Monday, February 17, 2014

The Long Russian Winter of Vladimir Putin

by Nomad

Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be as popular as he once was. Of late his policies both internationally and domestically have raised more than a few eyebrows. 
While it may not be a return to the days of the Cold War,  many in the West might be thinking the present chill in relations seems much more like an awfully long Russian winter.

Putin's PR Problem
 recent Gallup poll suggests that a majority of Americans now take a negative view of Russia, more so that any time in the last two decades.
Only 34 percent of poll respondents have a favorable view of Russia, while 60 percent have an unfavorable view. This is quite a swing since 2012 when only 44 percent had an unfavorable view in 2012.
As we shall see, analysts have a barrel-full of reasons to explain this decline. Russia's handling of Greenpeace and Pussy Riot activists, anti-gay laws and the whole Edward Snowden affair  may all have played a role in the Russian public relations problem. 
Since politics in the former Soviet nation is too often a one-man arrangement, it's no great surprise that this dislike seems to be focused on  Russia's leader.

The poll also found that the 61-year-old Russian president, Vladimir Putin has also become an unpopular figure among Americans with a steady rise in unpopularity since 2002, starting at 18 percent to the present figure of a whopping 63 percent this year. 

Interestingly, Americans aren't alone in their view of Putin. Europe too might be a little less than pleased.
In particular, European leaders are growing concerned. Russian policy in Ukraine has created a serious rift with Europe, the tone of which we haven't seen since the days of the Cold War. When Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, warned European leaders not to 'test Putin’s patience' it was hard to ignore that things had sunk pretty low.

Imperial- a word long reserved only for Western nations-, was now being used to describe Russian policy toward its neighbors. It was a wake up call for those who had once considered Russia a their European partner. Chatham House recorded the sense of concern in Europe last month:
The alarm only underscores differences of principle and purpose. For the EU, the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbours is a foundation of the post-Cold War order. This means they have freedom to choose their goals and partners. It also means freedom from economic coercion, a principle enshrined in the 1994 Budapest document, which Russia signed.
European leaders had an uncharacteristically strong reply to the ambassador's veiled threat. Herman van Rompuy, European Council president. said
“Actions taken by Russia [towards] Eastern Partnership countries are incompatible with how international relations should function on our continent in the 21st century,”
Russia’s actions, he added, breached international treaties giving sovereign countries the right to “freely define relations” with other states.
(That is about as strong as you'll get from Europe.)

On the Inside
Even domestically, Putin's has lost much of his earlier appeal. His approval ratings inside his country have fallen to their lowest levels in more than 13 years.
A survey by the independent Levada agency found 61 percent of respondents voiced approval for Putin's performance in November, down from 64 percent in October and the previous low this year of 62 percent, recorded in January.
While those are the kind of numbers most leaders would dance with joy for, in Russia it is surprising fall from grace for Putin. The latest figure represents the lowest rating since 2000, when he took office. His first two terms, Putin's approval rating was well over 70 percent. (Nevertheless, Putin's lowest number is far higher than Obama's, which, at the latest reckoning, hovers around 41 percent or so.)

Putin's sliding ratings are blamed on rising prices and the lack of any positive change in the economy. It makes a big change from the early days of Putin's leadership. 
Back then,  real incomes increased by a factor of 2.5, real wages more than tripled; unemployment and poverty more than halved and the Russians' self-assessed life satisfaction rose significantly.

As one Congressional Report noted in 2009 after a decade of impressive growth, the Russian economy took a big hit from the world recession. One reason for that was the country's dependence on the production and export of oil, gas, and other natural resources. While oil prices were high and the economy was growing, the report states,  Russia failed to complete necessary economic reforms. 
The failure of Russia to complete important economic reforms and the government’s penchant for re-asserting its control over key economic sectors loom among the possible roadblocks to a return to high economic growth rates down the road.
In fact, according to the World Bank, despite a slowdown last year, the growth in the Russian economy was at a respectable 3.1 percent, compared to the the US economy's annual growth rate of 4.1% in 2013. Consumption- which had been the main driver in the past- has expanded at much slower rate. Investment activities have tapered off as well, probably due to deep skepticism in the economic future.

