Power Without Purpose
Published: January 16, 2014 (Issue # 1793)
For more than two decades, August has been the cruelest month for Russian leaders. The August 1991 coup led to the departure of President Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Soviet Union. The August 1998 debt default and ruble collapse laid waste to President Boris Yeltsin's free-market reforms and resulted in the sacking of his prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko.
The following August, a sick and feeble Yeltsin announced that Vladimir Putin, the fourth prime minister in a year, would soon take over as president. Four years later, in August 2003, a Kremlin-inspired tax raid against Russia's leading oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, followed by the confiscation of his oil company, Yukos, demonstrated what Putin meant by the "dictatorship of law."
This late-summer curse now precedes a "December of misery" — at least for democracy activists. In December 2011, mass protests against Putin's election-fixing and upcoming third presidential term simply fizzled out. Likewise, December 2013 was full of omens.
The month began with international calls to boycott February's Winter Olympics in Sochi in protest against a Kremlin-sanctioned law banning "gay propaganda." This was followed by political turmoil in neighboring Ukraine, where protesters tried, and once again failed, to topple their anti-democratic leaders. The year ended with two suicide bombings in Volgograd, which claimed dozens of lives. In attacking Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, the symbol of Soviet wartime perseverance, the terrorists — most likely Islamic fundamentalists — could hardly have picked a more emblematic Russian city.
Moreover, in December, Putin made high-profile use of that most imperial of prerogatives, the presidential pardon, to bestow freedom on, among others, Khodorkovsky, who had spent a decade behind bars, and two members of the protest punk band Pussy Riot. These apparent acts of mercy were presented as the wise acts of a benevolent modern czar ruling in the name of traditional values and repulsed by Western decadence. Never mind that it was Western governments that had pressed most persistently for their release.
Indeed, Putin's real motivation for the pardons had nothing to do with any traditional concept of law and order, much less with a move toward democracy. Rather, by freeing his opponents, he sought to appease foreign critics before the upcoming Olympics. And to some degree, he has succeeded. Despite the transparent self-interest underlying the pardons, his critics are starting to speak of a Putin "thaw."
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