Staunton, June 13 – The release of Ivan Golunov and the firing of two senior interior ministry generals who had been in charge of the units that had faked the case against him prompted self-celebratory feelings among the Russian opposition and Western observers that the Putin regime was turning away from authoritarianism and repression.
But as independent Moscow security affairs commentator Aleksandr Golts points out, “these hopes for liberalization lasted less than a day.” When some 1500 to 2000 Muscovites demonstrated to demand that other victims of the regime’s harsh approach be released, the powers that be detained more than 500 of them (ej.ru/?a=note&id=33855).
“The signal was completely obvious,” he continues. “Social activists were given to understand that you were able to get Golunov only as a result of a combination of circumstances unfortunate for us siloviki, but don’t expect any weakening. We will not release anyone. The Kremlin is convinced that arbitrariness remains an effective means of rule.”
And “that is how things are going to continue.”
Indeed, Golts says, “now Putin only tighten the screws further,” using “police clubs to ensure what his regime calls “’stability.’” But that is not the end of history. By placing its bets exclusively on repression, “the Kremlin has closed off for itself the chance to reduce pressure” by talking with the people. No one is going to believe it anymore.
“At the same time,” however, yesterday’s march showed yet again “the main problem of the domestic opposition – its organic inability to reach agreement on tactics. For radical changes in the country, the inability of those above to rule and those below to live in the old may must be added the presence in the country of an authoritative political force capable of putting forth slogans which would be shared by a significant portion of the population.”
According to Golts, “it is possible that such slogans could be demands to end police arbitrariness from which today suffer entire strata of Russian society,” to change Russian laws that the authorities find easy to use against it and to insist that the Russian Constitution be followed.
Indeed, he concludes, “it is not excluded that the struggle to do away with these repressive paragraphs and repressive practice could unity various opposition forces just as at the end of the 1980s, they were united in the struggle to get rid of the vaunted sixth paragraph of the Soviet constitution” which institutionalized the power of the communist party.
Golts does not say, but others have that what has occurred in Moscow over the last several days is the latest playing out of the old Russian principle that holds the tsar is good but the boyars are bad, that the supreme leader is right and that unfortunately those who rule in his name are not always up to his standards.
That view has infected Russians, including those who oppose regimes, for a long time. What is tragic is that it is now being promoted among Western elites who may fall for it as well. In a commentary in The Moscow Times, Alexey Eremenko tried out this ideological weapon (themoscowtimes.com/2019/06/13/the-golunov-case-exposes-russias-submerged-state-a65995).
He suggested that “the Golunov case exposes Russia’s ‘submerged state,’” on in which “even Putin’s brightest plans can be derailed by a single official far down the chain of command,” as if what happened to Golunov was not done with Putin’s approval or even at his order. Ermenko says “businesses and foreign investors would do well to remember that.”
That view was a feature of late Soviet times as well, when every positive development in the USSR was credited to Mikhail Gorbachev and every negative event blamed on his opponents within the regime. And so it is perhaps no surprise that some in Moscow think they can relay on the good tsar-bad boyars argument abroad as well as at home once again.
The mass arrests in Moscow should be enough to dispel such thinking. Unfortunately, history suggests, they won’t be enough to do so in either place.