Community Post: Is Vladimir Putin Having A Best Year Ever?
1. The Syrian stalemate
No matter what you think about Vladimir Putin’s NYT “plea of caution” about Syria, the people in the West are adamant about their resistance to a new military intervention in the Middle East. The situation in Syria is dire, yet the U.S.’ and Europe’s domestic political realities leave very little room for decisions on Bashar al-Assad’s future. Vladimir Putin’s becoming a vital & necessary voice in this conundrum didn’t happen overnight, but let’s not call it a victory: the conflict in Syria only has losers. War is hell.
2. “The economy, stupid!”
Russia became the world’s fifth largest economy in 2013. It’s grown at less than half the pace expected at the year’s beginning and its lack of diversification and reliance on oil, gas, and natural resources will eventually cost the Kremlin dearly. Yet for now, Vladimir Putin’s money sack is calmly expanding—though so is the divide between Russia’s rich & poor.
3. Washington’s domestic troubles
In DC, things didn’t exactly go smoothly this year. The government shutdown made the U.S. the butt of jokes throughout the world, and President Obama’s 2013 hashtags are #ObamaCare, #IRS, #NSA, #drones, #Guantanamo, #ImmigrationReform. With so much negativity in the backyard of the world’s superpower, other countries are challenging America’s leadership in global affairs and stepping up to fill the void created by U.S.’ domestic tumults.
4. Waning U.S. global leadership
“What the what?,” ask Vladimir Putin and “friends.”
5. No Additions to the U.S. Magnitsky List
In December, the United States decided not to expand a controversial blacklist of alleged Russian rights abusers, much to the Kremlin’s delight. The list currently includes 18 names, based on the U.S. Magnitsky Act signed into law by President Obama in 2012. The Act’s advocates call it a major piece of human rights legislation passed in the United States. The Act’s opponents cite the extra-judicial nature of determinations about whom to include, the negative impact on U.S.-Russian relations, and little effect on the actual perpetrators targeted by the act.
The Russian government’s ability to inflict pain on its own people should never be underestimated. In response to adoption of Magnitsky Act, the Kremlin denied Americans adoption of Russian children, issued a list of US officials prohibited from entering Russia, and posthumously convicted Sergei Magnitsky as guilty.
While Putin and Co have been unaffected by the U.S. Magnitsky Act, so far the only people to suffer from this episode in U.S.-Russian relations are Russian orphans who’ve been expecting to find a home in the U.S. and their prospective parents. The elimination of the adoption barrier must be a priority for Washington, which must do what it takes to minimize this pain. Whatever it takes.
6. The Moscow mayoral election
On September 9, I arrived in the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport at about 2 AM. My friends picked me up, in a Russian-assembled Chevy, and told me the nightly news: the ruling party’s candidate Sergei Sobyanin has likely won big.
Alexei Navalny—love him or hate him—has put up a hell of a campaign, yet he was unable to capitalize on his popularity as a large-scale rally organizer and a corruption blogger persecuted by the Kremlin. The elections were by and large free and fair, and Vladimir Putin’s candidate won in a landslide. The Kremlin’s confidence shot up, perhaps paving the way for late-year amnesties for Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot, and the Arctic 30. The only question remains: with a meager turn-out of 32 percent, what is the non-voting portion of Moscow thinking?
7. Pardon for #MBK
The Kremlin’s Public Enemy #1—Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky—is finally a free man. His arrest and two criminal trials are symbols of Vladimir Putin’s impulsive (or is it calculative?) decision-making and Russia’s legal nihilism. MBK was Russia’s richest oligarch who helped Boris Yeltsin consolidate power and prepare Russia for Vladimir Putin’s arrival. Khodorkovsky lost a political struggle with Putin and spent 10+ years in jail for it. Having lost everything, MBK’s stoicism, poise, and confidence grew. No longer a viable threat to the Kremlin, the world is eager to look at the next chapter in Khodorkovsky’s life and career.
8. Amnesty for Pussy Riot, #Arctic30, thousands more
Russia did not have a law to prosecute the “punk prayer” staged by Pussy Riot at Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012. So the government used anti-extremism statutes (‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’) to prosecute Mariya Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, convicting them to two-year prison terms (Samutsevich was later released on probation). A sweeping amnesty proposed by Vladimir Putin and fully embraced by the Russian Duma freed the Pussy Riot artists, Greenpeace activists from the #Arctic30. Overall, 25 thousand Russians will benefit from the amnesty (2,000 of them incarcerated). A nifty but welcome move by the Kremlin: there’s nothing like freedom.
9. The Boston Marathon bombings
Terrorists from the North Caucasus are the biggest threat to safety and security of participants and spectators at the Olympic Games in Sochi in February. The Tsarnaev brothers, suspected of carrying out the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, came from the Russian republic of Chechnya. In 2011, Russia’s security services flagged Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the FBI, whose investigation produced no results. Vladimir Putin condemned the Tsarnaevs’ “barbaric crime” and urged closer cooperation with Western partners. The Kremlin’s been criticized over Chechnya’s human rights record and security conditions, yet the arrival of terrorism from the North Caucasus to the U.S. offers some validation to Russia’s approach to terrorists, who no longer will be labeled rebel fighters in Western press.
No matter what you think of the events leading up to Edward Snowden’s prolonged stay at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, there was one clear winner in the story: Vladimir Putin. Granting Mr. Snowden temporary asylum was a shrewd move by Russia. In retaliation, President Obama cancelled the U.S.-Russia summit but still had to travel to Saint Petersburg to participate in the G20 Summit in Strelna.
