Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Having Released ‘Obscurantism Genie,’ Putin Could Lose Control Over It, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – President Vladimir Putin’s decision to give official support to some of the most reactionary and vicious groups in Russian society in order to counter the increase in the number of the middle class who are appalled by his policies in this regard carries with it great risks for the future of the country, according to Yevgeny Gontmakher.

            Writing in yesterday’s “Vedomosti,” Gontmakher, one of Moscow’s leading social commentators, argues that the experience of other countries and of Russia in the past suggests that when a regime releases “the genie of obscurantism,” it may find it difficult if not impossible to put it back in the bottle (www.religiopolis.org/publications/5874-vybor-sdelaet-dzhinn.html).

            And while he suggests that the Russian government still has the opportunity to turn away from this strategy, Gontmakher concludes that its chances of doing so successfully are declining with each passing day, a situation that he suggests both the authorities and the Russian population should reflect upon.

            Until the end of 2011, the commentator writes, the Russian government took the view that it did not have to worry about public protests because it could portray them as marginal to Russian society as a whole. But since then, the Kremlin has decided that to survive it must set “one part of society” against another.

            If the leadership had simply followed “boring United Russian rhetoric” in this regard, then “there would not be any reason to be concerned about the fate of the country.” But what it has done is to engage in “an attempt … to seriously play on the prejudices, myths and other dark sides of the human personality.”

            That approach, manifested in official support for marginal groups, is affecting the larger society in ugly ways.  Some Russian parents don’t want their children to be in school with “’blacks.’” Instead, these otherwise externally well-bred people are now “seeking to transfer their child somewhere ‘more white.’” And those ugly attitudes have political consequences.

            “In any society,” Gontmakher points out, “there are marginal (criminals, political extremists, or simply destructive people), the behavior of which does not correspond to accepted norms. But as a rule, the overwhelming majority [and the governments which reflect their views] do not allow” such people to play any kind of prominent public role.

            But in Russia today, “we see a conscious attempt” by the government to use such people with their “nationalism and xenophobia, their isolationism and imperial attitudes, their Stalinism,” and other forms of religious and national extremism against those who are legitimately protesting what the government is doing.

            Because the protests of the latter seem to be losing momentum, the regime appears to believe that its new strategy is working. “But this is an illusion,” Gontmakher says.  Social problems are in fact intensifying, and as a result there will be a new wave of protests not only in Moscow and in St. Petersburg but around the country.

            What the regime is doing won’t stop that from happening, but it will have consequences, he writes.  “Historical experience shows that when the state provides this small cohort (consisting of only a few percent of the adult population) with its backing, this action is fraught, in the words of Stolypin with ‘great disturbances.’”

            There are three reasons for this, especially now, Gontmakher argues.  First, governments often lose control of such people as the experience of the Zubatov movement at the end of the imperial period shows. Second, this official support of extremist views legitimates them in the eyes of the broader population.

            As a result, he continues, “those prejudices and myths which among the overwhelming majority of society are in a latent state begin to show themselves” in the attitudes and actions of those who would never have done so earlier. 

            And third, such things will inevitably degrade Russia’s “international image” and make it less likely that foreign or even domestic investors will put money in a state whose support for marginal and extremist elements will make it an outcast among democratic and freedom-loving peoples.

            Vladimir Putin appears to think that he can manage this “genie,” using such extreme figures for his domestic needs but somehow remain “in the world civilizational mainstream involving democracy, a market economy and human rights.”  But Gontmakher insist, “sitting on two stools is difficult” as Russia found in 1917, Germany in 1933, and other countries since.

            It is true that this genie may not threaten Putin directly. He has the option of moving ever more in the direction of authoritarian rulers like North Korea’s Kim or Belarus’ Lukashenka.  But he must know from history that if he does so, he will be laying a mine beneath himself that at some point will explode, possibly leading to challenges from within his own elite.

            Gontmakher ends his article by saying that he is “convinced that chances to stop this and other scenarios like it still exist. But their number is falling with the adoption of each new law offensive to the active part of society  and with the seizure of federal television channels by ‘soldiers of the Empire,’ ‘Orthodox’ cliques, ‘Eurasians’ and others like them.”

            He says he hopes that even if arguments against using such marginal and obscurantist groups fail, the remaining elements of “good sense” among the authorities will be sufficient to cause Moscow to change its direction before it is too late.

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