Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Kremlin Plan to Make Fight for Justice Centerpiece of Putin Campaign Seen Backfiring



Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 26 – Two anonymous sources “close to the Presidential Administration” tell the Znak news agency that Vladimir Putin plans to fight “the struggle against poverty and social injustice” a centerpiece of his re-election campaign in order to mobilize Russians against local and regional elites.

            But Znak commentator Yekaterina Vinokurova warns that this program may backfire if Russians focus not as Putin wants but on the Moscow elite in general, Putin’s immediate entourage and even the Kremlin leader personally (znak.com/2017-07-25/putin_sobiraetsya_sdelat_stavku_na_borbu_s_nespravedlivostyu_no_eto_opasnaya_tema).

            The Kremlin has been trying to come up with some agenda for the campaign that will allow him to pose as the people’s champion against entrenched elites even though he has been in power for 17 years and is responsible for the division of the spoils among elites and the increasing impoverishment of Russians.

                Vinokurova notes that experts with whom she has spoken agree that “the demand for social justice and the struggle against poverty really exists in society,” but they warn that “if the powers take this up, it is not certain that they will be able to keep it under control.” Indeed, they say there are real risks that it could lead to a social explosion.

            Tatyana Stanovaya of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies says that protests five years ago were about politics and human rights. “Now at the foundation of protest is the problem of social injustice.” Consequently, “even if ‘the sauce’ remains the same – ‘the struggle with corruption’” it has an immediate rather than long-term political meaning.

            “Six years ago, this concerned the issue of equal opportunities and prospects,” Stanovaya continues, but now” it is about what the country can do about a closed elite of “new ‘Putin oligarchs,’” when there is no clear signal from the  top as to what can be done about that to benefit the bottom part of society.

            Moreover, she says, “if earlier the powers were inclined to underrate the problem of social injustice and tried not to notice it, fearing the growth of social expectations and demands, then now it is just the reverse: the powers are trying to seize the initiative from the non-systemic opposition.”

            According to Stanovaya, “now we are witnessing ‘how over the strategy for the development of the country are involved not so much economists as political technologists.’ However, there is a risk: recognizing social injustice may increase its social and political sharpness.”

            Other commentators agree about the risks.  According to political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, “if Putin is able to show that he is seriously involved” in trying to address poverty and injustice, then people will believe him. However, the credit of trust he has is not infinite” and could run out.

            The problem, however, is this, he says: such a use of this theme is “the last line of the Kremlin’s defenses against growing general disappointment.” If Putin makes promises and then doesn’t or can’t deliver, his credit with the population will be “exhausted,” and there could be an explosion in two or three years.

            Aleksey Makarkin, vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, says that Russians traditionally have “gone to the tsar” to get justice, but the current powers that be “don’t want to disturb the situation in the elites.” They can arrest low-level officials but only if these don’t have ties close to the Kremlin.

            “The struggle for justice,” he continues, “is the reverse side of settling accounts because of economic competition,” but how that can be done under conditions of “systemic corruption” is a large and still open question. “The opposition has it easer: it can criticize the entire system.” For the incumbents, that is dangerous as “the Uzbek affair” proved in the late 1980s.

            And finally, Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Politics Foundation, said that Putin had always made the struggle with poverty part of his program, even though he has surrounded himself will billionaires. What is going on now, he suggests, is that people around Putin are trying to force him to run again, something he hasn’t made a final decision about.

            That is because a fourth term could prove dangerous for Putin given that those pushing him forward now want to “transform Putin into the successor of Putin who will simply sign papers put in front of him.”  Running again would thus be a mistake, even though there is no doubt Putin would win. One thing is clear: Russia’s poor aren’t going to be among the winners.


Putin’s Visit to Human Rights Pioneer a Kremlin Psy Op against the West, Kirillova Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 26 – Putin’s visit with Russian human rights leadder Lyudmila Alekseyeva on her 90th birthday last week and her generous reception of the Kremlin leader with whom she has regularly crossed swords triggered a sharp debate among many in Russia, with some critical of her for her politesse and others defending her actions as a means of getting things done.

            But Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova says such discussions miss the point. What happened, she argues, was a carefully planned Kremlin psychological operation directed at the West intended to show the “idyllic” accord “between the Russian dictator and someone who has to defend his victims” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=597730E780744).

            Such an image disarms many of Putin’s critics in the West and makes it more difficult for them to build support for even tougher measures against the Kremlin leader’s increasing repression at home and aggression abroad, the US-based Kirillova says; and so no one must be misled as to what occurred and why.

            Kirillova says that she is not interested in explaining why Alekseyeva acted as she did because “observing from the side, it is extremely difficult or even impossible to understand what percentage of [her] actions is to be explained by age, what by good intentions, and what by ‘fondness’ for the authorities.”  That is for Alekseyeva and others to say.

                But, she continues, she is convinced that her actions, however much structured by the way in which Putin planned “have inflicted enormous harm and have far-reaching consequences not only for the Russian opposition but also for Ukraine and other countries in one way or another suffering from Russian aggression.” 

