Six years ago I wrote an article for Prospect Magazine in which I argued that Vladimir Putin was highly unlikely to seek a return to the Russian presidency in 2012. It was an article that expressed my hope at the time that the incremental changes the country was seeing under then-president Dmitry Medvedev and the “reset” policy being pursued by his US counterpart Barack Obama offered genuine hope of lasting reform.
After the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on Friday, it’s hard to conclude anything other than I was wrong — and abjectly so.
In the intervening years there have been protests of an unprecedented scale on the streets of Moscow, with hundreds of thousands braving the bitter cold to voice their opposition to disputed parliamentary elections, and new opposition activists untainted by the lingering stench of the 1990s “shock therapy” privatisations that catapulted the lucky few into the billionaires’ club coming to the fore. There were, in other words, lots of reasons to hope that Russia’s future might be much brighter than its recent past.
However, that sunny picture must also confront the reality on the ground. Putin’s return heralded the unwinding of almost all of Medvedev’s tentative reforms. To name just a few examples:
- Putin scrapped a law introduced by Medvedev allowing for direct elections for regional governors, which are now once again in the gift of Moscow.
- Only 8 months into office, Putin reversed his predecessor’s attempt to decriminalise slander.
- Medvedev’s initiative to prevent government fiefdoms by capping the maximum age of official at 60 (or 65 under exceptional circumstances) was also scrapped, and the age limit raised to 70.
- His signature piece of legislation to prevent government officials from sitting on the boards of large companies has also been reversed — with the added bonus that, as Prime Minister, Medvedev himself had to propose the change.
- And, to add insult to injury, even his more modest achievements such as legislation to reduce the number of time zones in the country to make it easier to do business has been unwound.
Soon Dmitry will be the forgotten president (if he’s not already), notable mostly for the “granddad dance” craze he briefly spawned.
Moreover the days of a protest movement that could unite nationalists, liberals and communists now seems a distant dream. Putin came (back) to power intent on using the language of division to split the fragile truce between the protest groups and, by dividing, conquer.
In his inaugural address he framed his victory as the defeat of Western provocations:
“We showed that no one can direct us in anything! We were able to save ourselves from political provocations, which have one goal: to destroy Russian sovereignty and usurp power.”
This narrative of the dangerous “fifth column” of provocateurs intent on destabilising and destroying the Russian state worked in splintering the protest groups. That Pussy Riot’s stunt in an orthodox church became the cause célèbre of the protest movement in the Western press fed neatly into Putin’s hands, allowing him to paint the liberal factions as willing to insult Russian traditions.
However, in many ways his message has been too successful and there are increasing signs that it has bred dangerous divisions within the country. Opposition activists and journalists routinely face threats of violence (or worse) after being condemned as traitors by state-owned media while other voices have been squeezed out as the government continues its clampdown on foreign ownership of media companies and NGOs.
It has also meant the end of America’s attempt at a rapprochement with the Kremlin, as the former ambassador and Russian scholar Michael McFaul himself became the target of a campaign of harassment by Russian media. As Medvedev archly noted of McFaul: “He needs to realise that he is working in the Russian Federation, not in the United States of America.”
It is a tragedy that the country has turned in on itself in such a self-destructive manner, and one that is being paid for not by those in the Kremlin but in towns and cities across Russia (and, indeed, beyond its borders). It does not seem to far a stretch to say that the ongoing crisis in Ukraine represents the logical conclusion of a certain mentality. The mentality being that Russia’s neighbours are on the front-line of a battle to halt the encroachment of Western powers intent on forcing a revolution on the streets of Moscow.
Nemtsov’s association with the Yeltsin-era reforms made it impossible for him to be a unifying figure for the Russian opposition in life. Yet in the manner of his death, he symbolises to many the rotten core of the propaganda war.
It is a message that clearly resonated with the tens of thousands who once again took to the streets on the weekend — and just maybe, with the outpouring of anger at this callous act there may be reason to hope again.
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