“That was the ultimate subtlety:consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” (1984)
George Orwell’s legacy in the 21st Century
Who doesn’t know George Orwell (whose real name was actually Eric Arthur Blair)? Even just by hearsay, he is recognized as an author that had a primary role in the creation dystopian literature: his best known novel, “1984”, published in 1948, two years before his death, is perhaps the one that more than any other it is rooted in the collective imagination as a metaphor for the power, violence and control exercised by a totalitarian state.
I still remember that rainy night, in the bunk of a train while everyone else was sleeping, finishing that book in the light of a small flashlight. Looking back on that day, i can say it was, together with a few others, one of the few really significant books in my life. From that day on, there was no turn back.
The 117th anniversary of the writer’s birth occurred on June 25, and the following quote was popping up everywhere: “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act“.
The fact is, that quote is not from Orwell, but is only attributed to him.
This made me think. Of all the production of an intelligent, far-sighted and sagacious author, nearly everyone goes to get an “attributed” quote to pay him omage. Strange? Yes and no.
The next day I went to look for another of Orwell’s work in my library, a small pamphlet entitled “Politics and the English Language“, first published in 1945. Rediscovering this little book was a real pleasure, no doubt about it: in just twenty pages the writer’s pen traces what will become the theoretical framework behind his novels, and that today, 75 years after its writing, still shows the true problem of our society.
If you are thinking about surveillance cameras everywere, high-tech control instruments, spy smartphones, and all that “Big Brother Is Watching You” kind of imagery, you are out of the way. As the title says, the author’s reflection is on Language (in this case English, but anyone can safely think of their language and the reasoning will not change), what we do with (and to) it and what it does to us.
For anyone who assimilated the concepts Orwell wanted to express in his writings, the question was already glaring. For many others, however, the writer’s imagination has turned exactly into what he fought against: banal metaphors, sloppy writing, “imitative style”.
Considering all the time that has passed, obviously we will have to “rethink” some statements, which could seem “out of date”. The fundamental point is another, or how much Orwell’s sharp thinking has managed to grasp a mechanism that has accompanied the development of society (not only the British one, on which the writer dwells, but the world one, given the diffusion and development increasingly immediate and sophisticated communication systems, and the spread of the English language as a “Lingua Franca” over the course of seven decades.
Before introducing the fundamental concept, I would like to illustrate the four points that the writer takes into consideration to elaborate his theory:
How language and thought influence each other, creating an “organic” system and not a simple communication system;
How, already in the period in which the book was written, there was a phenomenon of “Automatic Construction” of the sentences and what this implies in relation to the previous point;
How the problem exposed is not a question of “Sentimentalism”, “Archaism” or “Linguistic Luddism”, which only affects academics, but a political question of primary importance;
What “Defending Language” means (and what it does not mean), and how (and if) it is possible to do so;
The four points listed above will be analyzed in detail in as many weekly articles: if it is true that everything is well expressed by the writer in a few pages, it is equally true that the issues deserve a more in-depth analysis, and also a “historical” look: as mentioned previously, almost eighty years have passed and, however “actual” it turns out to be analysis, Orwell was not a seer and certainly could not imagine any change that occurred within our way of expressing ourselves and any developement our society.
For my part, I believe that the focal point of this particular paper (and of Orwell’s subsequent production, up to “1984”) is that through language all of us, as a society, are fighting a War. A war which, like the others, is political, economic and social, and which even involves victims. Each one of us is, consciously or unconsciously, involved. And that if, as the author says, the fundamental goal of a “Good Writing” is to obtain “clarity and comprehensibility”, I can safely say that over the course of these decades we have lost many battles.
With this statement it is not my intention to instill a sense of depression or to declare surrender: only the point is made of a situation that is very compromised, and whose borders have grown larger and larger over the years: in some ways “fossilizing” and for others progressing at a staggering speed (in particular from a “technological” point of view). What I mean is that not only must we act, but we must do it critically, with strategy. To do this we must take back the legacy left to us by Orwell, and start from where he left us: observing and analyzing the language and its relationship with our reality.
The War is not over. We can still reverse the process.
I have a hard time imagining who and how he can take up such an appeal, or what idea he can make of it. But after all, I would like to reiterate that this is not a place to make “Proclamations”. I hope that as I have explained the different issues, everything becomes clearer. I believe that for now, obtaining intellectual contributions and observations on the phenomenon may already be a great step in itself and a way to resume observing a question which, I repeat, is not the prerogative of only the academics who deal with the “branch”, but it is something that concerns us very closely, from how we behave, express (or do not express), communicate and write every day.
Take this writing and those that follow not as a decadent criticism, but as an idea for a new beginning.
“You can say things which cannot be done. This is elementary. The trick is to keep attention focused on what is said and not on what can be done.”
(Frank Herbert, from “Whippinng Star”, 1969)
Welcome back to Unpredictable Past,
some time has passed since the last writing, but, as it is natural that it is, and as I often repeat, some events need the right time to be looked at and analyzed: and this is what I intend to do in this writing, whose processing time went into looking at things as they are, minimizing guesswork and finding as many facts as possible to support my claim.
In this paper I would like to start from the latest episodes that took place on the eastern border of Ukraine and then get to analyze with you the new course that the global geopolitical situation seems to have taken since the beginning of 2021. The event I am talking about has been defined as “Maripol Crisis”, from the city in the Donetsk Oblast, on the shores of the Black Sea, close to the borders of the Occupied Territories (or Separatists, depending on the point of view), which is generally referred to by the acronym ORDLO (Okremi Raioni Donetchkoi ta Lughanskoi Oblastei) and which has recently been the subject of clashes between separatists forces (ie the Russian army) and loyalists of the Ukrainian army, causing fear of a new escalation of violence in the region in the near future.
The “frozen” conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and dates the last escalation of this importance back to 2015, when, following the Ukrainian Revolution of the previous year and the beginning of the internal conflict with the separatists in the southeast of the country (in the regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbass), the Russian armed forces “disguised” as civilian personnel carrying humanitarian aid invaded the country, occupying, in whole or in part, the aforementioned territories. On March 26 of this year, the tension begins to rise again: four soldiers of the Ukrainian Army were killed in Shumy, a village in the Mariupol area, very close to the border of the Occupied Territories, in which, in the meantime, as pointed out by Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the troops of the Russian Federation have massed for a total of about 110,000 effectives. Budanov asserted that these movements of the armed forces have a specific purpose: “[Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms“.
On April 12, the Russian government takes a further step, and through the spokesman of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Peskov declares that: “[Moscow] will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine“. A clear reference (typical of the rhetoric of recent years, which used the term “Russophone” instead of “Russian” to pursue territorial claims without bringing up ethnic issues that could sound like the “reasons” adducted by Adolf Hitler during the Anschluss of the territories with a population of German origin into the Third Reich), to the policy begun two years ago by the Russian Federation regarding the granting of a “facilitated” passport to residents of the Occupied Territories who had requested it (to date there are about 400,000, out of 3 million of residents) for “humanitarian reasons”, behind which obviously lies the veiled threat of being able to have an easy casus belli should an armed intervention needs to be justified.
In response to this veiled threat, the following day April 13 at a meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Both Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to take action in order to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation“; the same day, US President Biden called his counterpart Putin to propose a meeting in which to discuss the issue in its entirety, but , when Moscow seemed to have achieved a “normalization” of the situation, the expulsions of diplomats and the implementation of new economic sanctions on the Sovereign Funds of the Russian Federation began in the US (officially relating to the case of Alexey Navaly and his treatment in detention), but which in my opinion had more the flavor of an appropriate response: “you-are-not-the-only-ones-able-to-use-humanitarian-pretexts-for-other-purposes“.
A declaration of intent absolutely not misunderstood, which has aroused a series of diplomatic reactions on both sides, as well as, obviously, within the European Union. The question arose spontaneously: “is it really a new line or is it just a way of pointing out a heavy question of internal politics?“. As we know, the four years of the Trump presidency were characterized by suspicion of interference by Moscow into the internal politics of the United States, a suspicion fueled by the “benevolent” attitude held by the former president regarding the relations between the two countries. I have often said it, but it is good to reiterate it: the Russian elites, out of conviction or opportunism, continue to feed the mythology of the Cold War, in the hope of being able to return to the table of the Great Powers and at the same time preserve their position of power, showing themselves to the eyes of the public opinion in their country as the only way to avoid falling prey to alleged “Western conspiracies”.
But let’s start from the beginning, since this situation is one of the results of other events that have occurred in recent months. The first and foremost is certainly the change of administration in the United States, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s mandate at the White House: shortly after taking office, the President, and his entourage, overturned the line of laxity towards the Russia: in February, at the Munich Security Conference, the American President peremptorily stated: “America is back“, making it clear that Russian interference (from propaganda to cyberwarfare) in the West would no longer be tolerated, reiterating then the concept in an interview with ABC, calling his counterpart Vladimir Putin “a killer”. Following that, the combined efforts of the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, leads to Ukraine’s “new approach” towards Russia, and managed to “give a shake” to the President Volodimir Zelensky, who, due to inexperience and lack of external support, left Russians do essentially what they wanted, using the Minsk Agreements as a lever to move Ukraine’s internal politics at will.
Here, in the West, if the global pandemic hadn’t made us deaf and blind, we’d be talking about front page stuff. Despite those facts, fortunately, a military escalation seems unlikely at present, for several reasons.
