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“Serious people have serious enemies,” Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow is said to have said. If that’s so, then with enemies like Russian president Vladimir Putin, Ilya Ponomarev is a very serious person indeed. In 2014 Ponomarev, a deputy in the Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, was the only one to vote against Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Four hundred and forty-four deputies supported Putin, five refused to vote, but only Ponomarev pressed the “Against” button on his desk.
In recent years Ponomarev, a member of A Just Russia, a left-wing social democratic party and participant in the “Alliance of Greens and Social-Democrats,” has been the foremost parliamentary opponent of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In 2011–2012 Ponomarev and fellow deputy Dmitry Gudkov were amongst the leaders of the massive protests against Putin’s rule and the irregularities against the 2011 Russian election, the so-called Snow Revolution, which sadly ended in a freeze rather than a thaw. Ponomarev has been repeatedly critical of the excesses of the Putin presidency, from unfair vote counting, to fines against anti-government protestors, to corruption and government incompetence.
Ponomarev was the most vocal critic of Putin’s Dima Yakovlev Law, which sanctioned American citizens in retaliation for the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act, which, in turn, sanctioned Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky who was murdered in a Moscow prison cell after revealing massive theft from the Russian state, planned and carried out by officials. In 2013 Ponomarev was also the only deputy in the Duma — out of 436 present — not to support Vladimir Putin’s Anti-gay Law which bans “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships,” making such acts punishable by a fine of up to 1 million rubles.
For this outspoken criticism, Ponomarev has felt the full wrath of Vladimir Putin. In 2012 his aide Leonid Razvozzhayev was accused of plotting to overthrow Vladimir Putin and had to flee to Kiev where he sought asylum from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He left the building for lunch but was abducted by Russian agents, spirited back to Moscow, and thrown into the notorious Lefortovo Prison. A year and a half later he was convicted for helping to organize the “March of Millions” protest against Putin’s inauguration in May 2012 (known as the Bolotnaya Square case), one of the largest protests in Russia since the 1990’s, and sentenced to four and a half years in a penal colony.
After voting against the annexation of Crimea, Ponomarev was threatened with censure and expulsion from the Duma, and Putin supporters called for his resignation. However, as parliamentary deputy Ponomarev has constitutional protection against criminal prosecution so no action against him was possible. However, when Ponomarev travelled to California in August 2014, Russian bailiffs abruptly froze his bank accounts and the Russian government denied him permission to return. Earlier this year, in an action that The New York Times called “naked political retribution” for his repeated challenges of Vladimir Putin, the Duma voted overwhelmingly (438 to 1; only his colleague Dmitry Gudkov dared to vote against the motion) to strip Ponomarev of his constitutional protection to allow prosecutors to build a completely concocted embezzlement case against him for purportedly being paid to give lectures that were never delivered. Speaking in support of Ponomarev’s ouster, the extremist, xenophobic, and borderline neo-fascist leader of the Russian Liberal-Democratic Party and vice-chairman of the Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, thundered:
“He is a man who caused negative feelings from the beginning. He came to work in shabby blue jeans and a sweater. He acted with a good deal of contempt.”
So, stripped of parliamentary immunity for wearing blue jeans and a sweater ….
Now, the Russian government is seeking to have Interpol issue a Red Notice against Ponomarev, the top category circulated by Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization), and the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today. A Red Notice requests states participating in Interpol to seek the location and arrest of a person with a view to his or her extradition.
Ponomarev is not simply a career politico. With a degree in physics from Moscow State University, he started working at the Institute for Nuclear Safety of the Russian Academy of Sciences at age 14 while creating two successful high-tech start-ups. He rose to become a vice-president at Yukos Oil (see sidebar), then the largest Russian oil and gas company, directing information systems and oilfield technology. Ponomarev later spearheaded various high-tech projects in the information technology and energy sectors, founding companies like the Siberian Internet Company while working to foster technological innovation and research and development. He participated in and founded think tanks and analytic centers involved in innovation, high-tech development, crowd-funding, crowd-sourcing, and open government. Ponomarev’s sharp intellect has turned its attention to a broad spectrum of initiatives and ideas — a very serious person indeed.
