Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Power Vertical

Russia's Patriotic Fix

Restoring the consensual hallucination?
Restoring the consensual hallucination?
We haven't heard much about the "party of swindlers and thieves" for some time now. There aren't so many exposes of officials' luxury villas in the south of France. And, by the way, when was the last time you read a snarky blog post about Vladimir Putin's Botox habit?

But we sure are hearing a lot about "national traitors" and "fascists" bent on undermining Russia's restored greatness. And the early 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera -- or at least a grotesque caricature of him -- has made a comeback as a national boogeyman.

In the space of a few months, Putin has managed to change the conversation.

The Kremlin no longer looks like it is out of ideas and running out of time. Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent. Even the ruling United Russia party -- you know, the one made up of all those swindlers and thieves -- is polling at 60 percent.

And the Kremlin's critics have been effectively silenced.

With the world's eyes on the Ukraine crisis, an ongoing crackdown on NGOs in Russia intensified this week with prosecutors conducting raids on organizations in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.

Independent media is being muzzled, bloggers are being stifled, and officials are dreaming up measures to squash dissent that make the crackdown of 2012-13 look almost quaint.

"The Ukrainian revolution is becoming the prelude to a Russian counterrevolution," political commentator and onetime Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently. 

And if you believe the polls, the public -- including that vaunted "creative class" that not long ago was clamoring for more pluralism and for a "Russia Without Putin" -- appears to be on board.

Writing this week in "The Moscow Times," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that Putin is in the process of forging a new "social contract" with the Russian people.

"His first social contract in the early and mid-2000s was based on the principle that most Russians would accept the government's restrictions on personal freedoms and democracy as long as they received higher standards of living," Ryzhkov wrote.

"Now, judging by the results of a recent Levada Center poll, most Russians have shifted their focus to another value: returning Russia to its great-power status. It seems that the ruling regime has found its political 'second wind' and if this wind continues to blow for the next couple of years, Putin's reelection in the 2018 presidential race is all but a given."

That is, assuming there is even an election in 2018.

Anybody remember Aleksei Navalny?  Not long ago, the anticorruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible. 

The man who coined, branded, and marketed the "swindlers and thieves" label is languishing under house arrest. And to add insult to injury, it is now forbidden for third parties to repost his blogs. 

"It is absolutely clear to me that it is just one more attempt to drive me into a corner," Navalny told reporters in April after a Moscow court found him guilty of slander.

Yes it is. And it appears to be working.

Navalny's blog remains active as ever -- but it isn't driving the conversation like it once did. Not even close.

And hand-in-hand with the euphoria of the Kremlin's counterrevolution come the delusions of grandeur.

Writing in "The New Yorker" magazine, Joshua Yaffa recently quoted an unidentified United Russia lawmaker as saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to describe Putin as living "in another world."  Putin, the deputy said, is "in a different league, he is in a dialogue with history."

The sea-change in the zeitgeist has indeed been dizzying. And it raises a crucial question. In resetting the national conversation, has Putin managed to alter the underlying dynamics of Russian politics?

Since late 2011, the tectonic plates beneath the political order seemed to be shifting decisively against the regime.

An emerging urban middle class that had grown wealthy, confident, and increasingly politically sophisticated was demanding change.

The elite was deeply divided between technocrats advocating political reform and economic modernization and hard-liners seeking to maintain the status quo.

And Putin himself seemed to be losing his aura of invincibility rapidly. His vital role as "The Decider" -- a trusted broker among elite factions -- appeared in jeopardy. There was even talk of a succession battle emerging among his most trusted lieutenants. 

Russia's economy, dangerously dependent on energy exports, appeared headed for a deep recession -- or worse.

It certainly looked like a perfect storm.

Now, with the patriotic fervor unleashed by the Crimea annexation and the Ukraine crisis, Putin seems to have his mojo back. He's The Decider again.

The elite remains divided, but those opposed to Putin's course have been largely cowed into silence.

And what longtime Kremlin-watcher (and "Power Vertical Podcast" co-host) Mark Galeotti calls the "consensual hallucination" that has sustained Putin's undisputed rule appears to be restored.

But, as Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent piece in "The American Interest," the patriotic wave Putin is riding is similar to a drug dependency. "He needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home, and foreign-policy victories are like cocaine when it comes to their impact on public opinion: the buzz of each hit soon wears off, leaving only the craving for another and larger dose," Mead wrote.

And cocaine is expensive.

Russia's economy is already taking a significant hit from the Ukraine crisis.

Capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 reached $63.7 billion, more than all of last year. The ruble has lost 6 percent against the dollar since January. GDP growth has been near zero throughout the year. Inflation is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in the second quarter. And the stock market remains vulnerable.

"If this process further develops, we can expect power struggles within the Russian elite that will be exacerbated once the scale and scope of the financial damage Putin has precipitated becomes clear," Avi Tiomkin, a hedge-fund adviser, wrote recently in "Forbes." 

"At that point, the ruling elite will conclude that Putin is not only no longer an asset, but has become a major liability. At the same time, Russian opposition parties and groups will be emboldened by the West's stance and expect support. This is when we may see a 'Russian Spring.'"

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Russian opposition,counterrevolution,patriotism

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Comment Sorting
by: Ray Finch from: Lawrence, KS
May 14, 2014 19:39
Nice post and most definitely agree that Putin appears to be on a roll. One minor disagreement; given that the Kremlin controls the national broadcasting, I’m not sure that Putin “needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home.” The 24/7 media bombardment will likely serve to keep support strong-at least until the oil and vodka run dry.
In Response

by: Bill
May 15, 2014 11:24
More like one-sided BS which can be easily refuted, much like your follow-up Ray.

