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About Andrei Piontkovsky
Andrei Piontkovsky is an eminent Russian academic and political analyst, specialising in Russian foreign and domestic politics and military strategic issues. A mathematician by training, he lives and works in Moscow.
Articles by Andrei Piontkovsky
This week's editor
En Liang Khong is a submissions editor at openDemocracy.
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Commentators in Russia and abroad are wondering if there is any hope of a Medvedev liberalisation, de-Putinisation, a thaw and perestroika. If this were true, it would lead to people being allowed to criticize the authorities on television, to political prisoners being released and to murders in which the special services were involved being investigated. If we really are to going to understand the current Russian regime and try to work out what it is going to do next, we need to recall the history of the evolution of the Soviet nomenklatura.
Every day we are amazed, or actually no longer surprised, by the re-emergence of features from our Soviet past. We are today ruled by that same, immortal Soviet nomenklatura. It has become younger over the last 20 years and seriously shaken up its personnel (primarily by means of an enormous intake from the KGB/FSB). It has also acquired a colossal amount of property. In Soviet terminology,we would say that today's Central Committee members, secretaries of regional committees and KGB Generals (whatever their titles may be now) have become multi-millionaires in dollar terms. Modern ‘politburo members' have become multi-billionaires.
So is this "new class" going to consider liberalising the regime? In its almost hundred-year history, the Soviet-Russian nomenklatura has twice announced a thaw from the top. The first time was in 1953, after the death of Stalin, and the second in 1985, after the collective death of the former politburo. In both cases this enabled millions to take a real step towards freedom. The first thaw literally brought freedom to hundreds of thousands of people, who were released from the camps.
But these were secondary, side effects of the thaw/perestroika. Each time the elite was primarily concerned to address its own problems. The 1953-56 thaw proclaimed the first Magna Carta, as it were, for the nomenklatura barons. They blackened Stalin's reputation, perhaps even killing him first, released political prisoners, cautiously opened the country's borders and introduced minimal freedoms. Thus they consolidated their right to life, ensuring at the same time that no new dictator could dispatch them to the camps. The newspaper Pravda noted smugly at the time that the prevailing atmosphere was one of "consideration towards the party cadres".
"Consideration" included such modest bourgeois charms as the closed distribution centres for food and goods accessible only to members of the party's Central, or regional, Committee), a deerskin cap, a state dacha, an annual holiday at a Sochi sanatorium belonging to the Central, or regional, Committee. The most audacious also allowed themselves a little pilfering. These gentle pleasures lasted for 30 years until the young Komsomol-KGB members came of age. They had a clear idea of Western standards of elite consumption, and demanded much more than "consideration". They became the driving force of perestroika and the triumphant Thermidor of the Communist nomenklatura.
Whatever the personal aspirations of the father of perestroika may have been (and he would probably not be able to articulate them clearly today), objectively speaking it was the beginning of a gigantic operation to convert the absolute collective political power of the nomenklatura into the enormous personal financial power of its individual representatives. The final stage of the operation (which we have seen recently) was their regaining of absolute political power.
The current generation of the ruling nomenklatura owns enormous amounts of property. So it does not, cannot, have the remotest incentive to liberalise. On the contrary, it has far greater reason than its historical predecessors to fear even the slightest increase in freedom of information. Because journalists, parliament and, finally, the courts would then immediately start investigating the origin, scale and structure of their wealth.
As they fight over the rapidly diminishing financial spoils, the various clans of today's kleptocracy may have different views on tactics for maintaining their control over society. However, the Kremlin "liberals" and "siloviki" (security services or military personnel) are united in their fear of the Russian people, whom they robbed together. They will never allow freedom of information or real democracy.
Medvedev's recent "liberal gestures (the interview with Novaya Gazeta, the meeting with human rights advocates) all bear the hallmarks of a propaganda operation. He was, however, extremely frank in his interview with NTV on 19 April. "I believe that during the crisis, we must concentrate on finding solutions to existing economic problems, rather than making political reforms of any kind".
As for the release of Svetlana Bakhmina, who was imprisoned on false charges, my first reaction is to be glad her prolonged sufferings are at an end. But the last thing I want to do is thank her tormentors for this, whatever camp they belong to, "liberal" or "siloviki". Their behaviour towards Bakhmina during the last year has been particularly disgusting.
Initially Medvedev was not allowed to pardon her, which demonstrated where he really belonged in the Kremlin hierarchy. He swallowed this obediently. Prolonged attempts were evidently made to break this woman, who had recently given birth, and force her to give the evidence they required for Khodorkovsky's second trial. They made her write in her statement that "she regretted her crimes and was now on the path of active repentance".
