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A Putin Village By: Reuben F. Johnson
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, December 06, 2007


Moscow: One of the famous phrases with roots in Russian history that many people have at least heard of--even if they do not know the etymology of the term--is the "Potemkin Village." Although historians still argue as to the true nature and motivations of those who reported the event, the story is that the Russian prime minister of the time, Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, erected elaborate facades to hide the hideously poor hovels and other unsightly buildings along her route--flanked by what appeared to be well-fed and smartly-dressed peasants--in order to create a fictitious image of prosperity during a 1787 visit to the Crimea by Empress Catherine II.

The famous Wikipedia website gives credence to the view that the stories of the Russian PM going to such extremes to fool the Empress are exaggerated and are now thought to have been fables spread by his political enemies, but admits that the term "Potemkin village" has "come to mean, especially in a political context, any hollow or false construct, physical or figurative, meant to hide an undesirable or potentially damaging situation."

One now wonders what will be the "construct" used to hide the true results of Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia. When and if they become known they may be hard to reconcile with the actual voter turnout. But any revelations of such disparities may never see the light of day if the media coverage given to the elections thus far is any indicator. In the days leading up to the vote only two major stories could be heard or read in conventional western media outlets.

The first was the largely successful image creation of an overwhelming, insurmountable and irrepressible enthusiasm by a majority of the people for the United Russia party that is the bastion of Russian President Vladimir Putin's political support. This was symbolized by a monstrous billboard, the dimensions of which have not been seen since the height of the Soviet era, erected at Moscow's Manezh Square proclaiming that "Moscow is Voting For Putin." So large in fact that just a photo capturing just the last two words of this super-sized advert--"za Putina" (for Putin)--covered almost the entire above-the-fold half of the front page of last Friday's International Herald Tribune.

Russian pollsters report that 63.5 per cent of the population supports Putin staying in power. The most likely three successors to Putin--First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov--combined account for only a paltry 7.3 per cent of the polling results. The ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskiy outpolls any one of them individually with 3.3 per cent of the respondents indicating him as their choice.

But the news behind these reports makes one wonder if the world has not been taken in by an incredibly successful and obfuscating media blitz by the Kremlin.

This weekend's Moscow Times reported that "United Russia's dominance on national airwaves ahead of Sunday's State Duma elections appears to be playing with people's minds eight percent of Russians polled in mid-November said they saw United Russia officials debating candidates from other parties, while 69 percent of those who watched the debates said they were impressed with the party's performance there, according to a poll released this week by the state-controlled VTsIOM polling agency."

The only problem with these polling results is that United Russia candidates did not participate in a single one of these debates.

This raises some serious questions about the integrity of the polling. We have all heard of political campaigns trying to spin the performance of a candidate after a debate to try and pump up polling numbers, but spinning a non-existent performance by a candidate that never appeared in a debate into a 69 percent approval rating is a miracle that not even all the most skillful James Carvilles of the world could hope to achieve--not even if they were capable of performing the famous Jedi Mind Trick. Moreover, (and I know this will come as a shock to all of you) VTsIOM are also the same state-controlled entity that conducted the polls that found 63.5 percent of the population supporting Putin staying in power beyond the constitutional limit of two terms. What a coincidence.

The defence by United Russia as to how more than two-thirds of the population could have approved of candidates debating who never actually appeared in a debate was beyond disingenuous. "We can't complain about how television channels are covering United Russia," said a campaign official on Thursday. And, we are told, "the official only spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media."

A campaign official not authorized to talk to the media and then claiming that he cannot complain about the content of the state-controlled television channels of which his party has almost complete dominance. I have lost count of how many illogical contradictions that adds up to. The only reason he (or she) could not complain about the content of how Russian television is covering the elections is that someone higher up on the food chain controls that content and it would be impolitic to criticize one of the Tsar's more senior horse-holders.

The parliamentary election is little more than a sideshow. The real issue is who Putin will anoint as his hand-picked successor between now and the Russian presidential elections next March, and how the Russian president will manage to continue to wield power when he is no longer the head of state. The rumors and scenarios as to who becomes Russian president are "as many as the pine needles in winter" as an Indian scout once said to his chief in one of those old U.S. Calvary vs. the Sioux westerns.

One scenario is that Putin becomes Prime Minister after his successor is elected president. That successor eventually resigns for "reasons of health" and Putin--as PM and according to the Russian constitution--becomes temporary president (just as he did in 2000 after Boris Yeltsin stepped down ahead of the end of his second term) and can then stand for election in three months in a snap election. This is due to a loophole in the Russian constitution that only prevents Putin from serving a third term if it is contiguous with his second. If there is a place-holder president in between then the odometer is reset to zero and he can serve another two terms.

