FISSURES. Last month exposed, in a way that cannot be ignored, two serious fissures in Russian society. Long-simmering ethnic tensions and their concomitant gangs boiled over and the collaboration of local authorities and criminal groups was revealed in three places. A soccer fan was killed in Moscow in a brawl in early December, apparently by a Caucasian; the suspect was arrested but quickly released (or so Medvedev and Putin said). Protests became riots as the gangs took over. The worst was on 11 December in central Moscow. The police have been taking preventative actions (most recently on Saturday). This problem has been growing for years and the authorities haven’t done much (but the trial of two super-nationalists for the murders of Markelov and Baburova has begun). A series of murders in a small town in Stavropol Kray in November uncovered a criminal gang that had been operating with cover from the local authorities for years. Then an open letter revealed a similar situation in a town near Moscow. Thirdly, the long-suspected belief that there is a connection between the local Khimki administration and attacks on reporters was given support by the arrest of members of the administration. What may tie these two phenomena together is the fact that ethnic gangs can be hired to do violence on behalf of their paymasters. Some will blame this on the “Putin system” but he is not the author of “legal nihilism” – that has very deep roots. But it is a failure: as he said, “I think the entire law enforcement system has failed.” It did, and as PM and President before, he is part of that system. But how do you change it? You can’t fire all the police, good and bad, and then gradually create a better force: see what happens even in “rule of law” countries when the police are absent. Reform can only happen incrementally: corrupt officials arrested where detected, laws and procedures reformed, checks and balances introduced (Medvedev justified creating an independent Investigation Committee “in order to have them do their job properly, i.e. keep an eye on each other”). It has to be gradual; even if pushed with determination, the goal will never fully be achieved and there will be many failures along the way.
CORRUPTION. Bit by bit. In addition to the above, two Moscow police officers were charged with kidnapping a businessman for ransom. The director of Tula Oblast’s Department of Land and Property Relations was arrested on suspicion of demanding a bribe for giving planning permission for a business.
DIVISION OF LABOUR. Reading the Q&A sessions of Medvedev and Putin, I see that Putin is deep in the minutiae (suburban train schedules, health centres, sports infrastructure) while Medvedev is at high altitude (foreign affairs, long-term projects like “modernisation”; reflections on Russia’s culture of belief in “the good tsar and physical force”). About the only points they both touched on was the economy’s relatively good year (at least as compared with what many feared) and the value of the present system of appointing regional leaders. (Their argument is that leaders appointed this way will be better – and less corrupt. Recent events are unlikely to change their minds). I have the impression, by the way, that Putin is much happier in the details. He has remarked that he is “fed up with foreign policy”.
KHODORKOVSKIY. Khodorkovskiy and Lebedev were found guilty. Western opinion was predictable: “Russia hits back at West” being an extreme (No. That’s not why it happened) with some even suggesting that his real crime was being an honest businessman. Eugene Ivanov gives a better informed (and informing) discussion here. But he makes the observation that the new charges look rather like the old ones re-named. The strong flavour of political expediency will be a setback for Russia’s improving reputation.
PEOPLE POWER. A win and a loss: the Okhta Centre will be built but not in the centre of town and the highway will go through the Khimki Forest (although environmental compensations are promised).
KACZYNSKI CRASH. The official Russian report is on the Net (Eng Rus); poor crew training and interference from the high officials on board are blamed. Kaczynski’s brother is not happy with it.
BUREAUCRACY. Medvedev has ordered the reduction of federal officials by 20% by 2013. Many have tried but few have succeeded: bureaucracies are very tenacious animals.
INTERNET. Readers will know that I keep an eye on Russian Internet use (probably because I personally have little use for the Old Media). At last someone else has noticed how big and healthy it is in Russia. By the way, Russians can read translated selections from the Western media here (including uncomplimentary stuff).
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)