11. G20 Summit
In September, President Obama joined other world leaders in Strelna, near Saint Petersburg, to attend the first G20 Summit hosted by Russia. On the sidelines of the summit, Obama met with Russian human rights activists, most of them critical of President Putin’s policies. Saint Petersburg looked very pretty during the summit — I was there. The air was special, with an aura of suspense: Russia’s presence, past, and future are full of nuances.
12. EU’s Ukraine fiasco
In November, the European Union failed to sign an association agreement with Ukraine, whose President Yanukovych pulled back after securing trade and energy concessions from his Russian counterpart, who later pledged a 15-billion dollar loan to Kyiv. The Kremlin played its cards right, strong-arming Yanukovych into coming to terms that favor Russia immensely.
BuzzFeed’s been following closely the protests and controversies that ensued. While the future of Ukraine is unclear, the immediate beneficiary of this mess is sitting pretty in the Kremlin.
13. Boris Berezovsky’s Death
Known in the ’90s as the “Godfather of the Kremlin,” Boris Berezovsky happily gave Vladimir Putin a media make-over and championed his succession of President Yeltsin. Things quickly turned sour for the oligarch, who eventually fled to London yet remained at the center of controversies in all-things-Russia. Vladimir Putin must have felt some relief upon hearing the news of Berezovsky’s passing—yet without his able foe the Russian president is lonelier in this world, too.
14. The Russian Duma’s incompetence
What do the discriminatory anti-“propaganda” law and the amnesty of 2013 have in common?
The Russian Duma voted unanimously for them. This type of unanimity is a sign that Russia’s parliamentarians have no idea what’s happening in the country and are voting the way the Kremlin wants them to vote. This total submission to Vladimir Putin’s will is worrying because it means there’re no checks and balances left. But it’s working out well for the Kremlin in the short term, so expect to see more of it: there are legislative bills for increased punishments for “extremism” and “propaganda” of separatism on the docket; both will further reduce the limits of free expression and association in Russia. The Duma’s authority and popularity will continue to decrease as the “Dura” (Fool) moniker continues to spread.
15. The “informal” opposition’s incompetence
Russia’s largest post-Soviet Union protests swept the country’s big cities following alleged vote-rigging in the parliamentary and presidential elections. In October 2012, the protests’ leaders created a Russian Opposition Coordination Council to better organize and formulate political demands. The Council, where Alexei Navalny had played a leading role, was virtually toothless throughout its existence and disintegrated in October 2013, a month after the Moscow mayoral election. You know who won that one.
16. The Divorce
Citing Lyudmila Putina’s desire to leave the limelight, the Putins shocked Russia by confirming the rumors of their divorce, during the intermission at the Kremlin Ballet Theater where the couple watched Esmeralda. The world knows not what to make of this divorce, but surely would love to find out—in 2014? Will the loneliness grow?
17. Ramzan Kadyrov’s instagram
In 2013, kadyrov_95 became a social media phenomenon. The formula is simple: Ramzan Kadyrov’s team posts photos featuring the Chechen president glazing at or interacting with the republic’s amazing nature, the capital city’s glitzy architecture (Grozny was completely destroyed during the two Chechen Wars—both started by Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin), children, cute animals, international celebrities (including Gérard Depardieu, who became a Russian citizen this year, for all the wrong reasons), and senior government officials from Moscow. The instagram is as hot as Ramzan Kadyrov’s human rights record questionable.
Natalya Estemirova will never have an instagram account, but Ramzan Kadyrov’s is an unquestionable success for the Kremlin.
18. Michael McFaul’s twitter
Michael McFaul’s twitter account has become an instrument of diplomacy. The U.S. Ambassador in Moscow—who in a three-year tenure has been criticized for ignoring human rights by some and called the embassy’s top-ranking human rights officer by others—clearly loves twitter and thinks it important. He vents frustrations, raises concerns, celebrates events, talks to people directly. McFaul is a big promoter of more U.S.-Russian relations and better cooperation with the Kremlin, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants.
19. The games
Declining health and inadequate health care are a major concern in Russia. Life expectancy has been growing since 2004 though remains some 10 years below EU’s or U.S.’s levels, and alcohol intake has dropped by a fourth since 2010, according to government statistics. Russia is about to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, of course, but Vladimir Putin has also scored some international points in 2013 by getting Russia to host the 27th Summer Universiade in Kazan and the Usain Bolt-clad IAAF World Championships in Moscow. No matter who attends the Winter Games and no matter how many human rights abuses are reported in and around Sochi, Vladimir Putin has already won the PR battle.
20. The animals
Vladimir Putin’s schmoozing with animals is an old trick in the Kremlin’s PR book—check out this 2010 edition on BuzzFeed. Vladimir Putin’s schedule remained animal-heavy in 2013, year of the snake.
Is Vladimir Putin Russia’s overconfident & obnoxious anchorman?
Or is Vladimir Putin Russia’s loneliest cabbie?
What is Vladimir Putin going to do in 2014? How to understand Russia?
No answer. If Nikolai Gogol didn’t get one, nobody will:
“Oh troika, winged troika, tell me who invented you? Surely, nowhere but among a nimble nation could you have been born in a country which has taken itself in earnest and has evenly spread far and wide over half of the globe, so that once you start counting the milestones you may count on till a speckled haze dances before your eyes… Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!… And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes?… Rus, whither are you speeding to? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.” (Dead Souls, 1842—free through Project Gutenburg).