Waiting for the Clampdown

Responses to the Dissenter’s March continues. The Nation’s Katrina Vanden Huevel calls for a fight to press freedom in Russia. This comes amid news that Russian authorities shut down the Samara branch of Novaya gazeta two weeks ago. The police charged Novaya editors with using pirated software. You gotta love it when copyright infringement becomes a weapon of political repression.

Jonas Bernstein gives a tacit “yes” to the question of whether Sunday’s “crackdown” represents a wider wave of repression. Closing down newspapers, arresting and harassing political opposition–specifically SPS, Other Russia and Yabloko–are all part of something larger. But those in a real pinch according to Bernstein might just be Russia’s regional governors. The regions have taken Putin’s mixed message that United Russia needs to show leadership at the same time “all kinds of crooks” have wormed their way into its ranks, have taken this as a hint to ratchet “up pressure on the opposition” and “to secure a strong turnout for United Russia in order to ensure their own futures.” This engenders the question of whether “repression” is more fueled by centripetal paranoia over their own local power base. Kinda of reminds me of when Stalin told his regional secretaries that there would be free and open elections in 1936, and in response they bombarded the vodzh’ with reports about kulaks and priests making a possible electoral coup.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t signals emanating from the center. Bernstein likens Putin’s linking of the “opposition” with the West as a possible sign of more repression to come.

Bernstein’s words come on the cusp of Putin launching more salvos against the West, specifically the United States. Today he announced that he has “information” that OSCE’s pullout was at the behest of the US State Department as a means to “delegitimize” the elections. “We will take this into account in our relations with that country,” Putin told the Russian press. The State Department has denied any such thing but I’m sure the Kremlin counted on that. The Russian state media got its sound bite, which was probably the point anyway.

Still, rhetoric against the Western bogeyman has been ratcheted up of late. But I suspect it’s all show for domestic consumption. If the airbrushed images that don websites like Za Putina are any indication, this election like so many others around the world is more about image rather than substance. If Putin looks strong, Russia is strong. The Tsar-President, if the effort from “below” to make him a “national leader” has any real substance, is one with the narod. One should remember that the possible real target of the Kremlin’s “pressure” is not so much the “opposition” but United Russia’s middle management. Populist appeals as a means to squeeze regional chieftains are an tried and true form of Russian rule. Basically, Putin is telling them, “I am everything, you are nothing. You need me more than I need you.” Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.

What is amazing about all this is that it seems that the Kremlin clans have circled the wagons. The talk about clan warfare that hit the press weeks ago has fallen silent. It seems that the siloviki and the business elite have made a tacit peace around their mutual interests of plunder, power, and prestige. The Russian centers of power are standing firm, while the regions scramble to secure their piece of the post-electoral pie. Smacking down “opposition” in the provinces make for good demonstrations of loyalty.

Where does all this leave Russia real opposition, the Communist Party? A few days ago the Guardian’s Luke Harding bravely stated that the KPRF might be Russia’s last “democratic option.” Gensek Zyuganov has been traveling the country speaking to Russia’s downtrodden about the real social-economic issues. “When Putin came to power there were seven oligarchs. Now there are 61,” he reminded a crowd in Moscow suburb Korolyov. He even displayed some political anekdoty to charm the crowd.

Zyuganov tells a Roman Abramovich joke. Roman arrives in heaven only to find his way blocked by St Paul. St Paul asks Abramovich: “Do you own Chelsea, five yachts and a 5km stretch of beach in the south of France?” Abramovich replies: “Yes.” St Paul replies: “I’m not sure you’re going to like it in here.”

The KPRF’s message: they are the only ones keeping Russia from slipping into a completely corrupt morass. One only hopes that they aren’t too late. Still despite what some may think, the KPRF can bank on this statement by the Levanda Center’s Leonid Sedov: “The others have been excluded from the parliamentary sphere. The Communists will be the only oppositional force. This means voters who want to retain opposition in any form have to vote for the Communists.” Oh, the historical irony.

You wouldn’t known the Communist were in contention if you rely on English media for your electoral news. Kasparov must roll off the English tongue better than Zyuganov. The Communist Party seems more often mentioned to paint United Russia as a CPSU redux, rather than a party running for election in their own right. The KPRF is currently polling way behind United Russia. VTsIOM gives them 6 percent to United Russia’s 55, and Levada honors them with 14 percent to UR’s 67. Whatever the hard numbers, United Russia holds a 49 to 53 point margin. However distance the KPRF may be numerically, maybe its time to face reality and see them as the only real potential political bulwark to United Russia’s dominance.