Still, this is Putin's Russia. And so the news is always good, even when it's not.

Press Repression
(Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe)
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, being a journalist in Russia, especially in Putin's Russia, is not an occupation for babies or people who love life too excessively. Here's a list of the journalists killed since 1990. (Admittedly not all of those deaths can be attributed to repression by the government. However, the government intolerance to criticism in the press surely plays a factor.) 

In any case, Putin's relationship with the press is quite unlike anything we think of as normal in the West. As Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, points out:
The already repressive press freedom environment in Russia declined even further with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, as authorities relied on both crude and sophisticated forms of media management to distract the public from terrorist attacks, economic troubles, and anti government protests. The government maintained its grip on key television outlets and tightened controls over the internet during the year, and most state and privately owned mass media engaged in blatant propaganda that glorified the country’s national leaders and fostered an image of political pluralism—especially in the months ahead of Putin’s victory in the March presidential election.
Under Putin, the free press has been reduced to a mere propaganda machine and voices of dissent have been reduced to a whisper in the dark. The usual defense that America is just as bad doesn't hold much water after a quick read of the Freedom House report. The report also says:
In the summer and fall of 2012, Putin and the parliament—controlled by his United Russia party—approved a series of repressive, vaguely worded measures that significantly expanded the array of regulatory tools available to stifle legitimate news reporting on politically embarrassing issues and limit the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on media matters.
When Americans complain about net neutrality, the Russian legislators must be laughing their heads off. Great Internet progress has been made here in free Russia, they'd tell the net activists, but it's just not the kind of progress most in the West would appreciate.
Here's what Freedom House has to say about Russian Internet:
In addition, a vague, restrictive law that came into force [which] granted the state telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor broad authority to shutter websites, ostensibly to protect children from harmful information. In the first month of the law’s implementation, Roskomnadzor blocked 4,640 websites for allegedly containing “offensive content” related to drugs and pornography. Internet service providers were already required to block content on a government-maintained list of “extremist materials.” Critics of the restrictions alleged that the growing role of the internet as an alternative source of news had prompted the authorities to expand their control over web-based content.
This kind of repression is exactly the kind that would turn off young idealists who look for an alternative to Western imperialism. In short, for people looking for a better world in the making, don't get off the freedom train at Putin-ville.   
And all of the bells and whistles at Sochi cannot hide that fact.

Ukraine: Threats and Hypocrisies
Most journalists in Russia would tell you it is much safer to stay on the side of the Russia government no matter how hypocritical they may seem. But sometimes it all becomes too silly not to laugh.

For example, despite months of criticizing America's NSA spying activities, the Russian Television - not to be confused with independent news- did not hesitate to use secretly recorded conversations between US diplomats in order to embarrass the Obama administration. 

Worse still, the point of the reporting on RT was to prove that the US was interfering in Ukraine's independent sovereignty. This is in itself laughable since, as Forbes pointed out, the Ukraine problem is Putin's baby.
When he bullied Yanukovych so publicly into ditching the EU and opting for the Eurasian Union, what did Putin think would happen?...

Result, Ukraine becomes – or goes back to being – another supine satellite of Moscow, with a strongman doing the Kremlin’s bidding.
The situation did not improve when, with Russian approval, President Viktor Yanukovych pushed through laws to criminalize demonstrations.  It was almost literally adding fuel to the already burning fires.

In December last year, jailed former prime minister of Ukraine,  Yulia Tymoshenko bluntly stated the obvious. By signing a package of public and secret documents on December, 17th with Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovych deliberately put Ukraine under the political, military, energy, financial and economic control of the Russian Federation. 
She said:
The results of these agreements will be gradually implemented in the long-term strategic perspective until the creation of a single state entity under the complete domination of Russia and the gradual absorption of our state sovereignty,”
Forbes was one of the few Western news outlets that pointed out Putin's hypocrisy when he called out Western interference.
Putin has spent the last 15 years shamelessly berating America for destabilizing interventions around the world. Look at his record: Chechnya, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Syria. And all those Russian journalists and whistleblowers who paid with their lives. For some reason nobody holds Putin to account for the cumulative horrors of his rule. An American President with that record would be driven to derangement by his own media, let alone by global opinion.
(Incidentally, a Google search for Russian interference in Ukraine reveals pages and pages of Russians warning other nations about their interference. This shows how well Russia can control the narrative.)
There are plenty of fingers in the Ukrainian pie. Nobody's disputing that point. But Putin has only himself to blame for it.

