Peter Pomeranstev and Oliver Carroll discuss the nature of art, protest and the absurd in contemporary Russia.

Pussy Riot - Denis Bochkarev 6

Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Carroll:  From Voina to Bykov, Pussy Riot to Moscow hipsterism, culture seems to be playing a very political game in Russia. How can we explain this? Is this something that Russia has seen before? Are we witnessing this Russia’s ‘1968’ moment? And if so, is accompanied by the same kind of generational and political splits that we saw in Europe’s rebellion? Or is it something completely different?

Artemy: If this really is a cultural revolution, then I’m afraid it happening on a very small scale. Compared to the first decade of the 21st century, which was absolutely lethargic and comatose, Russia’s cultural life and political community has started to show some life. But compared to the kind of cultural euphoria Russia experienced in other times — during the so-called shestidesiatniki movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or in late 80s during Perestroika and Glasnost — it’s on a much smaller scale.

The saddest thing of all is that today’s cultural developments are much more elitist, touching a much finer layer of Russian people than either of the earlier cultural thaws (ottepel). The cultural movement back then was simply massive, supported and followed by millions of so-called ordinary Russians. What is happening right now is more a minority movement, largely ignored by the majority of the Russian population. And there is also a strong counter-reaction too. Sure, Glasnost had some some reactionary things like Nina Andreeva writing her letter in Sovetskaia Rossiia, or the Stalinist writers who urged people not to give up on their principals. But they were the tiny minority. Right now it’s us that feel as if we are pushed in the corner.

OC: Peter, you lived in Russia throughout the 2000s, the least political moment of modern Russian history. You were also in Moscow at the end of that decade, which was when the political returned with some vengeance. Do you agree with Artemy that such change is pretty much insignificant, at least when compared to the 1960s and 1980s?

Peter: Everything in Russia is insignificant compared to the 60s and 80s. Everything in Russia seems to have shrunk and become an echo of when it was truly important. I think Artemy is completely right here, but it’s very interesting to look at the detail of what’s happening, because it’s a slightly different type of battle.

 In Soviet times there was a Soviet culture and a dissident culture. Today, things are less distinct. Over the last few days I’ve been meeting some people from Nashi, for example. I was quite surprised to find out their aesthetic is hipster. They love manga movies, they like modern arts, they have actually co-opted a sort of Western style into their language and then completely twisted it and married it to patriotism and quasi-fascism. In the past, the Kremlin was also sponsoring the most radical art projects, like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Territoriya festival. They went out of their way to make sure that there could be no cultural rebellion by co-opting that language and making it part of the system. Making it pointless as well in the process.

What I’ve been seeing the last eighteen months in terms of culture and in terms of language is an attempt by the opposition to create a mini world for itself, a place where it is not contaminated by the meddling of the Kremlin. And I think that’s incredible and quite inspiring. It’s not a battle of us against them, it’s a battle between manipulation and integrity, and a search for a new language. So it is a much more subtle war then it was in the 1960s and 1980s, when it was almost a Napoleonic war. This is more like the Cold War, with some skirmishes around the edges, spies meeting each other in the culture wars. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, just much more subtle and playful.

A: I think some of the things Peter is saying refer to the previous decade, not necessarily today. During the 2000s there was an obvious and quite successful pact with the regime: ‘We guarantee you a certain degree of stability and prosperity; you can buy your Korean car and go on holiday to Egypt’. In the business community it was, as Mr Putin himself put it, ‘pizdit’, no ne pizdet’’ (‘steal as much as you want, but keep your mouth shut‘). And a similar kind of pact was signed with the cultural elite: do whatever you want, any kind of artistic experiment, sex, drugs, violence… You want to make movies that make Quentin Tarantino look like the Muppet Show? Go for it… And again the cultural elite said ‘Yeah that’s fine, that’s fantastic’. (more…)

Russia for the Russians – a putative policy

By Blog Admin, on 11 April 2013

RM12-112

Photo: RiMarkin via Flikr. License CC BY-SA 3.0

There have been tensions between native Russians and ethnic minorities since the Tartar Yoke of the 13th century. Successive rulers either tried to keep an uneasy peace or fanned the flames of division. Frederica Prina discusses the Russian government’s latest strategies for creating an identity that embraces all of Russia’s citizens. 

