The Question of 2012

Eighteen months from now, on March 11, 2012, Russia will hold what is still officially referred to as an “election” for president. Few doubt that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who left the Kremlin in 2008, but remained in power, wants to regain his old job (notwithstanding the latest Levada Center poll showing that only 27 percent of Russians want him back as president). Just this week, during the annual meeting of the Valdai Club, Mr. Putin repeated his line that it is “premature” to talk about 2012, but then, out of the blue, reminded his audience that “U.S. President [Franklin] Roosevelt was elected four times.” If this is indeed Mr. Putin’s goal, it means that his presidency would last until 2024 (two six-year terms from 2012). Such a scenario — as not only opposition leaders but, increasingly, the general public acknowledges — will be a disaster for the country.

Mr. Putin and the Truncheon

Many of Vladimir Putin’s public pronouncements, from his promise to “whack terrorists in the shithouse” to his advice to a French reporter to get circumcised so that he will have “nothing growing back,” appear more in need of a psychoanalysis than a political one. The Russian premier’s latest interview with Kommersant newspaper is no exception. In the space of a few sentences, Mr. Putin threatened the opposition with physical violence, asserted that Western countries follow the same model of managed succession as today’s Russia, and pretended to be ignorant of major developments in his own country — all of it in a vulgar street language more suited for a gang leader than a head of government.

A Rare Judgment in Moscow

In the Russian judicial system, an indictment almost automatically means a conviction. The average rate of acquittals in Russian courts currently stands at 2.4 percent — astonishingly, four times lower than under Stalin. When it comes to opposition leaders tried on political charges, the rate of acquittals drops to zero. Or at least it did until this week. On Tuesday, the leader of the Solidarity movement and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov walked free from Presnensky magistrate court in Moscow after it ruled that there was “not enough evidence” to send him to prison. Officially the case was returned to the police. De facto, according to Mr. Nemtsov’s legal team, this amounts to an acquittal.

First Victory for Russia’s Opposition

The last decade has brought endless setbacks for Russia’s pro-democracy forces. One after another, the regime claimed new targets in its drive to solidify power: media freedom, electoral competition, judicial independence, regional self-government. It is difficult to name what, if any, victories the opposition has scored against the rising authoritarian tide. Indeed, it seems there have been none – until this week.

On Monday Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party announced its shortlist of candidates for governor of Russia’s western-most region of Kaliningrad (one of the names on this list will be chosen by President Dmitri Medvedev). The list itself does not arouse much interest, except for one thing: it does not include Georgy Boos, the region’s current Putin-appointed United Russia governor.

Russian History Rewritten, Again

Russia is famously a country with an unpredictable past. With a brief exception of the 1990s, regimes of the day freely rewrote the historical narrative for their own expediency. A famous Soviet-era joke advised that the latest edition of the encyclopedia had a regrettable misprint: instead of “distinguished statesman, hero of socialist labor” the paragraph should read “enemy of the people, convicted foreign spy.”

Moscow’s Protest Square

Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow has been a symbol of protest for half a century. In 1960 a group of young activists inaugurated a tradition that led to the emergence of the dissident movement: every weekend they gathered here to read out poetry forbidden by Soviet authorities. These literary meetings, which attracted thousands of Muscovites, soon evolved into political discussions. “This was a very good idea,” recalls Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the original organizers, “We were not committing any crime, just reading poems. But of course only those who are against the Soviet system would come to listen to forbidden poetry.” The authorities did not tolerate this island of freedom for long: snowplows were sent to disperse the gatherings, Komsomol units beat up and detained participants, organizers received harsh prison sentences. The readings were stopped, but the tradition of political dissent born on Triumfalnaya in 1960 was to continue until the red flag was forever lowered over the Kremlin in 1991.

Kremlin Victory at The Hague

Behind the façade of a half-hearted objection to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the “independence” of Kosovo, Moscow was quietly celebrating. On July 22, by a vote of ten to four, the world’s highest judicial body overturned decades of legal precedent on sovereignty and territorial integrity by declaring the unilateral secession of the Serbian province of Kosovo to be lawful — a decision that validated the Kremlin’s recognition of two Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as “independent states.” Following the ICJ ruling, Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Shamba declared his region to be on “solid ground” in terms of its claim to secession.

Turning Russia into a Nuclear Dump

Après nous, le déluge
— Marquise de Pompadour (attributed), 1757

One can hardly think of a better example of authoritarian short-termism than turning one’s country into a nuclear waste dump in return for a quick profit. In June 2001 Vladimir Putin’s Unity party rammed through the Duma a bill allowing the importation of foreign nuclear waste for storage in Russia. The law was passed over the vehement protests of the (then still existent) parliamentary opposition by a vote of 243 to 125. Opponents of the bill, chiefly from the liberal Yabloko and SPSparties, argued that it is criminal to turn parts of the country into a radioactive wasteland. Supporters, both in the Kremlin and on the pro-government benches in the Duma, pointed to an estimated $20 billion that exporters of nuclear waste would pay into Russia’s coffers.