At first glance, disparity of forces in the field is evident, clearly in favor of Russia, and this fact alone could immediately make one think of the worst. But, as several military analysts have rightly pointed out, this deployment of forces does not necessarily have to be the prelude to a large-scale offensive. It could be configured, for example, as a “response” by the Russian Federation (together with Belarus) to the large military exercise carried out by NATO since the beginning of March, under the evocative name of “Defender-Europe 2021“, in which 27 Countries took part, including Ukraine, representing the largest coordination maneuver in 25 years, with a similar maneuver named “Zapad-2021” scheduled for September. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, stated the following: “a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.“
Second, an attempt at normalization has been carried out both in Europe, which began on April 16th, with France, Germany and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia (not represented at the summit, but nevertheless present) on the other, and, of course, by the United States, with Biden’s proposal to Putin of a meeting aimed at discussing the Ukrainian situation “on a broad spectrum“. Although these negotiations are currently at a standstill, the very fact that they exist implies that the military option is considered, even in the Kremlin, as something to be used as a threat but to be avoided at all costs. Further proof of this attitude, especially on the Russian side, is an apparently banal but interesting episode: in an interview with Rossiya24, a “government” broadcaster, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to “break relations with the European Union “on the Ukraine question. These statements were immediately followed by a quick denial by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, who denied the Minister and backtracked very quickly, citing justifications of circumstance. Taking into account that Lavrov is certainly not a minor character or just any politician, the fact that he was so abruptly denied from above is indicative.
Is it all a matter of “flexing muscles” then? Not exactly, in my opinion.
Indeed, there is a goal that a possible offensive could aim at: the Northern Crimean Canal, recently closed by the Ukrainian government and source of supply of 80% of the country’s drinking water, which has caused many problems for the regions under control. Russian. The question is whether the Kremlin is ready to take this risk: if on the one hand the superiority of means could make a “blitzkrieg” conceivable, on the other hand this could turn out to be a move with decidedly catastrophic consequences, compared to a possible “gain” in territorial and resource terms. In fact, it would be necessary to fight on Ukrainian territory, where now there are about 300,000 veterans of the Donbass, motivated, benefited by the knowledge of the territory but who above all would be immediately supported by the West. Making the decision to attack to “send a signal” could prove to be the most counterproductive the Russian government has done in recent years.
Two problems face the Kremlin. First of all, as I have explained several times, the image is everything for the elite of the Russian Federation: how would the regime be able to explain the enormous cost in human lives, or a possible military failure (the army is still one of the few institutions in which the population trusts) in the context of that confrontation / clash that propaganda has been carrying out for years? The second problem concerns the economic repercussions that the decision to force the hand would have on the country: if on the one hand Europe must limit itself to warnings, the United States is planning a series of very heavy economic sanctions, for now stopped in Congress because the result of a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats whose internal tensions have not yet subsided after the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, but which in the eventuality of armed aggression would immediately come into being (who would risk, after the scandals of the previous four years, to support the soft line with Russia?), and that would be a very hard blow for the whole country. Also in this case, maintaining the image of “prosperity” would be very complex, and probably it will not be enough to “pull out nationalism when you run out of money” to get out of it, also because this would seriously risk triggering a further chain reaction. from which it would be impossible for the central power to escape unscathed.
At that point, the possible scenarios would be two: withdrawing and losing face, trying not to arouse excessive media hype and finding a way to justify the “setback” with public opinion (changing the game and reporting external problems within the country , downloading them, for example, on the non-organic political opposition to the system, such as that of Navalny for example), or to go straight and decide to tighten even more clearly the relations with the only other ally of weight on which Russia can count: the People’s Republic of China. This last hypothesis, in spite of those who have spoken for years of a common front between the two countries with an anti-Western function, is actually the result of a reasoning that was firm at the time of the Cold War, which seeks to replicate patterns known, making up for the inability to explain reality.
In fact, as I happened to underline on other occasions, the most concrete (but never manifested) danger that the Russian elites absolutely want to avoid running into is precisely an increasingly close relationship with China. The reason is obvious: if it is true that the export of raw materials to Chinese factories is among the most important components of the Russian economy, on the other hand, those in charge are clear that the more the country moves to the East, the more it risks becoming an appendage of Chinese power. With the exception of the military sector (of reduced size only by Beijing’s choice) all the cards are in favor of the Asian giant, which in recent years has extended its influence even on those countries that Russia normally considers “its own” (yes think of Central Asia, or, lately, some Balkan countries that have opened up to the Chinese vaccine market, but that’s another story), without anyone in Moscow being able to do anything about it or daring to risk criticism of any kind.
This time the situation seems to be decidedly more serious, even if some other events, apparently distant, can offer the explanation of the escalation.
And it is at this point that it is necessary to take a step back, and take a closer look at the foreign policy undertaken by the new American administration: as mentioned, if on the one hand it has all the appearance of a provocation against Russia, a retaliation for the precedents years of interference in American politics, it is not necessary to forget that the objective of the United States has long been another one. In fact, further east, precisely in the Pacific, a game is being played that the United States considers much more important than any confrontation with Russia, namely to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China on the region. For years, the overwelming US military supremacy has kept the Asian giant’s ambitions in what it considers “rightfully” its own zone of influence at bay, but lately things have changed and Chinese naval forces have begun to accompany the economic expansion of the country in the Indo-Pacific area. It is no coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to preside over the first meeting of QUAD, an alliance of the four democratic countries that have interests in the Pacific Ocean (India, Australia, Japan and United States) and who do not look favorably on China’s expansion to their detriment, that, as already reported on this site, could sign the beginning of significant changes in the area.
All those facts leads me to ask: what if these maneuvers, apparently aimed at striking Russia, were instead a way to put the country’s leadership in front of a choice between West and East?
That Joe Biden’s “provocative” statements serve this purpose? And that the “outstretched hand” of Europe, specifically of French President Emmanuel Macron, is not a simple sign of surrender, but rather a counterweight in a “carrot and stick” strategy, intended to go and see the bluff carried out. for decades now from the upper echelons of the Kremlin? In this situation, two key points of the ideology of the facade of the Russian Federation seem to begin to fail, namely that of its “peculiar identity”, neither Western nor Eastern, together with that of the Cold War which sees the country as the main pole of anti-atlantist, an idea that loses credibility even in the eyes of the Russians themselves with each passing year. That somewhere in Washington they have understood that the program of responding to Russian propaganda with other propaganda, the one centered on embezzlement by members of Putin’s “inner circle” is a fallacious and useless strategy, as demonstrated by the Navalny affair , and that perhaps the real breaking point will be to confront Russian public opinion with something far more significant? Such as “what shall we do with our lives?”
In a possible future confrontation (whose lines have already been “drawn”) to balance the relationship between West and East, there is no doubt that the side on which Russia will take sides will be fundamental, not only for geopolitical issues, but also for the future of Russian citizens themselves: to let autocratic power preserve itself, becoming more and more enveloped in a decadent spiral that will inevitably lead to a sort of vassalage condition with respect to China, or to deny itself, its image and all the propaganda rhetoric put in place to hold together the “pieces” of the country and gradually groped a rapprochement with the much-maligned West?
As Andrei Piontkovsky stated in an interview with Olga Khvostunovna on the Institute for Modern Russia website: “To ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won“. And perhaps, I think as a European, it is not the only battle that must be fought and won, if we really want the future of all of us to be different, but that’s another story.
“Speaking in London with Mikhail Khodorkovskij we said to ourselves that we realize one thing. If a person has been in the Soviet Gulag, as soon as he leaves he cannot be free, he does not know what freedom means. The bandits have taken over and we continue to live by the rules of the Gulag. We can only prepare people for the future which could be quite far away.”
(Svjatlana Aleksievich, in an interview by Fabrizio Dragosei for the italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, March 28, 2017)
Welcome Back to Unpredictablepast.com,
This article is intended to be what we could define as the conclusion of the events concerning the protests in Russia, generated by the attempted murder of the main opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his subsequent arrest and conviction, through a lightning trial with fairly motivations and questionable sentence. As usual, when I say “conclusion”, I am not referring to the fact that the movement of events is over, and that I will stop following it in detail, but that the right moment has arrived to draw some conclusions from the facts previously analyzed.
Inside there will also be some reflections on Belarus, and on other ex-Soviet countries that have experienced similar events and of which it is good to talk again, also in this case trying not to limit ourselves strictly to the facts and trying to observe everything in the most wide range possible, and every possible example will help us in analyzing the situation, and to do this, we will go through a series of points that most of the situations considered so far have in common:
An incomprehensible term for a Westerner, but one that is crucial if one wants to understand what is the heart of the problem in some post-Soviet countries, above all the Russian Federation. Often, especially in English texts, it is simply translated as statism or, at times, nationalism: an error in my opinion, not just because russian language has specific terms to indicate statism (этатизм, etatiszm), nationalism (национализм, nazionaliszm) or patriotism (патриотизм, patriotiszm).
This word has a different meaning, however, in the sense that it includes and amplifies the previous terms and can be translated with the paraphrase “Either [Russia] is great, or it is not”. A concept that could be assimilated in some way to the politics of the French “Grandeur”, with the difference that, while progressively the latter succeeded in a more or less tragic way (think only of Algeria and what was called Indochina) to come to terms with the end of a historical era, that of Imperial Colonialism, the Russian Federation, which since 1989 has inherited much of what was the Soviet Union, has not been able to do so.
The issue certainly deserves a detailed study, but, speaking of the reasons that led to the current situation, it necessarily deserves a prominent position, as essentially all the others derive from it. If you think about the most important international events in the last twenty years, you will realize for yourself how this ontological vision of a state based on its “prestige” (the term is used by George Orwell in one of his most important writings, Notes on Nationalism) was the main impediment to a “normalization” of Russia within the world context, and also within it: every attempt made in this direction (yes, even by Vladimir Putin) has crashed into this insurmountable wall created by a Past that has progressively become both Present and Future.
The desperate attempt not to lose a prominent role as a Superpower can be found hidden in every attitude of the Russian government: from foreign policy, still mainly governed by a more or less veiled hostility towards the West, to the series of murders or attacks carried out towards political dissidents. Everything refers to an image of Undisputed Power, or at least of “new bipolarism” or “new Cold War” that the ruling class wants to give of the country, making it explicit both with concrete actions (but, to note, without ever exceeding), and through the propaganda that rages especially on the web (to date, the flagship product is the infamous Sputnik V vaccine).
