Friday, August 16, 2013

First they came for the Gays...

This blog is no fan of the regime of Vladimir Putin.

Russia has suffered enough authoritarian government and it has repeatedly ended in crisis as the inherent corruption of unchecked power brings the system to breakdown once more. 

At various points in Russian history, from the burning of the proto-democratic city of Novgorod by Ivan the Terrible in 1570, to the Great Terror of Stalin in the 1930s, the country has suffered catastrophe at the hands of a state appointed "gangster elite", whether called the Ophichniki, the Okrana, or the Cheka.

Vladimir Putin thinks that he is a man in the same mold as Ivan IV or Stalin- a strong leader who imposes order upon the fractious Russian body politic. Yet these leaders were ultimately failures- they murdered thousands or millions of Russians in their determination to crush dissent and impose order. Both were certainly monsters and probably both were mentally ill. 

In fact Putin is- thank God- not in the same class as his evil predecessors. His regime is as much a function of PR stunts and gimmicks as it is a function of the murder and intimidation of his enemies- although such murders have indeed taken place. Yet the reality is that the Putin government has used the iron rod relatively sparingly.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin is on the verge of a profound crisis and the probable collapse of its authority. 

The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as an action man- admittedly a deliberate contrast not only to President Yeltsin, but most of his Soviet predecessors too- has reached the level of an international joke. The heavy handed use of boycotts and selective border closings against neighbouring countries- Belarus as much as Ukraine- has reminded those countries how Russia continues to view itself as a hegemonic power in the "post Soviet" space. The aggressive support given to the Assad regime in Syria, after the failure of previous support to other Arab dictators, has alienated the West. Russia has continued to use the cold war language of strategic confrontation with the West, and acts on this language with a program of espionage more organised than at any time even in the cold war. Meanwhile, the Kremlin seeks to assert claims which are high disruptive of the international system and to back up these claims with a massive increase in arms expenditure. The virulent anti-American propaganda that the Kremlin pumps out day after day has reached the point where the United States can no longer dismiss it as the crassness of a sub-par government in Moscow. 

The Kremlin bases its claims to influence upon an economy that continues to struggle to adjust to the Post Soviet world. Putin's authoritarian government rests on the liquidity and largess generated by oil and gas. Gazprom, the national gas company of Russia has functioned as a state within a state and is said to be under Mr. Putin's personal control.  Yet as the United States both reduces its overall demand for energy and substitutes foreign gas imports for its own large domestic shale gas reserves, Gazprom has faced a transformed energy environment. From being an enormous cash cow, Gazprom has begun to create liabilities. The pressure on gas pipelines that previously "encouraged" downstream states to accede to the Putinist world view has now become an excuse to diversify supply away from Russia. Western Europe now regards dependency on Russian gas as a strategic weakness that must be eliminated as quickly as possible.

The response in the Kremlin to the weakening of Gazprom has been an attempt to create a Russian super-major oil company: Rosneft. Yet the hijacking of TNK and the assimilation of other assets which has propelled the company forward, apart from being of dubious legality, has also been extremely expensive. Rosneft has incurred at least $70 billion of debt, and the prospects for an early payback are dim, even with the oil price still above $100/bbl. Even despite this investment, which might have been seen as a major vote of confidence in the future of Russia, few are buying it. Capital continues to be exported from out of Kremlin control as fast as humanly possible- away from the trashy glitz of Moscow and St Petersburg, life in Russia continues to be a grim and short lived struggle for most Russians. The horrendous public health crisis that IV drug use has seeded- leading to the worlds fastest growing incidence of HIV/AIDS and MDR TB- is matched by poor diet and alcoholism to keep the average male Russian life expectancy at less than 60

But in the end "it's the economy, stupid", and the Russian economy is failing to attract investment on anything like the scale it needs to grow. As the Sochi Winter Olympics seems set fair to be the most expensive in history, it is clear that corruption continues to run rampant across the entire Russian economy, while legitimate investors and businesses are persecuted by the regime, presumably for the sin of not being under Kremlin control.

Ah yes, persecution. It is hard to characterise the ban on "gay propaganda" that the Putin regime has decreed as being anything except a witch hunt against a small, unpopular and vulnerable minority in Russian society. I have always tended to subscribe to the theory that if you call your opponent a Nazi, then you have already lost the argument, yet Stephen Fry's open letter to the IOC, where he makes precisely such a comparison I found both moving and appropriate.

The fact is that the Kremlin already fears that the game is up. Even as it seeks to embrace China as a new strategic partner, the Kremlin fears the dissolution of its power. The demonstrations on the streets of Russian cities are likely to grow, as the "electoral" cycle turns and anyone that poses even a theoretical threat to Putin is locked up. The economic situation in Russia is set to remain fragile, even if its main trading partners begin to recover. Of course Putin himself is already older than the average Russian male life expectancy, and shielded behind his PR wranglers, his understanding of the daily realities of his country is, at best, tenuous.

In such conditions it seems very likely that not only will repression against LGBT people increase significantly, but that repression will be extended far wider. The regime senses its own demise, yet in its dotage it will become more brutal and dangerous than ever. We can not exclude further military adventures such as the 2008 Georgia war (although, under Ivanishvili, Georgia itself appears to have fallen back under authoritarianism and is once again a Kremlin Satrap). 

NATO and the West face a period of great danger as the wounded bear may lash out, not merely in Syria, but in any other place where they have the capacity to disrupt Western interests. The outlook, both domestically and internationally for Russia is growing more dark by the day- Europe and the West must now take guard as the regime drifts into greater repression and ultimate collapse.

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