Offering Battle to Mr. Putin
“Mr. Putin, can you categorically rule out a return to the presidency in the next 12 months?”
“It’s always the foreign media that are interested in this question. I have a very effective relationship with President Medvedev. I like the way we work together today. The next elections will be in 2012, let’s wait and see. ”
— Russian “Prime Minister” Vladmir Putin, responding to a question last week from the BBC
You will notice, attentive reader that you are, that Putin didn’t say “no.” Nor did he say that Medvedev would not resign and hand Putin the presidency, just as Boris Yeltsin did in 1999. He didn’t say Medvedev was a good leader except in that he does what Putin wants him to do.
Can you imagine, do you dare, dear reader, how “President” Vladimir Putin would have reacted a few years ago if his then prime minister had answered a question about whether he would take over the presidency in the next 12 months, with three years still to go on Putin’s term in office, using the same words Putin did when asked that last week?
No, dear reader, you can’t. Because the consequences would be too bloody and godawful to imagine. But Putin is free to say so, just as he is free to be the one answering the questions and not the actual leader of the country, Dima Medvedev, who thus faced a double and truly bruthal humiliation. Even if Putin remains as prime minister, he’s still the ruler of the nation.
And even if Putin’s answer means there won’t be new “elections” until 2012, Medvedev can resign whenever he likes, just as Yeltsin did, and Putin as “prime minister” would return to serve ou the remaider of Medvedev’s term, just as he served out Yeltsin’s, followed by 12 more “elected” years, giving him 23 or more years as “president.” His answer certainly doesn’t rule that out, and clearly stated that he intends to return in 2012.
And Putin’s ambition does not stop at a mere return as “president” for life. That is only the tip of the iceberg.
Moving through the Duma as he spoke was a measure to outlaw trial by jury for any person accused of seeking to “overthrow” the goverment. Is that what Mikhail Kasyanov and Garry Kasparov did a few months ago when they tried to run for president? You can be sure that Vladimir Putin thinks so.
First Putin made “extremism” a crime, then he moved to outlaw jury trials in the prosecution of that crime. How long before trials are outlawed altogether, just as in Stalin’s time, and Putin simply handles each case personally, by writ?
And that wasn’t all. Even as Putin was speaking, his masked thugs were raiding the offices of Russia’s leading human rights defense organization, Memorial, and shutting down its operations. They too, it seems, are dangerous extremists who soon will not be entitled to jury trials. Was it just a coincidence that at the same moment Memorial was organizing a boycott of the Kremlin’s sham NGO conference in Penza? We think not.
We think that Vladimir Putin is engaged in all-out war on civil society in Russia, seeking to purge every last vestiage of opposition so as to annoint himself Holy Russian Emperor for life.
The only hope that remains now is the plunging price of oil. Various commentators are suggesting that the seeds of dissent still remain viable in Russia, and this of course would explain Putin’s increasingly aggressive action to wipe them out. The falling price of oil may give those seeds the opportunity to germinate and even flower. And indeed, there are signs of cracks in the Kremlin’s foundation. Andrei Piontkovsky was acquitted (Russian link) on all charges in his “extremism” trial, and his lawyer Yuri Schmidt was able to crow: “”For once, we have achieved victory and even despite the withdrawal of the charges by the prosecutor’s office the court ruled in our favor on the merits of the case, very ably proving the total absence of any manifestations of ‘extremism’ in the book. I think will not be our last such victory; my co-counsel Roman Karpinsky and I have plenty of work remaining before us in the struggle for freedom of speech.”
The Kremlin can indeed be beaten. But it can only be beaten if battle is joined, as Piontkovsky courageously did.
And to burgeon into a forest of opposition, Western intervention and assistane will be needed, at the very least as a clear signal of support and protection in the event the Kremlin lashes out against civil society within Russia as it recently did against Georgia, and as the USSR was wont to do with regularity.
Let nobody underestimate the daunting nature of the task at hand. Putin’s suggestion that the Russian press and public don’t want to know whether he’s a dictator like Brezhnev who will rule until the grave, that only foreigners want such answers, is the raving of madman. Is Putin really so aloof that he thinks the world doesn’t notice why Anna Politikovskaya can’t ask him such a question (because he killed her), or why Yulia Latynina can’t (because he won’t let her within 1,000 yards of him), or consider the possiblity that since he has made Russia one of the most lethal nations in the world for a journalist to work in, just as in the time of Stalin most of the rest are uninterested in asking any questions other than those like “why are you such an effective president”?
Yes, he’s that aloof. Just as in Soviet times, he thinks he can pull the wool over the world’s eyes, even as he himself fails to perceive Russia accurately. That ignorance is what brought down the USSR, made it challenge the Western democracies even until it was destroyed.
We can expect nothing less from the likes of Mr. Putin.