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    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Master and Margarita elections, part two

    This is Behemoth, or at least an unknown artist's conception of the fast-talking, hell-raising black cat who was the hero (at least in my reading) of Mikhail Bulgakov's classic novel The Master and Margarita.

    The book revolves a visit by the devil himself (in the company of his nefarious furry friend) to officially atheist Soviet Russia. Following his arrival, a Moscow that doesn't believe in the devil's existence rapidly descends into surrealist chaos, a place where Satan wows the crowd with magic shows and naked witches fly over the city.

    Marat Gelman, the spin doctor who was involved in both bringing Vladimir Putin to power and making sure he stayed there, once told me that the 2003 Duma elections that marked the rise of United Russia and the 2004 presidential campaign that secured Putin's second term were, in his mind, Russia's "Master and Margarita elections."

    Gelman called them that because he understood well the kind of system he had helped to create. He had been personally responsible for shaping the message on state-run television - hailing Putin and United Russia while either ignoring the oppoistion completely or portraying them as dangerous extremists - and knew the goal was never to test the public's support for what was going on.

    Putin was always going to win a landslide with something close to 70 per cent support, not too much more but certainly nothing less (he ended up with 71.3 per cent). United Russia was going to emerge as the first party to completely dominate the country since the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

    In the system Gelman and his colleagues would come to call "managed democracy," there would be elections every four years, but no real chance that anyone but a Kremlin-appointed candidate could win. The appearance of choice, but no one to choose between.

    "After the elections, our politicians stopped being able to influence anything. There remained only one politician in the country - Putin," Gelman told me when I visited him afterwards at the art gallery he runs in Moscow's trendy Zamoskvareche neighbourhood. The elections, he said, marked "the end of politics" in post-Soviet Russia.

    But shortly afterwards, even Gelman and his colleagues started to question the stability of the system they had helped to build. The Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine jolted that country out of its semi-authoritarian stupor, and many were wondering whether the same thing couldn't happen in Russia itself.

    The "democracy promoters" funded by the U.S. State Department began to investigate the possibility, and opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov began investing their hopes in the idea that the wave of pro-Western uprisings that had washed over Belgrade, Kiev and Tbilisi in recent years could eventually hit Red Square too.

    But the three years since the Orange Revolution have given the Kremlin plenty of time to prepare. First we saw the rise of groups like Nashi and now Zaputina, which serve the purpose of imitating and confronting the pro-Western civil society that was so critical to mobilizing popular opinion in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

    More dangerously, we've seen the complete suppression of the media and nearly all dissent, as evidenced again by the heavy handed police response to this weekend's marches by The Other Russia opposition movement.

    I used to argue with my friends over whether the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were good news for Russia's democrats. They believed in the "wave of freedom" theory, and thought Russia too would eventually be hit by it.

    Perhaps. But my fear was always that the pro-American non-government organizations who helped fund and fuel those uprisings were so partisan in their behaviour (it's a "free and fair election" if Washington's candidate wins, a disturbing backslide on the country's commitment to democracy if they don't) that the response in Russia and other post-Soviet countries that were already tipping towards authoritarianism would be to tighten the screws on the things that made the "colour revolutions" possible - namely free media and civil society.

    In 2003, with the exception of the Baltic States, Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgia and Leonid Kuchma's Ukraine were the freest and most open of the states that emerged from the collapse of the USSR. By using the political space that Shevardnadze and Kuchma gave to their opponents and critics to push for rapid radical upheavals, the revolution-makers scared the bejesus out of the authorities in other former Soviet republics.

    The lesson people like Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov took away from the Rose and Orange revolutions was that Shevardnadze and Kuchma had spent too much time worrying about where they ranked on the Freedom House list, and it had cost them control of their countries. Better to crack down fast and hard, take the international tsk-tsking that comes with a "not free" rating from Washington, and keep your job and all the loot that comes with it.

    Putin, it's now very clear, has drawn the same conclusion. Who cares what the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe election monitors have to say? They're all tools of the State Department, after all. The opposition? They're all dangerous thugs who belong in jail. The media? Some die, some live. It's really not worth investigating why that is.