[Sidebar: Yukos Oil was seized and dismembered by Vladimir Putin after its owner, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, became an advocate for democratization and political reform. Khodorkovsky was arrested, charged with fraud, and spent a decade in a labor camp in the Russian Gulag for having the temerity of challenging Putin. Released at the end of 2013, Khodorkovsky now lives in exile in Switzerland where he founded Open Russia, a foundation to promote civil society, free and fair elections, political education, protection of journalists and activists, and ensuring the rule of law and media independence.]
And yet, nothing of the sort! In person Ponomarev is anything but serious: jovial, engaging, considerate, thoughful, and above all very funny. For a century or more, intellectual survival for progressive thinkers in Russia has required the cultivation of an acute sense of dark humour (you can either laugh or cry, and the former is preferable, even if the tears of laughter mix with those of sorrow) and Ponomarev has a wonderfully sardonic view of his country, politics, life, and even his own plight — exiled from his home for his political actions and convictions.
At the Halifax International Security Forum we sat down over lunch to try and make sense of recent developments in Mother Russia and beyond.
Christopher G. Majka: Since we last spoke, which was after the invasion of Crimea and the Russian-backed civil war in Western Ukraine, many western governments have imposed sanctions on members and supporters of the Putin regime. Have things changed in Russia over the last year? Have the sanctions had any effect? Do the majority of Russians still believe that Ukraine is run by a fascist government and Putin was correct to intervene?
Ilya V. Ponomarev: The impact of sanctions was predicted. Unfortunately, the sanctions have worked mainly in favour of Putin. They help him to sustain his message (to the Russian people) that we, Russia, are not at war with Ukraine. We are at war with the west, a west that wants to enslave Ukraine. And for that purpose the sanctions have worked brilliantly.
According to the most pessimistic estimates, the contribution of sanctions to the economic decline of Russia is 1.5 per cent of GDP. This is an estimate done by Alexei Kudrin, the former Russian Finance Minister. The overall decline of the Russian economy during the last year will be on the order of three to four per cent. So the effect of sanctions is half of this, or even less. The balance of the decline is because of our own internal economic reasons.
Unfortunately, Russian people do not recognize this because sanctions are seen as an absolvement of all the sins of the Russian government. Which is bad. In terms of public perception of the war in Ukraine, the rhetoric about the “fascist” government in Kiev has subsided. So people think, “The [Ukrainian government] is not exactly ‘fascist’ but rather ‘nationalist.'” But what’s most important is that they (believe Ukraine) is a western marionette. And Ukraine is now in an even more severe economic decline.
We have a Russian joke, a classical one. Our meteorology service boasts that they have a forecasting accuracy of 40 per cent. So people say, “Maybe you should start forecasting the opposite of what you think. That way your accuracy will be 60 per cent.”
This is very much the situation with Ukraine. Before European integration, and before [receiving] any kind of external assistance, the Ukrainian economy was growing at a couple of per cent a year. Now their economic growth rate is minus ten per cent. In Russia, under sanctions the economic growth rate is minus three per cent. So perhaps to punish Russia [the international community] should help it instead? [laughter]
CGM: On the basis of the example of the Russian meteorological service, that is exactly what one could conclude. [laughter]
IVP: Actually, I think that this is very much the case, and people recognize that the current “economic assistance” is pretty mindless; that there is no real economic strategy of how to assist Ukraine. The west pretends that it is helping, and the Ukrainians pretend that they are implementing economic reforms. And so the economic situation goes downhill. And this is very sad.
CGM: Are the economic costs of the military campaign against Ukraine and of supporting Crimea financially proving costly to Vladimir Putin?
