Gender and Loyalty in Russian Political Theater: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Is Russia catching up to the West in the realm of gender-equitable politics? Judging from the rise of former St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko, it could be.

This week, senators unanimously elected Matvienko speaker of the Federation Council, putting her just a rung beneath Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the ladder of executive power. A member of Putin’s United Russia Party, Matvienko straightaway squelched any hopes that she might tamper with the country’s “managed democracy.”

“I’m not a supporter of revolutions, populism, or radical decisions," the newspaper Vedomosti quoted her as saying. "Experience has shown that they hurt the cause.”

Any proposals Russia’s top woman advances will probably have to win the approval of the top man. In 2005 she was, after all, re-nominated to her gubernatorial post in Saint Petersburg by Putin himself, though President Dmitri Medvedev took the initiative in orchestrating her promotion to the Federation Council.

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One of the more mysterious events of recent weeks has been the sudden and public decision of Mikhail Prokhorov, erstwhile nickel magnate and current New Jersey Nets owner, to relinquish the leadership of the liberal Right Cause party.

In an op-ed for the Moscow Times, opposition blogger Yulia Latynina presented a plausible explanation: Prokhorov didn’t want to play a role in the Kremlin's imitation of democracy. Latynina contends that Vladimir Surkov, Medvedev’s first deputy chief of staff and one of Putin’s right-hand men, "needed to add a liberal party to their ‘multiparty system,’ and then turned around and told Prokhorov that the Kremlin needed his help,” presumably to finesse the “managed democracy’s” Potemkin façade. “When Surkov’s flunkies tried to exploit Prokhorov for their own political ends, he told them just where they could go.”

Latynina harbors no illusions that Prokhorov’s ouster will redound to the disfavor of “puppet master” Surkov: “Will this be the banana peel on which Surkov finally slips, falls and never gets up again? Probably not.”

Writing in his Live Journal blog, Prokhorov himself confessed to a naiveté one would never have suspected in an aspiring key player in Russia’s Machievellian political drama: “Despite my twenty years in business, I still had some illusions. Yesterday I was disabused of them.” It turns out that in politics, he concluded, one must “easily renounce oneself and the obligations one has assumed. I don’t want to learn how to do this.”

Perhaps this is laudable. Yet what Prokhorov had planned to do, reported The Moscow Times, was “organize Orange Revolution-style tent camps in a faux opposition drive to win seats in the State Duma elections, a senior party official said Tuesday.” Such a ruckus would have confronted the authorities with a make-believe scenario out of their worst nightmares, and had the potential to get out of control. "’It was good that we got rid of him before he was elected to the Duma,’ said the official.”

Meanwhile, the political machine Prokhorov hoped to confront has scored some victories. Last week, according to the web site of the press service of the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, United Russia’s Chechen branch convened in Grozny for primaries that chose the potential candidate for State Duma polls to be held in December. The winner: President Kadyrov, who garnered no less than 100 percent of the votes.

That Putin’s United Russia should win every single vote in a republic still reeling from the effects of the second Chechen war, launched by then Prime Minister Putin in 1999, will seem entirely unremarkable to seasoned Russia watchers. What, however, is astonishing is the Putin government's success in Strasburg’s European Court of Human Rights. Kommersant informed its readers that the Court, though upbraiding Russian government for various violations, “saw no political motivation” in its “prosecution of Yukos,” the now-defunct oil company dismantled on Putin’s orders and once headed by potential Putin rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “The court did not rule on the question of compensation, and pointed out that the parties can come to agreement on their own.” The Russian authorities, wrote the Russian justice system’s web site RAPSI, pronounced the ruling a “colossal victory.”

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Political machinations may well worry Russians less than the constant missteps of those who operate its transport infrastructure. This week, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets provided some confirmation of what seemed an absurd possibility: that a September 7 plane crash, which killed the entire roster of the popular Lokomotiv hockey team, originated with the pilot’s failure to disengage the plane’s parking brake. The Intergovernmental Aviation Committee declared that “’extra braking force did not let the Yak-42 airplane that crashed near Yaroslavl gain enough speed to take off.” The plane's “take-off mass and center of gravity did not exceed permitted limits. . . Twice the pilots verified the plane’s operating systems . . . Put simply, everything was normal.”

The article concluded by posing “what is probably the main question: Seeing that that something was wrong with the plane, and that its speed was increasing too slowly, why did the pilots decide not to brake, but to continue their take-off?”

That is a question the aggrieved family, friends, and fans of Lokomotiv will surely want answered.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Sep/23/2011 20:32 GMT