On par with RFE/RL, many if not most of the national broadcasting segments in the US offer a negatively inaccurate overview of Ptiin and Russia at large. I'm glad to see that there're Russians and non-Russians who don't buy into that misinformation.

In Response

by: Ray Finch from: Lawrence, KS
May 15, 2014 13:29
On average, I spend 6 hours a day monitoring Russian media, both traditional (TV, radio newspapers) and social media (blogs). I’m not an expert in US media, but I have seen little evidence that that the US government has co-opted the major American media outlets to disparage Russia and stoke the flames of conflict. Spend a couple hours in the pro-Kremlin Russian information sphere if you want a strong dose of mis/disinformation.
In Response

by: Bill
May 16, 2014 19:31
Al Jazeera America and BBC America included, spend more time on US TV media and you'll clearly see a heavy US government influence. Plenty of disinformation.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
May 17, 2014 16:29
Bill is probably displeased that USA gives more time to BBC
and Al Jazeera than to Russia, that is a blunt lies!
About half of TV channels controlled by Russia and proxies:
Public TV channels, movies reran channels are all lying about
events in Ukraine, as they lied about events in Abkhazia and
South Ossetia and everything also to promote Russian "interests".
If one would call "interests" expansion of bestial macaques that breed in land and homes of other nations with genocide, threat of genocide, cleansing, expelling populations, breeding influx of Russians, their GRU-Spetcnaz-KGB, and "Anychars" .
If one would call "interests" modified "Iron Curtain" falling any
place Russians invade or infiltrate, kidnapping, torturing and murdering any opposition, from Abkhazia, East Moldova, South Ossetia, Crimea and now increasing attempts in Eastern Ukraine.
"You Tube" and most of other Forums are floated by insults and threats in any dirty language imaginable by multitude of Russian spies and proxies.
USA Public and some ethnic channels, including China, promoted any Russian damn lie by Secret Special Forces in Easter Ukraine as "Peoples will", while most of people there are also Ukrainians or supporters of Ukraine unity that afraid to say anything or leave their homes, being intimidated by Russian Nazi invaders!
On another hand, they minimize almost to a degree of mockery just stand and claims of Ukraine!
Movies rerun also fall in line, their selection of movies subliminally insert messages to justify Russian expansion and parade actors of Russian extraction in "timely" manner.
Most arrogant example - while Russians unleashed bestial genocide on millions of Afghan people, man, women and children - only bestially murdered about two millions, USA Russian proxies were running and rerunning a ridiculously stupid empty movie, with only one purpose, saying
"Afghanistan Bananistan" several times, to keep USA at bay with a shut mouth!
What Bill is crying about?
Some truth about Russian crimes in Ukraine and my posts here coming through and becoming annoying to Nazi Russia?
They silence people even in USA!
For my help to stop further invasion into Georgia in 2008 they tried kill me and were few times almost successful by poisons, infections and Lemurs – they made me catatonic, damaged my heart, my leg is still black, after being shot by modified
“Bulgarian pin” and washed three days by antibiotics…
My mother was bestially murdered in 2012 as vengeance with help of CIA, Russians promised to brake me to create and be plagiarized…
I am blocked by abstraction of Justice to go to courts!

by: La Russophobe from: USA
May 14, 2014 20:40
"Anybody remember Aleksei Navalny? Not long ago, the anticorruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible."

"Seemed to be" is the operative term. Those who said so were wrong, and should admit it. There were those of us who said so at the time, that Navalny was nothing like he was being painted and by no means a really significant opposition figure, and we were right. There was tremendous hysteria in some Western journalism circles over Navalny which was wholly unjustified and unfortunately served to draw much needed oxygen away from others who might have been more effective.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
May 15, 2014 04:37
The imperial Vryaga-Prussaka "shakalka" bitch,
If wouldn't lure victim into trap - will find words,
Being thought by GRU "Shtaby" make stench
Answer truth by lies, saying that it's we lying.

We cannot be brothers with the Varag nature,
Stolen from Northern-Eastern parts of a sword
Of Caucasian Worlds planes, bombs and tanks,
Moving on us crawling undercover-masks locust,

In Russian:
U imperskoy Varyazhsko-Prusskoy shakalki-suchki,
Esli i ne zamanit zhertvu v ovrag, est' chto skazat'.
Ee nauchili Staby GRU predatel'skim shtuchkam,
Na pravdu otvetit' lozhyu, dobaviv ty sam blyad'.

My ne budem brat'yami Varyazhskim povadkam,
Ukravshim u Severnoy i Vostochnoy chasti mecha
Kavkazskogo Mira pobedu, samolety, bomby i tanki,
Idet na nas vpolzaya zamaskirovavshayasya sarancha,

Putin say if Ukraine "lost", or if USA sanction them,
for conquering Ukraine, it would make Russians
create their own components for military complex.

It is were the problem started - Varag-Prussak hate us,
they stole from me and alike intellectual property, plagiarize with corrupted by them West, to receive first tested components as a shear of the loot.

What, plagiaristic races, if people Russia about to kidnap to have leverage in what Putin said, would help USA liberate itself from Russian proxies and telepaths, controlling USA
from CIA street tugs through President, and we will deny
such Intellectual property to Russians?

by: Sanders from: Helsinki
May 15, 2014 06:24
I don't believe there was ever the social contract #1. Because it does not explain why those Russians who have emigrated since the collapse of the Soviet Union and are now living in the West have always overwhelmingly and blindly supported whatever Putin does.

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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