Even smaller countries closely linked to Russia (such as many of those of the former USSR or adhering to the Warsaw Pact) still have similar problems, albeit in a “reduced” version: Belarus is a perfect example (in the articles I have I wrote about it extensively), but also the countries of Central Asia (those that Erika Fatland wittily defined as Sovietistan) have been heavily affected by this attitude: “imitative” in domestic politics and “limiting” in foreign policy.
Centralization of Powers
The second question which, in my opinion, is an obstacle to any change is that of the centralization of powers and the consequent “messianic” vision that is generated within the population, including both “the average man” and “the ‘intellectual”.
This problem stems from both historical reasons and purely political intentions. Without the need (as is done in some cases) to go back to Kievan Rus’, to the Mongols and so on, if you look at what was the “feeling” one breathed in the few years in which the decline of the USSR took a strong acceleration until its dissolution, it can be seen that the element that terrified those who at the time lived the events in the first person, was the terror of a civil war, especially within the RSFR. Once the Central Power lost its grip on a territory of such vastness and heterogeneity, the fear was not only justified, but concretely realized: not at the level, for example, of the Civil War following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but, for example, with the birth of movements with a strong ethno-nationalistic or religious connotation, which once the Soviet “Mastiff” disappeared recalled the ancient hostilities and unleashed a myriad of local conflicts, just think of the Caucasus area, where the conflicts and animosities of ethnic, nationalistic, religious are still there to make the whole area a powder keg.
The political clash between parties and factions was also very strong, fueled by both these fears and by the disastrous “economic transition” implemented by Yeltsin, leading to the “Constitutional Crisis” (in fact an attempted coup by some high grades of the Army, then used by Elstin as a pretext to center all the powers on himself, as the President of the Russian Federation) of 1993, resolved with the shelling of the Parliament, an episode that, in hindsight, became a tragic preamble of the following years.
Matter of fact, when Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation at the eve of the new millennium, he found the way cleared to do what he wanted, or rather, what, as we will see, the country expected from him.
His figure should have put an end to the internal clash by acting as a balance in the “redistribution” of powers, which subsequently led to the hypertrophic expansion of the presidential cabinet to the detriment of the constitutionally appointed bodies to guide the Russian Federation, which in the course of the years have become “facades”: legally they exist and their powers are constitutionally legitimized and regulated, de facto, everything passes through the presidential entourage (a body that only with the last referendum had a sort of de jure legitimacy) which imposes its decisions to all other state bodies.
And it is precisely from this centralization of powers on the figure of the Head of State that another problem arises that should not be underestimated: “Political Messianism“.
If it is true that historically the Russians have had a very close and personal relationship with the figures in power, this is something that is more part of a medieval legacy than of a democracy (even under construction, as it was at the time). This is because in the population the conviction is created that only the apex of power can act on public life, disempowering them and at the same time generating peaks of ecstasy at every regime change and profound resignation in the following period: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and finally Putin have had all this “sacred aura”, which heralded an epochal change, then regularly disappointed. Of the three, the last is the only one who made sure that this aura was continually renewed in some way (and he did, for better or for worse).
In this sense, citizens are beginning to get used to this ambivalent thought: on the one hand, there is no alternative to the current state of affairs, or there is fear that the change will be disregarded and will lead the country towards disaster; on the other hand, the change at the top is seen as a New Advent, in the Christian sense of the term, something inevitable and that will surely open the doors to the Golden Age by sweeping away Evil. Both attitudes are the furthest away from a democratic process: they reflect an almost monarchical attitude towards power, the activity of the citizen is limited to being for or against a power that, although perceived in a highly personal, it remains something inaccessible, untouchable, but above all not contestable.
Political Messianism does not look at political figures in rational terms, but in emotional terms, which makes any public debate worthy of the name useless: everything is reduced to a Manichaeism that sees the Rightful on one side and the Damned on the other, creating a climate of perennial tension in which the entire social body is involved on a daily basis. We cannot know if Alexey Navalny will be the next President, or at least if he’s movement will led to a political change, but it does not matter as long as the centralization process is not reversed and the figure of the Man of Providence does not come to decline in the eyes of the population.
As I have already stated, fighting corruption, especially in those countries where it is endemic, such as Russia (in fact, since the Soviet Union). But as usual, “the devil hides in the details”: perhaps few remember that, but corruption was one of the biggest problems even during the governments of Boris Yeltsin, a period in which the notorious figures of the “Oligarchs” emerged, of which “Tsar Boris” had to secure economic support especially during his second term, making many concessions to them, to the point that some went directly into the presidential cabinet or the government. Putin himself, at the time the right arm of the mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, was embroiled in shady deals concerning the embezzlement of Western aid together with his boss, doing his utmost when he lost his power due to his own illness to make him expatriate.
This is why he was chosen as Yelstin’s successor. No machinations of the KGB / FSB, or other sort of spy-story conspiracies: two things were expected from him, a safe conduct for the President (also too ill to fulfill his duties) and for his family, and a continuity with Yeltsin’s line on power management. But those who hoped to be able to maneuver “Volodiya” at will, soon realized that they had made a big mistake.
Starting from his second term as President of the Federation, Putin unleashed the judiciary (in the meantime passed almost entirely under the control of the presidential entourage) against the Oligarchs: lightning trials, heavily mediated, found many of them guilty of financial crimes, causing them to end up in imprisonment or forcing them into exile, and, more importantly, the state seized their properties by reassigning them to the new “circle” that Putin had created in the first years of government. Thanks to this “Witch Hunt” its popularity skyrocketed, both at home and, unfortunately, in the West, a first sign, of which few realized, that the idea of a democratic Russia had been set aside and that also in countries where the rule of law was not just a facade, something had changed, and liberal democracy had begun to be devoured by the cancer of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”.
In Belarus, Lukashenko seize his personal power more or less in the same way: as we already saw in the essay on his ascent to power, he uses his position to launch a massive anti-corruption campaign, which basically cut off the head of the Belarusian State, and replace them whit himself.
Today, in both countries, the corrupt have changed, but not the system of corruption, which is inevitably linked to the concentration of power and the maintenance of a balance of forces that move under the apparently granite skin of the administration. We also have someone else who, very naively, thinks of eliminating corruption by eliminating the corrupt: whoever succeeds Vladimir Putin, tomorrow or ten years from now, will have to seriously ask themselves the question, and put it in front of the population, or the cycle will simply start again from the beginning.
Et Pluribus Unum
A third point never dealt with in a democratic way is the heterogeneity and complexity of territories, ethnic groups and religions that make up Russia, just as the relationship with the other former Soviet Republics has never been dealt with in the same way.
This attitude has mainly two reasons: the first, the more concrete one, is that many of the regions that claim more autonomy, or at least a more decentralized federal system, are strategic for the economic survival of the Federation, which is entirely based on the export of materials. the first that come largely from the transural territories, but whose control in the years passed, as mentioned, to Moscow, or, even better, to the circle created around the President. We have seen how, even during the pandemic emergency, resources continued to be drained from these territories in exchange for meager state subsidies and the burden of managing an unprecedented health crisis.
The second reason is that of the “prestige” of the “Dierzavna”: Vladimir Putin, in particular, represented, compared to his predecessor, the “champion” of the unity of the Russias, starting from the beginning of his mandate, which coincided with the Second Chechen war, passing through the war with Georgia up to the invasion of the Ukrainian territories considered “natural part of Russia”. A symbolism that is progressively decaying, due to the increasing intolerance of some Regions towards the central government, and above all because of the economic power of China, which is slowly eroding Russia’s influence on some territories, without this being able to counter it in any way.
The Russian Federation in this has inherited the behavior of the USSR in all respects, exchanging tanks and guns with threats of an economic or psychological war, but the principle remains the same and indeed, makes everything a house of cards even more shaky, with unpredictable consequences.
Smaller former Soviet republics have adopted the same attitude over the years: the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh that I have repeatedly spoken of is the most striking example. Power is based on the ability or not of the rulers to gain prestige and superiority over the Enemy, seen as an atavistic nemesis with which there is no compromise: yesterday Ilham Aliyev was a hated corrupt autocrat, today a national hero, in the same way, his counterpart Pashinyan was the hero of the Velvet Revolution, now a traitor who lost Artsakh. There are places where coexistence is not impossible, it has been made impossible in order to rise to power and keep it at the expense of the population.
Lack of concern about Liberal Democracy
In conclusion of what has been written so far, you can understand how much the discussions made around Russia and other countries in recent months take on surreal connotations, at least as far as I’m concerned. We have pages after pages of analysis, forecasts, hypotheses with a common substrate: the constant avoidance of concrete problems.
Those who, including me, deal with these events, should try to free themselves from a debate that feeds the problems, rather than trying to solve them. This does not mean not taking a position or boasting an alleged objectivity, but understanding how much we are personally involved and why, without thinking of being immune to it just because we know a little more than the average reader. This would not only help those who try to fight seriously so that their country comes out of a situation considered unsustainable, but also to notice how much this attitude goes to question our beliefs, and personal prejudices, which contribute to fuel the problem, making it endemic.
This is the “Eternal Gulag” in which the post-Soviet countries have fallen (and they are not the only ones, but this is another story): a continuous struggle between factions that slaughter each other to divide increasingly scarce resources, under the close surveillance of guards “ideological”, armed and threatening, which do not let anyone leave the camp and do not send news from the outside world, which in the meantime is moving forward.
let us resume the analysis of what is happening in the Russian Federation, with the intention of delving into the current situation as we generally listen to it in the course of the news. We are left with several questions that may not necessarily find their answer here, but at least they have been asked, as it was necessary, in my opinion, to do.
last time we talked about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, how the elimination of uncomfortable personalities for the Kremlin is not “new”, and the oddities surrounding this particular case. In this regard, on a personal level, it is difficult for me not to feel a certain discomfort for this desensitization, and I wanted to express sincere admiration for those who are waging this battle at the risk of their own lives; the fact is that here we are trying to make an analysis that has as much a scientific value as possible and that necessarily involves a more or less large degree of depersonalization, but it is good that I remind myself, first of all, that we are talking about people’s flesh and blood, however distant they may appear to us through a screen.
