Friday, January 02, 2009

Can the Worm turn in Russia?

Much has been made of the unrest in the Russian Far East. That a relatively minor taxation change could create riots in Vladivostok has come as a surprise to everyone. However, as I have noted in the past, the Putinistas are on increasingly thin ice.

The emergence of a new, more coherent opposition grouping interestingly named "Solidarity" is obviously a welcome step, given how the factionalism of Russian democrats has been their principal downfall. That it comes at a time when the global economic crisis is placing increasing pressure on the post-Soviet government of United Russia and may help to articulate a real reform programme. Yet, we can not underestimate the scale of repression that Putin is able to deploy against his own people. The regime is well prepared for a period of violent discontent.

Yet the extremely rapid depletion of the long hoarded foreign currency reserves indicate that United Russia my run out of money before the bottom of the economic crisis is reached. The ill judged decision to try to defend the Rouble is proving incredibly expensive. As the evaporation of the Russian banking system becomes plainer, the fact is that, despite Putin's denial that there is any crisis, Russia is actually facing an even more serious position than the Western world- with all its major income streams collapsing at once and massive new liabilities to service at a time when it can no longer gain access to international capital.

All of this is matched by a collapse in political confidence inside Russia: according to some polls, the majority no longer trusts the state-run media to tell the truth, and they believe that the country is facing very serious problems. As of yet, these same polls do not detect more than a fairly gentle fall in support for Prime Minister Putin, meanwhile, perhaps underlining the difficulties of polls in Russia, the poll for the "Greatest Russian" showed very high support for the genocidal murderer, J. V. Stalin, who came third over all. Leaving aside the fact that his real name- Djugashvili- clearly betrays his non-Russian nationality, it does underline the large numbers still prepared to defend the vile and violent legacy of the Communist tyrant. Russia remains long way from a civil society.

The failures of Putin's economic policy grow more obvious by the day, but the regime has crushed nearly all alternatives- there is no "loyal opposition". Despite this, what is interesting is that such opposition as there is not coming from the quasi-Fascist groups like "Nashi" that many fear would be the primary beneficiary from the fall of Putinism. The reforming Liberals may yet emerge as the primary opposition - which could lead to a far more optimistic scenario than many, including myself have hitherto been fearing. Perhaps, when we said that these groups were Putin's creatures: created under his patronage to allow him to pose a a defender of the constitutional order, while nonetheless actually subverting it, we were more accurate than we knew.

Meanwhile, rumours swirl in Moscow that there is a real split between the constitutionally powerful President Medvedev and his actually powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. The next few months will see how genuine these rumours really are.

Russia remains an obvious threat- and the exercises that the Russian navy is conducting in the waters of Greece, a nominal NATO ally, underline the flaccid division of NATO about to how to deal with the challenge of an authoritarian government in Moscow. Yet the braggadocio of these more or less useless naval exercises a least keeps the fleet out of Ukrainian waters- where under the current tension, many Ukrainians would like to see them banished forever. The perennial January gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine is being treated as a bilateral issue, so far. However if the European Union truly wishes to make a statement to Moscow, it could do so, simply by getting involved and insisting on a faster agreement this year.

As "Mother Hubbard" Putin tries to find bones to pay off his greedy supporters and the increasingly alienated Russian population, the EU should make it clear that such bones can not come at the expense of Ukraine. That would be a clear signal that, notwithstanding the Kutznetsov cruising off Crete, the European Union will not be distracted from a growing insistence that Russia must either play by the rules... or get off the pitch.


Martin said...

Friends in St Petersburg tell me that the mutterings are becoming more and more vociferous.

I think there is a point at which saber rattling stops looking like an exercise in using power with responsibility and starts looking merely comical. One is reminded of Palmerston's Gun Boat Diplomacy, which eventually led to the ludicrous Don Pacifico affair, which discredited the whole policy.

Putin is starting to look past his sell by date to the average Russian. After all, if you start telling your people that you have become a great power again and then they see the collapse of their Stock Exchange, etc. sooner or later people will start to see that the Emperor has no clothes. Problems in Vladivostok? Watch Irkutsk. This 'liberal' Siberian City is always a good bell-weather. If I hear anything I'll let you know.

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