Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Moves in Georgia Reinforcing Authoritarianism in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 2 – Moscow’s moves in Georgia are having a profound impact on Russian domestic politics and policies, not only tightening the relationship between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin but sparking the kind of witch hunts for “a fifth column” that presage even more repression at least in the short term.
The interrelationship between Russia’s foreign and domestic politics and policies has always been closer than many either there or in the West have assumed. And as the fallout from the Georgian events shows, this linkage is now closer than ever before, according to an article in today’s “Nezavizimaya gazeta” (www.ng.ru/ng_politics/2008-09-02/13_echo.html).
Surveying the opinion of the expert community in Moscow, the paper’s Vladimir Razumov argues that many are convinced that Medvedev and Putin responded to the Georgian moves in South Ossetia in the way that they did because the Russian people, increasingly affected by the nationalist rhetoric of the Kremlin, was more than prepared to go along.
Initially, he points out, some commentators suggested that Moscow would not respond to Georgia’s action because South Ossetia was not central to the Russian government’s interest in pocketing the profits from the export of oil and gas. Indeed, many felt, there was a sense that any action could put those profits at risk.
But both the Medvedev-Putin tandem and the Russian people more generally viewed Tbilisi’s actions as a challenge to Russia’s standing in the world, and so the actions of the former were supported by the latter with enthusiasm in most cases, a pattern that convinced the Russian leadership that the people would support its moves even beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Thus, the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist continues, “the behavior of the Russian ruling elite in the last weeks is a demonstration that it does not fear anyone or anything anymore – not only domestic but foreign opponents – and that it intends to establish the rules of the game both in internal and in foreign policy.”
And he adds, “the quiet reaction of the [Russian population] without any outburst of hurrah-patriotic and revanchist attitudes, shows that society accepts what has taken place as a given,” a set of inclinations that is already having consequences for Russian politics and Russian policies at home.
Among the most important of these, only some of which are enumerated by Razumov, are the following: First, Moscow’s actions in Georgia have cemented the relationship between Medvedev and Putin, with the former now closer to Putin than ever before, willing to sacrifice many of his reforms and not the harbinger of liberalism many had expected.
Second, the conflict in Georgia has sparked both new Russian actions to clamp down hard on those few remaining media outlets, including Internet blogs, which are not controlled by the regime and calls for going after what many nationalists calls “the fifth column” within Russia, a group for most that includes both non-Russians and Russian opposition figures.
And third, Moscow’s actions in Georgia have had an impact on two domestic groups – economic elites and non-Russian republics – that seem certain to play a role in Russian political life in the coming days. On the one hand, however patriotic they may be, Russian businessmen can hardly be pleased with the collapse of their portfolios and investment possibilities.
And on the other, increasing restiveness in Ingushetia as well as in other parts of the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga suggests that Moscow will be confronted with new ethnic challenges that both the elite’s own inclinations and the population’s current attitudes are likely to want to respond to with force.
In both cases, the Russian government will undoubtedly take a hard line, not because it is forced to by the population as it might be if that country were a democracy but rather because the regime can count on support from the majority of Russians if it portrays all such actions as standing up to threats from abroad and especially from the United States.
That interaction between Russian domestic and foreign policy does not point to any softening in either sphere at least in the short term. In foreign affairs, this is likely to make it increasingly difficult for Western governments to find a common language with Russian leaders either now or in the coming months, however hard the former try and the latter demand.
And in domestic affairs, it suggests that Russia will move in an increasingly authoritarian direction, striking out at domestic “enemies” in the name of fighting foreign ones and thus threatening many of the freedoms which the Russian people acquired after 1991 and making a popular explosion there eventually if not immediately all the more likely.

No comments: