Accessibility links

Electric Yerevan Exposes Kremlin's Mind-Set

  • Brian Whitmore

Civil society? What's that?

Civil society? What's that?

So imagine you're the Armenian president and are you're faced with massive street protests over electricity price hikes. The demonstrations have already paralyzed the capital. And they're growing and spreading to other cities.

So what do you do?

Well, if you are Russian State Duma Deputy Valery Rashkin, the answer is obvious: you kick out the American ambassador, of course!

"There are the only two countries in the post-Soviet space that are true friends of Russia: Belarus and Armenia," Rashkin told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia. "And this is why the Americans are trying with a vengeance to stage a colored putsch right under our noses."

You can learn a lot about a country from how it reacts to a popular uprising in its neighborhood. And this is especially true if the country is Russia and the uprising is in one of its former Soviet vassals.

Rashkin's remarks were part of a drumbeat of comments pouring out of official and semiofficial Moscow claiming that the protests in Armenia are a Western-backed coup attempt.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said the crisis was following the script of "colored revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine. Lawmaker Igor Morozov, a member of that same committee, said Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian needed to learn the lessons of Ukraine's Maidan and get tough -- or face an armed coup.

And political analyst and Kremlin surrogate Sergei Markov wrote on Facebook that the protests were "being directed from an external headquarters."

So everybody appears to have their predictable talking points lined up. And what does this all show us about Russia? A few things, actually.

The Kremlin Just Doesn't Get Civil Society

Russia's characterization of the protests as a Western plot is not only wildly off the mark -- it's deeply insulting to Armenians.

It denies the thousands of people who have taken to the streets and are braving police reprisals any agency of their own. In Moscow's eyes, they are nothing but pawns in the games of great powers.

And this points to the fact that the Kremlin is completely and utterly incapable of understanding that an independent civil society can exist. They can't wrap their heads around the simple notion that ordinary citizens can form voluntary associations to pressure their government in order to achieve political goals.

And it is this -- not a Western-backed coup -- that is happening in Yerevan. People in an economically struggling country are angry about electricity price hikes that are going to cut deeply into their disposable incomes. And they are taking to the streets. It's really that simple.

But for Moscow, there has to be a hidden hand. There has to be a plot.

And this insult has not been lost on Armenians. The opposition Zhamanak noted that "there is growing anti-Russian sentiment at the demonstrations" that is often directed at the state media. The paper noted that some protesters carried signs telling the state-run Rossia-24 television station to "get lost."

And the independent Aravot wrote that the "Russian propaganda tricks" were "laughable" and "nonsense."

Putin Regime Sees World In 19th-Century Terms

So if the Putin regime doesn't see -- or is unwilling to see -- something called civil society, what does it see?

For Russia's rulers, politics consists exclusively of states competing with each other -- or more precisely, great powers competing with each other.

Small countries and societies are there only to be manipulated in the struggle for advantage in this great game.

It's all very 19th-century. But with the Putin crew, given their background in the KGB, there's a bit of a twist.

In a recent commentary on, political analyst Igor Eidman noted that such "narrow specialists" as Putin and his siloviki entourage "often think exclusively within the framework of their own profession."

As a result, they sincerely believe that "the security services of rival countries" were behind popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and now Armenia.

"This corporate narrow-mindedness defined, a significant degree, Putin’s attitude toward the Kyiv Maidan," Eidman wrote. "Putin's ruling KGB seriously believed that their American colleagues were behind it all. This fed their vulnerable professional vanity and they decided to fight back at all cost and tilt at windmills, which led to a real war with real victims."

For them, policy is just one big covert op. Call it government by spetsoperatsia with a retro 19th-century mind-set -- John Le Carre meets Paul Kennedy.

Russia Can't Fight Corruption

The root cause of the Armenian protests is corruption. It is corruption that originates in Russia. And it is corruption that the Kremlin is utterly incapable -- and completely unwilling -- to deal with.

Armenia's utility regulator uncovered massive graft in the country's energy monopoly, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), which is fully owned by Russian energy giant Inter RAO UES. The regulatory commission established that ENA had been routinely overpaying suppliers and contractors -- activity that suggested kickback schemes.

And when ENA sought a 40.8 percent hike in tariffs to offset a $250 million debt, the Armenian authorities initially balked. But they eventually agreed to an increase of 16.7 percent effective in August, sparking the protests.

And the corruption that led to this crisis is an essential feature of Vladimir Putin's operating system. It's a tool he uses to establish control over Russia's elites.

It is also a key instrument in the Kremlin's foreign policy, where it is used to capture and manipulate elites abroad. Corrupt business schemes, whether involving murky gas deals in Ukraine or shady electricity schemes in Armenia, are central to Russia's efforts to secure control over the former Soviet space.

But there is a paradox. This very corruption that captures elites in the former Soviet space also serves to infuriate the public. This was the case in Ukraine and now it's the case in Armenia.

The Kremlin could resolve the Armenian crisis by reining in corruption at Inter RAO UES -- whose board is chaired by Putin crony Igor Sechin -- and by extension at ENA.

But as political commentator Leonid Bershidsky notes in Bloomberg View, it won't. Russia "would have done better to deal with corruption inside the companies it uses to exert influence in its former empire," Bershidsky writes.

"Moscow is unable to do that, however, because corruption is one of its main exports. It can only fight the symptoms, which often include popular discontent, as though they were part of a global conspiracy."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


Latest Podcast

Show comments