"A Happy New 1937 [the peak of Stalin's Great Terror] to you," Moscow wits quipped on January 1, 2009, while the Putin regime, frightened and incompetent in the face of a mounting systemic crisis, prepared to lock up protesters and squash mass protests with crude force.
Over the last decade, the Russians swapped whatever flimsy freedoms they had for the illusion of stability and prosperity offered by the Putin regime and sustained by high hydrocarbon prices. Now that the prices have dropped and the regime is failing to provide either, the people are beginning to grumble. According to a poll taken from December 12 to 15 by the authoritative Levada Center, 23 percent of the respondents saw protest actions as “quite possible” and 20 percent were ready to join them. Meanwhile, the Social Sentiment Index (SSI, a synthesized index of trends in mass sentiment, which reflects the impact of mass consciousness on the country’s development) dropped by 21 percent from March to December 2008. The Levada Center analysts believe that the rate of this fall is comparable to the worst SSI decline in September 1998, one month after Russia’s financial meltdown (www.levada.ru/indexisn.html).
The Russians may not care for lofty ideas like freedom, democracy, and so forth; but when food runs out, they will have August 1991 all over again, when an attempted hard-line coup backlashed in a popular revolt that ended Communist rule.
Last month a wave of discontent rolled through Russia from Vladivostok in the Far East to Moscow (www.ntvru.com/russia/). On December 9 President Vladimir Putin raised tariffs on imported used foreign cars in order to support Russia's automobile industry (www.steer.ru/archives/2008/). Putin fumed that some 350,000 cars were being imported annually through Vladivostok and other Far Eastern ports, with only 50,000 staying in the area (RTR TV, December 10, 2008).
The rest of the cars do, in fact, go further into Russia because many consumers prefer a five-year-old Ford or Toyota to any brand of new Russian-made car. Used car imports are the main source of subsistence for at least a million people (www.bablaw.livejournal.com).
On December 14 several thousand protesting Vladivostok drivers blocked traffic and sought to block airport landing strips (www.ntvru.com/russia/). The next protest action in Vladivostok on December 21 was brutally broken up by the Zubr, a special riot police force controlled personally by the Interior Minister and flown in from Moscow, as the local police force was deemed unreliable (www.demset.org/).
The regime is cracking down on anything it sees as a potential threat. On December 14 riot police manhandled with equal brutality a dissident march, headed by liberal democratic opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, and a protest action by old Soviet Stalinist generals (www.newsru.com/russia/). Regardless of the atrocities committed by Stalinists, it is deeply disturbing for 80-year-old generals to be beaten up by young policemen.
The Kremlin is going ahead with its plans to fire 160,000 army officers (www.mil.ru/info/) and 120,000 warrant-officers (http://www.riw.ru/), but on December 16 the long-planned reduction of the Ministry of Interior (MVD) Internal Troops was abruptly cancelled (www.vlcrime.net/read.php). On December 24 First Deputy MVD Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky said that the MVD expected a worsening of the "operative situation in the streets" because of the developing economic crisis (www.rbcdaily.ru). To deal with the anticipated problems, the Internal Troops set up three Special Purpose Centers, equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and technical equipment, including drones, paragliders, and divers that will “execute any assignment on the ground, in the air, or underwater," an MVD press release said on the same day (http://www.arms-expo.ru/). Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB Colonel and now Deputy Chair of the State Duma Security Committee, commented to Nezavisimaya Gazeta on December 25 that with the worsening crisis, "It could happen that no amount of Internal Forces will be enough" (www.newsru.com/russia/).
On December 17 Russian lawmakers released seven articles of the criminal code (the so-called crimes against the state) dealing with a range of subjects from the right to trial by jury to an article on "participating in mass disorders" such as the one in Vladivostok (www.tagsnews.ru/politics/). Now, such cases will be tried by a panel of three federal judges (www.zaks.ru/new/archive/view/<wbr></wbr>53291), reminiscent of the infamous Stalinist-era "troikas" (three-member boards of police and party functionaries) that arbitrarily sentenced people to death or labor camps.
On December 15 Putin’s cabinet introduced a bill to the Duma to expand the definition of high treason and espionage to include even advisory "and other assistance" to foreign and international organizations (www.newsru.com/russia/).
On December 18 a large group of human rights activists, including prominent Soviet era dissidents Lyudmila Alexeyeva, now Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Sergei Kovalev, equated the bill to Stalin-era persecution. "This is a very dangerous and consequential development," their open appeal to legislators and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reads. "It returns the Russian justice system to the norms of the 1920s to 1950s," when any independent estimate of the situation in the country, let alone criticism of the regime and unsanctioned association with foreigners, was considered treason against the motherland. The appeal calls on Russians "to step out together against the adoption of laws [that are] in the spirit of Stalin and Hitler...and stop a new 1937" (www.svobodanews.ru).
Putin, however, remains relentless. Any attempts to weaken Russia or threaten its interests would be cut short, he vowed on December 19 to a Kremlin reception marking the anniversary of the state security services (www.kommersant.ru/). What constitutes Russia’s interests and threats is to be interpreted by Putin himself, of course, and handled by his services on the basis of his new legislation.
Happy New Year, Russia!