For One Democratic State
in the whole of Palestine (Israel)

FOR FULL EQUALITY OF NATIVE AND ADOPTIVE PALESTINIANS

FOR One Man, One Vote

Home


Search

After Russia's Winter Break

Liberals and Communists Regroup

By Israel Shamir

    

Moscow

Midwinter recess stopped everything in Russia. It was like August in France some years ago, mutatis mutandis, with snow instead of sand, fir trees instead of palms, and vodka instead of pastis. For two weeks, the whole country laid off work and relaxed. Moscow was blissfully empty of its crowds, though Red Square was thronged by hundreds of Tajik and Philippine "guest workers." Usually busy shifting snow loads and washing floors, the invisible class was free to view the tourist sights of the capital and to be seen in broad daylight. 

   As for the natives, there was the boisterous New Year celebration, quite similar to the Western Christmas, the feast of partying, booze, presents and corporate events. Coming a full week later, the Russian Christmas retained all the quality of a religious feast, so peaceful, so tranquil with its well-attended midnight service. And afterward there was another week for skiing and relaxing.

   People also traveled a lot. Ordinary masses descended on Turkey and Egyptian Red Sea beaches. Nationalists went to Ustyug the Great, a tiny ancient borough in the permafrost Russian North. The Facebook revolutionaries flew away to Bali, Goa and Acapulco. Only now have they begun to trickle back to Moscow and other big cities. The moment of an "orange revolution" - if it ever was - has been lost, perhaps irrevocably. The long winter break calmed people down and cooled their spirits. It is also too cold for demonstrations. But some changes are likely to occur. 

   The Communists finally decided to initiate some demos of their own, while inviting other activists to join them. The first Communist-led demonstration was scheduled for January 22, to build up the party chairman Gennady Zuganov as a credible alternative to Putin in the forthcoming elections. Zuganov promised, if he wins, to free the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and to hold new elections to the Parliament, these being main demands of the liberal demonstrators. Thus, the Communists try to attract the restless liberal Frondeurs to their side. For pro-Western forces in Moscow, that will be a difficult choice: they will have to decide whom do they hate more: Putin or Communists?

   The opposition has lost its momentum, but now they are trying to regroup, while negotiating with Putin's government behind the scenes. Their numbers are small, but they are well positioned. Though ex-Finance Minister Kudrin is now out of power and with the protesters, all his former minions are still installed in the upper echelons. The opposition has a lot of media at its disposal barring the powerful federal TV channels, and the latter are mainly putting out entertainment. The opposition has its supporters among the ultra-rich, and within the inner sanctum of the Secret Service as well. Liberal anti-Putin papers receive quite a lot of advertising from friendly oligarchs.

   Alexei Navalny is a new, rising star of the opposition movement, though he has received some negative publicity too. He made his name on disclosures of the barely legal tricks of Russian officialdom integrated with the moneyed crowd. These disclosures would hardly amaze Americans who remember Enron and the Brits who follow Tony Blair's tax saga. Apparently, that is in part where the Russians learned the features of real capitalism, mainly warts. 

   "Windrush Ventures No. 3 LP, for example, consists on paper of a partnership between an entity owned by B. himself and an anonymous off-the-shelf company. This off-the-shelf company, which appears to have been set up by B.'s lawyer is merely called BDBCO No. 819 Ltd. Set up as a nominee company to act as a trustee, or an executor of a will, this entity does not reveal its ownership on records at Companies House. Instead, its shares are listed as held by a second off-the-shelf entity, BDBCO No. 822. This company, in turn, conceals its true ownership. Its shares are listed as held by the lawyers, acting as nominees. This partner company does not appear to have made any significant investments on its own behalf. The register shows that its sole contribution to the partnership when it was set up in December 2007 was the sum of 19." 

   This is actually an excerpt from the Guardian article on Tony Blair, but it could be, with slight change of names, a Navalny report on "Russian corruption." Such ugly arrangements - together with profiteering, usury and asset-stripping - are the mainstay of the current world political economical system. They should be disclosed, outlawed and punished, no doubt, but they are not uniquely or predominantly Russian, rather "modern-capitalist." The U.S. ambassador in Moscow reported on Navalny some years ago to his bosses, calling him "a Russian Don Quixote" (08MOSCOW2632), for he fought a widely spread and common injustice. 

   Interestingly, this cable was first published by the Guardian team led by their Russian correspondent Luke Harding, but Navalny's name was excised - a habitual protective tactic by Harding for Russians connected with Western power structures. Navalny spent a few months on some education program at Yale. Many conspiratorially minded Russians are suspicious of Navalny and view him as a "Washington's agent," but, for our part, we shouldn't fault Navalny for his muckraking but rather congratulate him on his work.

