Crooks, Thieves and Russian Stagnation: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

More than ten years ago, Vladimir Putin came to power partly on a wave of nationalist sentiment. Judging from the mood at a recent demonstration, Russia's nationalists no longer hold him in such high esteem.

“Down with the party of crooks and thieves!” was among the slogans aimed at Putin's United Russia Party at a march on Nov. 4 to mark “People’s Unity Day,” reported the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. As many as ten thousand Russian nationalists, escorted by hundreds of police officers and even a police helicopter, converged in a southern suburb of Moscow to carry out the “Russian March.” The anti-corruption chants mixed with more traditional fare such as “Russia is for Russians, Moscow for Muscovites!” Contrary to expectations, no violence or arrests were reported.

Live Journal published a photo series showing the often hooded and masked youths raising their fists and thrusting their middle fingers at the cameras. One unexpected participant was the highly esteemed anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, Navalny professed to see nothing dangerous in the Russian March, and said he had come to join in denouncing the crooks and thieves.

United Russia held a People’s Unity Day rally of its own that drew ten thousand people, according to RIA Novosti. The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi managed to attract no fewer than fifteen thousand.

Meanwhile, Russia's media suffered no shortage of scandal, repression and political intrigue. Former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov defied expectations and returned to Moscow to testify as a witness – not as a suspect, at least yet -- in an investigation into the alleged embezzlement of 12.7 billion rubles of municipal funds on his watch. “I intend to answer honestly all questions put to me,” RIA Novosti quoted Luzhkov as saying. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

In other news, the imprisoned former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky made a surprise cyber-appearance on the web site of the radio station Ekho Moskvy. He provided written answers, from jail in northern Russia, to listeners’ queries about a panoply of issues, including life behind bars, his future and that of Russia. He disavowed ambitions to run for president, though he considers himself a member of the “liberal intelligentsia,” and declared the “intelligentsia’s role in Russia” to be “not to struggle to gain power, but to change society.”

Calling Russia’s industrial base “30 to 50 years behind that of Europe,” Khodorkovsky warned that “we are on the brink of national suicide. Our attempt to hold on to imperial power, instead of trying to build a national state of law, has cost us very dearly.”

Putin, he wrote, has passed “the point of no return” and “won’t leave power on his own.” This leaves Russia to face “a long period of stagnation, political crisis, and a revolution” – “bloodless,” he hopes – that will result in a new government. “The task of the liberal intelligentsia is to defend the values of freedom and human rights during the years of stagnation, to soften the effects of the revolution, and become an active and constructive partner in the post-revolutionary coalition.”

In Russia for now, though, the intelligentsia is marginalized, and revolution, bloody or otherwise, hardly figures on anyone’s agenda. In an op-ed published in The Moscow Times, Vladimir Frolov, chief of the public-relations company LEFF Group, accused the ruling tandem of carrying out a “clumsy campaign to both embellish the rotten rule of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, best known for his extended period of stagnation, and to accentuate the ‘positives’ that the tandem’s extended reign would have in comparison with Brezhnev’s rule.”

Many former Soviets recall the Brezhnev era rather fondly, but not Frolov. In Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, according to Frolov, every feature of the “political and economic landscape was profaned by massive manipulation and imitation — from single-candidate elections to wasteful, nonsensical economic behavior. The state was a corrupt fraud bolstered by repression.”

In the supposedly capitalist Russia of today, “economic and business decisions are heavily skewed by systemic corruption that makes a mockery of normal market competition. This imitation, branded as ‘stability,’ is guarded by selective repression against potential challengers.” Furthermore, the members of the ruling tandem “have unleashed waves of cynical arguments justifying their decisions that violate the sense of dignity and self-respect of the Russian people.”

In such an atmosphere, the rude gestures of the youths in the Russian March seem, if not justified, then at least comprehensible.

* * *

Whatever its structural problems, Russia -- not long ago a major recipient of foreign aid -- is being called upon to take part in what might well be a Mission Impossible: saving the crisis-ridden Eurozone (as well as other economically troubled parts of the world). During a three-day visit, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde stumped for money, saying at a news conference that “the IMF would welcome additional funding” from emerging economies such as Russia, the Moscow Times reported.

Not so fast, said Vyacheslav Smolyaninov, a strategist at UralSib Capital: “Russia, which has the world's third-largest international reserves, is well positioned among emerging economies to help the euro zone, but it is crucial for the country to understand bailout mechanisms," the paper quoted him as saying. Smolyaninov ventured that his country would wait and see "how the situation will evolve in a year." By that time it may be too late.

(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- Nov/10/2011 17:30 GMT