IVP: I don’t see that much of a cost of the war to the economy. Of course, there has been a great death toll as a result of the war. And there has been considerable destruction of infrastructure in eastern Ukraine. The numbers that are being given in terms of the cost of military operations for the government of Ukraine — in the eastern Ukraine — are in the range of $1 million USD a day, so $365 million a year.
The Ukrainian government said — this was the situation before the war — that the Donbass required $3 billion USD a year to sustain coal production, unprofitable mines as a result of old mining technology, and so on. Now, after the war, as you might guess, there are no subsidies from the Ukrainian government to the Donbass region. So, in theory, this should have saved the Ukrainian government $3 billion — but that doesn’t appear to have happened. [Note: The Donbass is roughly the area of the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk where the current civil war is being waged.]
Of course, this $3 billion amount was speculation; the input of the Donbass into the Ukrainian GDP was much higher. So, the source of the problem [of the Ukrainian economy] is not as a result of the war. The reason this de-industrialization of Ukraine is happening is a lack of leadership within Ukraine, a lack of understanding of where to go to, and a lack of such leadership from foreign institutions, which just want to blindly apply western neoliberal economic recipes that simply don’t work. And all this helps Vladimir Putin a lot.
His rhetoric inside Russia has shifted slightly, from focusing on the so-called “fascist junta” in Kiev to saying “It’s the 1990’s in Kiev,” meaning the situation repeats what happened in Russia in the 1990s — [manipulations by] the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank — all those bastards. And all Russians know that those kinds of reforms are disastrous.
CGM: It seems that much of Putin’s success in the past has not been due to any of his own abilities, but simply because when he took office in 2000 oil prices averaged $27 USD per barrel and by 2013 they had topped out at $112 USD per barrel …
IVP: If you begin when he took office as Prime Minister in 1999, oil prices were $9 per barrel.
CGM: Indeed. In any event, whatever the starting point, this has resulted in a massive increase in Russia’s oil revenues, something on the order $220 billion USD a year to Russian state coffers. Some of these revenues have then “trickled down” to the Russian middle classes. So, is the dramatic fall in oil prices having an impact on Putin’s government? If the economic prosperity that oil revenues brought to Russia declines significantly, will this be a threat to Putin’s hold on power?
IVP: This would have been a great blow for Putin, but the actions of the west [continue to] save him. Now [people believe that] the economic troubles are not because of Putin, but because of the sanctions. “Why are prices rising in the stores? Blyat’ Obama! Why are pipes leaking? Blyat’ Obama!” We in Russia like to joke about such situations. One of the most popular jokes is that Obama is the worst president of Russia ever. [Note: The word blayt’ (блядь in Russian) is used as all-purpose Russian expletive like “fuck” is in English.]
America provides a lot of excuses. I have often been asked by American politicians, “What is the best [approach] the US should take with respect to Russia?” What I say is, “forget about Russia. Whatever you do is counterproductive. Forget about Russia and the situation will collapse by itself.” It’s sad but true.
CGM: In June 2012 you famously gave a speech in the Duma in which you called United Russia, the political party of Vladimir Putin, a party of “swindlers and thieves.” Since then, has there been any change in this regard, or have they simply become greater swindlers and better thieves?
IVP: Better thieves meaning that they are able to hide stolen property better? No, I would say that their thefts have already been exposed many times.
CGM: What I was driving at was whether Russia is continuing its slide into kleptocracy and nepotism.
IVP: Yes. Right now, many people within the Russian elite understand that these are the last years when such [theft] is possible, because the country is going downhill. So it is better to [steal] now because there may be no further chance to do it.
CGM: To steal quickly?
IVP: Yes. So they are doing it like it is their last day. They are not looking at the consequences.
