Faced with persistent grumbling from citizens, the Kremlin responds in the usual way: blaming the West.
- By Miriam ElderMiriam Elder is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.
MOSCOW — On Feb. 21, the Libyan air force swooped in on protesters in Tripoli, opening fire on a crowd that had joined the uprising against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. That same day, Boris Yakemenko, a high-ranking ideologist for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, decided it was a good moment to offer his own take on events.
"Libyan leader Col. M. Qaddafi has shown the whole world how to treat provocateurs who aim for revolution, destabilization, and civil war," Yakemenko wrote in an essay titled "The Right Path," posted on his blog and on Nashi’s official website.
"He started to destroy them. He used rockets and everything he has," Yakemenko wrote. "This is the most accurate path to ending American ‘revolutionary’ technologies."
His words would seem like the ravings of a madman — if they did not ring so close to statements made by Russia’s leadership since the unrest riling the Middle East broke out in January. Intrinsically frightened by revolution and by recent polls showing widespread agitation and mistrust of the government, the Kremlin is striking pre-emptively: hinting that the revolutions are Western-backed overthrows of troublesome regimes and issuing paranoid statements designed to shift the blame for Russia’s ills away from itself.
Yakemenko is no outsider. He’s one of the top officials in Nashi, the brother of its leader, and a member of the Public Chamber, a government oversight committee made up of presidential appointees. Nashi, the group he represents, is an explicitly counterrevolutionary body, formed by the Kremlin in 2005 in the wake of the so-called color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. In the West, those uprisings were viewed as two post-Soviet countries throwing off the remaining shackles of Russian influence. Inside the Kremlin, the color revolutions were seen as victories for Western spy agencies bent on bringing Russia to its knees.
"[At the time,] President Putin and other officials really used the rhetoric of ‘the next day it’ll happen in Moscow,’" said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Nashi, which counts tens of thousands of Putin-loving youths as members, was designed to pre-empt that day.
But Nashi’s representative wasn’t the only one egging on autocratic dictators in the Arab world. As events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya unfolded, Russia’s leaders remained uncomfortably quiet before responding with the same level of high-alert paranoia. Igor Sechin, a secretive deputy prime minister and one of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants, used a rare interview to blame the unrest entirely on Google, hinting at the role of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who anonymously ran a Facebook page that gathered thousands of supporters for Egypt’s revolution. "We need to more closely examine what has happened in Egypt," he told the Wall Street Journal. "See, well, what senior managers of Google have been doing in Egypt, what kind of manipulations of the energy of the people took place there."
Hours after the interview was published on Feb. 22, President Dmitry Medvedev made his first statements on the unrest, warning that "fanatics" were attempting to come to power in the Arab world. "This will mean fires for decades and the spread of extremism," he warned.
Most striking, however, was Medvedev’s remark that an unidentified "they" were preparing similar unrest at home.
"They have prepared such a scenario for us before, and now more than ever they will try and realize it," Medvedev said, without making any attempt to elaborate on who "they" might be. "In any case, this scenario won’t succeed."
It’s an age-old tactic of stirring anti-Western paranoia, seeking to blame Russia’s own troubles on "some evil source over there orchestrating evil," said Lipman. The site of Medvedev’s speech was significant: He spoke at a meeting of his anti-terrorist committee in Vladikavkaz, a city in Russia’s southern republic of North Ossetia that is seen as the gateway to the restive Caucasus. He had flown there four days after suspected Islamist extremists gunned down three tourists from Moscow on their way to a ski resort on nearby Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak. It was the latest terrifying twist in a years-long insurgency that has reached new heights in recent months, with rebels carrying out devastating suicide attacks in Moscow twice in the past year. (On Tuesday, March 1, the deputy head of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, seen here as a Western pawn, of organizing the January attack on Domodedovo airport that left 37 people dead — an attack that Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has already taken responsibility for.)
If "they" are stirring up trouble in Egypt and Libya, it’s convenient for Moscow to argue that "they" might also be at the root of Russia’s problems in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
But Russians don’t seem to be buying the excuse. A creeping dissatisfaction appears to be setting in, not merely based on Moscow’s inability to stop terrorist attacks, but also on the government’s ineffective actions at pulling the country out of the global financial crisis. Unemployment and inflation remain high, while corruption has become a way of life. A Levada Center poll carried out on the day of President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt found that 34 percent of Russians thought the mass protests rocking Cairo could happen in Russia too. Another poll conducted in late February by the Public Opinion Foundation, found that 49 percent of Russians were so dissatisfied that they were ready to go out and protest; never before had the percentage been this high. A third polling agency, VCIOM, found that both Medvedev’s and Putin’s approval ratings have fallen below 50 percent — a rare low.
Russia’s struggling opposition is hoping to seize on these numbers. "In Russia, there is a high level of social discontent, a political monopoly, and corruption — it’s an ideal atmosphere for social protest," said Ilya Yashin, a 27-year-old leader of Solidarity, an umbrella group that unites Russia’s democratic opposition. "That’s the combination that we saw in Egypt, and a year ago no one expected anything like what we saw to happen there."
Yet Yashin’s group doesn’t appear to have the passionate, albeit covert, following of opposition movements in the Arab world. The monthly protests it organizes, once banned but now permitted under the leadership of Moscow’s new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, rarely garner more than 1,000 people. Around 500 showed up for its latest gathering in central Moscow on Feb. 12 — a low turnout Yashin blamed on the weather, which was a frigid -13 degrees Fahrenheit. "If you had such a temperature in Arab capitals, you wouldn’t have seen so many people turn out there either," he said.
Russia’s more radical groups tend to garner more support. The far-right protests held by some of Russia’s most racist groups regularly gather at least 5,000. On the left, Russia’s pensioners, often its most politically active citizens, stuff Communist Party rallies to the brim.
It’s barely the stuff of revolution — but nonetheless, Russia’s leaders are growing uneasy. In a country whose sprawling bureaucracy remains staffed with a batch of Soviet-era apparatchiks, reverting to paranoid outbursts is almost normal. "A regime like this, a soft authoritarian regime, has an inherent precariousness about it," said Lipman.
As the international community binds together in the face of Qaddafi’s growing ruthlessness, Medvedev has suddenly changed tack, issuing a statement on Feb. 25 condemning the use of force against civilians and warning that the Libyan leadership could face war crimes charges if it refused to rein itself in. On March 1, an unnamed Kremlin source told the Interfax news agency that Qaddafi was now considered a "political corpse." This week, Russia, with uncharacteristic quiet and ease, joined in international efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on Libya, even though it stands to lose a reported $4 billion in arms contracts as a result.
Yakemenko, the Nashi ideologue, didn’t buy the about-face.
"President Medvedev said what happened in the Arab world will not happen in Russia. That means he understands that what is happening in the Middle East is a process that is orchestrated from the outside," Yakemenko told me on March 1.
"There are provocateurs that are enemies of the country — and not just in Libya," he said. "The Americans have set themselves the task of changing control of these regions, and they will do anything to achieve it. Yes, there are masses of unhappy people, but they are being used." As Russia’s leaders pursue the dual course of deflecting attention from problems at home while boosting the belief that outsiders are to blame for their own country’s problems, they will continue to need someone like Yakemenko on their side.
As for Yashin, he says he simply needs spring: "As the weather warms up, people will come out more and more." But winter in Russia can last a long time: Egypt’s Mubarak led the country for nearly 30 years; Qaddafi has been in charge for almost 42. Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, has been at the helm as president or prime minister for just over a decade. "Yes," said Yashin, "but if we speak only about the level of corruption, compared to Putin, Mubarak was an honest man."