The Return of Alexey Navalny in the Russian Federation
After recovering, Navalny decided to return to Russia: he did so on January 17, and was arrested by the police as soon as he passed passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, all in live streaming. In response to his arrest, many of his supporters called for protests across the nation, and, another important element, while in custody in prison Navalny managed to publish a documentary known as “Putin’s Palace” (in original entitled “Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки”, “A Palace for Putin. The history of the biggest bribe”), in which a princely palace on the Black Sea is shown in detail, stating that it is the “de facto” property of Vladir Putin and that it was financed by the wealthy members of his circle to gain favors in return (to date, the video has passed one hundred million views).
In the political activity carried out by Navalny this system is nothing new: in September 2016, another documentary entitled “He’s not Dimon to you” (original “Он вам не Димон”) targeted the heritage of the then Primo Minister Dmitry Medvedev (the title is a reference to the derogatory term with which the then Prime Minister was called: “Dimon” is in fact a colloquial diminutive of Dmitry used in the underworld), led to mass protests in March 2017, which lasted until October 2018, the year in which new elections would be held in which Navalny himself tried to run, blocked by the Kremlin-controlled bureaucratic opposition (and, as mentioned , will also be the period in which FSB members designated as responsible for his poisoning began to monitor him more closely).
So, in spite of those who speak of a “new phase of protests”, this seems to be Navalny’s usual method of “attack”: that is, trying to corner the Russian power system by revealing its rampant corruption, self-referentiality and what is often an opulent and unregulated lifestyle. This time of course, as we saw in the previous article, he has one more weapon: his own attempted murder, to be taken as an example of the brutality exercised by the regime, who, for his part, immediately used the “heavy hand” against him and against the activists who met in the square to protest his arrest.
Navalny knows very well the mechanisms by which power moves in Russia, and knows how to exploit it to his advantage: in my opinion, his return to his homeland, however courageous, has been carefully calculated to provoke a reaction of the system which, as already said, it is unfortunately now considered “obvious”. What is the problem with this strategy? In the first place, I would say, paraphrasing Sun Tzu, is that if Navaly knows Russian power very well, Russian power knows Navalny and “himself” very well.
That is, because if this method is capable of arousing strong indignation, it is also true that they lead nowhere: if you try to storm the most fortified bastion, the propaganda machine built in more than twenty years (if we want to consider only the Putin Era), needless to say that you will come out with broken bones (forgive me the rather poor metaphor). If Navalny has decided to continue on the path of the “Internet Guerrilla” and the “clash of personalities” whit Putin, he has already lost. And it’s not a prediction: Lev Gudkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada pollster, told Reuters: “The euphoria in the liberal community is clearly very exaggerated. The main mass of the population is responding inertly to all the events linked to Navalny […] [Putin] It’s got a bit worse among young people, but it practically hasn’t changed for the main mass (of people)”.
Of course, it is by no means an easy task to organize a protest involving about 120 cities, with peaks of 40,000 people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, both because of the new strong sanctions for those who organize unauthorized demonstrations, and because of the restrictions caused from the Covid-19 Pandemic. But are we sure they were all there for the same reason? As we have already seen, 2020 saw numerous demonstrations and clashes related above all to the management of the pandemic that the federal government has unloaded on the shoulders of local administrations, many of which have ended up in serious economic and social trouble due to this decision (to the point that, I’ll be honest, at the time I learned about Navalny’s poisoning, I thought he was making a documentary about the situation in transuralic regions, and not about Putin’s alleged Dacha).
Yes, young people pick up calls to protest, and that’s an important thing, but if their idea of protest is to applaud an MMA champion hoping to beat OMON agents one by one like Captain America, it means something is wrong in the premises. And no, it is not even enough that many say they are “fed up”, or that they strive to find ways to avoid being arrested or stopped by the police.
Not to mention that this attitude, as we have seen in recent days, provides the possibility for the regime to use the protests for its propaganda purposes. Specifically choosing highly presidediated places so that physical contact between demonstrators and police is reached is a deliberate choice: as mentioned before, this is precisely one of the strategies used by Navalny and by him to show police brutality. Too bad that this attitude, in addition to being reckless, is also easily usable by the regime’s propaganda: in summary, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov asserted that in the end the demonstrators were explicitly violating the law, accusing Western countries of double standards (and, of course, of secretly direct the opposition), making a meaningless, but no less effective comparison with the events on Capitol Hill or with the recent protests in Brussels.
In a January 19 article published in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, recounting the story of Navalny’s arrest, said: “Navalny’s superpower has been his ability to show people what they had always known about the Putin regime but had the option of pretending away. He has shown the depth of the regime’s corruption. He has shown that Putin’s secret police carries out murders. With his return to Russia, he has shown the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead. He has also shown that, contrary to the Kremlin’s assertions and to conventional wisdom among Western Russia-watchers, there is an alternative to Putin. Politically, Navalny was not a candidate who could have unified Russia a few years ago—he has a history of espousing nationalist views that made much of the intelligentsia wary of him. But he has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love. The name of Russia’s next leader is almost certainly Navalny, or Navalnaya.”
Here, this is an example of rhetoric, typically “Western”, which at this juncture is completely dysfunctional: if there is something that the opposition would now need is a bit of healthy realism and concreteness. What importance can the name of a possible next President have, if he is not really able to have the support, the will and the ability to reform a system that is rotten to the core, and of which corruption is the last of the problems.
And here we come to the second and most important problem of Navalny’s “strategy”: the complete lack of any political program worthy of this name. In his analysis of the affair for Foreign Policy, Alexander Gabuev noted the lack of any kind of political result by Navalny and his colleagues: it seems quite logical, since there were none. Is not that Putin has learned how to manege protests well, is the protest that doesn’t have learned to menage itself. If it all boils down to the comparison between two different ways of doing “Storytelling”, the protest becomes an end in itself, and the same pattern we have seen on other occasions will be repeated: clashes, indignation, exchange of accusations with Europe and the United States, and finally oblivion
The mobilization of the streets without some kind of precise objective, even a minimal political program, leads people towards two paths, both equally harmful: senseless violence or aphasia. Generally the first is soon followed by the second: the city of Kharabakovsk, to say, has had an average mobilization of 60,000 people a day, for one hundred days, which in the last week has decreased to just 1500. Fear, disaffection and a sense of helplessness are the natural consequence of a snake moving headless, aimlessly. It’s even too easy to depict those who gather to manifest any kind of dissense as “domestic terrorists” in the first case or as “a small minority of freaks” in the second.
A political program that only says “Enough Corruption” or “Let’s kick the President out” is fine if you decide to reform the Republic of Malta, not the Russian Federation. I have deep doubts that once Putin is gone, Russia will become a paradise on earth, or, at least, a different country: we must remember that the President is a symptom of a disease, not the cause.
What I wrote a few months ago about Lukashenko and the situation in Belarus (but if it is also about Donald Trump, or what concerns the political situation of my country) also applies to Putin’s Russia; as “Western observers” we can only sympathize with Navalny’s cause, we admire what it does, we empathize with people arrested, beaten and threatened, but the thruth is that our emotional bias prevents us from asking the fateful question: “and then?“
We will discuss the reasons for this in the next article, which will try to look at events in a more global perspective. In the meantime I hope that you have found everything interesting and a harbinger of reflection. For any questions, clarifications or corrections, do not hesitate to contact me as usual.
some time has passed since the last article, but, for this particular issue, which, as you can imagine, is very important for me, I decided to take the right time to reflect and elaborate the matter: the time of the news has had its moment (although the situation is constantly changing, but by now it has taken a direction) and it is perhaps time to move on to history, offering some reflections on what is happening in Russia, but not only there. I had already mentioned some of these reflections in relation to Belarus, but in this case we can take the opportunity to explore them better. In order to do this work in the best possible way, the essay will be divided into (at least) two parts.
The attempted murder of Alexey Navalny
I think it is good to start from where we left off: for those who have not done so, I invite you to read the articles on the state of the Russian Federation that I wrote some time ago. Meanwhile, one issue in particular has affected the Western media (submerged by the daily update on the pandemic situation and, for a certain period, on the problematic handover between the administration of Donald Trump and that of Joe Biden). I am obviously talking about the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and everything connected with it.
For those unfamiliar with him, Alexey Navalny is a Russian opposition leader, politician, lawyer, and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for office to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia, president Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s government. Navalny was a Russian Opposition Coordination Council member. He is the leader of the Russia of the Future party and the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) who have published investigations detailing alleged corruption by high-ranking Russian officials, leading to mass protests across the country. He has been arrested several times by Russian authorities, cases that are widely considered to be politically motivated and intended to bar him from running in future elections.
As for the question itself, I think enough has already been said and written: the excellent investigative work carried out by a joint investigation between Bellingcat, The Insider and the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the prominent Russian opposition politician, and also that the operation that took place on August 2020 in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia.
After that, under international pressure, Russian authorities allow Navalny to leave the country to be transported to the Charité Berlin hospital, where, having spent three weeks in an induced coma, he finally woke up in mid-September. Already on September 2nd, German authorities released Navalny’s test results. A toxicological examination, carried out by the Bundeswehr specialized laboratory, found unequivocal proof of the presence in his body of traces of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. The conclusions of the German specialists were subsequently confirmed by certified laboratories of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as well as by independent experts in Sweden and France. Almost immediately calls for new sanctions against Russia were made in the US and the EU, even before the investigation into the poisoning had even begun.
Needless to say, such an investigation never begun, nor in Germany or Russia, as the Investigative Committee proposed by Navalny’s colleagues to initiate it “on the basis of encroachment on the life of a public figure committed for the purpose of terminating such activity, or out of revenge for such activity and attempted murder” did not find sufficient grounds to satisfy this request, since Russian doctors had not found any poison in Navalny’s test results, there was no legal basis for an investigation.
Despite this, it is obvious that Vladimir Putin had to respond in some way to the accusations made against government agencies and his administration. He did it during the annual end-of-year news conference, with one of his typical catchphrases: “Who needs to poison him”, he said “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job” and addressing Bellingcat as “the legalisation of the materials of American intelligence agencies“.