For example — and I think that nobody in the west recognizes this — Russia is now being shaken by one of the largest waves of protest that has happened in the last couple of decades. And it’s not on the radar in the west at all. These are protests of truck drivers. The “brilliant” minds in the government decided to impose what is essentially a dedicated tax on truck drivers, which is an extremely stupid idea. In a situation of economic decline the government should support trade. But the government decided that it would charge a “tax” of roughly $0.09 per mile which is supposed to be collected at special collection points and given to the state budget.
But the reason they are actually doing this is because the government created a dedicated system (Platon; see sidebar) and outsourced the entire operation to it. This company is owned by some of Putin’s closest cronies, the Rotenbergs. They authorized a private company to collect taxes on behalf of the government, and outsourced the entire infrastructure — it’s like a concession — to that company. All their expenses are supposed to be paid from the taxes that they collect. They expect to get roughly 40 billion rubles a year from those poor truck drivers, and out of that [one quarter] is their fee. This is not including their costs, which are also supposed to be deducted.
That’s the way corruption works in Russia. You don’t need to physically steal things like bricks or cement from a construction site. You get government appropriations officially, because (the oligarchs) control everything. They control the government, the courts, law enforcement …
[Sidebar: The tax collection system, “Plato” (or “Platon” in Russian) is run by a company called “RT-Invest” which is 50 per cent owned by Igor Rotenberg, son of Arkady Rotenberg, a judo sparring partner of Vladimir Putin’s, who along with his brother Boris Rotenberg (both billionaires) are currently blacklisted under United States economic sanctions. When the Italian government seized assets of Arkady Rotenberg, the Russian government passed a new law, known as the Rotenberg Law, to allow the state to compensate them for any such losses.]
CGM: Even tax collection.
IVP: Yes, even tax collection. And as a result, in protest, truck drivers are now blocking highways with their trucks so transport around Moscow is totally paralyzed. They have blocked every single highway.
So, the government made a concession that they are ready to decrease the amount of the tax collected. [Note: As a result of these protests, the rate of 3.73 rubles per kilometer has been “temporarily” reduced by the government to 1.53 rubles per kilometer.] The truck drivers have said, “No, we want this tax to be abolished.”
There has already been a meeting of the state Duma (the Russian parliament) dedicated to this issue, and deputies from United Russia called for the government to stop this. The Russian president (Putin) said that this he considers this a business issue and not one in which he should interfere, but this gives an indication of the seriousness of the situation. And it’s totally not on the radar in the west. The west is interested in issues like Pussy Riot but they are not interested in actual processes that are happening in the country which are disruptive to the system.
There is also a second point. It’s clear that successful processes (of reform) in Russia can only be social. And it’s obvious that such processes will be dominated by either leftist or nationalist agendas. And the nationalists are not good guys. They are allies of neo-liberals, the same neo-liberals who criticize governments for not going far enough towards a neo-liberal [agenda]. And Russian people want the opposite. They don’t want to go further with neo-liberal reforms — they want them to be stopped altogether. [laughter]
That’s why, everything that the west does that supports Russian movements, organizations, and politicians — which are by themselves extremely unpopular in the country — the more unpopular they become. The more there is any degree of political interference from the west, the more compromised the political opposition in Russia becomes. The opposition [is branded] as wanting to go back to the 1990’s; as being pro IMF and WTO. And so people think, “Better Putin than the opposition.”
CGM: There has been much discussion here at the Halifax International Security Forum about the situation in Syria. What do you think is behind Vladimir Putin’s recent interventions and manipulations?
On the one hand, it seems he is trying to safeguard Russia’s military base in Tartus, which depends on the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s presidency in Syria. But is he also trying to respond to NATO and other foreign criticism of his regime by exerting a more “muscular” foreign policy in the Middle East? Is this an example of Russia trying to define its sphere of interest and seek acceptance by the global community by showing it can be a power broker in Syria?
IVP: The latter is the correct assumption. The military base in Tartus is a very small and purely logistical installation. It’s used for refueling and for military equipment. Russia has now opened a new military base next to Latakia for its air force and more serious operations.
