Thursday, February 28, 2008

Karl's Weekend Reading

In preparation for Sunday's election in Russia, two articles:

A fantastic article from Matthew Kaminski, "That Other Presidential Campaign", gives us a view of the Russian 2008 election. He shows why Putin's distrust of the Russian citizens, and democracy, have led to the old tricks of Soviet rule. For students of the history of repression and communist thought, this is a must-read.

Many Russians are content or cowed enough not to complain. Conversations about politics, so free flowing in the 1980s and '90s, are hard to find or carried on in hushed tones.

"For regular people, the guiding philosophy is cynicism," says Andrei Dmitriev, an opposition activist in St. Petersburg. "They know that nothing depends on them," and as long as the state doesn't rob or beat them, won't make a fuss.

Along with political apathy and civic disengagement, Mr. Putin has brought back an old tradition, fear. As in the old days, politics is scary and dangerous. Not many are willing to take the risk when dabbling brings trouble -- say, exile in Siberia (consider the plight of former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky), assassination (the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya's in 2006 just one among many) or, probably least bad, a few knocks from enthusiastic riot police cracking heads at small opposition protests.
Here's a self-styled modernizing czar who claims to want to open up and enrich Russia, while holding the country by the throat. He stirs up anti-Western chauvinism but demands respect from the West. He claims a broad popular mandate but keeps all the power to himself. The steady destruction of institutions that underpin mature states (a robust legislature, independent courts, strong parties) leaves Russia's future impossible to predict.

But sooner or later, this increasingly prosperous, dynamic and complex society, stretching across 11 time zones, may tire of rule by a feuding clique from St. Petersburg, and do something about it. Perhaps acutely aware of his vulnerabilities, Mr. Putin spent the past eight years building up the firewalls of repression against this very possibility.

Medvedev Reveals Little, Save Loyalty - a thorough WSJ frontpage article by Gregory L. White and Alan Cullison about the likely winner this weekend in Russia's election. Who is Dmitry Medvedev, other than a loyal Putin friend and ideological twin? Some select quotes:

He was active in the university's Komsomol Communist youth league and May Day marches, he told a Russian magazine last spring. Though his university years in the late 1980s were marked by a pro-democracy fervor in Russia, Mr. Medvedev said he attended only Communist demonstrations.
Challenges to Gazprom's monopoly position were crushed. When pro-market government officials on Gazprom's board called for breaking up the company to stimulate competition, Mr. Medvedev refused, said people familiar with the discussions. In a 2006 briefing, he called Gazprom's dominant position "good for Russia."
Mr. Medvedev also helped push through legislation that made it dramatically harder for opposition parties to register -- laws that, in effect, have made it possible for Mr. Medvedev to run for president practically unopposed today. He also backed Russia's new antiterror laws, making it a crime to publicly criticize authorities.