    So here comes another round of elections without a choice. Behemoth walks the streets of Moscow again.

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    The cult of personality, evolving

    Yesterday's "Za Putina" (For Putin) rally at Luzhniki Stadium was disturbing to watch.

    On one level, it was little different than an American political rally - all banner waving and adulation for the leader. Except the man they were saluting wasn't some new candidate on the rise, but an outgoing president at the end of his constitutionally mandated eight years in office.

    What was most remarkable (other than Putin's attacks on the opposition as "jackals" who beg for money at foreign embassies and desperately want to keep Russia weak) was that this was Putin, actually campaigning.

    He spurned such rallies during both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, arguing he was too busy handling the affairs of the nation for such silliness. It was an effective tactic that was aided in large part by the Kremlin's control over the media, which reported on his every move so fawningly that he didn't need to stoop to debates and campaign speeches.

    So - and I keep coming back to this - why is he doing this now? Because he's concerned that United Russia might not cross the 70 per cent barrier in the Duma elections? (The latest poll from VTsIOM has them at 63.8 per cent, with the Communists the only other party to cross, barely, the 7 per cent barrier needed to win seats in parliament.)

    Unlikely. This is still about the presidency and creating the impression that the people are wild about Putin (sadly true) and don't want to see him go. Having him as prime minister won't satiate these Putinmaniacs. They want him, need him as the country's uncontested leader.

    Putting aside the niceties of the constitution, how can Vladimir Vladimirovich not answer such rabid public demand? My feeling is that the Kremlin is creating a scenario where he'll seem to have no choice but to give the public what they want. I think Putin's time out of the Kremlin will be measured in days, not years.

    As Vladimir Vladimirovich himself obliquely told the crowd at Luzhniki: "If there is a victory in December (the Duma elections), then there will be a victory next March (the presidential vote) as well."

    If you want to read more about the rally yesterday, check out Andrey Kolesnikov's coverage in Kommersant. It's laugh-out-loud, sigh-in-despair brilliant.

    (There. Since I've linked to Kommersant, I can justify swiping the photo above... gotta love leopard print.)

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    Could Putin run for a third term after all?

    Why, suddenly, are so many people talking (again) about the possibility of Vladimir Putin seeking a third term as Russian president?

    The idea - which many thought had gone away when Vladimir Vladimirovich started mumbling about how neat he thought the prime minister's job would be - has shot back to the forefront in recent days after Alexander Shokhin, the head of the powerful Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told Itogi magazine that it was "quite possible" for Putin to legally run for a third term, despite an apparent constitutional ban on him doing so.

    The plan, which was later expanded on in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper (the Jamestown Foundation has an analysis here), would see Putin run at the head of the United Russia ticket in next month's Duma elections, then resign from the Kremlin to assume his seat in parliament. An interim president would be appointed and, since Putin would no longer be seeking a third "consecutive" term, Vladimir Vladimirovich would be free to run for his old job in the March 2 presidential vote after just a couple of months out of office.

    Could Putin be this cynical? I was actually somewhat relieved when he started talking about the PM's job, since it at least preserved the idea that the constitution should mean something in the Russian Federation, even if it currently does not. At the very least, there would be the faint possibility that the next president might occasionally disagree with PM Putin, ensuring he alone wouldn't completely dominate the political scene.

    Abusing a consitutional loophole to run for a third term - a blatant bending of the state's basic law by the president - would make it clear that concepts such as the rule of law and democracy now mean absolutely nothing in modern Russia. It's a short walk from democracy to autocracy, an even shorter one from there to outright dictatorship.

    Any hope that the Russian people will oppose this in large numbers is rapidly fading. A group calling itself simply "Pro-Putin" claims to have collected 30 million signatures urging VVP to stay on. That seems inflated, but there's a definitely an effort foot to at least create the perception of public support for the initiative. The zaputina ("For Putin") website has collected upwards of 63,000 signatures calling for their beloved president to stay on.

    No wonder the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has withdrawn its monitoring mission for the Duma elections. It's becoming quite clear that there's going to be nothing like a real election to observe.

