Monday, December 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Is Putin to Blame for Pre-Sochi Crackdown -- or Not?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 16 – Whenever something bad happens in Russia, the last refuge of  pro-regime commentators is to suggest that the ruler isn’t in charge and that underlings are to blame: the man in the Kremlin can thus continue to be given credit for anything good that happens but not be held responsible for anything bad.

            That was a regular feature of Gorbachev’s time when many in both Moscow and the West were lavish in praising the Soviet president for what they liked but almost desperate to shift responsibility and blame to others in his regime for the many terrible things like the crackdowns in the non-Russian republics that happened on his watch.

            (Of course, this pattern is not unknown in other countries where blaming subordinates rather than holding the person at the top responsibility can allow the official in power the opportunity to change direction without having to admit error. But the Russian case is distinctive because of the claims that those at the top routinely make.)

            But as the most thoughtful members of this group recognize and many other observers see, there is a there are two serious problems with this approach.  On the one hand, if a leader is strong enough to do positive things, he ought to be in a position to prevent or punish bad ones; and if he doesn’t or can’t, then perhaps he isn’t as strong as his supporters want to believe.

            And on the other, constant efforts to shift responsibility away from the ruler to the bureaucracy, while perhaps intended to allow the ruler the opportunity to change course, have the effect of highlighting the strength and even independence of the subordinates and rhaps unintentionally encouraging them to be more so.

            These reflections are prompted by a lead article in today’s “Vedomosti” that suggests the crackdown against environmentalists, journalists, and most recently Circassian activists in the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad is the result of “a struggle” by the force structures “for political influence and cash flows” (

            As the Moscow paper notes, all experts agree that this campaign is obviously linked to the Olympiad: “The authorities want to clear the territory around Sochi of the dissatisfied who could harm the image” of the country hosting the Games, and “no one thinks that [these actions] could negatively affect the development of events” after them.

            There is no mention of Putin’s role, however, except indirectly. “Vedomosti” says “the striving of the center to put financial flows under control is logical ... but in the current situation of the degradation of state institutions (in this case the courts), that can lead to the concentration of power in the hands of their competitors and strengthen the influence of the siloviki.”

             That some of the siloviki may have exceeded their authority in this case is likely, but that Putin is not behind what has happened is impossible to believe.  The Kremlin leader has attacked the groups that are now being attacked by his subordinates, and thus he must bear ultimate responsibility – unless someone wants to argue that he has is losing control of the situation.

            That question can’t be avoided especially when the actions of Russian officials are so counter-productive as is the case following the arrests of numerous Circassian activists in the North Caucasus on Friday.  Although they have been released subject to recall for questioning today, these arrests have re-energized the Circassian movement.

            Russian commentators had claimed with some justification that the Circassian effort to mobilize a boycott of the Sochi Games which are slated to take place on the site where the ancestors of today’s Circassians were subject to genocide by Russian forces in 1864 had fallen short.

            And these same commentators noted that Circassian efforts to get Moscow to accept the return to the North Caucasus of more of their co-ethnics from Syria, let alone the restoration of  single Circassian republic in the North Caucasus had appeared to be running out of steam in recent months.

            But the latest arrests, as Ekaterina Sokriyanskaya of Memorial points out, have changed the situation in fundamental ways.  The impact of this crackdown is just the reverse of what the Russian authorities had been hoping for and “now the Circassian theme will sound louder” than ever (

            She suggests that the powers that be, by equating the Circassians, the ecologists, and the journalists, none of whom have ever called for violence, with terrorists not only will outrage them but attract support to their cause precisely because the Russian authorities have overreached themselves.

            Diaspora Circassians held demonstrations in New York and other Western cities yesterday, events that attracted new attention to their cause.  And today, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reports, Circassians in the North Caucasus are considering holding a congress to call for a unified Circassia (

                Given this turn of events, it is easy to see why Putin might like to avoid responsibility for a crackdown gone wrong. What is less easy to accept is that there appear to be so many others in both Moscow and the West who remain quite prepared to help him do so.

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