The performance of Pussy Riot and its repression represent the deep political challenge of post communist authoritarianism and its progressive – transgressive alternatives. This is the first of two posts by Kitlinski that have great significance for Eastern Europe and beyond. -Jeff
Don’t let Putin fool you. Banishing Pussy Riot to a penal colony allowed the Russian leader to reassert his rule. Democracy be damned. Civil rights, religious freedom, and gender equality from herein would be subject to his purview. The ex-KGB officer’s message wasn’t just aimed at Russia. It was directed at all of Eastern Europe, too.
For anyone familiar with the history of regional politics, Putin’s positioning was thick with signifiers. Pussy Riot’s sentencing would please fellow reactionaries, obviously, as well as help serve as a salve for social distress. It also confirmed that the post-Communist period was formally over. Authoritarian capitalism is the rule of the day. There’s no alternative.
The political transition in post-Communist countries has turned majoritarian, as ex-Soviet bloc states start to formalize discrimination against pro-democracy forces. Curiously, this reaction, of what can only be described as the ancien regime, both Stalinist, and its antecedents, focuses on sexual dissidence, to broadcast its worldview. In the Ukraine, it’s Femen. In my own home, Poland, it’s Dorota Nieznalska, an artist who was convicted of blasphemy.
It’s a familiar story, one that Pussy Riot’s Nadia Tolokonnikova was quick to point out, when, in her closing statement, she compared her band’s fate to the trial of Socrates, and the kenosis of Christ. Jesus was “raving mad,” she reminded her religiously observant tormentors. “If the authorities, tsars, presidents, prime ministers, the people and judges understood what ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ meant, they would not put the innocent on trial.” Tolokonnikov also cited the prophet Hosea, in the Hebrew Bible: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice.” Surely, the authorities were not thrilled.
Pussy Riot’s choice of Jewish scripture is of course telling, as well as calculated. The prophets argue for forgiveness (Hosea forgave his unfaithful wife) and . . .
Read more: Pussy Riot vs. The Pseudo Religious of Eastern Europe
An interview recently published in the Polish online journal, Kultura Liberalna, posted here, provides an interesting insider’s view of how the political situation there is understood from the point of view of Putin’s opposition. Lukasz Pawlowski, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw and a contributing editor to Kultura Liberalna, interviews Lilia Shevtsova, a political scientist and expert on Russian politics. She served as director of the Center for Political Studies in Moscow and as deputy director of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and Political Studies. Currently she is a senior associate at the Moscow office of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of numerous publications including her latest book Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West’s Response (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011).
This interview raises a number of significant issues, concerning the problems of democratization and the problems of Russia. Most fundamental is that the democratization of Russia requires Russian action. Outsiders, “the West,” and specifically the United States, cannot do much about this. This is a theme we have been observing in many parts of the world. Consider, for example, how Elzbieta Matynia reflects on the issue as it applies to Egypt, Poland and South Africa.
And then the interview gets into the particulars: critically appraising the strengths and weaknesses of the democratic opposition Russia, reflecting on the Medvedev – Putin relationship, and how each of these figures challenge the democratic project, judging the short and long term prospects of democratic movement in Russia, and the necessity of change from the bottom up. One of Shevtsova’s more provocative claims is that Russia is better off with Putin than Medvedev as President.
To read the interview of Lilia Shevtsova “Do Not Democratize Russia: We Will Do It Ourselves,” click here.
An Interview from Kultura Liberalna
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Russian politics, democratic opposition and on why Putin may be better than Medvedev
Lukasz Pawlowski: Why haven’t the mass protests prevented Mr. Putin from winning the presidential election for the third time?
Lilia Shevtsova: Because the protest tide was weak, it wasn’t a real tsunami. The December movement had no structured leadership and no concrete agenda. It wasn’t strong enough to force political leaders in the Kremlin even to think about some serious change at the moment. Nonetheless, it shocked them and proved the society has awakened although luckily for the Kremlin it is not that frightening yet.
In Russia there are numerous parties and non-governmental organizations working against the regime for democratization. There have been there for many years and now when they got a marvelous opportunity to achieve at least some of their goals they missed it. They have been working long to get Russian society out in the streets and when they finally managed to do that they seemed completely surprised.