One would not normally, perhaps, describe the President of Russia as ‘anti-Russian,’ but this is how not a few people described him, waving their banners, on the annual ‘Russian March’ that took place on National Unity Day, 4 November 2012. Some 6,000 Russian nationalists, from Moderate to Far Right, gathered in central Moscow. Alexander Belov, the leader of the (banned) ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’, was cheered when he called President Putin an, ‘Enemy.’ In what way, an enemy, on National Unity Day?

Taken to extremes, Russian nationalists would like to keep Russia only for the Russians; they think that the Russian Government has not done enough to establish a Russian nation state. Given Russia’s turbulent history, as a multi-ethnic Romanov empire and a multi-ethnic Soviet Union, such caution is understandable. In the same way that creating a Russian citizen out of an ethnic imperial melting pot defeated many a Romanov, so the Soviets, while they aimed for the creation of a homo sovieticus (whose ethnic consciousness would be overridden by Communism), settled for managing the ethnic diversity they had inherited.

Ethnic diversity management

What we might call ‘ethnic diversity management’ was incorporated into Soviet policy. It included the establishment of titular republics (Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia…) where ethnic minorities were temporarily ‘assigned’ until, that is, they became model Soviet citizens. The American sociologist Rogers Brubaker described it as an, ‘irony of history’ that what should have been a temporary arrangement, however, turned into the consolidation of ethnic differences. And what of the Russians in the USSR? How were they assigned? That was never determined, perhaps because it was not thought necessary, or could it have been that the Soviets thought that it was much too difficult to define ‘Russianness?’ One might say that there was a marginalisation even at the Russian centre of the USSR; and that marginalisation included Russian Orthodoxy, hitherto a bastion of Russian national identity.

Thus it was that, during the Soviet period, a citizen of the USSR was neither wholly ethnic, nor wholly Soviet. The national consciousness of the USSR’s many ethnic groups was never extinguished; and historic Russian identity – whatever had survived the Romanovs – was an ill-defined concept.  (more…)

Boris Berezovsky: An unwanted ‘wanted man’

By Blog Admin, on 25 March 2013

Boris Berezovsky

Photo: AJC1 via Flickr License CC BY-SA 2.0

Alena Ledeneva looks back on the career of the controversial Russian oligarch.

Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was born on 23 January 1946 and died on 23 March 2013.  Although hated by many Russians, Berezovsky was also one of the most politically important, exposed and most widely written about figures in Russia of the 1990s. For many he was a symbol of that era.

 Berezovsky’s rise to become one of Russia’s richest men has been chronicled in both journalistic and fictionalised accounts. Godfather of the Kremlin by Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist murdered in Moscow in 2004, Bol’shaya paika (‘The Big Slice’) a novel by Yuli Dubov, Berezovsky’s business partner and friend – who like him received political asylum in the United Kingdom – are among the most interesting.  The film Oligarkh (Tycoon) also features a main character very like Berezovsky.

 After graduating in 1968, Berezovsky worked at various research institutes to become a senior fellow and a head of department at the Institute of Management of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His energy, creative spirit and talent for working through the Soviet system served him well and helped shape his success in the post-communist era.

 In 1989, Berezovsky and Samat Zhaboev organized a joint stock company LogoVaz, which specialised in selling and servicing cars. In four years Logovaz became one of the leading Russian private businesses with a turnover of US$250 million in 1993. Berezovsky became  the chairman of the LogoVaz Board in 1994.

Despite the dangers of Russia’s post-communist business environment – he survived an assassination attempt in June 1994 in which his driver died – Berezovsky moved on to acquire media and oil interests.  In January 1995 he participated in setting up the ORT television channel joining its board of directors and in September 1996 he was elected to board of the Siberian oil company Sibneft. Berezovsky’s financial schemes – of the kind I examine in more detail in How Russia Really Works  – were also the inspiration for a post-communist genre of literature often known as ‘economic thrillers’. (more…)