The modus operandi that contemplate the attempted murder of men linked to the Russian administration or hostile to it through the use of chemical agents is not new in the history of the country: the most recent case chronologically is that of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the most famous one is certainly that of former FSB agent Alexandr Litvinienko, for whom a radioactive isotope, Polonium 210, was even used. Especially from the “Litvinienko Case” on, this mode of murder has entered mass culture to such an extent that the association is almost immediate to everyone.
At this point, a question arises, which may seem a bit cynical, but which must be asked: why try to kill someone using a method so recognizable and immediately associated with the FSB or other Russian security apparatuses? Other personalities much more “uncomfortable” (pass me the term) of Navalny were shot and killed, later finding a convenient culprit, with never clear motives: Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Natalia Estemirova in 2009 and above all Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Why not do the same? Why a nerve agent that says “Made in Russia” in capital letters? Moreover, it is natural to ask oneself something else, taking up the words of Putin himself: why not finish the job?
Over the years and my studies, I have learned several things about the way that Russian power has to move: the first is that it has a malleable propaganda and is able to adhere to and control almost any situation, the second is that it has been a logn time that Moscow have renounced any ambitions of enter the forum of the “western” countries, well aware that they are well-disposed to turn a blind eye to many things, as long as the raw materials flow into the veins of the Old Continent. When Anna Politkovskaya was killed, for example, there were no great outbursts, and the only European politician who went to her funeral was Marco Pannella, then head of the Italian Radical Party and at the time a member of the European Parliament: he said that she “she had opened our eyes “, while instead all of us had already turned the look away, and the Kremlin knows this very well.
So why this time doing such a seemingly clumsy and ineffective job. True, it could be argued that the idea was to send a “signal”, to make pro-Navalny activists feel a sense of looming threat. It should also not be forgotten how Russia lives with this type of “symbols”, which closely resemble the Soviet period and which each time try to portray the Russian Federation as an entity worthy of the USSR’s heritage, a “collective father,” loved even when he showed himself, as often happened, to be “tough and cruel “. But, then, why let Navalny go and give him the opportunity to get away with it (even if by a nose, as stated by Ilya Yashin), and then return to Russia with a renewal aura of martyrdom? Especially an opponent who, among other things, although popular in the West, in Russia does not enjoy such a large following as to be actually dangerous.
Certainly, as we will see better in the next article, the regime immediately began a media offensive against Navalny and against “foreign interferece”, which also cost it the loss of a very important geopolitical partner, namely that “special relationship” that the Russian Federation had held up to that moment with Germany (remember that the issue of the joint production of anti-Covid vaccines is still at stake). As I have repeatedly reiterated when talking about the Russian power system, it never moves randomly, so why does it seem to have voluntarily exposed itself in this way this time?
Is it possible that we are faced with something darker and more complex?
As we have seen, the granite appearance that Russian power tends to show is only a facade, underneath which all kinds of economic and political interest groups move. Was this assassination attempt a settling of scores? And, if so, between whom? Between Vladimir Putin and those who would like to see a change at the top? Among the high ranks of the “silovki” fighting to curry favor with the President or other members of his circle?
After all, the only one who found himself in a “Catch 22” situation was the President himself, in the aforementioned conference at the end of the year he found himself having to choose between which truth to admit: that actually the order to kill his political opponent had started with him, or much worse, that his grip on the state apparatus is slowly crumbling, and this was only one of the effects, the most visible. Recently, messages have been circulating about a possible “illness” of Vladimir Putin (during the Soviet period, “illness” was another way of saying “inadequacy”, and generally heralded the fall of the current CPSU secretary) and about political movements that should lead to a change of leadership, while remaining within the framework of “Putinism”, whether this is true or not (the sources are not always what one might call “safe”), something is happening behind the curtains.
But we will discuss this better in the second part, in which we will consider the most current events, that is, starting from Alexey Navaly’s decision to return to Russia and everything that followed. For now I leave you to reflect on these questions that I hope have aroused your curiosity.
Thanks for coming this far and if you want to share thoughts, opinions or insights, feel free to contact me.
“The war which is coming Is not the first one. There were Other wars before it. When the last one came to an end There were conquerors and conquered. Among the conquered the common people Starved. Among the conquerors The common people starved too.”
Is there really anything we can learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh War?
Obviously I am referring to something other, that does not specifically concern the military aspect itself. But, since this is precisely the question that attracted my attention, it could be a good starting point: the elapsed time interval will allow us to look at the events in perspective, and verify whether some of the assumptions that had been discussed in the previous articles were correct or not.
Before we start, a brief summary of the facts could be useful: the conflict, which began on September 27, 2020 when the Azerbaijan Army launched the Iron Fist operation (in original, Dəmir Yumruq əməliyyatı) against the Republic of Artsakh, created after the war of 1988 – 1994 and de facto territory of the Republic of Armenia, although officially recognized as Azerbaijani territory, ended after about a month and two weeks of fighting, which saw an unstoppable Azerbaijani offensive recapture many of the territories of Karabakh, including the city of Shusha, until a trilateral agreement for an end to hostilities, ratified on 10 November between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, which sent a contingent of 2000 men to the scene with the function of “PeaceKeeping”.
As for the war events themselves, and in particular that described by the article, personally, more than a science fiction war scenario, reminds me of an old French saying: l’argent est le nerf de la guerre. Azerbaijan has behaved no differently from many other petro-states we know: the enormous proceeds of natural resources are directly reinvested in the army and security apparatuses, which does not displease the arms producing countries (most of the which are part of the West) only to be indignant because the weapons sold are actually used. Armenia, which does not possess the same kind of resources, was doomed to succumb even in a more “conventional” war.
The second issue that comes to mind is that we can learn not to make predictions about events of this kind: for example, the fact that the conflict has not escalated, thing of which many were apparently sure, assuming a new “Syrian” scenario in the Caucasus. This was not the case, as I stated at the time, mainly for two reasons, related to each other: the first is that the area is surrounded by “relatively” stable territorial powers, even if some of these, such as the Turkey, they played a leading role in the unfolding of the conflict; the second reason is linked to that adjective “relatively” which describes the stability of the surrounding countries: if everyone had an interest in “flexing their muscles” within the war scenario, no one had the intention of entering directly into the conflict, which it would have done nothing but undermine the precarious internal stability that lies beneath the bombastic and warlike facade.
We could learn from what happened that not all situations are similar just because they appear to us so: often the emotional component that accompanies the analysis misleads us, reflecting more our fears or hopes than an accurate study of the current situation and of it’s surroundings. This often leads many towards a catastrophic tendency not supported by any evidence or concrete fact, which, paradoxically, often makes them look away when the war events are over, without understanding that the real scenario to keep an eye on. in the case of these “frozen conflicts” it is precisely what lies in the middle of the actual confrontations. But the former end up (for better or worse) in the newspapers, the latter do not.
The third thing we can learn is not to turn away from a war scenario as soon as they stop shooting.
For example, it seems that people have largely forgotten what is happening in Armenia after the ceasefire agreement, which, it should be remembered, cedes the “occupied territories” of Artsak back to Azerbaijan, was signed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan: thousands of people took to the streets, and hundreds stormed the Parliament buildings in the capital Yerevan. The protests continued throughout the month of November, with demonstrations in Yerevan and other cities demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, who just two years ago was the hero of the Velvet Revolution.
Now the whole Armenian society has found its own scapegoat (everyone, from former president Levor Ter-Petrosian to both catholicoi of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II and Aram I, have asked for his resignation); National Assembly President Ararat Mirzoyan was nearly lynched by the angry mob and demonstrators came to his home to threaten his daughter. On November 11, other demonstrators invaded the Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe station in Yerevan attacking journalists, shouting “Turks” at them, and inviting them to leave the country; same fate befell the headquarters of the Open Society foundation. On the other hand, the government reacted lifting the limitation imposed by martial law and with arrests and releases of the main opposition leaders, clearly for intimidation purposes.
But this is only the beginning: the cession of the territories occupied by Azerbaijan means the beginning of a mass exodus from those regions of the Armenian population, who have decided to make “scorched earth” of their cities rather than leave them in the hands of the Azerbaijanis, and to even take the bodies of their relatives with them from cemeteries (along with the obvious vandalization and looting of some Muslim places of worship, particularly in the larger cities). When these displaced people arrive, in all likelihood, in Armenia, the situation will only worsen, as the protests do not seem to stop, probably waiting for that very moment to obtain the dismissal of the government.
There is no need to be a fortune-teller to imagine that the next Armenian government will focus as much as possible on revanchism to secure a long period of power.
In particular, what remains to cause more concern is the Lachin Corridor area: it too should, in theory, be returned to Azerbaijan, last in the timeline, and I do not think it is a coincidence that there installed the “Peacekeeping” force of the Russian Federation. For those who have not read the history of the conflict, the Lachin Corridor is a strategic area that connects Armenia to “mountainous” Karabakh, the part of the region that was not taken over by the Azerbaijani army and what remains of the Republic of Artsak, and from which the war of 1988 – 94 started. Yes, because, militarily speaking, if it is “relatively” easy to fight in the flat areas around the mountains, it is quite another thing to take the entrenched areas in the mountains, where the “sci-fi “Turkish Azerbaijani offensive has in fact stopped. Therefore, whoever controls the mountainous part of Karabakh is in fact in a dominant position, although it may be in the minority. As we have seen, Russia has not moved much in favor of Armenia and its Prime Minister “not approved” by the Kremlin, but it is not certain that this situation will not be reversed in the years to come.
Thus, while the troops parade in Baku, the seeds of the next war have already been sown. And this can lead us to the third “lesson” that we can learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is the stabilizing function of the conflict itself in certain areas of the world.
