Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Is Yet Another Putin Contract with the Russian People in Trouble?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 27 – Russian commentator Ilya Milshteyn says that “the best way” to describe the history of the Putin era is to outline the series of “implicit public agreements which the people have concluded with the powers that be,” each of which promised to be long-lasting but wasn’t and had to be replaced.

            The first, he suggests in a commentary today, was simple: Russians would back Vladimir Putin if he could bring order in their land not only by defeating the Chechens but by demonstrating that he was a real ruler and in charge of things, something that could not always be said of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin (svoboda.org/a/28199121.html).

            The second, Milshteyn continues, was the most prominent one in which Russians agreed to defer to Putin on all matters of high politics as long as he could ensure, using the money from the oil boom of the first decade of the century, that they would see their incomes rise and their standard of living improve.

            The third, he suggests, is the most interesting because Putin didn’t really want to accept it and took actions on his own to destroy it. That accord, Milshteyn says, involved a demand by Russians and especially those in Moscow and the other big cities that Putin stop lying to them about elections and other matters, something that led to the protests of 2011-2012.

            “For the first time in his presidential like, Putin didn’t like the new accord and he responded” by moving to replace it with a new one, based on deference to him for restoring Russia to the status of a great power as a result of his actions first in Ukraine and more recently in Syria.

            According to Milshteyn, “the Anschluss of Crimea and the war in the Donbass” were intended to achieve two of Putin’s goals: “a settling of accounts” with Ukraine and “the liquidation of civil society at home.” That gave him more freedom of action at home because no one was going to come out against him.

            And that has led to the fourth accord, he argues, one in which Russian support Putin and all his actions even the most notorious ones as in Aleppo despite the fact that his actions have led to a decline in their standard of living and to the danger that they or their relatives may die in a war in Syria or elsewhere. 

            There are obviously many questions Russians could and should be asking about Putin’s policies, but mostly they aren’t, the result of the patriotic upsurge he has promoted and the work of his media to ensure that no one asks those questions lest others begin to search for answers and wonder whether all their unspoken agreements with Putin have been misplaced.

            Seventeen years ago, most Russians felt that the accord with Putin was “both wise and mutually profitable.”  Few saw what it would mean for their society as a whole or how Putin would transmute it into something else as time passed. But more see the problems now even if they aren’t acting on them.

            Milshteyn concludes that Russians are now worried simply about surviving and argues the need Russians naturally feel for self-preservation, “which is stronger than other fears,” may be sufficient for a time to keep their questions in check and thus Putin in power until he can come up with another accord that may be even more disturbing.

            But if the Russian commentator thinks that likely, the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” offer a different view: They argue in a lead article today that “the powers that be” which is to say Putin “are able to defend themselves but they are far from always able to defend the lives of the citizens” (ng.ru/editorial/2016-12-27/2_6895_red.html).

                “The state, legislators, activists and guardians of morality are ready to protect Russians form everything: from harmful information on the Internet, from ‘incorrect’ films, exhibits, plays and museums, from distortions of the history of World War II, from foreign agents … from Western diktat, and from “an excess of foreign products on their shelves.

            But recent events show that the powers that be can’t guarantee that they can protect the most basic right of Russians, their right to life.  “On the contrary, they are constantly creating ever new risks for the lives of Russians. Russia is in the Syrian war,” and they can’t leave quickly without the spilling of more “Russian blood.”

            Putin and this regime can’t give a reasonable explanation for why Russia is mired in this war; but by getting Russia involved, they have “directly threatened the security of Russians abroad, beginning with tourists and ending with diplomats and military personnel,” the editors of the Moscow newspaper say.

            No one talked about this during the Duma campaign, the editors say. No one asked whether the state was doing everything possible “for the defense of the lives of Russians” or whether in fact the Kremlin was doing just the reverse.  As a result, there was no clear answer.  But if political life still exists in Russia, such questions must be asked – and answers given.

            Of course, “one can say,” the paper writes, “that in other countries people also die, including diplomats and peaceful citizens as a result of terrorist acts.” But there aren’t very many where the population has declared on a regular basis that gives “priority to security over rights and freedoms” or where the special services and law enforcement are given such broad latitude.

            “Almost everywhere, the death of people, catastrophes and terrorist acts are reflected in real politics and in the status of the powers that be,” the editors say. New laws are adopted and changes in policy and personnel are made.

            In Russia too, each new horror leads to new laws and new policies and new personnel, but they are all designed to defend the powers that be “from the political opposition and mass protests.” They do little or nothing to protect ordinary citizens. That, the editors imply, must change in the wake of the recent drumbeat of horrors.         

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