In the end, even the stupidest sadists in the Russian political leadership realised that this performance was reminiscent of the Stalin show trials of the 1930s and could well have a reverse effect, with negative consequences for them.
So unwillingly the executioners let their victim go. Optimists can call this Medvedev's perestroika, if they like.
The second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky began on 3 March. It is a significant event, though not unique in the history of Russian political trials. The sadistic desire to kick a victim when he is lying down has inflamed Kremlin rulers more than once. The second trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev,the second trial of Rokotov and Faibishenko, the fifth trial of Marchenko -these are only the most famous examples of this kind of brutality.
Nevertheless I think a different historical analogy, not connected with the fact of a second trial, is more appropriate here. There is only one other political trial where the stakes in the battle inside the Kremlin were so high: the doctors' trial that did not take place. It was also supposed to be held in March in the Hall of Columns in the House of Unions.
In March 1953 in place of the trial the unplanned ceremonial farewell to Comrade Stalin, who had initiated and inspired it, was held in this hall. Another party won - the party of Comrade Beria,whose 100 days of rule showed that for those times he was potentially a more effective reformer than those in Medvedev's circle today.
For all Stalin's hostile attitude to the unfortunate accused, as he lapsed into zoological anti-Semitismin his old age, they were only pawns in the enormous game where the stakes were the Power, Life and Death of the leaders of the country.
The fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky today is also only an excuse for a showdown between the "party of blood" and "party of cash" in the Kremlin. Open confrontation between the two has been avoided so far. We can only guess at why the "party of blood" has raised the stakes so high and decided to hold this trial.
There can be no outcome to the trial that would please both parties. If Khodorkovsky is acquitted at a public open trial advertised by the regime, it will be a shameful defeat for the"party of blood", a sign of its increasing weakness, the political death of Putinism and its leader. Quite soon after this two classic phrases will re-appear. The first is what Count Pahlen said to Emperor Alexander I "Go, sire, and rule!" The second (from the Alexander Galich song) will be on all the Russian TV channels: "Our father turned out to be a bitch, not a father".
If, on the other hand, Khodorkovsky is sentenced for a second time, the formal president (the political hope of the "party of cash") will be publicly humiliated. It will demonstrate convincingly to the president that he occupies the same position as Kalinin did in the Kremlin pecking order. There will be a severe purge of party members in the structures of government and presidential administration, as well as in the media.
The trial of the "doctor murderers" in March 1953 was intended to have a similarly explosive role in the developing crisis of power. Those times were far from easy and political death automatically also meant physical death. The execution of Jewish doctors would have been followed by the execution of what the poet Osip Mandelstam called the "thin-necked leaders". But in1953 the trial ended several days before it began with the opposite outcome -the death of Stalin.
It is hard to predict how the trial of March 2009 will end. The "party of blood" has chosen to escalate the situation. It seems to me that they have chosen the right moment for a clash, but made a mistake in choosing the field of battle. Some foreign policy escapade would have been much more promising.
The crisis is rapidly destroying the Putin myth, turning it on its head. In spite of their patriotic garb, the ugly Chekist-bandit capitalism of the Sechins and Chemezovs, the Timchenkos and Yakunins has been revealed. The increasing inadequacy of their leader is already obvious from official television reports.
The party of cash - the party of the Abramovichs and Voloshins, Deripaskas and Potanins - bears just as much responsibility for the economic catastrophe that has overtaken the country. It now has the chance to blame the crisis exclusively on its rivals and purge them during a "Medvedev thaw".
For the "party of blood" delay could be fatal, if they want to stop the process of de-Putinisation which is gathering speed, though it is unlikely that a repeat trial of Khodorkovsky is the proper arena for this. Their choking hatred for Khodorkovsky has betrayed them. The charges made against him are absurd. His courageous behaviour in prison has gained him increasing sympathy in society. Many see him as one of the anti-crisis managers who will be able to save the country from the difficult situation. Everyone remembers that his imprisonment began with his public dispute on matters of principle with the "national leader" - "Your officials are stealing, Mr. President!"
By putting Khodorkovsky in prison the officials and close friends of the eternal president/prime minister (about whom Viktor Gerashchenko said so succinctly "they ripped us off, the bastards") are continuing to rip off the country on an incredible scale.
Everyone who has read on the internet Abramovich's testimony at the Royal Courts of Justice in London has heard about the $13 billion that he was paid for the company Sibneft. They will also have read about the fantastic financial success of the Gunvor company and will be familiar with the report "Putin and Gazprom". No one could have the slightest doubt that the leaders of the "party of blood", starting at the very top, are the "oligarchs who robbed the country". This is not a comfortable topic - either for the party of blood or for the power elite as a whole.
This article first appeared in Russian on www.grani.ru