No, I think that the main objective is Ukraine. I think that Putin’s calculation is [to try and make] Russia so useful and needed by the west that people will forget all about Crimea. Of course no country will acknowledge the annexation of Crimea, but it will remain like Georgia.
CGM: Another “frozen” conflict.
IVP: Yes. And [Putin hopes] Russian-western relations will be back to business as usual. I think Putin is acting out of his intuition to a very large degree, but Crimea is objective number one in this.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris (on November 13, 2015) and the escalation of western awareness about the threat [of Da’esh, a.k.a., ISIS], I think that Putin is trying to create a kind of new “anti-Hitler” coalition. All Russian media are being flooded with the same message: “We are back to a World War II situation. Yes, we had our differences (between Russia and the west); Churchill was very anti-communist, he was our enemy, but we created a coalition with him. And with Roosevelt. Now America is playing the role of Great Britain and France is playing the role of the USA. But despite all the differences we are now making a new coalition.” And the assumption (on the part of Putin) is that after the victory we will create a new Yalta 2.0 arrangement.
CGM: For a western zone of influence and a Russian zone of influence?
IVP: Naturally. And, the Ukraine is supposed to fall into the Russian zone of influence, probably after some debate like that that happened about Poland after World War II.
CGM: In response to Russia’s intervention in Syria, Da’esh planted an explosive on Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 on a return flight from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt with a loss of 224 Russian passengers and crew. Will Putin’s bombing of Da’esh have a domestic impact in Russia? Do you think that ordinary Russians, who previously had to contend with Chechen terrorists domestically, will now become fearful that they can now be victims of terrorism when they go abroad?
IVP: I think the perception of Russian people is significantly different. Traditionally Russians people are fearless. Now, for example, Russian tourists are still continuing to go to Sharm el-Sheikh, it’s just that they are flying through Minsk. People don’t worry that much, it’s just an inconvenience having to go through Belarus. Russian people always assume, “Nothing bad will happen to me. It could happen to someone else, but not to me.” It’s a kind of fatalistic approach.
For Putin, the bombing of the airplane was bad for another reason, because, everyone who recognized that it was a terrorist attack, linked that to our interference in Syria. From the very beginning many people in Russia said, “O.K., now that we are moving into Syria we should expect terrorist attacks.” And so we moved into Syria, and there were terrorist attacks.
And that’s why the strategy for the Kremlin at the beginning was to deny that that it was a terrorist attack. In the Russian media it was initially downplayed: “It could have been a terrorist attack or it could have been a mechanical failure. It could be an old airplane. It could be this or that.” So that, at the end of the day, even when they would have to acknowledge that it was a terrorist attack, people would have become confused. Somebody would remember one thing; someone else would remember another. And everyone would understand that it was something shady, and nobody would know what for sure.
CGM: In other words, a typical Russian situation: some confusion, some disinformation, some ambiguity, no one really understands what is going on …
IVP: Yes, too many different versions, so nobody could say, “O.K. so it was a terrorist attack.” And it was a very successful strategy.
But the terrorist attacks in Paris totally changed that. It helped Putin to such a large degree, you can’t imagine. After that it was immediately acknowledged that [the Sharm el-Sheikh] bombing was a terrorist attack — the very same day. Because now we (Russia) are part of the same game. The attack against Russia wasn’t because we attacked Syria. No. It was wise Putin who understood beforehand that such terrorism was coming. And you see: the French did nothing, and they were attacked. We were attacked. Others will be attacked. So Russia was in the front line and we have a wise leader who understands the threat and takes pre-emptive measures. So that whatever happens, happens not in Russia, not in Moscow, but somewhere far away.
So, once again Putin turns events to his advantage. And he is suddenly [cast] as a good guy. You can see how this was played in international institutions, like at the G20 meetings [November 15-16, 2015 in Antalya, Turkey], unlike the previous G20 summit [November 15-16, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia] when Putin was publicly humiliated. He left those meetings prematurely saying, “I’m too busy in Moscow. I have to go to work early and want to sleep in my bed.” [laughter] Seriously! Now the Russian state media are reminding people, “Remember last year our leader was rejected and this year everybody wants to talk to him.”
