If there’s one thing I can tell you from my experience working the Khodorkovsky case, is that the Kremlin lets you see what they want you see. For us, the encouraged media circus and the staged photo op with the cage in the courtroom, among other stunts, served a distinct purpose for the government: here is a clear reminder for everyone to fear us – we can do anything we want to absolutely anybody, and there is no limit to which we are willing to break the law to do it.
Made for TV Violence in St. Petersburg (AFP)
I am struck with a similar impression of strategic management by the Kremlin in regards to the weekend protests. It is clear from the levels of preparedness and brief quotes we have from various OMON captains that they were sent into the protests to carry out specific orders given long beforehand (and it is my suspicion that the violent crackdown was probably even ordered before the Berezovsky comments). This was not a case of “things getting out of hand” or just random, accidental police violence “caught on tape.” The sheer volume of video footage, photos, and column inches is only matched by the abundant instances of truncheon-wielding performances, which indicates a deliberate decision by the authorities to make sure all of Russia and all of the world could see exactly what we saw. If they had really wanted to prevent the protest in a less public way, they were a number of available means at their disposal (they didn’t even take away Garry Kasparov’s cell phone after they threw him in the van – so naturally he began conducting interviews before he was even processed). The authorities do not regret what all these news reports captured, and in fact, everything is proceeding according to plan, so naturally the consequences and reactions we are dealing with this week were prepared for and desired by Russia. The important question therefore is why would the Russian authorities want to everyone to see this open repression? For what purpose would Moscow want to manufacture shock in the international community and escalate tensions? Domestically, the objectives were very clear: 1) seek to de-legitimize Other Russia as loose-knit group that operates outside the law, 2) entrench a culture of fear to discourage anyone from joining the opposition, and 3) play to the president’s base by demonstrating “the strong state” principle. More importantly, the authorities conducted the arrests in such a manner so as to practically guarantee a specific response from the West which carries an important strategic expediency. The harsh recriminations from the EU, the United States, and other observers, are exactly the reactions that the Kremlin wanted to produce, and further allows them to make the opposition look like it is connected to the West, and further seek to de-legitimize the movement in the eyes of the Russian public. They push, shove, and arrest Kasparov, wait for the West to come to his defense, and all of a sudden the issue of “international meddling” in Russian politics that they so often complain about becomes an apparent self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, the critical statements out of Washington and Brussels are a political gift to the Kremlin, providing another opportunity to be defiant before the other great powers and rouse nationalist sentiment (after all, what could be more annoying than having another nation “scold” you?). To be quite honest, it is a page from the George Bush playbook – a president loves to be seen as “under attack” from foreigners, which he must aggressively defend his people from. Like it or not, many people (in both Russia and the USA) do not easily distinguish between the criticism of a government and the criticism of a country, and having the opportunity strike a pose of indignation and moral outrage in reaction to these unfair “double standards” from the West plays extremely well at home, and helps the president cement the support of his faithful during this critically vulnerable year. Shocking the West and escalating geopolitical tensions in order to ensure the smooth functioning of a dictatorship is a fine line to walk, and the Russian authorities have already demonstrated an adroit management of these kinds of “constructive tensions.” Thanks to energy allies in Europe and the government’s critical relationship with Iran to keep the Americans at bay, the Kremlin has seen it fit to gradually ratchet up tensions in other areas. The diplomatic give and take that occurs over the next several weeks in response to this bold gesture of repression will largely determine whether the authorities will take a step back, or receive the tacit international approval to continue down this line.