This Sunday Russians elect their new president in an election Putin is virtually certain to win. Putin's campaign has been notable for its anti-western and anti-American rhetoric, writes Susanne Sternthal. Will this aggressive rhetoric help Putin withstand the challenge of an awakening Russian civil society?
A film sequence in a documentary, titled “Cold Politics,” that aired on Russia’s Channel 1 in early February, visually captures the government’s case for why Vladimir Putin is Russia’s man for president. While Putin is shown in ski gear, adjusting his equipment, the bass voice of a male narrator intones: “Vladimir Putin began to govern under extraordinary circumstances. The challenges of forming a foreign policy in that period can be compared to a skier going down a mountain to outrace an avalanche.” The film splices back and forth between a thunderous avalanche and a skier, presumably Putin, keeping ahead of the tumbling snow. The narrator explains that when Putin assumed power in 2000, his primary task was to reinstate Russia’s authority and respect internationally, and, in the first instance, have the United States understand that Russia counts in decisions of world politics. Putin had prevented efforts by the U.S. and the West to take advantage of Russia and destabilize it. The sequence ends with Putin, ostensibly having outraced the avalanche, wiping sweat from his brow.
While unprecedented street protests demanding fair elections have tried to focus the public’s attention on internal matters ailing the Russian polity -- the absence of democracy, the lack of independent institutions, and a weak civil society which the government would prefer to keep quiet -- Putin’s campaign focus has been external and bellicose, alluding to looming threats from abroad. Specifically, the campaign has singled out the United States as a nefarious and untrustworthy meddler both internationally, as well as in Russia’s domestic politics. The repeated message essentially is this: Russia will have its rightful place on the world political stage once it has a military to be contended with; Russia will not tolerate what it perceives to be outside meddling in its internal affairs; and the election of Putin will ensure Russia’s security and stability.
‘Over the last few months, Putin has been scrambling to build a case for himself to be president for at least another six years in the face of a welling restlessness among the Russian people. His tactic of choice has been a shameless anti-American campaign that has been noticeably stepped up since November 2011 with actions that have been at times crude and just plain weird.
For Russia, a powerful military means a big military. Putin certainly got everyone’s attention when he announced a 23 trillion ruble allocation for the modernization of the Russian defense industry over the next 10 years (some $790 billion). In a recent article published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta dedicated to military modernization and Russia’s national security, (one in a weekly series of seven articles on different topics that have been published in various Russian newspapers), Putin writes, “we must not tempt anyone with our weakness,” explaining that only a well prepared military will provide the conditions for Russia’s security “and for our partners to heed our country’s arguments in various international settings.” Russia, Putin says, “is being pushed into action by U.S. and NATO defense policies,” that is, the U.S. proposed nuclear missile defense shield to be based in Romania and on U.S. Navy warships to counter missile attacks from rogue nations. Putin dismisses this explanation, stating that this plan will destabilize strategic parity by eroding Russia’s nuclear deterrent. But this will not be allowed, he assures, vowing to beef up Russia’s military might to respond to any eventuality. (This is the planned increase in the military budget that led to the resignation of former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin last September, who said it will lead to serious budget deficits with negative economic consequences).
Putin’s latest article, “Russia and the changing world,” in Moskovskiye Novosti depicts the U.S. as a destabilizing and dangerous force on the world stage, which needs to be countered. Putin writes: “It seems that NATO members, especially the United States, have developed a peculiar interpretation of security that is different from ours. The Americans have become obsessed with the idea of becoming absolutely invulnerable….[this] is the root of the problem.” In that article he rails against U.S. and NATO, alluding to the Arab Spring and support for the opposition in Syria, writing that justifications for military intervention in third-party states with the need to defend human rights is “not a noble cause,” but “elementary demagoguery.”
This surly and antagonistic attitude toward the United States is so striking over the last couple of months because of its frequency, but by no means is it novel. One can dig up a number of examples over the years. Take the year 2007. Recall Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February that had the effect of an unexpected blast of ice water on the gathered participants, who by all accounts, were in a congenial mood and eager to hear what the Russian president had to say. Taking the podium, Putin put everyone on alert saying he hoped that the microphone would not be turned off during his speech. Beginning with a disquisition on “a unipolar world” and subsequent world instability, along with the “hyper use of force – military force – in international relations,” Putin finally named the subject of his ire: “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well who likes this? Who is happy about this?” Obviously, not Putin.
The thorn that just won’t go away
The United States and everything it stands for is a tremendous irritant to Putin; a thorn in his side that just won’t go away. He is resentful of the U.S. in much the same way that an unpopular, aggressive kid on the playground is, who feels irrational hostility toward the cool clique and their leader. One could posit a psychological explanation for this tableau: the unpopular kid channels his hostility into fomenting conflict and undermining the cool group to assert himself and thereby defend himself.
Over the last few months, Putin has been scrambling to build a case for himself to be president for at least another six years in the face of a welling restlessness among the Russian people. His tactic of choice has been a shameless anti-American campaign that has been noticeably stepped up since November 2011 with actions that have been at times crude and just plain weird.
After the cynical switching of government posts in which Dmitri Medvedev nominated Putin to run for president at the United Russia Party convention on November 27, Putin addressed his supporters and toward the end of his speech, out of nowhere, included this dissonant paragraph: “Unfortunately, recently, on the eve of the State Duma and presidential elections, representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country. This is an exercise in futility. As the saying goes, it’s money down the drain. First, because Judas is not the most respected of Biblical characters among our people. And second, they would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy.”
'Putin’s campaign focus has been external and bellicose, alluding to looming threats from abroad.'