    First Russian reviews of The New Cold War

    The first Russian reviews (or at least the first reviews published in Russia) of The New Cold War came out in the past couple of days, and the bottom line is two thumbs up.

    I have to say that when I started this book, I never expected to get a positive review from the state-run Itar-Tass news agency, especially given my history of run-ins with the Kremlin (most infamously, they once accused me of "connivance at terrorism" and invited me down to Lubyanka for a chat). But Vladimir Kikilo's fair-minded review in the weekly ЭХО ПЛАНЕТЫ finds the book to be full of "rich material" that "sheds new light on many events in recent history."

    Now maybe, just maybe, the Kremlin will give me another visa.

    Mike Averko (a Russophile blogger and frequent commentator on this site) is less enthusiastic. In a review first published in the Russia Journal (is that thing still alive?), he takes issue with a lot of what I have to say, but concedes that the "prose is crisp" and ends up recommending the book anyway, if only so people like him can better understand "views we find disagreeable."

    The review was posted over at Siberian Light, and has generated some decent debate there. (And may I assure any would-be readers that I know my Marovics from my Markovics and don't confuse the two in the book. One's a dark-haired guy with an earring who lives in Belgrade, the other (Marko) has blonde hair, lives in Kiev and has largely given up revolution-making to help out at things like Eurovision.)

    Thursday, November 8, 2007

    Snap elections in Georgia

    News agencies have been reporting in the last few minutes that President Mikhail Saakashvili has declared there will be a snap presidential election on Jan. 5.

    If true, it's a wise move by President Misha. His move to crack down on protests this week and declare a state of emergency smelled of the kind of autocracy he once stood against.

    It's also politically smart: the opposition so far doesn't have a single figure it can rally around, now they have less than two months to find someone. Unless Nino Burjanadze, the popular speaker of parliament and a loyal Saakashvili ally, can be convinced to run against him, Saakashvili's main contender is likely to be the controversial ex-defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, who is currently in exile in Germany, avoiding prosecution on corruption charges.

    Saakashvili's decision to deploy soldiers on the streets of Tbilisi to quell the opposition protests this week shouldn't be forgotten, or forgiven, but I'd still bet that Misha comes out of this smelling, well, like roses.

    Wednesday, November 7, 2007

    Tear gas in Tbilisi

    The latest out of Georgia is that riot police, acting on the orders of President Mikhail Saakashvili, have dispersed several thousand anti-government protestors using tear gas, water cannons, fists and batons.

    In a televised address, Saakashvili said the protests were part of a Russian plot to create unrest in the country. He promised he had "incontrovertible evidence" of such nefariousness that he would release "soon."

    We'll see.

    In the interim, a few things strike me about President Misha's crackdown, most of all that it's a final break with many of the people who helped bring him to power during the Rose Revolution four years ago. In contrast, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko - ever-conscious that it was the people who brought him to power - has tolerated all kinds of protests against his rule, some of which have blocked the centre of Kiev and left the country almost ungovernable for weeks at a time.

    The people still own the streets in Ukraine, for better and for worse. That's no longer so in Georgia.

    This quote, from Giga Bokeria, the head of Saakashvili's National Movement, was particularly jarring to me:

    "This is absolutely normal for any Western democratic country," he told The Messenger newspaper in defense of the crackdown. Bokeria said the authorities had no choice ut to act once the protestors "made direct calls for the overthrow of the government."

    This from one of the key plotters of the Rose Revolution, a man who helped plan the occupation of the centre of Tbilisi for three weeks in 2003. Back then, it was he who was calling for the overthrow of the government, so I guess it was OK.

    More obvious hypocrisy: The pro-opposition Imedi TV was also taken off the air, apparently after police raided the studios (Imedi recently ran an interview from the exiled opposition figure Irakli Okruashvili in which he vowed that Saakashvili's "days are numbered.") Not so long ago, Bokeria and Saakashvili were among the crowd in the street, decrying the previous government for briefly shutting down the Rustavi-2 channel that was to Saakashvili's uprising what Imedi is today's protestors.

    Regardless of the allegations of Russian involvement (and we must remember here that Saakashvili came to power with plenty of American help), Saakashvili is showing that he can and will crack down where Eduard Shevardnadze did not.