Navalny's other line was the uncovering of shady oil deals. The U.S. Embassy was not impressed by his results: they checked his findings, according to the wikileaked cable 08MOSCOW3380, with Western managers who told them in confidence that Russian seaborne oil trade had became "open and transparent," in the words of Dave Chapman, general director of oil trading for Shell Russia. 

   The idea of Navalny as a new savior ran into obstacles, as his liberal supporters were visibly upset by his ties with Russian nationalists. An old Moscow liberal lady, a respected widow, reported that he called an Azeri party member by a racist term and was expelled from the liberal Yabloko party. Navalny reportedly made snide remarks about Georgian poets qua Georgians. However, the Russians are quite tolerant of racist abuse and probably this story did not hurt him much. 

   In a long interview with another liberal luminary, the best-seller writer B. Akunin (a Russian Harold Robbins), Navalny tried to dispel such fears, but he did not denounce nationalism. Perhaps Navalny's nationalism is a clever card well played: at the top of the new Fronde there are not many ethnic Russians, and a "real Russian" with nationalist background would be a good thing to have in the front of a revolutionary movement which is blessed by many Jews. 

   "Ethnic origin" is not a major consideration in Russia - the country has been led by Tatars (Ivan the Terrible was a son of a Tatar princess), Germans (Catherine the Great was a German princess by birth), Jews (Trotsky and Sverdlov), by Georgians (Stalin) and Ukrainians (Brezhnev, also Khrushchev). Ethnic Russian nationalism was actively discouraged in Soviet times. Still, it is an advantage to have an ethnic-Russian personality at the helm of a movement.

   It seems that the anti-Putin movement flirts with Russian nationalists of a new post-Breivik sort: violently anti-Muslim and rather pro-Jewish. The liberals hope that these nationalists will become their storm troopers. Moscow liberals are strongly anti-Muslim and in particular they foam against the North Caucasians, a hot-tempered mountain folk somewhat similar to Sicilians and Corsicans. Their foreign supporters in the State Department and elsewhere hope this new breed of Russian nationalists will break Russia's ties with Iran and Syria, and, not impossibly, will cause dismemberment of Russia proper by splitting off its Muslim-populated regions of Tatarstan and North Caucasus. 

   Putin is aware of this trend: he has brought home from his Brussels assignment Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, and made him a deputy prime minister. Rogozin, like Navalny, has a Russian nationalist background, but, as opposed to Navalny, he stands for Russia's friendship with its Muslim neighbours, for he perceives the U.S.A. poses the greatest threat to Russia. Though they both are nationalists, for Rogozin, Caucasus is an asset, for Navalny, a liability. 

   Many liberals and non-ethnic Russians are deeply suspicious of Navalny. But their presentation of Navalny as a "new Hitler" is far-fetched. Blue-eyed, good-looking, a dash of the racist, yes, but not an especially silver-tongued one. Navalny tried to talk to the demonstrators in December but was catcalled more than once. His manner was too rude, as if he were talking to a street gang. His "program," as it was presented to Akunin, is concentrated on legal matters: independence of judiciary, subordination of police to municipalities, honest elections - hardly the stuff revolutions are made of.

Even more odd, when asked for a model state Russia should follow, Navalny said, "Singapore." This is an odd choice for a person fighting Putin's strong-arm style, as Lee Kuan Yew was probably more authoritarian than Putin. As fond as I am of Singapore street cooking, I can't imagine a less suitable model for a vast multinational ex-empire than the tiny Chinese polis. 

   If Alexei Navalny is the strongest champion the liberal opposition can field to challenge Vladimir Putin, there is little danger to the present regime from this corner. Still, some unseen authority, call him a master of discourse, gave the green light to pounce on Putin. Previously obsequious politicians and journalists refer to the prime minister as if he were already in disgrace. A songwriter who composed a year ago a hit "All Girls Dream of a Husband Like Putin" now penned another hit, "Our Madhouse Votes for Putin." A governor appointed by Putin dared to reply to his criticism with scathing, "He does not understand things."    Columnists made a short shrift of his program. In order to stabilize his hold on power, Putin must reinstall respect and fear, and this can be done by initiating corruption trials against his subordinates - or by strong stand against the U.S. plans regarding Iran and Syria. The visiting Russian warships in the Syrian port of Tartus and delivery of shore-to-ship missiles imply that Putin does not intend to act like a lame duck. CP

 

Israel Shamir has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow.

 

Home