This time it was the case of Azerbaijan, which, backed by Turkey, decided to take its internal problems outside, trying to carve out a prominent role within the region: it is always about the winners, and the transformation of Caucasian country in another petro-state that uses the income derived from raw materials to invest them in militarization and regimentation of society has been accomplished. As stated above, a not dissimilar future is likely to await Armenia once the transition phase becomes a fact, and especially once Russia has resolved its internal problems.
As long as the “threat” situation persists, the citizens of both countries have seen their rights dissolve and nationalist fanaticism rising like a tide, as we have previously seen with regard to Armenia: a situation that takes a lot of trouble from regimes. authoritarians like Azerbaijan, and which soon makes one forget the reasoning of losses in terms of human lives and civil liberties to follow the emotion and hysteria of “victory”. At least for now.
Here, I believe that these are the “possible” lessons that we can learn from a conflict like that of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Western newspapers, if and when they talk about it, delight in the interesting dissertation on which were the best “drones”, if those of Erdogan or Nethanyau, without asking who and why moved them, using pseudo-intellectual terms such as Neo-Ottomanism or “Hybrid War”, or even pulled out of some from books by William Gibson (with all due respect), such as “Cyberwarfare” to disguise one’s own guilty disinterest.
The last lesson we can learn is perhaps this: our guilty disinterest. Of course, we are all focused on a global pandemic that has affected our lives in one way or another, but beyond this it seems that foreign events, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh war, attracted our attention for a short time, a a bit like fireworks: we watch them until they make noise and sparkle, and then turn our gaze to something else that glitters somewhere else.
I hope these lines may have provided you with some interesting reflections and that they were not too “abstract”. I thank you for coming to the end and I’ll see you next week.
“Even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.”
(George Orwell, 1984)
Welcome Back to UnpredictablePast.com,
Let’s go back to Belarus, as promised, in case there was something new on the horizon. But this time I can go more straight to the point of the question, as the historical and social context has already been dealt with extensively.
Two recent events mainly brought me back to the issue: the first is an appeal to the West (therefore the United States and the European Union) made by the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to intensify the sanctions against the regime and thus push Lukashenko to yield, and the second, again in this sense, is the possibility put in place by the dictator himself to reform the Constitution and leave the office of president after 26 years, probably under pressure from Russia, and because, as I stated previously, something is falling apart within that part of the state that has remained faithful to him: the security apparatus.
Also, I happened to read this article by Natalia Radina on chapter97.org, titled “The Battle That Defines The Fate Of The Planet” or “Why the West Should Save Belarus”, and more than why it makes me wondered on how. yet, because in all this, there is still an unsolved question, to which everyone seems to avoid asking for an answer: what is the future of post-Lukashenko Belarus?
This is not a question I would like to ask analysts or experts, and it is not an “experiment” for making predictions (which, as you know, I am very suspicious of), but a serious request to the Belarusian Coordination Council and its members, that I have decided to put here in writing, who knows that it will not be possible to clarify:
1. Will the future Belarus try to join/get close to the European Union?
2.What will the relations of the future Belarusian government be with Russia?
3. What is the position of the Coordination Council on capital punishment?
4. Will a new Constitution be drawn up, taking into account the problems of the past one (eg, will “super-presidentialism” be overcome)?
5. How does a possible new government intend to relate to the bureaucracy and state apparatus build up during the past 26 years and currently in power?
6. How would a possible new government regulate itself on transparency and accountability issues (eg Covid-19 Pandemic numbers)?
7. What will the relations between State and Church be? Which ones with minorities and LGBT communities?
8. How will the new government approach the economic reforms needed to modernize the country?
Obviously the previous questions must be taken according to the criterion of the right / duty to report. I am absolutely in favor of the end of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s reign of terror, and in solidarity with those who are unfairly in prison, exile, or who continue to suffer physical and psychological abuse, but this is not enough: the Belarusians seem willing to change their rulers, but they are equally willing to change their your lifestyle?
Unfortunately, sooner or later, even the most genuine idealism will have to face the reality of a country that has remained closed in on itself for almost thirty years, and which will inevitably begin to come under pressure from all sides, political and economic. This I have already explained in previous articles. It is not enough to speak of democracy for it to magically materialize, or of renewal for those who are closely linked to the old apparatus to give way.
The activism of the Belarusian opposition has done something extraordinary, but now is the time to put the cards on the table. Yes, as Tsikhanouskaya said, European leaders coul be more “brave”, but the issue for the moment remains in the hands of the Belarusian people and how strong their desire for change is.
Otherwise, the next “Lukashenko” is around the corner, it will only be a matter of time.
Russia is not a linear country. The modernization took place in forced stages. And the tsarist background has never been completely erased. This means that the smartest minds hardly know how to adapt to the situation.
In this last article (the usual “last” is related to the issue) we will look at some other recent events concerning the Russian Federation and what is happening inside it and which, due to other events, has passed on the sly.
In the two previous articles we have analyzed the events related to the SARS-CoV2 Pandemic, and how this has openly highlighted the economic and institutional weaknesses of Russia built by Vladimir Putin: in fact, what is most noticeable if you look at the general media, is the sudden disappearance of Russia (except for the question concerning the elusive Sputnik V vaccine), which until recently was concentrated on a broad global propaganda operation, the main purpose of which was, and still is , to reconstruct the role of Russia as a great power, and therefore as an alternative point of reference to the United States and Europe, but also to China, at least in terms of “image”.
Yes, the image of Russia. This may seem strange to you, at first glance, but I can assure you that the main problem in the head of the Russian elites is precisely this: what an image of themselves Russia shows, and it is applicable in every field and every event that has involved the post-sovietic period. The topic is quite long and complex, so for now I ask you to keep this concept in mind, further explanations will be the subject of specific treatment. If we want, we could take up the famous quote from “The Art of War”:
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Here, the Russian government thinks more or less in these terms, replacing “weak” with “well-disposed”. If we look at the latest events through this lens, everything should appear much clearer. I said that Russia has disappeared from the media, but this is only partially correct: on the one hand, barring sensational events, the West is also focused on how to deal with the Pandemic, and it is natural (at least according to the media logic) that everything else goes into the background, but it is equally true that the Russian leaders quickly took advantage of the situation to “disappear” and regulate internal issues away from prying eyes. Even at times when, in a “normal” situation (think just a couple of years ago), we would have had a pounding wave of propaganda about Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran, US elections, etc.
And instead nothing, or almost.
To give you another very recent example, you can read the excellent article by Professor Vladislav Inozemtsev, published by the Institute of Modern Russia. It deals with a complex issue, namely that of the recently begun reform of the “Development Institutions”, but, aside from the economic-administrative question, even Professor Inozemtsev can only conclude with the idea that the whole process is substantially a big facade maneuver, aimed much more at settling accounts within the Russian power groups and at “redistributing” the management of the country’s economic flows among them, than at implementing a serious economic reform project, to facing a post-pandemic future.
Exactly as happened for the Management of the Pandemic and the apparent concession of autonomy to the Regions (which in the meantime has degenerated into an increasingly clear discontent, with mass protests especially in the Trans-Uralic regions), here too we are faced with a marketing operation: we want to sell a “reform” that will cancel a series of useless and unproductive state entities, but which in reality serves to redistribute roles, powers and political and economic influence.
As has already happened (think of Vladimir Putin himself, or his eternal second Dimitry Mevdeved) to deal with the umpteenth reform package is a political figure apparently jumped out of nowhere: the new Prime Minister Mikhail Vladimirovič Mišustin. A man who has moved within the Russian administration since the Yeltsin period (in August 1998 his first appointment, that of deputy director of the State Tax Service) and who now suddenly finds himself in the center of the scene, with soaring popularity skyrocketing (thanks above all to the provision of numerous subsidies to economies particularly affected by the pandemic), second only to that of President Putin.
He, as mentioned, will have to deal with this umpteenth attempt at “reorganization” which has very little to do with economy: it is no coincidence that, a character who remained for decades in the background, began to treat his image in an almost maniacal way, and to suddenly see a “circle” of loyalists born around him, of which all obviously belong those characters involved in the restructuring of these para-state apparatuses: when the economy flounders, cuts are necessary (even if, as mentioned, only on the facade) and everyone looks for their own safe place on a lifeboat that gets more and more crowded.
It is no coincidence that, alongside him in this enterprise, there is Dmitriy Cherhyshenko, the “media manager” who owes his fame to the creation of the aggressive advertising of the MMM Company, which, for those who don’t know, was a gigantic “Ponzi Scheme” created during the economic reform of the Yeltsin Era, which reduced thousands of savers to misery, deceived by the promise of easy earnings and decidedly unable to understand what they were doing (it was the early 90s, russians had just left the Soviet system). A warranty.
In all this, the only thing that seems to have concrete implications is the implementation of an increasingly restrictive legislation regarding the right of assembly, guaranteed de jure by article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation but de facto severely limited by a huge machine bureaucratic, which poses a legislative barrier at both federal and local levels. For years now this has been the way that the Russian authorities have had to block any type of demonstration: a small error in filling out the myriad of paperwork required, officially for the “safety of citizens”, is enough to be denied a constitutionally sanctioned right. In chronological order, the latest proposal presented to the Duma by the Russia Unity party is to request bank information from those organizing demonstrations, which are feared “financed by people hostile to the country, such as George Soros or Hillary Clinton”.
Obviously inaccurate or incomplete information (or perhaps simply not available, as in the case of flash mobs or spontaneous demonstrations) will lead to the cancellation of the manivestation, or its brutal dispersion by the riot squads. The perfect combination of propaganda and limitation of the legal space for protest, as authorities find more ways to limit when, where, and how people can voice their demands.
In conclusion, we could say that this was yet another period of missed opportunities to seriously reform the Russian Federation, whose government instead preferred to consolidate its position, take the opportunity to eliminate some “ballast” and settle the accounts within the different factions, still kept in balance by the figure of the President. It is my opinion that this attempt to disappear from the spotlight will soon show its dangerous consequences in the not too distant future.
Thank you for reading this series of writings, as usual, for any questions or clarifications, do not hesitate to contact me.
