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Resistance Isn't Futile

"All hail Emperor Putin!"
"All hail Emperor Putin!"

Authorities in Krasnodar announce that they will monitor a concert by the popular musician Noize MC for extremism after the liberal-minded rapper criticized Russia's policies in Ukraine.

Local Cossacks in a St. Petersburg suburb unveil a statue depicting Vladimir Putin as a Roman emperor.

The State Duma approves legislation criminalizing "undesirable organizations."

A pro-Kremlin institute unveils a computer program that will trawl social networks in search of chatter about unauthorized protests -- and report it to the authorities.

The latest petty harassment of a socially conscious artist. Yet another cartoonish exaltation of the national leader. And the creation of a couple more blunt instruments to repress dissent.

Just another month in the brave new Russia.

In fact, these signs of the times happen so often these days that you can easily miss them. What would have been shocking a couple years back has now become routine.

And that's exactly the point. The tsunami of Putin-worshipping nationalism and the avalanche of smothering political oppression is designed to overwhelm and send a crystal-clear message: "Resistance Is Futile."

And it's working for now.

"For a short time, during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Russians like me began to hope that the country had finally become a part of Europe. Now I feel nothing but fear," the liberal Russian economist Yevgeny Gontmakher wrote in a recent commentary in Vedomosti.

But it's not just people like Gontmakher who are afraid. The current deluge of over-the-top suppression of dissent signifies a regime that is absolutely terrified of its own people.

Putin may be enjoying stratospheric approval ratings now, but Russia's rulers also know they've been running a scam.

They know they've been peddling bread, circuses, and cheap nationalism to the masses as a corrupt elite enriches itself. And as living standards decline and the patriotic euphoria from the Ukraine crisis fades, they know the bubble can burst at any moment.

They know that eventually, people will wake up to the fact that they have been sold a bill of goods.

Writing in Bloomberg, the self-exiled Russian political commentator Leonid Bershidsky described the notion "that Russia should occupy the Soviet Union's onetime prominent place in the world" as "one of the pillars" of Putin's ideological appeal. But "that aspiration," he added, "keeps hitting snags in areas where the Soviet Union excelled," such as sports and science.

"Even as Putin uses propaganda to raise the hopes of revanchist Russians, he's unable to deliver on his promises," Bershidsky wrote.

"He's unable to create Soviet-style showcases meant to demonstrate the nation's power to the world, such as the aerospace industry that sent the first satellite and the first man into space, or the invincible U.S.S.R. ice-hockey machine."

And Bershidsky noted that "failure to repeat Soviet glories" -- highlighted by the recent crash of a Proton-M rocket 10 minutes after takeoff and the Russian national hockey team's crushing defeat and unsportsmanlike behavior in this weekend's world championships -- "hurts Putin more than higher inflation and lower wages."

Noting that "in the 70 years of Soviet communism, Russians endured much worse economic hardship for the sake of living in a proud superpower, Bershidsky wrote that "Putin needs to deliver more world-beating successes for his nostalgia-based strategy to triumph." And his inability to do this, "makes him vulnerable."

And as Gontmakher notes in his commentary in Vedomosti, it isn't just a dearth of glories that makes the Putin system hollow.

"He concentrated all power in his hands and imposed a strict monopoly on political ideas without a clear vision," he wrote. "As a result, we are on a road that has not yet been built. The construction work is being done just a few meters ahead of us."

But despite how disheartened and afraid Gontmakher says he is, he also sees the regime as mortal -- and says liberal Russians need to be prepared for its demise.

"Sooner or later the Putin era will come to an end," he wrote.

"So many times in the history of Russia, the old elite left the Kremlin, taking their ideology with them, and giving the country the chance to start on a new path. When this happens we will need all of civil society's skills and resources. And now is the time to develop them."

The wave of repression isn't the only sign that that Russia's rulers are getting jittery and are fortifying the barricades.

The authorities are considering holding State Duma elections scheduled for December 2016 three months earlier, in September.

According to a report in RBK, the Kremlin has concluded that it makes sense to move the elections forward because "in September, it will still be warm and voter turnout will be low," which "seriously reduces the chances of opposition parties and candidates."

If a regime with more than 80 percent support is so insecure that it needs to manipulate the dates of parliamentary elections, perhaps resistance isn't so futile after all.

-- Brian Whitmore

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


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