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Slamming Sochi?

Sean LHanley17 February 2014

Sochi

Photo: kenyee BY-NC-ND 2.0

The international media’s predictable appetite for Olympic bad news stories has led to  unduly negative coverage of the Sochi games, argues Valerie Pacer. However, the influence of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s ruling party still seems close at hand.

In the lead in to the Sochi Winter Olympics, much media attention has been focused on Russia’s controversial homosexual propaganda laws, environmental concerns, Russian corruption, and the composition of the national teams being sent to Sochi.

The week before the Opening Ceremony brought more negative coverage as journalists began to file Sochi-based reports. Neither has the Opening Ceremony escaped criticism. With all the coverage focusing on the negatives and less on the athletes and the events has the reporting been, as state-owned international cable channel Russia Today argued, a case of ‘see it, slam it’?

Some of the criticism has certainly been deserved, but has the coverage been overblown? As journalists began arriving in Sochi stories emerged of the non-existence of hotel lobbies, lack of door handles and uncovered manholes around the city.

But stories about the questionable colour of the tap water, although strange for Westerners, are not that unusual for a country where people who can afford it drink bottled water – and are more of a concern for Sochi residents than people who will be there for only a few weeks. The problems encountered show the difficulties of taking a city with limited modern infrastructure – and of building it into a modern Olympic calibre city in only seven years. (more…)

Reacting to Ukraine’s protests

Sean LHanley5 December 2013

The return of sustained protest to the streets of Ukraine has hugely raised the political stakes comments Andrew Wilson

The protests in Kiev are now two weeks old. They began after the Ukrainian government first decided to suspend negotiations with the EU on 21 November, but have gained new intensity after President Yanukovych left the Vilnius Summit on 28-29 November empty-handed, without signing the key AgreementsBut the attempt at violent dispersal of the crowds on his return, on Saturday 30 November, only led to bigger demonstrations on the Sunday.

At the time of writing (Monday the 2nd), the protestors were looking more embedded – literally so, as several buildings have been occupied and barriers set up in the centre of Kiev. The stakes are especially high because the OSCE Ministerial Council is due to be held in Kiev on 5-6 December – the opposition want to keep the protest going until then, the authorities want to stamp them out. The ruling party is losing key members and morale.

What happens next?

One of the most depressing features of Ukraine’s many failures after the Orange Revolution in 2004 was that people lost the will to protest. Political demonstration even became an entirely artificial affair, with being-paid-to-protest becoming big business in Ukraine. So the return of real protests changes things dramatically. Participants at the first big demo held up signs saying “we are not paid”. The authorities are relying on the tired and discredited narrative that this is an artificial protest, ‘”paid for” by domestic oligarchs or foreign powers. At least in Kiev, everyone knows this is false. (more…)

Ukraine: Provoking the Euromaidan

Sean LHanley3 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

Sean LHanley21 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?

Sean LHanley7 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

Sean LHanley30 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

Sean LHanley23 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

Sean LHanley18 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…)