Staunton, November 15 – The Putin regime’s attempt to mobilize and direct civil society by unleashing “the genie of intolerance” has had the horrific consequence of leading to the spread of pogroms and pogrom-like activities by groups whose members feel they have the blessing of the authorities to act against others, according to Nikolay Gulbinsky.
In today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” the Moscow commentator says that “the situation in Russia ever more recalls the theater of the absurd” in which politicians call for banning plays, books, and films they have never seen or read, something that even Soviet leaders did only rarely (ng.ru/ng_politics/2016-11-15/15_6859_jinn.html).
It would be bad enough if such proposals were being made by individual political figures like Natalya Poklonskaya, Gulbinsky says; but unfortunately, standing behind her is “a certain movement with the name ‘The Tsar’s Cross’ and several other even less well-known social organizations.”
“In other words,” he continues, “the inquisition-like fervor of the former Crimean procurator and currently deputy from ‘the party of power,’ arose not by itself: she was fulfilling ‘the demand of her voters.’” And such involvement of “’the popular masses’ in repressive policy is … sad from the point of view of the country’s prospects.”
In recent months, there has been “a wave of pogroms” against art exhibits and people that groups encouraged by the regime to view as alien to Russian culture or the Orthodox Church have taken things into their own hands. Government organs are at least ostensibly not involved with these actions, even though they have encouraged them in various ways, Gulbinsky says.
But what is especially worrisome is that these groups have forced society and the state to bow to their will, something that raises many questions including “How and why does the authoritarian state being built in Russia now tolerate this?” and “why is [the state] so intolerant to completely peaceful protest actions at the same time?”
“To answer these questions,” the commentator says, one must look at recent history. When the USSR was falling apart, people talked about how civil society would arise and become a force for good. That was because most forgot Leo Tolstoy’s warning that “bad people willingly come together to achieve their goals while good ones somehow are unwilling to do so.”
Russia is hardly the only country where that is true, but because of its history, it has suffered more from this tendency than many others. And now, Russian civil society groups “having gained a certain strength and influence are beginning literally to tyrannize over citizens,” forcing them to hate what they hate and to back what they back.
The general view was that the Russian state should not be involved in creating and structuring Russian civil society, that the latter should have “the chance to develop without any interference from the state.” Such an arrangement was as absurd as expecting a garden to grow without a gardener. But that is what the Russian state did at first. Then it changed and made things even worse. The fruits of first neglect and then intervention are now clear to see.
Yeltsin did little to structure civil society, but when Vladimir Putin came to power, he sought to exploit what people called civil society to promote himself and his policies. He organized a series of youth organizations, the chief task of which was to support him and to “compromise liberal parties and nationalist movements.”
These groups achieved a great deal for him and because they were “entirely dependent” on the Presidential Administration,” they ceased their activities exactly when the Kremlin stopped financing them and called for them to disband. But then in response to the liberal demonstrations of 2011-2012, the situation changed and changed fundamentally.
In order to show his power, Putin needed groups that could stand up against the liberal demonstrators, and he used various means to call them forth, Gulbinsky says. He needed something more powerful than the Nashis of the past and so he turned to something much more potentially destabilizing and frightening.
The new groups of “civil society” consisted of “a varied conglomerate of nationalist, monarchist, ‘Orthodox,’ Stalinist and other movements and organizations which were united by only one thing – hostility to the ideas of liberal democracy,” the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” writer suggests.
They assembled on Poklonnaya Hill on February 4, 2012, under the nominal leadership of Sergey Kurginyan; but as a result of this meeting, “the signal was given” as to what the authorities wanted and would permit, “and society received the message.” New groups arose opposed to minorities, Ukraine and the West more generally.
Then, Gulbinsky says, the government “gave the radical nationalist groups a truly tsarist present having adopted in June 2013 a law about countering any denigration of the religious convictions and feelings of citizens,” a law which showed that for the state, “believers are a more valuable category of citizens than non-believers” and should be treated as such.
(For the ways in which radical Russian Orthodox groups in particular have accepted that notion, see among others the articles this week at kommersant.ru/doc/3136006, http://echo.msk.ru/blog/lev_ponomarev/1873914-echo/ and ixtc.org/2016/11/pravoslavnyy-terror-v-moskve-politsiya-i-sk-protiv-zaschitnikov-parka-torfyanka/.)
The sanctions regime against Russia and the failures of the Novorossiya project are forcing Vladimir Putin “to soften his anti-Western rhetoric and to look for opportunities for renewing dialogue with the West,” something many believe will now be more possible as a result of the election of Donald Trump as US president.
In such a situation, Putin has a vested interest in suppressing these radical civil society groups that he created and supported in various ways, not only because he has never been comfortable as the populist some view him as being but also because an authoritarian state can’t function well if such groups exist.
Today, Putin’s force structures are strong enough to suppress these groups, but doing so won’t be easy, Gulbinsky suggests, because putting the genie of intolerance back into the bottle is inevitably going to be more difficult and require more force than those who were happy to let it out in the first place now suppose.
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