    While researching my book, I interviewed Saakashvili and many others who helped plan and carry out the Rose Revolution. They all told me that one of the reasons they had the courage to remain in the streets for three chilly weeks back in 2003 was their conviction that Shevardnadze was not a complete autocrat. Unlike, say, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus or Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, they believed that the Silver Fox would not use force against his own people.

    With some of his old Rose Revolution allies now arrayed against him, the tear gas and the water cannons were a message from Saakashvili to his former comrades that could be boiled down to "I know your game, I know how this works. Don't expect me to go as gently as Shevardnadze did."

    And bringing down Saakashvili is exactly what the opposition now plans to do.

    I'm torn about all this. I've written admiringly about the evident progress Georgia has made under Saakashvili. But it all risks coming undone if he starts behaving like just another post-Soviet autocrat.

    It saddened me to see the scenes on Rustavelis Gamziri today.

    A shout-out to a fellow blogger: Matthew Collin of This is Tbilisi Calling fame is filing great reports from the scene for BBC World.

    Monday, November 5, 2007

    The crisis this time

    Poor Georgia. The country, perhaps more than any other former Soviet republic, has been in constant turmoil since the day the USSR dissolved. Wars, revolutions, mass protests - these things are as Georgian as khachapurri and over-sweet red wine.

    Mikhail Saakashvili's rise to power via the Rose Revolution in 2003 was supposed to bring an end to all this. And if you were watching the slick government-bought commercials that are in heavy rotation on CNN ("And the winner is: Georgia"), you might believe that he'd succeeded in finally making the tiny Caucasian state into a stable, westward-looking, ready-for-Europe country.

    But here we are exactly four years after the heady days of the Rose Revolution, and the streets are again full. Saakashvili can, with some reason, call the protests Russian-inspired but that doesn't negate the fact that the centre of Tbilisi is shut down and his government is facing its most serious challenge to date. And, of course, the Rose Revolution came about with more than a little American help.

    Most opinion polls show that Saakashvili's National Movement is still easily the most popular party in the country, though he certainly wouldn't win 96 per cent support, as he did four years ago, in another presidential vote. But even the president has admitted that he's done a poor job of explaining why there isn't going to be fresh elections until next fall - five years after the last round. (Georgia previously had elections every four years, meaning this should be parliamentary election time, but Saakashvili changed the constitution two years ago so that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held together from now on.)

    Saakashvili's inferences during his lengthy interview with Georgian TV about not wanting the country to be in an election cycle while Russia was holding its own parliamentary and presidential votes are fascinating. So too is his open linkage of the Kosovo crisis to the separatist regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili clearly sees an international showdown coming, and doesn't want to have to deal with it and an election at the same time.

    Still, the most interesting thing for me about these protests is the leading role of figures like Tinatin Khidasheli, who were once allies of Saakashvili's and who were instrumental members of the NGO coalition that brought about the Rose Revolution four years ago.

    Back then, Saakashvili was their chosen saviour who would save Georgia from chaos and corruption. Now they're pining for the golden days of poor old Eduard Shevardnadze, whom history may once more come to judge kindly.

    One more thing. I urge all of you to check out Natalia Antelava's beautifully written tribute to Alisher Saipov, the Uzbek journalist who was murdered last week, likely because of the work he did writing about corruption, torture and the betrayal of the people by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government.

    She gets it exactly right. The international media relies on people like Alisher Saipov to understand the countries that we're hurriedly sent to when a crisis breaks out. Without people like him (I can't help thinking and worrying of my own Uzbek friends right now), the story doesn't get out, and the thugocrats win.

    As for the whodunnit, Antelava's piece leaves little question in my mind:

    [Saipov's] paper was becoming increasingly popular ahead of the December presidential election, in which Mr Karimov is seeking re-election.

    And, with its popularity, Alisher's name too was gaining prominence.

    He was beginning to feature heavily on Uzbek state-controlled television, portrayed as a terrorist, a dangerous man with a hidden agenda of overthrowing the Uzbek state.

    The last time I saw him he told me that there were even rumours that the Uzbek government had put a price on his head.