Master of Wordplay
Putin, like many a Russian politician, is a master of wordplay and the nuanced meaning. It is a highly evolved art, that even puts a word-meister like Obama into the junior league. In his annual state of the nation address, he said that his country no longer aspires to be "some kind of superpower."
“We do not infringe on anyone’s interests, we do not force our patronage on anyone, or try to teach anyone how to live.”
A noble sounding sentiment to be sure but it's also a statement is so full of caveats and one that would require such clarification as to be completely meaningless in the real world. What does he mean by "infringe"?  

According to the Guardian in 2012, Russia admitted to having military advisers in Syria, training the Assad's soldiers how to use Russian weapons. They have also helped repair and maintain Syrian weapons. The same weapons that have brought untold misery on the unarmed population in cities like Homs. Isn't that infringement in interests (and lives) of Syrians?

When Russia used its veto in the UN Security Council time after time to block any kind of action, critics claimed that it was exactly for the sake of patronage. But then, what is Putin's definition of "patronage"?  
If patronage doesn't mean supplying Assad with military hardware like, as the New York Times reported, vintage Soviet battle tanks, Soviet-designed truck-mounted rocket launchers and two models of a self-propelled howitzer whose flowery names in Russian, Gvozdika and Akatsiya (Carnation and Acacia), then Putin is correct.
If patronage doesn't mean unshakable support in exchange for the continued hosting of the Russian naval facility in Tartus- last Russian military facility outside the former Soviet Union- then Putin isn't being insincere.
However, most people would see the Russian president's policy in Syria as very much like a superpower policy.
But there's more to smirk at.

Arresting gay rights demonstrators at Sochi
(Martin Efron)
Moving Backwards on Human Rights
It has been said that how a nation treats its minority- rather than its appeasement to the majority- is the true mark of its progress. In that regard, Putin's Russia has become a disappointment for progressives around the world. Startlingly, Putin's ideas seemed to appeal more to the right-wingers.

In the same annual state of the union speech- indeed, in the next breath, after claiming not trying to teach the world how to live, Putin stated:
We know there are ever more people in the world who support our position in defense of the traditional values that for centuries have formed the moral foundation of civilization, putting traditional family values top of the list.”
One can be forgiven for taking Putin too seriously but to the Far Right in the US however, Putin was singing their song. Putin, of all people.

As far as Putin's claim that Russia does not wish "to teach anybody how to live" that is a what less diplomatic Russians would call "ерунда". By denying its gay citizens not only their equal rights but recognizing their very own existence in society, isn't Putin already establishing what kind of lifestyle is and is not acceptable for all Russians? He doesn't think so but the rest of world doesn't seem to be buying it.

One organization,  points out that the rights of minorities in Russia have been under attack:
increased racial discrimination and xenophobia across the Russian Federation have serious implications for many members of minorities living outside of their traditional homelands or in large cities.
The organization also notes that the Russian government has made attempts to define what is and what is not part of the national identity and to eliminate the distinctions between ethnic Russians and minority ethnic groups.  

Re-Defining Democracy
Many highly educated people will tell you that Russia is a democratic state, only in Russia they define democracy differently than we do. Again, it's a matter of semantics. True, it may not be a liberal democracy, they say, but it is a "majoritarian" democracy. In this model more stress is laid upon defending the traditional identity and sensibilities of a majority that feels itself under threat from what it sees as attacks by "aggressive minorities."
There's no definition what makes a minority passive and what makes one aggressive. Still it is an effective term to use.

