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Siege Mentality
Russia Fights the Enemy at Home

With real wages falling by around 9% in Russia in the first part of the year, local protests are starting to bubble up around the country according to the FT:

According to the Institute of Collective Action, a non-governmental group of sociologists which records activism across the country, there has been a clear uptick in unrest over the past few months. They are often small-scale protests over personnel cuts in hospitals, which threaten to undermine the already precarious state of the healthcare system in many regions. […]

Hundreds of people demonstrated in Petrozavodsk, a city near the border with Finland, on Thursday, to demand the resignation of Alexander Khudilainen, the Kremlin-appointed regional governor, after a number of opposition politicians were arrested or prosecuted on what they say are trumped-up corruption charges.

More than 2,000 people took to the streets of Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, on Sunday, to demand cultural freedom of expression after the authorities cancelled a performance of the Wagner opera Tannhäuser which the Orthodox Church had attacked as offensive to believers.

Though these aren’t even close to approaching the scale to large scale protests in Moscow in December 2011, rest assured that Vladimir Putin is leaving nothing to chance. The Telegraph reports that he is training his interior ministry forces to be able to handle any eventualities which may arise:

Russian interior ministry troops are being pelted with stones and bottles during exercises to practise putting down a Ukrainian-style revolution. […]

Interior ministry forces are used for crowd control but also take part in armed conflicts, such as fighting separatists and Islamists in the North Caucasus.

During the eight-day drills, named Zaslon 2015 and taking place in six regions including Crimea, the troops are practising use of water cannons and tear gas.

Also on Thursday, the defence ministry said that 30 fighter jets were taking part in exercises in the eastern Primorsky region.

It might appear to a casual observer that Putin is done causing trouble for now. Having gotten most of what he wanted at Minsk, all he now has to do is tug on his proxies in Europe and hope that the EU’s sectoral sanctions fall apart come June.

But counting on that would be a mistake. Today’s Russia is operating under a pervasive siege mentality. As the Jamestown Foundation noted, almost 54% of Russians believe a war with NATO is imminent and blame the West for escalating. Add to that the belief, perhaps sincerely held by Putin, that the West is about to overthrow his regime through the actions of a fifth column of disloyal political agitators, and you have a volatile and potentially very ugly situation on your hands.

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  • Dan Greene

    >>”More than 2,000 people took to the streets of Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, on Sunday, to demand cultural freedom of expression after the authorities cancelled a performance of the Wagner opera Tannhäuser which the Orthodox Church had attacked as offensive to believers.”

    Well, I certainly don’t support the suppression of art, however it is interpreted, but since WRM is complaining about the lack of faith in newspaper op-eds in a concurrently running piece here at TAI, it might be worthwhile at least to understand the basis for the complaint (from RT):

    “The staging, prepared by director Timofey Kulyabin, moved Wagner’s romantic story of a medieval knight into the modern day. The main character, Tannhauser, became a film director who was shooting a movie about the life of Jesus Christ in which the Savior lives in carnal sin with the goddess Venus. The believers were especially upset by a poster advertising the opera, which depicted a crucifix placed between a woman’s legs.”

    Also, it’s interesting that TAI approvingly runs this quote describing protests at the censorship of an opera in Russia, while less than a year ago, they published a demand that another opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” be cancelled by the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. In the end, that opera went on the stage, but it was censored from the Met’s series of operas broadcast live in high-definitation to a much larger global audience watching in movie theaters.

    This kind of hypocrisy is what I’ve come to expect from TAI. One would think they’d be embarrassed by it, but I guess not.

    • Dan Greene

      Also interesting to keep in mind that while this article attempts to create an impression of growing unrest in Russia, Putin’s approval rating per Levada six weeks ago was 86%.

      • Damir Marusic

        We certainly are not trying to say that these protests are the start of something bigger. They’re not significant in size as we noted, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that they will not get much bigger. You’re very right that Putin remains popular, and there’s little reason to think that will change drastically in the near term.

        That all said, the protests are happening, and they are significant for their very existence. If you’re more than a drive-by Kremlin watcher, you know that it goes out of its way to prevent these sorts of things from occurring in the first place. Though authoritarian in many ways, Putin’s regime also retains many superficial trappings of a democracy, and is in any case very attentive to public opinion. Putin’s much-derided publicity stunts are efforts for him to appear accessible to the various constituencies that make up the patchwork that is the continent that is Russia. His attempts at fixing problems using the personal touch does not always work well—as PM he faced public anger at his handling of the wildfires in 2010. But rest assured, public displeasure, especially among Russia’s silent majority, is something that at least historically Putin’s Kremlin has been very attentive to.

        By drawing the parallel to a different story—the public show of readiness to use force against the ever-looming threat of anti-regime subversives—and then pointing to the generally ugly mood in Russia right now, we were trying to suggest that the regime, which in recent times seems increasingly paranoid, might mishandle these local disturbances that are clearly motivated only by parochial concerns. We might be proven wrong, of course. But in any case it’s something to watch for.

        As for Klinghoffer, I’d just say that as above, you’re reading a whole lot into our supposed intent. Even though we tend to write short un-bylined pieces in what we hope is a uniform voice here in the Via Meadia feed, unlike the Kremlin we don’t enforce a party line across the website. Here, in contrast, is Walter himself writing on the opera:

        • Dan Greene

          >>”We certainly are not trying to say that these protests are the start of something bigger.”

          If they are just small and unconnected demonstrations, and you don’t think that they are the start of something significant or even coherent, then why are you even running an article (or whatever you call these pieces) on them in the first place? Your introduction, by using the word “start” does suggest a trend without actually supporting that imputation. The introduction also links the demonstrations to economic conditions, but then, as one of the illustrating examples, uses the opera cancellation. What does that have to do with the 9% fall in real wages, which the intro blurb implies (without actually saying it) is the overall generator of the unrest? 

And if you find it unusual that these demonstrations are happening because, you claim, the Russian government usually stops them, then why did these ones happen? Any analysis of that?

          As far as the MoI riot control exercise, I see no significance in the information you present. Riot control is a task trained by many internal security and law enforcement agencies. If they were preparing for some specific incident or threat, that might be of some interest, but the MoI troops training on one of their core tasks doesn’t make me jump up and take notice. Here’s a 2013 article on a North Carolina Army National Guard MP unit training to support domestic “law-and-order” operations.

          Should we wonder why a NC guard unit is providing support to local police department operations in Wisconsin? (Not to divert the subject.)

          Frankly, I find the article’s title, “Russia Fights the Enemy at Home” highly misleading, given the content of opera protests and MoI training exercises. Why do you feel the need to publish something like this with the hair-on-fire title? Is it just supposed to reinforce a “Putin bad/Russian on the edge of chaos” mindset among the readership?

          Reference the opera issue, OK, Mead’s piece is a decent one, if not a full-throated defense of freedom of expression. But overall, I find your coverage of Russia and much else lamentably one-sided. If your goal is to propagandize for a particular strategic approach to Russia (which seems quite likely to be leading to a strategic disaster) then I would rate you a success—but that’s only in the narrowest terms.

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