CGM: In the forum that you and I were just listening to (entitled The American Fix: Best Dosage for Optimal Results), Garry Kasparov, one of the panelists, disputed the idea, which has been circulated in some quarters, that “Putin is playing chess on the world’s stage while Obama is playing checkers.” Kasparov, who knows a thing or two about chess, rejects the analogy, saying that in chess, everything is above boards. Your position and that of your opponent are clear, transparent, and visible to both parties. That what Putin is playing is poker, and in poker you succeed by bluffing. That Putin may have no cards in his hand, which he keeps very close to his chest, but he is very good at bluffing. And so long as you can do that, and your opponents throw in their hands, then you can continue to win. And you can only be stopped if someone calls your bluff. Do you think the analogy is correct?
IVP: For Putin, I think it is a pretty accurate comparison. In general, I hate comparing politics to a chess game because I think that it is such a fundamentally wrong perception. In fact, I would say that this is one of Garry’s weaknesses as a politician, because he thinks very often that politics can be a chess game; and not just because of transparency. Politics is always non-transparent, but even forgetting about this, chess is a game with a defined set of possible moves. And if you have a supercomputer you can potentially calculate all of the moves on the chessboard. In politics this is impossible.
CGM: For instance, the rules of the game can change.
IVP: Yes, the rules can change. But there are also so many actors, and they can take an undefined number of moves, and even a slight deviation from the original direction of movement can significantly change the situation in a short period of time. I am a physicist by training, and in physics…
CGM: … the three-body problem.
IVP: Yes, exactly! The motion of three bodies cannot be fully predicted (See sidebar). Only three! And in the world we have what, around two hundred states? And how many people in each state? And each state is a complex system by itself. So it is impossible to predict in theory [political outcomes.]
[Sidebar: In the nineteenth century Henri Poincare established that there are an infinite number of periodic solutions to the movement of three objects in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics (motion and gravitation). This famous problem illustrates of how even a very simple physical scenario is so complex as to be in principle unsolvable.]
CGM: You have now become an exile. Last year while you were in California you were denied re-entry into Russia. Now, I understand that the Duma has stripped you of your constitutional protection from prosecution and the Russian government is trying to bring you to justice.
IVP: To injustice! I am trying to bring them to justice! They are trying to bring me to injustice! [laughter]
CGM: What is behind these moves? Was it your opposition to the annexation of Crimea? Is it possible for you to return to Russia and take up your duties as a member of the Duma?
IVP: I am continuing my duties as a member of the Duma. I vote and introduce laws and everything. But I cannot return to Russia because I am under arrest in absentia. As soon as I would arrive in Russia I would immediately be arrested.
The Russian government is right now trying to get Interpol to issue a Red Notice. I think that it is not going to happen, and I don’t think that anyone in the Kremlin actually thinks that they will be able to convince any decent country to grant an extradition request. But that’s not the objective. The objective, first and foremost, is to keep me out of Russia so that I will not be able to take part in Russian politics “on the ground.” And secondly, of course, it is to make my life difficult. It is even hard to sustain my living because everyone who I am dealing with realizes that I could be arrested at any moment. And it could be bad for their reputation if I am somehow publicly affiliated with them.
CGM: What is the motivation behind this?
IVP: Just to make life difficult: that is a sufficient motivation for the Kremlin. I represent a certain degree of political threat. You can debate whether the threat is large or not large, but the Kremlin doesn’t like any threat at all. They like everything to be controllable.
CGM: So even a single person, like yourself, who votes against the annexation of Crimea is perceived as a threat?