A Cold War Tradition Revived

Last week’s “spy swap” in Vienna revived a practice long thought to be confined to history books. Not since the Cold War days of 1986 have Washington and Moscow exchanged prisoners. The first such deal took place nearly half a century ago, on February 10, 1962, when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down during a reconnaissance flight over Soviet territory, was exchanged for New York-based KGB “illegal,” Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), on Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Germany. This marked the beginning of a time-honored tradition, though one that would later be modified. The Powers-Fisher exchange became the last one in which a US-Soviet transaction involved spies on both sides: after that, failed KGB operatives were exchanged for Soviet political prisoners.

Toeing Stalin’s Line on the Baltics

Every year the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation holds a commemoration ceremony in Washington, DC. The date is usually chosen around mid-June, to coincide with the anniversary of Stalin’s mass deportations from the occupied Baltic states in 1941, but the memorial is dedicated to all victims — more than 100 million people who perished at the hands of Communist regimes, from Moscow to Beijing, from Phnom Penh to Havana. Every year diplomatic representatives from former Communist countries lay wreaths and flowers at the foot of the Victims of Communism Memorial on the corner of Massachusetts and New Jersey Avenues. And every year the ceremony is marked by a glaring absence of diplomats from Russia — the country that lost millions of its people during the “red terror,” forced collectivization, Stalinist purges, and anti-religious campaigns of the 20th century.

Russia at Twenty

Russian anticommunists always balked when the outside world interchanged the words “Russian” and “Soviet,” equating a dictatorial system with a people it persecuted. This often reached a point of absurdity. Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent 12 years in prison in the 1960s and 1970s for political dissent, recalled how Western newspapers wrote about “Russian troops” invading Afghanistan and “Soviet academician” Andrei Sakharov protesting the invasion. Such substitution was not only ignorant but insulting to the memory of millions of Russians who perished in the Leninist-Stalinist state terror. Natalia Gorbanevskaya, one of the seven dissidents who staged a rally on Red Square on August 25, 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, wanted Russia to be the first republic to secede from the USSR.

The Prime Minister and the Rock Star

Vladimir Putin is not used to being embarrassed. Having long disposed of independent television, parliamentary opposition, and the inconvenience of competitive elections, the Russian premier does not need to worry about scrutiny. No wonder Mr. Putin’s heated, on-camera exchange with celebrated musician Yuri Shevchuk became an instant sensation.

Mr. Shevchuk is a legendary figure in Russian rock music. When he began organizing underground rock concerts in the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin was laboring as a junior officer in the Leningrad KGB (according to some accounts, in the department targeting political dissent). When Mr. Shevchuk was expelled by the KGB from his hometown of Ufa for nonconformist songs, Mr. Putin was preparing for a tour in East Germany, where he would earn his professional nickname, Stasi. In May 1993, when Mr. Putin was a midranking official in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, Mr. Shevchuk’s DDT band held an open-air rock concert on the city’s Palace Square for an audience of 120,000 people.

No 'Reset' for Britain and Russia

For Britain’s new government, the first coalition since 1945 and the first Tory-Liberal coalition since 1922, foreign affairs are understandably not a priority. With a budget deficit approaching the level of Greece, and the £6.2 billion ($8.9 billion) spending cuts about to be debated in Parliament, no international issue seems to get serious attention. Britain’s relations with Russia are no exception. Conservative and Liberal Democrat election manifestos each mentioned Russia once, and only in passing.

Victory Without Stalin

Last weekend the Allied powers celebrated the 65th anniversary of victory in World War II. For the first time in the history of Moscow’s Victory Day parades, 10,000 Russian troops were joined on Red Square by wartime allies: soldiers from Britain’s 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, the US 2nd Battalion, 18th Regiment, the Normandie-Niemen squadron from France, and the Polish armed forces. The ceremony was solemn and dignified. Politics, for the large part, was missing, though not completely: the president of Georgia was not invited, an absurd démarche since Georgian Meliton Kantaria was among the three Soviet soldiers who placed the flag of victory on the Reichstag on May 1, 1945 (the other two were Russian Mikhail Yegorov and Ukrainian Aleksei Berest).

Mr. Medvedev's Choice

This week marks Dmitry Medvedev’s midterm in the Kremlin—he was sworn in as president on May 7, 2008, formally replacing Vladimir Putin. The circumstances of Mr. Medvedev’s “election,” with two major opposition candidates disqualified from the ballot, ensured that he would come off as a stooge. Yet many, both in Russia and abroad, hoped that the new president would become a reformer and undo his mentor’s autocratic policies. History, after all, has known such precedents.


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