            The Kremlin leader recognized what was at stake and made use of this possibility not because he was addressing “’the Putin majority’” in whose eyes his actions “if not treason then an act of unforgivable weakness.” Indeed, Russia’s “hurrah patriots” denounced his meeting as kowtowing to a Western agent. 

            “Of course,” Kirillova points out, Putin wasn’t going to lose their support by meeting with Alekseyeva. “One must not forget that a large part of his electorate are obedient conformists who will approve any act of ‘the leader.’” And those who might be put off can be persuaded by the argument that “’the eternal chekist’” is simply playing a double game that he will win.

            But the more important thing is that Putin’s meeting with Alekseyeva was designed to send a message to the West, one that will help him not only domestically but internationally as well. There are three reasons for that conclusion, Kirillova suggests.

            First of all, Putin very much wants to undercut the image of human rights activists in Russia in the eyes of Western leaders and by suggesting that he has good relations with Alekseyeva and can even negotiate with her about problems will do just that. Consequently, he will use the meeting to suggest that things aren’t as bad in his Russia as many think.

            Second, Alekseyeva undercut her own activities by making a dismissive comment about her own personal actions and saying how much she viewed “the recognition of the president as an undeserved gift of fate.”  That too will harm the human rights cause in Russia and reduce the support for that cause in the West.

            “Now, it will always be possible to say that even veterans of the human rights movement recognize that their activity is unnecessary and marginal, even more in comparison to the powerful Putin who is ready to solve any problem himself.” And thus some in Russia and the West will ask whether a human rights movement in Russia is really necessary.

            And third, the person Alekseyeva asked Putin to intervene on behalf of, Igor Imestyev, a former senator, raider and even murderer, is extremely suspicious given all those she might have called on the Kremlin leader to help. There can hardly be any doubt that Imestyev was chosen in advance and in coordination between the Kremlin and Alekseyeva’s people.

            “Thus,” Kirillova argues, “all who try to get the attention of Western officials on the issue of Russian political prisoners … are going to find it quite difficult to explain why ‘Alekseyeva herself’ did not ask about them, including the illegally arrested Ukrainians.”  And that will only make their fate and those of others far harder.

            It is of course true that those who “speak the truth about what is taking place in Russia and about the crimes of the Kremlin inside and outside the country will continue to do so, despite the confluence of compromises of particular individuals,” the Russian journalist continues.  But unfortunately, it is “not the case that many in the West want to hear them.”

            Given Russian influence in Europe and the US, “many politicians will be glad of any opportunity ‘not to know’ abut the real situation in Russia,” Kirillova concludes, and thus unfortunately “Alekseyeva has given them such an opportunity.”  The old KGB officer’s psychological operation in her case may thus pay him but not her big dividends.

A Problem across the Post-Soviet Space -- When Mullahs are Passive, Muslims are Radicalized



Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 26 – The tendency of post-Soviet governments to return to the Soviet pattern of keeping the activities of mullahs and imams restricted to mosque services and rituals is having the same consequence that it did in the USSR: reducing the importance of the “official” religious leaders and thus opening the way to the radicalization of the faithful by others.

            A comment by Tajik journalist Mukhibullo Shoyev for the Centrasia portal this week comparing the outcomes in Uzbekistan where the government has permitted the leaders of mosques to work outside their precincts and in Tajikistan where the regime has sought to block such activities is instructive on this point (centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1501008240).

                In Uzbekistan, he says, “one can see numerous publications of imams and other representatives of the official spiritual leadership about true Islam, about the interpretation of the Koran and about terrorism and extremism.”  These Muslim leaders moreover “organize regular conversations, roundtables, and other measures” to combat those ills.

            “But in Tajikistan,” Shoyev continues, “the imams do not play an active role in the struggle with these evils. They act very passively.  As a result, at present, some 1200 Tajiks have joined the militants in Iraq and Syria, and more than 300 of these have fallen in battle.” 

                The Tajik imams often don’t know what their parishioners are thinking and are “practically indifferent to their personal problems which when they remain unresolved can lead to radicalization.”  What is most important for many believers is that someone pays attention to them and listens. If the imams and mullahs don’t, then believers will turn to others. 

            Tajik religious leaders are “practically not heard on radio, television and the Internet.” As a result, young people turn to others because “the extremists use the information vacuum created by the religious. [The latter] do not understand that their voice could bring back dozens of young people who have gone to Syria and Iraq.”

            If mullahs and imams go beyond the confines of the mosque and both listen to people and promote knowledge about the Koran and Muslim traditions, that alone will immunize many. After all, Shoyev says, “knowledge is the best weapon against extremism.”

            And he concludes: “The likelihood of falling under the influence of extremist ideology will be many times reduced in an individual with a normal level of legal and religious literacy.  The coordination of the activity of leading representatives of mosque leaders and the government can help counter extremist recruitment.”