A day before, reporters from NTV, a television broadcaster, officially interviewed GOLOS, a non-governmental organization that monitors elections, operating since 2000. This footage, along with a video from a mobile phone in which the employees are accused of working with the CIA was included in a crude montage and aired on NTV a week later. The exposé, titled, “Voice/Vote from nowhere” (as “golos” means both voice and vote) with sinister music, had a sardonic male narrator who charged GOLOS with engaging in propaganda against the ruling party that was paid for with foreign money, specifically, U.S. dollars. A week before the parliamentary elections, the Russian Procurator’s office charged GOLOS with violating election laws and the Central Election Commission accused GOLOS of agitation against United Russia. The organization has since been evicted from its building.
NGOs under suspicion
Now all NGOs operating with foreign funds are under suspicion. This is not new. A clamp-down on NGOs began in 2005 because of reports that sponsors of NGOs were foreign spies and western diplomats and were funding them with the express purpose of destabilizing the present government. New amendments to the 2006 NGO law that have been proposed in February promise to submit these organizations to unrelenting checks and unannounced audits, with rumors that many may simply be closed down.
After the widely documented fraud and ballot stuffing of the Duma elections on December 4, in which United Russia received just under 50 percent of the vote, protests erupted in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with 5000 Muscovites demanding fair elections the very next day. Well over 30,000 protestors were at that time already making plans to protest on December 10 (and many more came) with protests planned in 80 cities around the country. A few days after the election, having taken in this unforeseen activism by an angry electorate, Putin came up with the following explanation to his supporters who came to hear him announce his presidential campaign: hundreds of millions of dollars in “foreign money” was being used to influence Russian politics, and that U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had personally spurred protesters to action.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. partners,” Putin said. “The first thing that the Secretary of State did was to say that they were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers….She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he explained. Then Putin continued: “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Secretary of State Clinton had to face a bizarre attack only once. In January, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul had to endure a number of preposterous charges, but this time Putin had the media do the dirty work. On January 17, McFaul’s second day as official ambassador, the evening news on state Channel 1 showed opposition leaders coming to the U.S. Embassy to meet with McFaul under suspicion of “receiving instruction from the ambassador.” This was a completely inaccurate report as it was Deputy Secretary of State William Burns who had the meeting scheduled earlier and invited McFaul to take part. On the tail end of the news, Mikhail Leontyev, remarked on the events of the day on his short segment called Odnako (“However”). In his report, Leontyev made much about McFaul’s background as a political scientist and expertise in revolutionary movements. He pointed to a book McFaul had written to prove his point that the ambassador was sent to Moscow on a mission to foment an Orange Revolution in Russia. The book’s title: “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin.” Leontyvev rhetorically asked whether McFaul had come “to finish the revolution.”
Another popular program, Postscriptum, on channel TV-Center is hosted by Alexei Pushkov, a professor of international relations and a Member of the Board of the influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, who has the demeanor and delivery of an undertaker. In his program, shortly after McFaul’s first day on the job, he criticized the U.S. ambassador for meeting with the opposition before having submitted his credentials. This was false, as McFaul had submitted his credentials the day before and then had meetings with top Kremlin officials. Pushkov then pointed out how an earlier U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow (2001-2005), was simply frozen out by the Kremlin because of his frequent meetings with the opposition and expositions on democracy. This, Pushkov said, could be the fate of McFaul, too.
And now, with a few days left before the election, Putin is erratically pointing to various conspiracies that are bent on destroying Russia and its stability. At the staged rally for his candidacy at the Luzhniki stadium on February 26, for which tens of thousands came (with many reportedly having been coerced), Putin kept referring to an ongoing “battle for Russia” against external enemies. “We won’t allow anybody to meddle in our domestic affairs. We won’t allow anybody to deny our will!” he shouted to screaming supporters. “The battle for Russia continues and we will win!”
The latest conspiracy is inspired by the thousands of Russian citizens who have gone through training to be election monitors throughout the country for the upcoming presidential election on March 4. “We have reason to believe that our opponents are preparing…to use some kind of mechanisms that would confirm that the elections were falsified,” Putin told a hall filled with his campaign workers. “They will stuff [ballot boxes] themselves and manipulate [the vote],” he said. How and why the opposition would want to stuff ballots to then declare the March 4 elections as false takes a rather inventive imagination. Then, Putin ominously warned that his opponents living abroad were ready to order a “sacrificial murder” of a prominent person to ignite protests.
‘The United States and everything it stands for is a tremendous irritant to Putin; a thorn in his side that just won’t go away. He is resentful of the U.S. in much the same way that an unpopular, aggressive kid on the playground is, who feels irrational hostility toward the cool clique and their leader.’
Apologizing for using street slang, Putin said “they will whack someone and then blame the authorities for it. These sort of people are ready to do anything. I am not exaggerating.” Later, Igor Yurgens, a chairman of the board of the Institute of Contemporary Development, explained that these “words were voiced in the rush of the election campaign,” that this was a “blunder of image-makers.” If this is the case, then it is one of many. Finally, Putin shared with his campaign staff that the “campaign was stormy but I hope there will be no more dirt. I really hope so. The campaign is coming to an end, thank God.”
Putin has warned the opposition that the government will not tolerate any unsanctioned rallies after the vote, and during his campaign he alluded to the fact that if they were to take place, they may be sanctioned somewhere out of the way since having them in the center of town greatly inconveniences Muscovites.
It will be interesting to watch Russia as events unfold after March 4. The image of the avalanche comes to mind. This time it’s not the challenges of foreign policy that worries Putin as president, but rather those of an awakening Russian civil society that has been dormant for so many decades. It is mobilizing and it is picking up momentum. Will Putin be able to outrun it? Stay tuned.