But, a more likely scenario is one that shows how much United Russia is becoming a modern-day clone of the old Communist Party.

In this version, Putin becomes the head of the United Russia party and the party structure becomes the true centre of gravity in the Russian political system. "There will still be a Russian president," explained a Russian colleague, "but he will be no more significant to the outcome of events than Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny was during the rule of [Communist Party Secretary Leonid] Brezhnev." This will close the circle and make the Russian president on a par with the office of President of the Soviet Union. A job that was little more than, as one of my former professors used to describe it, "the chief baby-kisser and ribbon-cutter."

"This is a very probable scenario," said this Russian observer. "The United Russia party has become the central point where all of the powerful figures who now control events in the country intersect. The presidential administration and the senior party figures (who are often one and the same) even occupy the same offices on Staraya Ploshad where Communist Party's Central Committee apparatus used to sit." Russia seems to be destined for a future in which little has changed from Soviet times but the name plates and titles on the office doors.

If there was indeed an overwhelming support for United Russia in the recent election results, then in some abstract sense one could say that the Russian people were getting the government they had voted for. But the evidence thus far shows much of the electorate staying home and the mood of the average voter beyond apathetic. Speaking today with my Russian colleague is a typical example of what one hears about voter turnout in Russia's major cities.

"There are around 300 flats my building, which you have to assume is at least two persons of voting age per flat on average--or at least 600 voters," he told me. "Yet when I voted at 5 PM today only 30 of the people registered in this building--around 5 percent--had actually bothered to vote by this time. There was no line or last-minute, before dinner rush to vote. When I was at the polling station it was almost completely empty."

He then checked with his immediate family and discovered that neither his wife nor his three children nor his wife's mother had bothered to vote. He also rang up several other friends and family members and discovered that "this election is not at all popular. My mother-in-law's window overlooks a polling station at one of the local schools. She kept looking out of the window all day long to see how many people were voting and was expecting to see the throngs of people the media have been reporting that support United Russia to come charging in hordes to cast their ballots. However, she never saw more than one person at a time trickling into the polling station. In Moscow, anyway, it seems this election has a very poor turnout."

I then mentioned the polling results that claim 69 percent of the people are impressed with the United Russia candidates. "What these polls do not tell you," he explained, "is that it is 69-70 percent all right--but 70 percent of the only 10 percent of the people who will actually bother to vote."

Not surprisingly, the chief complaint of the opposition forces in Russia over the numerous irregularities and outright illegalities in the voting process was the manner in which the state either press-ganged or deliberately committed fraud in order to make the voter participation seem higher than its true anemic levels. Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few liberal opposition members of the Russian parliament told Monday's Wall Street Journal that in these elections "the main falsification was on turnout." Aside from the state stuffing ballot boxes with bogus absentee ballots Ryzhkov charges that in many cases "people were forced to vote. Putin's actual support is much lower."

This is the new Potemkin Village--the Putin Village. A village in which the state-controlled media and polished English-speaking apparatchiks who make Vladimir Pozner look like a poorly-schooled spokesman for a local labor union convince the world that the population supports the continuation of the present regime by ridiculously lopsided margins. (Listen to a commentary by Russia's comely Daria Pushkova--whose manufactured Oxford accent and slick delivery of explanations about how George W. Bush is an ogre compared to Putin make her so popular on US-bashing BBC programs--and you will see what I mean.)

The reality is that the country is slipping--if not sliding headlong--into the darkest of its dark past. A past in which a privileged few control the state's assets and power and the silent majority shuffle on down the road--long ago convinced that participation in the political process is more than useless unless you are part of the well-heeled nomenklatura. A past in which a handful of powerful KGB men and party hacks plunder the country's oil wealth and pawn weapons to petty tyrants like Hugo Chavez in their spare time while garnering the approval of a rubber-stamp parliament to claim legitimacy. A past in which those who dare question the ruling order in a public forum--like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya--end up with a bullet in the brain from an assassin who will never be found.

It is hard to think of a more "undesirable or potentially damaging situation" than this, but so far the state-controlled media and pollsters have done a fabulous job at damage control. If there is any controversy over this election Russian TV will not cover it, but will be gloating about how the pro-Western parties are whinging over "voting irregularities" and other minutiae. The truly tragic future that now awaits this great nation will be successfully obscured. Those anti-Putin parties doing the complaining will be cast as "sore losers" clinging to single-digit voting results because they have no public support. Word to the wise: there is no need for a "construct" to hide what is happening in Russia. It is hiding in plain sight.


Reuben Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.


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