October 25, 2006

Tiger by the tail

In the November/December 2006 issue of Russian Life, we have an interesting article about recent events in Kondopoga, by Russian security expert Marina Latysheva. In the article, Latysheva asserts that certain persons of influence may have sought to exploit the events in Kondopoga. The conflict was not an ethnic backlash at all, Latysheva said, but all about local residents' battling against a troublesome local organized crime grouping. Nonetheless, right-wing extremist groups headed for the northern outpost and sought to rile up locals with a wave of anti-Caucasian demonstrations and violence. This lead to hand-wringing about a "rise of fascism" in Russia and a need to struggle against it -- which will be a central theme in the upcoming elections, Latysheva said.

This was an interesting interpretation, and one which was both credible and unique, which is why we ran it.

Then, a few days after we went to press with this issue, the venerable Economist magazine published a story on the Russia/Georgia spat that echoed the same themes. We quote at length:

"This row comes as anxiety mounts over the question of the succession to Mr Putin when his second (and supposedly final) presidential term ends in 2008. A foreign threat, even a bogus one, will help keep the electorate pliant, whatever the Kremlin decides to do.

"This scaremongering is matched by the Kremlin's shifting stance towards xenophobic nationalism, already starkly manifest in a plague of racist murders by skinheads (often un- or under-punished). An anti-Caucasian riot in Kondopoga in northern Russia last month was what once would have been called a pogrom.

"Until recently, the Kremlin has tried to â??ride the tigerâ? of extreme nationalism, as Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie think-tank in Moscow, puts it, through a risky double strategy: portraying itself as a bulwark against extremism, but also trying to harness nationalist instincts for its own ends. It is widely thought to have created the nationalist Motherland party to siphon votes away from the Communists. (Motherland is now being merged with two other parties into what will become the main â??oppositionâ?â??almost certainly a completely loyal one). Mr Putin seems now to be giving the tiger freer rein....

"Russia's huge size and troubled history make any comparisons risky. Yet some see historical parallels in present trends. Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, draws an analogy with inter-war Germany, which like post-Soviet Russia experienced economic chaos, then a period of stabilisation in which post-imperial nostalgia took hold. Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining independent parliamentarians, worries that Mr Putin seems to be switching from an imperial idea of Russia towards one more resembling a â??Reichâ?.

"History also offers a term to describe the direction in which Russia sometimes seems to be heading: a word that captures the paranoia and self-confidence, lawlessness and authoritarianism, populism and intolerance, and economic and political nationalism that now characterise Mr Putin's administration. It is an over-used word, and a controversial one, especially in Russia. It is not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading towards fascism."

Scary thoughts indeed.

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