The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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The Russian bugbear

As the Russian presidential elections are held Sunday, those Russians not voting for Dmitry Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin’s anointed successor, could be forgiven for asking why they bother. The election will be rigged, the vote gerrymandered and the result predetermined. After the simultaneous parliamentary elections, which United Russia, the party Putin supports, will likewise win, he will be chosen as Prime Minister, an office with powers that have been widely expanded under his presidency.

Russia is by far the most disturbing and dangerous force in what can (very) loosely be termed “Europe.” Its ills are not only innumerably varied but also fundamentally worrying. Russia has seen an all-out reversal of its political fortunes and the subsequent consequences tied to just such a happening.

On April 14, 2007, a loose coalition of the Kremlin’s critics known as “Other Russia” staged a protest in central Moscow. There was nothing striking about the protesters themselves: Other Russia is made up of the usual mix of journalists, communists, environmentalists, political centrists and former Kremlin advisors dissatisfied with Putin’s way of doing things. As an interesting side note, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov is now an important political figure in the opposition.

What grabbed Russians and foreigners alike was the government’s response to the protests. At both the Moscow protest and a smaller demonstration in St. Petersburg, the police and other government forces far outnumbered the number of protesters. A correspondent with The Economist magazine described the scene:

“…reinforcements were summoned from outside, perhaps because they would be less squeamish about pummeling the locals. ‘Are you going to beat us all?’ an old woman asked an officer in battle gear, as protesters were funneled away from tourists on Nevsky Prospekt. Shortly afterwards they did. When a group reached Vitebsky railway station, the OMON blocked their path, banged their riot shields and charged, skull-cracked and arrested at random. People waiting for buses and drunks sleeping on benches were caught in the frenzy…Russian riot police – known as the OMON – dragged a young man holding a bunch of flowers off the pavement near Pushkin Square in central Moscow. As he was thrown into a van, he braced his feet against the doors, to cheers from the crowd, but to the evident ire of the police. The doors were repeatedly slammed against his legs. An officer who climbed inside then appeared to beat him.”

How could such horrific scenes happen in what is supposed to be a modern and democratic nation, a nation that holds a veto on the United Nations Security Council and almost all of Europe’s energy resources in its oppressive grasp?

The answer can largely be put down to President Putin, a black belt in the martial art of judo. Those who study judo use quick, practiced movements to throw their opponents off balance and then pin them to the ground using various pins and choke holds. It is an apt analogy for his political tactics: Since taking office in May 2000, Putin has greatly reasserted centralized control over the law and the military and extended the government’s iron reach to almost every corner of Russian society.

He and his fellow ex-KGB cronies have managed to keep their opponents off-balance, striking them when and where they are most vulnerable. From re-nationalization of many large firms and industries to outright Gestapo tactics against journalists who dare to speak against the regime, Putin has absolutely locked Russia under state control.

The problem is that Putin is popular in Russia, and wildly so. Even if the vote on Sunday were not rigged, Mr. Medvedev and United Russia would still sweep to power solely due to their associations with Putin. His popularity is largely due to his regrettably true claim to have stabilized Russia after the chaotic times following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under his presidency, Russians have seen their incomes rise 10 percent per year, with a GDP growth rate averaging six percent.

This has had an enormous effect on Putin’s popularity. With a legitimate approval rating around 87 percent, he heads one of the most popular regimes in the world. Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute, says, “Most people are exhausted with politics, and disengaged from it. For them, private values are what matter. There is a kind of deal, in which the population agrees not to try to make government accountable, and the state agrees not to intrude into peoples’ private lives.”

This explains why many Russians do not view the concept of “managed democracy,” the moniker given by Putin to the autocratic system, with the same alarm as Western critics and the few domestic dissidents. Most are happy to take care of their own and allow the government to do what it will. This complacence is deeply troubling.

One of Putin’s favorite sayings is, “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.” There is no doubt, then, that he is doing all he can to bring back the USSR but under new management.

John Jose is a sophomore finance and economics major. He can be reached at [email protected].

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