Why does Vladimir Putin’s return, though not unexpected, make one feel so queasy?

posted 27 Sep 2011, 11:01 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 27 Sep 2011, 11:10 ]
Source: Boell Foundation, Russia Blog by Jens_Siegert

25 September 2011

I broadly agree with those who have lately pointed out that it didn’t really make much difference whether it was Putin or Medvedev sitting in the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the way my Russian friends have responded to this news [...] as well as my own stomach, suggests that this may have been a rational fallacy. [...] The queasiness I (we) have felt in the stomach since this morning has been intense enough to make several of us calculate with great unease how old we will be twelve years from now. For we are now facing another 12 years of Putin. 

Putin’s return to the heart of the empire hasn’t come as a surprise. Admittedly, my bet had been on Medvedev right to the last moment, but it’s always been a bet I had to convince myself about, one with lots of ifs and buts, reservations and uncertainties. Besides, I broadly agree with those who have lately pointed out that it didn’t really make much difference whether it was Putin or Medvedev sitting in the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the way my Russian friends have responded to this news, which has reached me in Berlin, as well as my own stomach, suggests that this may have been a rational fallacy. Certainly, the difference, if any, is one of style rather than content. But in personalized, de-institutionalized regimes such as the one in present-day Russia, it is often style that makes the difference. The queasiness I (we) have felt in the stomach since this morning has been intense enough to make several of us calculate with great unease how old we will be twelve years from now. For we are now facing another 12 years of Putin.

It is, of course, possible that it won’t last that long. Putin personifies the stagnation of past years. As for Medvedev, it is generally assumed that he was too weak rather than unwilling to take real steps towards modernisation.

But before I begin to come to grips with all this I would like to quote a few paragraphs from a commentary by Mikhail Fishman from the daily Vedomosti of last Friday, i.e. the day of Putin’s fresh enthronement. In it, Fishman tries to capture the two-facedness of Medvedev’s presidency. It goes well with the queasy feeling mentioned above:

“We are now witnessing the end of an era, one that is difficult to evaluate very positively. Modernisation proved to be nothing more than a noise that covered up the hands-on control of institutions and contempt for the public interest. The only thing uniting society, helpless and angry, is the conviction that the police are its enemy and all state officials, down to the very last one, are thieves.

You can tell an era by its heroes. There’s the captain who refused to delay his flight at the command of a regional governor. The policeman who complained about his superiors on YouTube. The blogger who declared a war on state corruption. The doctor who looks after homeless people at railway stations. The journalist, who, by a miracle, managed to wrest her businessman husband from prison guards after years of struggle.

The list could be extended, but it is not too long. These people have either stood up against the regime or have acted in parallel to it as if it didn’t exist. They have all done so as individuals but they all demonstrate that support, solidarity and even success can sometimes break through the smooth tarmac of mistrust and aggression.

Dmitri Medvedev has failed to meet the expectations of these people, and of the whole active part of society. He has handed out advances and now reaps anger and derision. He hasn’t even begun to complete a single one of the tasks he had set himself. Everyone can see that instead of a reformer he was just a dummy President. But is it really true that the past four years brought nothing but profanation? Many succumb to the temptation to answer this question in the affirmative.

However, I see a more ambiguous picture. It is true that Medvedev has not succeeded in office. He hasn’t taken any serious decisions; he hasn’t changed the course of history. Nevertheless, against this background there do stand out his qualities as a private person elevated to the top of an enormous bureaucratic machine by the will of fate. These qualities include his lack of vindictiveness and aggression. This Russian President has responded to life like a man with an open world view.

There are many examples of this: Svetlana Bakhmina, imprisoned as part of the YUKOS case, who couldn’t have been released without intervention from the very top. […] And another example: Medvedev has openly defended Yegor Bychkov, an activist of the City without Drugs Foundation, convicted for using illegal drug therapy methods. On the other hand an entire political party has been disbanded just to prevent the head of the Foundation, Yevgeni Roysman, from standing in the forthcoming elections to the Duma; Roysman himself has been depicted as a gangster.

It is quite clear why: the first case involves assisting a specific individual, in the latter case the system felt threatened. As a bureaucrat Medvedev has protected the ‘vertical’ interests of the power that he did not create himself. He has also resisted the ‘vertical’ but only as a private person, so to speak. In the eyes of the people the overall victory goes to the bureaucrat at the expense of the ordinary citizen. That’s how things work in Russia: officialdom is always stronger.” 

Reproduced by kind permission. Translation by Rights in Russia

Jens Siegert lives in Moscow and is director of the Moscow office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a foundation closely linked to the German Green Party.
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