“Later, everybody agreed the baths should have been closed sooner; they agreed health education should have been more direct and more timely. And everybody also agreed blood banks should have tested blood sooner, and that a search for the AIDS virus should have been started sooner, and that scientists should have laid aside their petty intrigues. Everybody subsequently agreed that the news media should have offered better coverage of the epidemic much earlier, and that the federal government should have done much, much more. By the time everyone agreed to all this, however, it was too late.
Instead people died. Tens of thousands of them.”
Welcome Back, my friends,
Today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day. I know it sounds like a different topic from what I usually propose to you, but it isn’t.
Talking about AIDS, in the average reader, generates a reaction not different from talking about Nagorno-Karabakh: they think of a distant place where people die for apparently incomprehensible reasons, or at worst, for “barbaric” conduct. Just as I have proposed to talk about those distant places, I will also tell you about this place which, I admit with shame, until recently was also far away for my range.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has killed over 25 million people since 1981, becoming one of the most destructive epidemics in the whole history of mankind. Although access to antiretroviral therapies and drugs has recently improved, in many regions of the world the AIDS epidemic claimed about 3.1 million victims in 2005 (estimates range from 2.9 to 3.3 million), more than half of whom (570,000) were children. This year the new infections amount to one million and seven hundred thousand and the deaths to 690,000.
Since 1988, the World Health Organization has set this day to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of the HIV virus, and to remember those who have died from the disease. Until 1985, however, the epidemic moved invisibly and uncontrollably throughout the world.
Why? Mainly because it struck the “pariahs”: in the West, mainly Homosexuals and Drug Addicts, and imagine then what could be the interest in its spread in what were the so-called “Third World” countries, where the disease originated, until things have reached abnormal proportions. Just like when we hear about tragic events in distant countries, those who die and suffer become a distant entity, and often we who deal with Geopolitics treat all this as a game of chess, in which necessarily “pieces” are lost.
As for me, I found myself face to face with this part of Western history, which we carefully closed in a drawer, about a year and a half ago, when I was asked for help for a project of a completely different nature, specifically, psychology. When I was asked to reconstruct the history of the first years of the pandemic, I was thrilled by the scarce amount of information available, even in specialized magazines. And it is by asking myself the reason for this lack of reporting that I “met” Randy Shilts.
I say “met”, because, although Shilts died when I was a child, his book “And the Band Played On”, which tells those first years shrouded in mystery is not just a historical account, but is the Echo of hundreds of voices that come to us from a not too distant past, and that we have forgotten. Surely it is thanks to his writing style (to understand, we could compare it to that of Truman Capote or, more recently, to that of Svetlana Aleksevic), but there is more than this: Shilts, a participant in the Homosexual Liberation Movement (as it was called then) since the University, he is personally involved in the AIDS pandemic, and makes us live together with him and his contemporaries, that part of history, through a choral story “as beautiful and terrible as an army lined up in battle”, in the words of Umberto Eco.
Reading the book, you get the feeling that you are participating in those moments, and, if you take into account that they are not fictional stories but first-rate investigative journalism (except for some parts added after his death by his publisher, which I consider a real stab in the back, but if you have read, or will read the book, you will immediately realize what they are), we face an extraordinary testimony. The journalist of the San Francisco Chronicle accompanies us in that glimpse of history, shows us the pinnacle of the struggle for civil rights of homosexuals and his fall at the hands of a mysterious disease, shows us the suffering of those who could not do anything but succumb , the courage of those who have spent themselves with every cell of their body to find a solution, the greed of the business of paid sex, the unawareness of the victims, the lack of action of the Reagan Presidency and the hatred towards those, like him, which demanded a change in homosexual lifestyle and was accused of being “fascists”, the righteousness of some unlikely politicians (like the Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch) and the contempt of those who wanted to take advantage of the situation.
But above all, it shows us the indifference, guilty or not, of the society of the time (in this specific case American, but in other countries the situation was identical if not worse), while few fought against the tide: they were doctors, clinicians, researchers, politicians, activists, bureaucrats, writers and ordinary citizens. And a reporter from the Chronicle, who fought with them and got their words and deeds out to us.
I can only answer that I tried to tell the truth and, if not be objective, at least be fair; history is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story.
Reading his writings, for me was not just a lesson in journalism, or a look into a period of recent history that is very little covered, but a lesson in humanity: he tells us about a society that does not intend to change its lifestyle, even in the face of the suffering and death of many, of politicians and journalists who try to take advantage of the situation to gain approval or popularity, of scientists and doctors who do not give up their academic vanity.
But also that there have been, and still are, people willing to fight for what is right, without means, without attention and without support against an invisible and lethal enemy. Reading his writings during this pandemic, gave me the strength to face it in my own way, despite watching everyday the same wrong, selfish, and demagogic behaviors repeated in front of my eyes: another story of cowardice and courage.
This short piece whould be an encouragement not to give up, to make sure that the legacy of men like Randall Martin Shilts is not forgotten after the storm has passed, and after their life has died out, perhaps deepening the subject soon.
Come out for Shilts, once again, not with your sexuality, but whit your braveness.
“Russia is not corrupt. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favors. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people. They have privatized the country’s wealth and taken control of its financial flows.”
Last week we talked about the internal situation of the Russian Federation, and about some of the problems that are putting the upper echelons in serious difficulty, first of all, the way in which the Central Government is dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic in the country, delegating all responsibility to the governors of the Oblasts, without however increasing the resources at their disposal, nor by granting them again the freedom of action that in recent years have been progressively reduced. The worst thing is that this maneuver was devised intentionally, with the intention of “unloading” the discontent from the shoulders of Vladimir Putin’s administration, but, as we will see, not everything is going as planned.
In addition to this, the economic crisis turned out to be much more serious than expected. From the earliest years in power, Vladimir Putin and his entourage have tried to use the proceeds from Russia’s massive oil resources to fix the serious economic problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent catastrophic “reforms” of the Yeltsin Administration. The success that this strategy initially achieved proved counterproductive in the long run: the idea of transforming Russia into a Petro-state modeled on some Arab countries has exposed the country to continuous crises, creating a much more fragile economic system than what does not appear from the outside. With the arrival of the pandemic and the slowdown in global industrial activity, the demand for energy supplies and raw materials has also decreased, leaving, as we have seen in the previous article, many Russian Oblasts with empty coffers to face an emergency situation.
Although the situation is at least problematic, even relying on official data provided by the Ministry of Health, the President and the Council of State did not miss the opportunity to do what they do best: Propaganda and further Centralization of Power.
As laboratories and pharmaceutical companies around the world worked tirelessly to find a vaccine or more effective cures against Covid, August 11 of this year, instead of announcing the usual “Doomsday Machine” or other sorts of military progresses, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was in possession and has registered the first vaccine against Coronavirus, baptized, to remember the “old days”, with the evocative name of Sputnik V. How could the Russian government miss such an opportunity, in its long string of desperate attempts to appear “on par” with Western countries? Kirill Dmitriev, the head of of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), responsible for financing vaccine research, called this a Sputnik Moment, in he’s own words: “Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first. “
Despite the effectiveness of the alleged vaccine had yet to be proven (and to this day little is known, except that on November 23 the daily infections in Russia broke all previous records, certainly not a good sign), Dmitriev has also stated that twenty countries were ready to buy a billion doses of Sputnik V: a great way not only get a substantial financial windfall from an (eventually) successful cure, but it would also gain international respect as a scientific center and frustrate the US and the European countries, in a sort of re-edition of the space race, designed to feed the memory of a past that in Russia over the years it has taken the form of a “factor of national cohesion”, obviously in its revised and corrected version (but this is a separate story).
The so-called “second wave” turned out to be even more exemplary regarding the dysfunctionality of a system that tries to make every event a foothold for propaganda: as mentioned in the previous article, the (intentional) lack of room for maneuver for the Oblasts has transformed the response to the emergency into a cacophony of discordant measures, mutual accusations and generalized discontent. The regional administrations were completely taken aback, lacking, in addition to the aforementioned fiscal autonomy, of “transparent” numbers on which to base the response to the emergency. As some analyzes show, the number of deaths from the first wave is likely underestimated by five times.
Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he does not want to implement restrictive measures or stronger lockdowns, precisely to avoid problems of “too visible” reactions within the population, and the governors have basically obeyed him, and, in this regard, one would wonder if the numbers sent to the Central Government are true and how they are treated by it.
Moving on to the centralization of power, just before the August announcement, a Constitutional Referendum was held in the Russian Federation, already scheduled for the beginning of the year, to submit to the population the approval of some amendments to the Constitution. As in the case of the health emergency, the constitutional reform project is little more than a “painting” of a facade of a building that does not substantially change inside, or worsens further. A typical expedient of the so-called “Illiberal Democracies”: the people are given what they want but in the manner decided a priori by the government. Given the recent protests of recent years, which demanded greater participation, what better way to be open and democratic than a National Referendum (In Russian “всенародное голосование”, that can be translated as “nationwide voting”)? Obviously by putting everything in such a way that the vote can be easily directed towards the desired result (for example by including rules on the minimum wage or on the indexation of pensions among the amendments).
Legally, the Referendum was not even necessary for this type of constitutional amendment. The approval for the Constitutional Reforms reached around 75%, but as previously mentioned, it was not difficult to imagine, since in essence everything was little more than a giant pantomime from the beginning.
The things that most interested the enstablishment of the Russian Federation were to definitively overrule the rule that imposes a limited number of Presidential mandates (the rule that last time was circumvented by the Putin-Medvedev Tandem in the years 2012-2020), the regularization of Council of State, a body that should officially assist the President but which in fact over the years has become the only true center of power of the Federation, although not legally regulated in this sense, and finally introduce the prohibition of “alienation of Russian territories” (criminal liability for call against “territorial integrity” was introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014) and “unified system of power” from municipal leaders to the president.
