Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Leaders Past and Future, Part I

May 7th wasn't just my birthday, it was significant for something else: marking the third anniversary of Putin's inauguration for his final term. This time next year, Russia is going to be ruled by someone else.

If we are to predict events, we must understand the mechanics and motivation behind them - this is what I've been trying to do with the political side of AnTyx. To understand the current political crisis between Russia and Estonia, you need to understand that it was severely escalated by Russian internal propaganda, which also affects a large part of the disenfranchised Russian-speakers in Estonia, who only watch Russian TV and read Russian newspapers. The myth of Estonia as a revisionist Nazi state was created by Team Putin for domestic consumption, just like earlier crises with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus... The Kremlin has been using foreign policy as a tool of home politics.

The reason why this is happening is because Putin is preparing his exit strategy. On New Year's Eve 1999, Boris Yeltzin announced his resignation, naming Putin as his official successor. Until gaining Yeltzin's favour, Putin was a political non-entity, whose most outstanding achievement was the dashing rescue of his boss and mentor, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoli Sobchak. When Sobchak was hounded by federal prosecutors for corruption charges (in Yeltzin's Russia, a convenient standby that never really needed to be fabricated), his health was giving out, and Putin risked his own career by helping Sobchak leave the country. This impressed Yeltzin, who may have been an authoritarian drunk, but undeniably had a sense of nobility and a conceptual appreciation of loyalty.

Yeltzin also wasn't a fool. Putin as a political figure was created by Yeltzin's team, including Boris Berezovski, now residing in England - there's a warrant out for his arrest in Russia. Yeltzin's early resignation, and the virtually guaranteed success of Putin in the 2000 elections, was part of a deal that guaranteed security for Yeltzin himself and his core advisors, who at the time were colloquially known as the Family. Berezovski's feud with Putin is based on the fact that in this specific case, Putin did not honor the agreement. Berezovski and later Khodorkovski were made into an example, so that Russia's other oligarchs - most famously Roman Abramovich - would fall in line and not challenge the central government.

The upshot is that among people of power in Russia, there is a significant amount of resentment towards Putin. He does manage to keep a very high rate of popular approval, on the back of ensuring stability in post-Yeltzin Russia at the cost of some of the more ethereal civil liberties (like freedom of speech, or local elections for the heads of federal republics). But Russia has gone too far down the democratic path for Putin to be able to pull of a coup and remain in power past the end of his second term. This isn't Belarus.

So with the presidential elections looming, Putin needs an exit plan. You don't get to be leader of Russia without accumulating enemies; Putin's personal security depends on the state remaining stable, with a strong central government that is willing and able to protect him. This requires an official successor, a crown prince loyal to Putin himself. Inevitably this has to be someone ambitious, tough, but with no capability to succeed politically on his own merit. The man has to be lifted into the presidency by sheer power of Putin's endorsement.

And this requires utter, unquestioning support for Putin in the eyes of the people.

Hence the domestic propaganda, the preposterously clumsy handling of the Bronze Soldier debacle from a diplomatic perspective. Russia's involvement and escalation has done nothing to improve the position of Russian-speakers in Estonia, as it has turned a local minority issue into a battle against an external enemy. But it plays on Russian megalomania, inherited from WWII; any suggestion that the Soviet Union may not have been entirely in the right every step of the way generates a pavlovian response. The ghost of Russia's newfound greatness as an energy bully (overrated because Europe can get its fuel elsewhere, albeit at a higher price; Russia needs the money more than Gazprom clients need the gas) along with the ghost of enemies at the gates, will ensure that the majority of the electorate will do exactly as Putin says.

The upshot is that a few months from now, Estonia will have outlived its usefulness as a scary place where blond youths clad in SS uniforms walk the streets and poke old Russian veterans with cattle prods.


Giustino said...

Do you think it's really a race between Medvedev and Ivanov, or is there another 'ghost' in the 'machine' who will be revealed at the end of the day, like Putin was nearly 8 years ago?

antyx said...

Not Ivanov, no way in hell - not after his gross mishandling of the abuse of conscripts in the Russian army. He's utterly hated by the people. He's only kept in the race as the patsy, the one that makes Putin's other choice palatable by contrast.

Don't know enough about Medvedev, but his name has indeed been bounced around a lot.


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