Everybody was surprised, maybe with exception of some people, who – just like myself – have been telling themselves every year, every month: “it will come, it will come, the bubble will burst”. But even we were not sure, when it will happen. The number of people that took to the streets was some kind of revelation. Even sociological instruments failed to reveal, what was happening beneath the surface of the society. The most respectable survey institution, Levada Center – the best in Russia, and maybe even in Europe – before the parliamentary elections in December estimated that the Kremlin party, United Russia, will get about 55% of the votes, while in the end it got officially only 45% and in reality less than 35% of the vote. So yes, for many people in the society, even in the opposition the events that followed parliamentary elections were unexpected.
But why has the opposition failed in their hour of trial, despite the fact, that we have so many movements, groups and parties? Why have they failed to get together, . . .
Read more: Do Not Democratize Russia: We Will Do It Ourselves
Yesterday, once again, Vladimir Putin was “elected” President of Russia. Citizens could choose from among Putin, the current premier, and a group of weak opposition candidates, including well known faces such as Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky who always run but never win, along with newer faces such as Mikhail Prokhorov or Putin’s old friend Sergei Mironov, who in addition to their doubtful independence from the Kremlin, did not offer much of a campaign or new political ideas. And while the voting took place, and Putin and his supporters started celebrating right away, social media like Facebook and Twitter bubbled over with photos and accounts of election fraud. The critical social response is every bit as important as the election results.
A couple of days before the election, thousands of independent ballot observers waited in long lines to receive their training and instructions. The observers – unpaid volunteers – had arrived from Moscow, from other cities and from the countryside. Russian newspaper editor Dmitri Surnin wrote that the atmosphere among the waiting crowds resembled the mood during a citizens’ mobilization on the eve of war. “And your political preferences don’t matter, if you’re a leftist, or right, green, liberal, monarchist or communist – when the Fatherland is in danger, everybody needs to stand together.”
The war to which Surnin refers is one between the people who want to play it by the rules and those who want to falsify the elections and obstruct Russia’s democratic course. He cynically observes that the first group will be convinced of their moral victory, with the law and the truth on their side, but the second group will steal the real triumph, with the courts, the police, and Vladimir Putin on theirs.
Indeed, Putin won. Now let’s talk about the moral victors. A number of originally internet-based groups managed to organize a citizens’ army of more than 80,000 volunteers, who enlisted to visit polling stations to be on the lookout for election fraud. As reporter Anna Nemtsova remarked, “They are . . .
Read more: Putin Wins?
Robin Wagner-Pacifici, currently a professor at Swathmore College, is an expert in conflict politics.
A reasonably deliberate reader of the New York Times might have been flummoxed by an article that appeared last month on the front page. The article, titled, Using Microsoft, Russia Suppresses Dissent, tells many moral tales simultaneously – none of them thoroughly, none of them systematically.
Beginning with the story of a raid by plainclothes Russian police on the environmental group, Baikal Environmental Wave’s headquarters (confiscating the group’s computers to search for pirated Microsoft software), the article presents no fewer than five topics and themes for the reader to consider. Among these are political corruption and abuse of power in contemporary Russia, capitalism’s dilemmas dealing with piracy, Microsoft’s complicity with authoritarian governments in trumped-up “crackdowns” on software piracy, problems of unemployment in Siberia and the re-opening of a paper factory in Irkutsk, and the pollution of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, by just such factories.
A long article, continuing on an inside page and including three photographs (one of dead fish on the banks of the lake) and one chart, the article promises an in-depth report of a significant story. But what is the story?
Normally, newspapers neatly divide the world of news into pre-ordained categories of experience – International News, National News, Sports, Business, Health and Science, Home, Arts and Leisure. These divisions give us readers an illusion of clarity and coherence when absorbing information about real-world events. But events are complicated and don’t come in pre-packaged categories. So on the one hand, kudos to the New York Times for short-circuiting the readers’ expectations.
But on the other hand, the story also short-circuits the reader’s ability to make critical connections among the issues inelegantly tumbled together (capitalism, authoritarianism, unemployment, and environmentalism), or the ability to move upward to a higher level of analysis, and to critique the assumptions of a world-view that, in spite of its acknowledgment of political dissent, is never troubled by the imperatives of capitalism itself.
Here, David Harvey’s book, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference is a useful interlocutor. Harvey aims to do . . .
Read more: Reading the News