To better explain how this is not just my opinion, I propose the thought of two experts on the subject:
Elena Lykyanova, lawyer, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Higher School of Economics said in an interview with the Meduza website: “It’s a real threat to the constitutional order. There is no expansion of the real powers of the Duma and the Council of Federation… as all of this is a word game: confirmation, appointment, etc. The president can dismiss any judge or prosecutor, so none of these [amendments] work. There will be no truly responsible government. [It] can appoint someone, but the next day the president can remove them, claiming lack of confidence. The same applies to the prime minister. The Duma approves [him], but it’s the president who appoints. Again, it’s a word game. The parliament is not gaining more control, nor is the government getting more responsibilities. All of this is a strengthening of the ‘vertical of power.’ It is the construction of a unified, non-democratic, non-federative vertical—without separation of powers and an independent judiciary, but with impairment of citizens’ rights“.
Or Victor Sheinis, co-author of the current Constitution, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Russian Academy of Sciences), deputy of Russia’s First and Second State Duma, member of the Yabloko party’s political committee, that, in his interview whit the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, states that: “The majority of amendments to the Constitution have to do with the procedure for forming Russia’s government bodies and their powers—primarily those of the president. The 1993 Constitution is often called “superpresidential.” As I have repeatedly pointed out before, it suffers due to the excessive powers vested in the president (which can be explained by the political situation in the early 1990s). <…> The current draft law is said to envision a redistribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. It is not so. At best, only the procedures and the way they are spelled out have changed. <…> The government, which in one part is directly managed by the president and in another part [indirectly by him] through the prime minister, remains as it was—the president’s cabinet. Also unchanged is the procedure [of its formation]: the government resigns after the elections, and reports to the president, not to the Federal Assembly. And the president can dismiss the government at his own discretion. The terms of dissolving the Duma also remain the same”.
The question of the management of the Pandemic and that of the Centralization of Power were then combined in September, the month in which, on the 13th, the governorial elections were held in 18 regions and those for the Legislative Assemblies in another 11. Despite the “routinary” character that this type of voting has (as mentioned, in fact the regional bodies have little or no autonomy) this time the mood was different precisely because of the aforementioned reasons.
In past years, the strategy adopted by the Kremlin in these cases was a combination of factors given by the demotivation of the electorate, the abuse of electoral laws, the co-optation of the notorious “system opposition” and finally administrative barriers that created an insurmountable bureaucratic obstruction to independent candidates or candidates not linked to “United Russia”, the only party that has the means and facilities available to overcome this “wall”.
This time the victory, usually simpler, saw an unprecedented fact, at least as regards the Putin Era: a clearer confrontation, with widespread spontaneous protests, regarding the problems of centralization of power, especially by the regions of the Far East, which consider themselves increasingly neglected and, in this juncture, literally abandoned by Moscow: Alexey Navalny was shooting a series of documentaries on regional governments in the Siberian area, prior to his poisoning by the nerve agent known as Novičok, which forced him to repair in Germany, the only episode that had any media coverage in the West.
In all this, the same figure of President Vladimir Putin, until a few years ago practically merged with the image of Russia itself, the bogey of the West, is increasingly secluded, despite maintaining substantially the same power, is probably committed to holding up in balance the different groups of power that in situations like this begin to bite each other to maintain their influence within an increasingly restricted circle of individuals.
But this will be the subject of the last part of this excursus on events of the last year, overshadowed by the global problems in which we are all involved, or simply by issues that take priority in the newspapers, such as the American Elections. I hope that now some of my statements on topics discussed previously will be clearer, such as the Crisis in Belarus or the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when I stated that the Russian Federation had other problems, more pressing than those of Minsk or of the Artsakh and that he would have avoided direct involvement in the events as much as possible, as in fact it was.
I hope you have found the topic clearer, as well as interesting. Thanks for reading these lines and see you next week.
Last week we dealt with the US elections, looking specifically at the “Personalization” of politics and what happens when institutions are progressively de-legitimized. In the past elections, at the center of the debate was the question of Russian influence on the public debate and the links that the Republican candidate, later elected, Donald J. Triump, had with Moscow. In these elections the problem seems to have somehow disappeared, just as the shadow of Moscow seems to have dissolved from the Media debate, and for this reason I think it is right to try to reconstruct, at least in part, what is happening in Russia and why.
First of all, obviously, the global SARS-Cov2 pandemic takes all the front pages, but the problem is not all there: ust like other countries, Russia is hit by this global threat, but this time it seems to have taken the hit more than others.
Until shortly before the virus appeared in Wuhan, it almost seemed to be in a “new” Cold War climate: psychological warfare that sought to undermine the foundations of the Western States, the replacement of the US in the Middle East as a new hegemonic power together with Iran (even Nethanyau had inaugurated more “relaxed” relations with the Kremlin) and the invasion of Crimea, they seemed to have rebuilt a bipolarity in the global geopolitical framework. Russia was “resurrected” and ready to regain its place among the world powers.
Or at least that was the tenor of the public debate.
As usual, in all this there was a part of truth and another “inflated” by TV, Newspapers and Websites, unable to make accurate analyzes and less sensationalist headlines, which the Kremlin did not mind at all, quite the contrary. We will talk more about this topic in the near future, for now let’s focus on recent past events in the background for the reasons mentioned above.
First of all, as we said, how much has Russia actually been affected by the epidemic?
Certainly much more than what it shows. Since the beginning of the crisis, in the eyes of those of us who have been observing the country for some time, something very strange has happened: the Central Government has in fact seemed to “loosen” its grip on federal institutions, giving them free rein to manage the emergency. For those unfamiliar with Russian politics, this is not very strange, those who are slightly more into these matters know that the clash between the Institutions of the Oblast (the Federal States of Russia) and the central ones has been going on since the time of Boris Yeltsin: Russia is a vast and multicultural country, and many of its regions have a strong sense of community and autonomy, embodied by the Regional Governors, the only “thorn in the side” left in a system of power that over the years has become increasingly centralized in figure of the President and his “plenipotentiaries”.
In the course of the last ten years, in particular, the Executive Power has worked to ensure that the Governors of the Oblast remain with a margin of autonomy as narrow as possible, mindful of the experience of Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and his entourage made sure that these institutions were as closely linked as possible to Moscow, both by installing governors who were “favorable” to them (see “Puppets”) and by limiting the possibility of implementing autonomous policies, under the pretext, much felt among the population, of not compromise the territorial integrity of the country.
But in this case, the choice made by Vladimir Putin is not a concession or a truce, but rather a subtle and cunning way of offloading the burdensome responsibilities of dealing with the situation on someone else. The Regions have not obtained any “real power”, especially in the economic field (everything remains firmly in the hands of the State Council and the “special envoys” of the Kremlin), but only the responsibility of “managing” (not governing) situation, as they did before: making sure that order is maintained, ruffling the local potentates, and getting everyone to vote right. When someone wants to take an initiative, especially in the economic field, they must first wait for it to be approved by the Central Government.
The Pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Russia (and in my opinion, of the other “Illiberal Democracies”): a central government absolutely unprepared to manage the situation and, to put it mildly, very lacking in transparency, it has only one way to maintain some degree of consensus: find a scapegoat. And in this case in Moscow they hope to be able to use it, in the future, to increase their influence even more. To make you understand how serious the economic situation is, think that even before the pandemic, the National Credit Rating Agency estimated that at low oil prices 62 of the 83 regions would deplete their reserves this year.
Especially regions that rely on the export of oil and other commodities face up to 560 billion rubles ($ 7.5 billion) in lost corporate and mineral extraction tax revenues, while federal transfers to replenish their budgets barely reach 200 billion rubles ($ 2.7 billion). In 2019, by comparison, transfers from the Federal Government amounted to 2.6 trillion rubles ($ 34.7 billion), counting on projected regional revenue (excluding Moscow Oblast) of 9.6 trillion rubles ($ 128 billion) in 2020.
The Governors will therefore have only the concrete possibility of maneuvering with the money they will have in hand, while they will have to bear the “responsibility” for any discontent. For example, regional institutions can block movements within their borders, but not prohibit movements between them (those who attempted have their requests immediately rejected, even a “risk” area such as Chechnya) Despite having the highest infection rate, the citizens of Moscow can continue to move around the other Oblasts, fueling the clash between the city’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and the other governors, only some of whom have managed to impose limited measures quarantine for those coming from infected areas. As if that were not enough, regional governments do not have the possibility to secure areas considered economically strategic by the federal government (the case of an outbreak in a hostel that housed IKEA workers in Leningrad Oblast) or which belong to whom, like Gennady Timchenko’s Novatek, it is closer than they are to the President.
Only a few governors, those belonging to the “system” opposition (that is, linked to the Kremlin, but not belonging to the majority party, “United Russia”) have dared to publicly complain about the limited means available to public health or to use of masks. In a country where trust in institutions has always been very low, this continuous rebound of responsibility and inaction (on one side or the other) or contradictory measures have enormously increased the general confusion and mistrust. While on the one hand more restrictions and adequate measures are called for, others, in particular the men most linked to Putin (like the Governors of Tula and Yaroslavl Regions, who where President’s former bodiguards), the restrictive measures were limited to “recommendations” to avoid riots.
The diversity of treatment has rekindled many of those centrifugal thrusts that seemed to have been dampened over the past few years. In recent months it has become clear, even to less astute or politically committed citizens, that there is a clear difference in treatment and even more stringent room for maneuver, depending on whether or not one is “organic” within the entire system of power.
In a country that has so far been held together by the strong figure of the President, it is not easy to imagine how those who are now suddenly seeying that power so distant, or unprepared to handle the situation, can feel while people die near them. The construction of a system of such wide consensus, centered on a very specific figure and with peculiar characteristics, finds itself disoriented and in disarray when this “image” fails. And those who should act more concretely cannot do it, even if they want to, as they are now reduced to a figurehead of true power, who intends to preserve themselves by offering citizens other heads when they ask for them. Or at least that’s what they hope in the Kremlin rooms.
In the next part we will see how all this is already having concrete effects at the local level, and will help explain to you why the role of Russia, apparently launched (by the media) towards a new golden age, has suffered such a strong setback.
Thanks for reading these few lines, see you next week with the second part.