Thursday, March 19, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow‘s Use of Witch Hunts to Deflect Popular Anger May Backfire

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 19 – As the economic crisis deepens, Moscow is seeking to redirect public anger away from itself onto enemies real or, if need be, imagined in order to consolidate society on its side and to reduce the likelihood that the government will have to deal with a wave of strikes or other forms of public protest.
But the regime’s strategy is so transparent and its enemies list already is so long, improbable and constantly changing, that it may not be as successful as the government hopes. Indeed, it is possible that Moscow could find that it has created a monster– a population prepared to turn its anger away from “approved” enemies to the regime itself.
In an article in today’s “Gazeta,” commentator Oleg Serpov argues that Moscow has updated Stalin’s dictum that “the class struggle will intensify as the country approaches communism” to read that “the deeper the crisis, the sharper the contradictions and the more torturous the search for enemies” (
And “if there are no enemies,” the current regime has concluded much as Stalin sometimes did, “then it is worthwhile to think them up” so as “to consolidate society and deflect it from spontaneous outbursts of protest” of the kind that the senior Russian officials have sought to frighten the country about.
The current search for enemies has truly been “torturous,” the Moscow writer says. “Just since the beginning of the year there have already been several attempts to put someone in this role:” Ukraine which supposedly was stealing gas, the middle class which supposedly had failed to pay for communal services, and businessmen who supposedly were illegally firing people.
More recently, the regime has focused on other “enemies,” with one part of the government blaming another and with the government blaming “foreign intelligence services” and now even non-governmental organizations which supposedly are leading ordinary Russians by the nose to demonstrate against the government.
Yesterday, in the latest manifestation of this trend, the Duma, at the behest of the pro-Kremlin United Russia faction, directed its security committee to “collect in the law enforcement organs information about the sources of financing of organizers of mass protest actions,” sources that some deputies think are foreign (
The United Russia deputies are particularly interested in 16 grants foreign NGOs distributed in the Russian Far East in advance of the protests against Vladimir Putin’s introduction of higher tariffs on imported cars and which the pro-Kremlin representatives think paid KPRF and TIGR activists, something both of the latter have denied.
Such investigative efforts have the potential to backfire on their authors in three ways, all of which seem likely to provoke more public anger at the regime rather than calm the situation. First of all, they are yet another indication that the regime still refuses to believe that the Russian people can articulate their own concerns and prefers to blame “outside agitators” for any protest.
Second, this latest effort to identify yet another new set of enemies, in this case the NGOs and the foreign intelligence services that Moscow’s propagandists insist stand behind them, is likely to strike many Russians as absurd, further degrading popular support for the current government and causing more people to be willing to demonstrate against it.
And third, such attacks are likely to cost many Russians the support that such NGOs give, giving the regime a black eye as it were both domestically and abroad, and causing more Russians to ask why Moscow is planning to spend more on its own public relations effort and on loans to neighbors and less on health and other basic needs (
At a time when ever more Russians are losing their jobs or seeing their incomes fall, a growing number are likely to begin to ask more insistently just what the regime has done for them lately, possibly provoking the kind of the debates and demonstrations the regime hopes against hope its kaleidoscopically enemies list will prevent.

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