“Every nation gets the government it deserves,” said Joseph de Maistre, the Sardinian kingdom’s diplomatic envoy to the Russian empire, about 200 years ago.
He was commenting on Russians’ deep-seated political apathy — a trait that persists to this day.
Of course, Russia is no longer an absolute monarchy as it was in Maistre’s time. Nor is it a communist dictatorship, with the likes of former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin using the threat of the gulag to discourage political expression. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has learned much from the autocratic tactics of his predecessors, whereas the Russian people seem to have learned nothing.
Illustration: Mountain People
In an opinion poll at the end of last year, 68 percent of respondents said that Putin should be “Man of the Year.” His seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March last year, together with his refusal to bow to the Western powers that disputed the move, made him a hero among many Russians.
In fact, Putin’s efforts to recapture Russia’s former territory have overshadowed his stifling of non-governmental organizations, repression of independent media and silencing of opposition voices. Even as Russia’s economy collapses — with the ruble having lost more than half of its value against the US dollar since June last year, interest rates rising to 17 percent and inflation reaching double digits — Putin retains an 85 percent approval rating.
Russians should be demanding a solution to their nation’s economic troubles, not praising the leader who caused them. However, Putin, an ex-KGB officer, possesses a dictator’s shrewdness. He knows that centuries of tight government control have made Russians obedient. They might fear the government; but they fear being left to fend for themselves even more.
Midway through last month Putin held his annual dinner with the oligarchs — a feast in a time of plague, so to speak. Forty industrial and financial leaders (most of whom manage Kremlin-affiliated firms) attended the event to gain — and give — reassurance that, together, they and the government would weather the crisis.
At the dinner, Putin reiterated his promise to protect the oligarchs’ fortunes from US and European sanctions. Specifically, he pledged to apply the so-called Rotenberg Law, named after Arkady Rotenberg, a financier who was forced in September to surrender US$40 million in assets to Italy’s government. The law obliges the Kremlin to compensate oligarchs for any foreign assets that they lose as a result of Western sanctions.
These statements built upon a promise Putin made in an interview earlier in the month. If Russian businesspeople repatriate their offshore accounts, their financial indiscretions will be forgiven and forgotten.
Relying upon such promises would be financial suicide. Just a few months ago, Putin assured everyone that Russia’s economy would weather the European and US sanctions easily. Likewise, during the 1998 financial meltdown, Russian oligarchs lost big — and most never recovered. Clearly, Russia’s government cannot be trusted to safeguard anyone’s wealth, with the possible exception of that of its own members.
Yet refusing the Kremlin’s embrace is equally destructive. After all, in Putin’s Russia, political dissent brings financial ruin. In 2003, Russia’s wealthiest oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky — a vocal advocate of democratization and tireless critic of Putin — was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of fraud and tax evasion, and his Yukos Oil was driven to bankruptcy, broken up and sold off to Kremlin cronies.
Ten years later, the message remains the same: If you obey your government, your follies (no business in Russia is free of kickbacks and bribes) will be forgiven. Failure to fall in line will be your downfall — regardless of how wealthy or well known you are.
Of course, it is not the tycoons who will bear the brunt of the economic crisis. After all, Putin needs their support — as short-lived or ephemeral as it might be — to retain his grip on power.
Ordinary Russians have far less leverage — and will suffer far more. Maybe they deserve to suffer. Harsh austerity measures — cuts to pensions, salaries and social services (including a recent decision to close hundreds of hospitals and lay off thousands of medical personnel) — have inspired barely any criticism.
At the end of last month, a few thousand people staged a demonstration in Moscow’s central Manezh Square, partly to show support for Alexei Navalny — an anti-corruption lawyer, well-known blogger and leader of a dwindling opposition movement — and his younger brother, Oleg. The Navalny brothers had just been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for defrauding a cosmetics company. Alexei, an opponent of Putin on par with Khodorkovsky, received a suspended sentence; Oleg, an apolitical postal executive, will have to serve his full term in prison.
This tactic — to “forgive” one’s enemies, while punishing them via their relatives — was a favorite of Stalin’s. The “enemy” would quickly come to his or her senses, and the public, unfamiliar with those imprisoned, would quickly lose interest.
They still do. Today’s Russians hope that Putin, who blindsided his opponents with his annexation of Crimea, might have another daring trick up his sleeve — one that will stabilize financial markets and revive the oil prices on which Russia’s economy depends.
Of course, Russians know enough to worry that Putin has run out of ideas. However, that fear does not compare to their dread of what might happen if they rock the boat. Putin, for his part, understands this well enough to know that he needs no gulags — only the canny use of fear and forgiveness — to retain his grip on power.
Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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