Counterview: Don't Blame 'Fifth Column' for Putin's Failings

Witch-hunts for scapegoats will get Russia nowhere

Wed, Jan 27, 2016
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Louis XIV was not a bystander in his own government, and neither is Putin

A great benefit of the Russia Insider platform is that it provides English-language readers with a sense of policy and/or intellectual streams and discussions within Russia, either summarized or as a translation of primary sources.

This is a unique service, one that removes the filters put on by foreign media, which seek to fit everything into their preconceived notions so as to make things palatable for their readers (who really only want to hear that Russians either [1] are ready to overthrow their government, or [2] pray in the direction of the Kremlin five times a day.)

One recent RI coup is the near-simultaneous publication of two pieces attacking the Kremlin's “economic bloc.”  (See "Liberals Like Chubais, Kudrin Who Destroyed the Country Have No Place in Russia" by Alexander Prokhanov, and "Putin's Biggest Failure: Not Cleaning House" by the Saker, if you haven’t already.)

Although these two pieces differ substantially, the gist of the attacks—which reflect 100-percent the sentiment of Russia’s hard-core nationalist fringe—is that Russia’s financial and economic officialdom (to include former officials and even heads of state- or quasi-state enterprises) are traitors, and that they must be flushed out if the country is to survive the economic crisis and maintain its independence.

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This line of thought has, to one degree or another, in one level of specificity or another, been carried for some time now on predictable outlets such as Colonel Cassad (Russia’s top political-security blog), Politikus (a prominent aggregator blog that claims to have state funding), and—in softer terms—the online newspaper Vzgliad (a reliable Kremlin mouthpiece), among many others.

Accusations against the economic bloc have also recently been aired (though not endorsed) in the mainstream—for example, in a debate published by Komsomolskaia Pravda, Russia’s leading newspaper.

RI readers deserve a second opinion on these claims, which—again, so far—represent only a segment of non-mainstream opinion within Russia.

The first thing to note is the use of terms.

The two RI posts cited above refer to members of the economic bloc as either “liberals”—that’s per RI’s headline, not the actual text, though it reflects the broader sentiment—or “fifth columnists.”

This is a problem.

First, there is no evidence that (for example) current/former Finance Ministers Siluanov or Kudrin are “liberals”—whatever that means—in any specific sense.

Calling them “liberals” is a vacuous corruption of the term, conflating it with everything bad under sun, much like “bitch” or “gay” (i.e. “that’s gay”) are used in colloquial English.

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that almost anyone even remotely qualified (and willing) to replace them would be similar to them in priorities and temperament.  In other words, also “liberal.”

So this goes beyond strawman-ship—it’s just meaningless.

Next, there is no evidence that Siluanov, Kudrin, Central Bank chief Nabiullina, or the many other figures named in the second above link are (per the writer’s language) “fifth columnists”, in the nationalist fringe sense of someone who wants Russia to subject itself to the USA.

One can't reasonably accuse every prominent Russian financial or economic figure of working (consciously or not) for the interests of a hostile foreign power without at least some strong circumstantial evidence related to their close associations, employment histories, etc.

(That is, something more than just they came up under Yeltsin’s government.  Putin worked under Yeltsin, too.  So did most of his friends that the nationalists like so much.)

We cannot condemn so many people just based on emotion, on a hunch.

Moving from terminology to more substantive matters, it is striking that very few of those criticizing Russia's economic management have any specific solutions to offer.

Other than the “Glaziev plan” or my own proposals, I haven’t heard anyone offer anything concrete.

Instead, there's a lot of “Loose the liberals, un-float the ruble (how? for how long? at what cost? more than the $100 billion pissed away in 2014?), and give America the finger.”

But that's not a plan.

It may be suitable to fill airtime, but it's not something that Putin or Medvedev can actually use.

Which is probably the reason they haven't yet fired all of those alleged “liberals” and “fifth columnists.”

Next, and most interesting for students of Russian politics and culture, we can see how the nationalist fringe now condemns nearly everyone and everything around Putin but Putin (as opposed to the 85-90 percent of the population that likes Putin—for now—but aren't too happy and don't know whom to blame, other than their own mayors or governors.)

This is not at all new in Russian history.

It goes like this:

Yes, the house is on fire.  (I've covered this in detail, and I'm glad to see others recognizing the situation.)

Yes, something must be done.

But the Tsar?  Oh, no, he's not to blame.  He doesn't know (or fully appreciate) what his boyars are doing.  Perhaps we should write him a letter explaining what his boyars are doing.  Then he will understand.  Then he can do something about those evil boyars.

Or this, in line with the view of our anti-“fifth columnist” writer:

The Tsar knows what they are doing, but he's not strong enough to take action right now.  We have to get behind him so he has the power to hang them all.

Again, we have seen this before.

In fact, it is such a common Russian historical meme, and so applicable to today's Russia, that it is now increasingly written and spoken about in the Putin context by public intellectuals and others.

But of course, it is not unique to Russia.

“Loyal” citizens of all autocracies throughout history have required an outlet, a means to say:  Look, everything is going to hell, so what can we do or say about it without appearing disloyal?

Or, depending on their agenda:  How can we deflect public anger from our beloved King?

And so they target everyone around the ruler who is even remotely attached to the problems at hand.

In so doing, they withhold criticism from the man who was (directly or indirectly) responsible for appointing all these people—the man who outlined, approved, and re-approved the master course that all of them have followed.

After all, this man is not some random passer-by in his own government.

Like Louis XIV, he is the State itself.

So is that collateral criticism logically sound?

No.

Much as I think Putin has been good for Russia overall, here is the truth in the cold light of day:

Putin had been warned about the gathering storm by some of his ministers and advisors since early 2014.

He choose to kick-the-can, avoid rocking the boat with any structural reforms (i.e. not doing anything that could threaten his massive, sclerotic, neo-feudal patronage structure), thinking he could simply jawbone things until it all turned around, claiming the recession would be over in two years.

Now, things are coming to a head.

“Two years” will soon be up, and the downtrend is accelerating.  Recession becomes depression.

Well, guess what?

If Russia now seems rudderless and unprepared for what’s coming, it's Putin who is to blame.

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