Putin’s Labyrinth

A reader points La Russophobe to the following column in the Chicago Tribune by Luke Allnutt, an editor at the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Note how easily the analogy to Josef Goebbels. Once again, the people of Russia are descending into darkness and ignorance — but let’s not forget that this time they are doing it willingly, with their eyes wide open.

Putin’s Labyrinth

The behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin has left politicians and diplomats scratching their heads. Last week, Putin threatened to point his missiles at Europe; now, at the Group of Eight summit in Germany, he says he wouldn’t mind a joint U.S.-Russia anti-missile radar base, as long as it was sited in Azerbaijan rather than the Czech Republic.

The spat over the missile shield is the latest in a long line of dramas that are best understood not as part of a coherent Russian foreign policy, but rather as choreographed scenes intended for domestic consumption.

It was Josef Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, who once remarked “we must create the image of the enemy.” In a year that will see parliamentary elections in Russia and the likely anointing of Putin’s successor, that is exactly what the Kremlin is doing.

First, it was the Georgians, when, last fall, a routine spying row, which usually would have been handled quietly by diplomats, turned into a war with expulsions and bans on Georgian wine. Then, in April, after the removal of a Soviet World War II monument, a Russian delegation made a very public dash to Estonia. Russian television denounced Estonians as unreconstructed fascists. The Putin-loyal Nashi movement attacked diplomats and then hacked Web sites. Such events are only really significant when taken together as the building blocks in Russia’s great new narrative.

The narrative goes something like this: In the 1990s, the West took advantage of an emasculated Russia, using oligarchs to strip the country of its wealth. Russia is encircled, with NATO perched on its borders. The colored revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia were funded and engineered by the West. Pro-Western neighbors are traitors, ungrateful for Soviet liberation from the Nazis. But now, Russia, emboldened by oil and gas wealth, is back on the world stage. Russia was humiliated, but will never be humiliated again. As the popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote on May 31, “it’s a rare day that the average Russian citizen doesn’t hear warnings about another Cold War or World War III. Citizens are informed of how the United States and NATO are establishing military bases all along Russia’s perimeter.”

This narrative of avenged humiliation is simplistic and undemanding, a comfort zone where outsiders are to blame for Russia’s ills, where there is no scrupulous moral examination of the communist past or the increasingly authoritarian present. And it is understandable why so many Russians, who lived for so long with perhaps the greatest tale of all, Marxism, are receptive to this new narrative. Humiliation hurts. In the 1990s, Russians couldn’t afford to join the country club. They kept the greens and took out the trash. But with more than 6 percent economic growth, a burgeoning middle class and a leader respected, if not feared internationally, they’re back. Now they’re paid-up members, on the golf course, crowding the bar area, and ordering tray after tray of gin slings. Russians credit Putin with this. And it is this, and the economic growth, that explains his continually high approval ratings of more than 70 percent.

But like every good narrative, there is an element of the fantastical. In Guillermo del Toro’s recent film, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Ofelia constructs her magical kingdom to shield her from the horrors of fascist Spain. In Putin’s Russia, the delusions of grandeur, or of national rebirth, serve the same purpose: They comfort but, in the long-term, they will not sustain. Oil prices won’t stay high forever and the Russian economy has not diversified enough. There is an increasing gap between rich and poor and a looming population crisis. Freedoms are rapidly being eroded, with essentially a one-party system; supporters of the political opposition are beaten on the streets.

Political systems often collapse when the narrative diverges so widely from the reality. And that is Russia’s worry; that is what has commentators gingerly making parallels between Putin’s Russia and Weimar Germany. But for now, it appears to be working, and we can expect more of the same in 2007. To avoid a chaotic and damaging transfer of power next year, the Kremlin will continue to shore up its support at home with posturing abroad. No doubt, the narrative will be further fleshed out and refined, with new players, new villains, and if Putin chooses a successor, even a new hero.

Andrew Wilson, an academic at University College London, predicts the “animating” narratives in Russia’s election year are likely to be the “threat of extreme nationalism or the threat of Islamic terrorism.” It is also possible that more of Russia’s neighbors could have their gas cut off, their Web sites hacked, or their products boycotted. Or perhaps the Kremlin will spin a yarn about the threat of another colored revolution, this time in Russia. The Rose and Orange revolutions were just dry runs, spin doctors will say. Now the United States, armed with its missile-defense shield, is ready for the big one.

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