Saturday, December 10, 2011

Not so much a riddle as a total bloody enigma. Perhaps we’re trying too hard to understand Russia. I’ll drink to that

Things are looking a tad bleak for Vladimir Putin if he believes the presidential election next year in which he has said he intends to stand again will be a glorious coronation. As I write, demonstrations protesting against what many believe were rigged elections are taking place in Moscow and are due in several other cities. But it has to be said that according to official figures, the proportion of the vote which went the way of United Russia, ‘Putin’s party’, dropped from 64pc, which is was at the last election, to 49pc. That’s still a majority, but as ‘rigging’ goes, it’s rather subtle: 15pc fewer votes. United Russia still has a majority, of course, so maybe there is a bit of rigging going, but the figure is way short of the 110pc the Pope always gets and the 98pc support various dictators around the world are accustomed to.

At some point I am duty-bound to quote Winston Churchill on Russia, so I might as well get it over with. Russia, he said, is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, which is just a
fancy way of saying we haven’t a clue what makes the Russians tick. For example, the man who would like again to lead a nation of incurable dipsomaniacs who cannot apparently let a goodbye pass without toasting it with a shot of vodka is reported to be a teetotaller. Good for him, I say, but it does rather suprise. Then there is the sheer size of the place. Trying to take the pulse of all-Russia by commenting on what lads and lasses are doing in Moscow and St Petersburg strikes me as being just as silly as drawing conclusions about the state of Great Britain from what’s going on in High Street Kensington, London W8 5TT. What do the other Russians, those living in the many towns and small villages in that vast country, feel? I don’t know and the chances are that you don’t, either. Then there is the question about why exactly the West feels Russia is such a threat.

The last time I looked things were going tits up in Iran, Syria, the eurozone and Libya, so why are we so worried that ‘Putin will be president until 2020’ if he serves another two terms? OK, so he’s not exactly Mr Democracy, but how exactly is he a threat? When push comes to shove, what we want from Russia is their gas, a modicum of stability and for them to keep their gangsters out of Western Europe. And were I a Putin supporter arguing with someone slagging off my man as ‘not being democratic’, I would point out that both Greece and Italy now have prime ministers who were more or less appointed by Brussels eurocrats on the urging of Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. The ordinary Greek and Italian voters had absolutely no say in the matter. That doesn’t strike me as being overwhelmingly democratic, either.

Having said all that, the reaction of the Russian authorities to the planned protests is to flood the relevant parts of Moscow with troops. And that doesn’t bode well, either. When the Communist Party ran Russia as a dictatorship, it always had the figleaf of the party to hide behind. Putin has none of that. He might eventually claim to be ‘acting in the interest of the nation’, but if he does, he will also be aware that that is hackneyed line used by would-be dictators everywhere. Somehow, I don’t think the situation in Russia is quite as cut and dried as we here in the West like to make out. The Soviets survived for so long because they had almost supreme control of the media. Russian television, I understand, is under state control and hasn’t reported on the anti-election result protests, but many newspapers did.

Crucially, however, Russians can now travel abroad and have access to the internet. A putative Russian dictator would have to successfully achieve a massive clampdown on all kinds of institutions if he wanted to do things the old way. Instead, he would be obliged to do things the new way, to buy off the middle-classes by ensuring that their lives of ease continue. That, it seems, is largely what has been happening for these past ten years. The trouble is that people living a life of ease grow weary of their current comforts which for them are the norm and they demand even more. Reportedly, the Russian economy is still limping along and it is still only gas exports on which the state can rely for income. Putin is no dumbo and will know that Russia must rely less on a finite resource. But to revitalise the economy and attract foreign investment, the rule of law must be trusted. So Vlad the Lad might well decide that a modicum of democracy is no bad thing for Russia, as long as he stays in charge.

Then there is also the question of his support: I have always been very puzzled by the intricate nexus of alliances and dependency which keeps a strong man in power. Certainly, as with Gaddafi and others, over time he will have a network of others who see him remaining in place as the guarantee of their own status. And one can only assume Putin relies on a similar network. And that makes me wonder whether, perhaps, he really the main man, or whether a power bloc at the top (with, I should imagine, extensive business interests they want to protect) has agreed to him being the main man. Most certainly that seems to have been the way the Communist Party operated once Stalin had popped his clogs (and who lay dying for three days in his study because no one dared try disturb him). Who knows? Not much of a payoff line, but with Russia, that’s about all one can attempt.

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