An article in The Christian Science Monitor quotes the vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to President Putin in the past, Sergei Markov
"The definition of democracy in Russia is different from the West. In the West there are elaborate protections for minorities, whereas in Russia the protection of the majority is the priority. It's still democracy. Every country may choose between liberal democracy and majoritarian democracy. In Russia we tried to follow the liberal model in the 1990s, but it was disastrous. Russia found itself at the mercy of aggressive minorities, who robbed the country and undermined the position of the majority. Now the trend is that minorities must subordinate themselves to the interests of the majority."
Minorities are, in other words, thieves and enemies of the state. So much for "not teaching anybody how to live."And, remember, this is the intellectual argument.

It doesn't take too much research to find some fairly major problems with this view. The  phrase "the tyranny of the majority" has been around a long time. 
It was- along with the tyranny of one-man rule- something that John Adams  warned about way back in 1788. 
Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche and even, Tea Party favorite, Ayn Rand all wrote about the dangers of this kind of governance. 

In 1965, German philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist, Herbert Marcuse wrote in an extraordinary essay, Repressive Tolerance,  makes the best case against majority rule. 
For one thing, in a variety of ways, majorities can be manipulated, especially when all other open forums of discussion are limited: 
.. in a democracy with totalitarian organization, objectivity may fulfill a very different function, namely, to foster a mental attitude which tends to obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong.
In addition to that, there are traditional prejudices and long-held bias, religious-based intolerance and xenophobic thought that may affect the attitudes of the majority. 
In a totalitarian society, under a dictatorship, or in one-party states, the opinions and attitudes of the majority are not based on independent thought but by the manipulation of public opinion. 
Therefore, calling majority rule just another form of democracy is simply the usual Russian play of word-games.

Gay Rights as A Benchmark
Against that wider background of minority the gay issue could be seen by human right activists as a kind of benchmark of how Russia has slipped back. In the heady years after the collapse of the repressive Soviet Union in 1991, Russia liberalized some of its anti-LGBT laws. Most notably, homosexual relationships were decriminalized in 1993.
At the time, it seemed as though Russia was emerging for a long night of repression. Now it seems more like it was merely a brief intermission.

Russian Television attempted to justify the new laws when they were introduced. Obedient reporters tried to claim that the anti-gay propaganda laws were not as bad as the West media alleged.
It was embarrassing display.
"It's to protect the children" was an argument that the West hadn't heard since the days of Anita Bryant. It was, the reporters claimed, merely a defense of traditional marriage and traditional values. What's traditional?
Procreative, of course.
Thankfully, the US Supreme Court summarily dismissed that fallacious "traditional marriage means procreation" defense. (Childless couples are just as traditional, even the most conservative justices had to admit.)
Yet, there Russia was backwardly arguing that very point.

Today the European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ILGA-Europe, rates Russia  as the least protective country in Europe for LGBT citizens. Russian now ranks 49th out of the 49 European countries rated in its annual survey. 
Hardly something Mother Russia should be proud of. 

A Job For Life
In some ways, Vladimir Putin's is a classic success story- Russian Style. Using his advanced skills at dissembling, he has succeeded where others would have failed. Against the  odds, he has used every trick to hold on to power. And he doesn't seem very interested in leaving office anything soon.

Through some fancy foot work- Putin has gracefully danced around Russian constitutional terms limits on presidents. It was a devilish kind of political peek-a-boo with a twist: now you see him and now you keep seeing him.  He previously served as President from 2000 to 2008. then he switched titles, handing the title of presidency to  Dmitry Medvedev, to become Prime Minister of Russia, and then, in elections many believed to be fraudulent, he returned to the presidency. in 2012. Surprisingly he did nothing illegal.

Again the passion for the hidden meaning behind the fog of language applies to the Russian Constitution. While the constitution restricts the president's term to two consecutive terms  there's the catch. There's no limit to the number of terms, just a limit on successive terms.
Although Putin has held power since 2000, he only began his presidency in 2012. Therefore, it seems he could be in power until 2024. Furthermore Putin could retire for a few years, or do the old switcheroo again with the prime minster- and then return for another twelve year period.

By using constitutional loopholes like this, Putin may have found a job for life.