An ally of President Vladimir Putin is pushing to become Russia’s de facto deputy leader, marginalizing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Reuters reports.
The news coincides with reports of a rejuvenation of Russia civil society after some 10,000 protesters staged a mass “stroll” through central Moscow a week after a violent police crackdown on demonstrators criticizing Putin’s return to the presidency.
First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov (right) is calling for privatization and greater public spending, while fending off reports that corruption was a factor in his wife acquiring over $100 million from several investment deals with Russian oligarchs.
Putin’s ambitious new targets for economic growth have prompted skepticism from economists who suggest the decrees have all the credibility and coherence of Chinese Communist party leader Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.
“Some goals which in the Russian reality are achievable in 10-15 years have been squeezed into the six-year presidential term, trampling the laws of nature and economic development,” said Natalya Akindinova, an analyst with the Development Centre think tank.
The “haste and arrogance” with which Putin is forming his government and churning out policy statements “underscore another Orwellian feature of the emerging landscape — the lack of any transparent and competitive process for public policy development,” Moscow-based analyst Vladimir Frolov suggests. “There is just one man with a fountain pen.”
Russia’s democratic opposition has yet to determine a strategic consensus for developing a convincing, coherent alternative to Putinism.
“Some democratic activists are working to achieve political power at the local level,” writes former Moscow correspondent David Satter. “Others may decide the best way to fight a pseudo-democracy is in the streets.”
In any event, a capacity to mobilize constituencies beyond the traditional urban liberal elite and nurture a genuinely vibrant civil society will be critical to the opposition’s chances of success, say analysts.
Sunday’s demonstration signals “the birth of civil society which we in Russia have always had such a hard time with,” said Lyudmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s best-known novelists, while other participants believe the event indicates a shift in elite opinion.
“The intelligentsia has woken up,” Vladimir Nikipolsky, a taxi driver and poet, said. “We can no longer live under feudalism.”
The protesters’ quiet dignity presented a sharp contrast to the regime’s violent rhetoric.
Riot police acted “too softly” when they violently suppressed last weekend’s demonstration, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov said Peskov told him the protesters should “have their livers smeared on the sidewalk“.
Such comments raise the question of how long Putin “will be able to use old techniques, political technologies, to keep the lid on the pressure cooker of discontent,” says analyst Andrew Wilson. “In the new situation the political and economic cost to Putin of continued repression is considerably higher, but, most importantly, the Grand Illusion, which kept the ratings high, is now over.”
“My reading of this is that Mr. Putin was so obsessed with the unfavorable reaction of Muscovites to his coronation that he had to find some whipping boys,” he said.
Even though Putin hand-picked Medvedev for the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against term limits, he resented Medvedev’s ascent.
“Kicking Mr. Medvedev off to America just when he is supposed to be deciding on the Cabinet demonstrates to everyone, to the public, to the elites, to everyone seeking any kind of position, that he’s the boss and he’s the only person who matters,” added Piontkovsky, a former Reagan Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Putin’s “rude rebuff” to the Obama administration-hosted G8 summit suggests that “maybe it’s time to put human rights in Russia back on the agenda,” writes the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl.
He is critical of the administration’s opposition to the Magnitsky bill, designed to penalize Russian officials associated with the killing of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who exposed a $230?million embezzlement scheme implicating Russian tax and interior ministry officials. The bill will deny those officials U.S. visa rights, freeze their assets in U.S. banks and require the same penalties for other Russian officials complicit in human rights violations.
“This sanction strikes at the heart of the web of corruption around Putin,” says Diehl.
But one leading Russia analyst believes a deeper and wider accountability is needed before Russia
“Putin’s apparent desire to rule for life is leading his country toward a dangerous political confrontation,” writes Satter, the author of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, (Yale University Press, 2011).
The regime’s political base and legitimacy are narrower and more fragile than before, he suggests, even though Putin was reportedly elected president with 63.8% of the vote:
But a count carried out by the Golos Association, a Russian nonprofit founded in 2000 to protect the electoral rights of citizens, showed that the real figure was 50.75%. Even this could not have been achieved without banning many opposition candidates and putting the entire government at the service of Mr. Putin’s campaign. In the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, the pro-Putin United Russia party, which claimed to win a majority of seats, only received 30%-35% of the vote, according to Golos [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.]
Russia needs a body similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to review publicly not only the crimes of the Putin era but also crimes committed during the eight-year rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin,” Satter contends. “Only this can provide a basis for democracy.”
Sadly, no such accounting is likely in the short run, which is why the stage is now set for a struggle over Russia’s future in which neither side can be confident of success. What’s at stake is not just the country’s prosperity but its existence as a civilized society.
Putin’s “regal inauguration” offered a creepy, “distinctly Orwellian” scene, as his “motorcade traveled along dead-quiet, deserted streets from the White House to the Kremlin, while on nearby Moscow streets ordinary citizens were being beaten by police truncheons,” writes Vladimir Frolov.
“With their ridiculous repeated ‘castlings’ and lame explanations to cover up what may be a conspiracy to perpetuate one man’s rule, Putin and Medvedev are taking this country into George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ writes Frolov, president of the Moscow-based LEFF Group, a government-relations and PR company:
It is Orwellian for Putin to pledge in his inauguration address that Russia should be a democracy while heavily armed police are roughing up people for merely taking a walk with a white ribbon or drinking coffee in a cafe.
It is Orwellian to nominate as the country’s next prime minister the man who has just failed as president and rush his nomination through parliament, disregarding the due deliberation process that underpins the real separation of powers.
It is Orwellian chutzpah to send Medvedev as your stand-in to the Group of Eight summit at Camp David, saying you are too busy forming Medvedev’s government.
It is Orwellian to fire off a flurry of executive orders on your first day on the job by giving your own former government the task of wishing away the nation’s problems while shedding any personal political responsibility for failure.
“This new Orwellian reality brings back the Big Lie, a return to Soviet-style manipulative slogans to cover up the rulers’ desire to perpetuate their rule with phony professions of seeking the public good. This is genuine Orwellian terrain ….”