By Patricia H Kushlis
T’was the week before the West's Christmas. Vladimir Putin and his KGB elves were busily stuffing stockings with selective political prisoner pardons presumably designed to forestall untoward foreign protesters from marring the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games and thereby further tarnishing Russia’s image abroad.
First came the release of Viktor Khordorkovsky in a veritable reenactment of Soviet era prisoner exchanges in Berlin. Then out of jail were bounced two still unrepentant young ladies from the irreverent Pussy Riot band and finally Green Peace – all high profile captives charged with crimes and imprisoned at the whim of a capricious fake Czar for deeds that in democratic countries would have passed without notice, jail time, or hence, media mention.
Ahem . . . Busy Elves at Work
At the same time Russia’s secret service emperor magnanimously offered Ukraine a short term bailout so that the Yanukovych government would have to kowtow even more to Moscow’s dictates while eschewing a popular Ukrainian association with the European Union. This association agreement would have also likely resulted in a corruption clean up that could have reached Kiev’s -and possibly Moscow’s - highest places.
Then there was Putin’s tightening of yet another screw on the vestiges of Russian media freedom by abolishing the state owned news agency RIA-Novosti and replacing it with the new Russia Segodnya (Today), designed to lift Russia’s less than stellar image abroad. But is appointing a loudly self-proclaimed hater of gays the right person to head an organization whose target audience is presumably western – not Islamic (or Christian) fundamentalist?
Meanwhile on the international front, earlier in the fall the Russians finally agreed to help rid Syria of the chemical weapons the Russians had helped the Assad regime assemble but only after international inspections zeroed in on Assad’s use of the same against the Syrian population and the US’s decision to use force as the only recourse to deal with them – thereby raising the stakes in that conflagration by several notches against Russian’s single friend in the Middle East.
I’m unimpressed with these grand Russian pre-holiday gestures – like sprinkles of powdered sugar on gingerbread men and women - of supposed peace, mercy and good will which foremost find their roots in fundamental weaknesses of the Russian system of governance: Just more examples of an all too powerful and authoritarian leader dressed in the trappings of democracy bestowing benevolence on his supposedly erring subjects just in time for the holidays as well as bending to international outrage after the horse has long left the barn.
Has nothing changed in Russian political culture since Czar Nicholas I sentenced the Decembrist rebels to exile in Siberia after their failed uprising against his inept rule on December 26, 1825? The Decembrists, at least, had attempted to overthrow the Czar’s arbitrary rule.
But here’s another piece of today’s problem.
Russia’s fundamental weaknesses are not all that different from those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The country’s economy still rises and falls on the sale of petroleum products on the world market and that price is in decline. The lower the international price of gas and oil, the more the Russian government needs to dig into its reserves to fund its growing ambitions abroad and buy peace at home. The ruble is not a reserve currency, the country’s economy grew by just 1 percent last year and printing too many rubles will simply increase Russian inflation beyond tolerable limits as the Gorbachev government sadly discovered in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the North Caucasus unrest continues seemingly unabated – despite the KGB’s best efforts - with two suicide bombings in the nearby city of Volgograd between Christmas and New Year’s and the death of the Vice Premier of Dagestan in a car crash on Moscow’s Kutuzovsky Prospekt too soon thereafter. Yes, I know that traffic accidents on icy streets do happen – but the proximity of these events does give rise to speculation.
Will wholesale arrests, detentions and the like be sufficient to keep the bombers away from the Games? For that matter, how will the Putin government deal with the expected gay rights activists? Can he orchestrate a faux peace at home – not to mention good will towards all at least until the last visitor has left Sochi?