Testing the Kremlin
April 20, 2007
Testing the Kremlin
Andrew Kuchins, Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS, recently participated in the weekly "Experts' Panel" of Russia Profile, an English language information service focused on Russian politics, economics, society and culture. The following is his analysis of the Kremlin's response to "Dissenters' Marches" recently carried out by opposition forces in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The views of the other panelists are available on the website of Russia Profile (free registration required).
The first problem with the framing of this issue is the liberal use of the term “radical opposition.” Suggesting that former Prime Minister Kasyanov is “radical” is pretty absurd when you look at his history. I would say the same about Garry Kasparov. The problem is that the current Russian government (note that I did not use word “regime”) defines any opposition as de facto “radical.”
In fact, it is perfectly obvious that the Kremlin has systematically done virtually everything possible to ensure that no real opposition can exist in present-day Russia. Presidential elections taking place in Nigeria this coming weekend will be more competitive and, indeed, democratic than whatever transpires in the Russian presidential vote next year. If I were part of the Russian government, I would not take that as a point of pride.
The United States is not seeking to support opposition in Russia, but rather to support the development of real democratic governance. What the West wishes for is not opposition to Putin per se, but support for a genuine democracy in Russia. Note that there is nothing “democratic” about Putin’s goal for the upcoming electoral cycle. Rather, it is described as a “transfer of power to a hand-picked successor.” So, naturally, in that context, any actions to shore up democracy will be viewed by the Kremlin as interference and/or support for the opposition.
I cannot comment on whether a siege mentality exists in the Kremlin, since I don’t engage with members of the Putin administration on a regular enough basis to judge. But the deployment of approximately 9,000 OMON riot police and other troops on the streets of Moscow for a demonstration of no more than 2,000 people does suggest a rather heightened sense of vulnerability on the part of somebody in charge.
Why not let them march? Why not let them engage in free speech? If the ruling authorities were confident in their own platform and position, how could they really feel threatened by this? Why should a president with such high ratings be fearful of a few thousand marchers in Moscow or anywhere else in Russia? Does the Kremlin fear that respondents to survey research questions about Mr. Putin answer positively about him because they fear repercussions of a negative response?
Finally, let’s dispense with the use of the qualifier “alleged” in reference to Putin’s authoritarianism. If the Russian government wants to be more like China, that is its choice. But let’s not suggest there is anything really democratic about it. Russians still enjoy more political and personal freedoms than the Chinese, but the trend in Russia points more towards China than to Europe.