IVP: Yes, because it disrupts the impression of unanimous support. The Kremlin says, “O.K. We can have debates on economic policies or social policies. We can debate about education or health care, but on foreign policy, there should be no debate. There should be a patriotic consolidation. There should be no fifth columnists.”
CGM: Zero dissent.
IVP: Absolutely. There has to be unanimity. And all so-called “system political parties,” that is parties that participate in Parliament, they all must stand [consolidated] behind one position.
I have opposition comrades in the Duma — like Dmitry Gudkov, Sergei Petrov, Valery Zubov, Viktor Peshkov — we have common positions on ninety-nine per cent of issues, including on Crimea. But they just didn’t vote, neither for, nor against, nor abstain. They just didn’t press any button (in the chamber of the Duma: see sidebar). And that’s OK. It doesn’t ruin the public image. That’s why they are still in Russia and are not being prosecuted.
[Sidebar: When the Treaty of Crimea’s reunification with Russia was submitted to the Russia Duma by Russian president, Vladimir Putin on March 20, 2014, 444 deputies (98.7 per cent) voted for the measure, none abstained, five failed to vote, and one — Ilya Ponomarev — voted against it.]
IVP: One wise person said that during Yeltsin’s time there was also a lot of manipulation of Parliament. Lots of pressure was applied, the system was very far from being transparent, clean, and democratic — but it was regulated and managed through a set of agreements. On particular votes in the Duma there were negotiations. Sometimes they bribed someone; at other times they threatened someone, but usually they reached an agreement. “You do this and we’ll do that.” It’s a normal political bargaining process. Currently, the Kremlin doesn’t want to bargain; they don’t want to reach agreements. They want to give orders that everyone else should follow. They say, “We will not always give you orders. Sometimes you can act on your free will. But on important issues we will not negotiate, we will give orders. And you will comply. And if you don’t comply, you’re out.”
CGM: Thank you very much for your time.
The past few days I’ve been thinking about a photograph taken by Nurlana Akhmedova of a bear in the Kaliningrad Zoo. It sits alone, imprisoned in a bleak, mouldering concrete pit. I’m not the first to see it as a symbolic portrait of Russia in the time of Vladimir Putin.
It’s difficult to imagine where all this will lead. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s when I travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and Russia, there was a different kind of East-bloc and Soviet bleakness. The social and political order was hopelessly stuck, fossilized in the most barren and degenerate communist doublethink. Everything was decrepit, including the ideology, but in the Brezhnev “Era of Stagnation,” things plodded along, propelled by their own momentum. No one believed they were on the cusp of a workers’ paradise, some intellectuals and dissidents lacerated it with Aesopian language and double-entendres, but the vast majority trudged to work on dingy streets to jobs where the state pretended to pay them while they pretended to work.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the East-bloc dispersed like a puff of cheap makhorka, and the Soviet Union collapsed under its own ponderous dysfunctional weight in 1991, I like everyone else was dumfounded. No one saw this coming. I had no idea what would follow, but never expected that once Russians had twice rid themselves of emperors that another lineage would arise to take their place — but undoubtedly I was naïve.
It is the case that the development of civil society and democracy can be a lengthy affair, no matter what the cultural and political starting point. And the world is brimming with bad examples: from Wahabi fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia to Syrian civil war; from Chinese democratic repression to American democratic dysfunction; from the Iranian theocracy to Libyan political feuding. It’s difficult to find fault with Russians when egregious stupidity is on display around the world, some in states that have nominally had far longer periods to try and get it right. Still, as Ponomarev says, “This is very sad.”
No account of Russian affairs would be complete without a joke, and so I conclude on this one: Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream and Putin asks for help in running the country. Stalin says, “Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.” “Why blue?” Putin asks. “Ha!” says Stalin, “I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part.”
This is the first a series of articles on Putin’s Russia. Part II is Vladimir Milov: Mind of the crocodile — Inside Putin’s empire and Part III is Ponomarev on Putin: Understanding the Russian bear.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.
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