Kasparov’s Forced Hunger Strike

kasparov1126.jpgWere it not such a serious situation, the jailing of opposition leader and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov by the Putin regime would be richly ironic. For in what other nation are dissidents forced to go on hunger strikes while the price of bread and milk go through the roof? It was one of the more interesting points raised in the interviews we published yesterday with his lawyers Karinna Moskalenko and Olga Mikhailova – Garry cannot eat nor drink anything the jailers offer him for fear of an all-too-well-known fate. Perhaps the state should thank Kasparov for sparing them the inflated costs of the gulag gourmet! We know all too well from the arrest of Sergei Storchak how many greedy hands of the siloviki are clutching at the state piggy bank – the spiraling prices of eggs and stale bread for political prisoners will likely not be tolerated much longer…

Kasparov’s forced hunger strike illustrates a number of severe incongruities resulting from Russia’s current distorted political reality. Why, for example, is the state cracking down so hard on candidates and critics who they’ve already barred from competing in the elections? Why does the president’s stridency and hostility to the outside world increase to new levels with each passing day, despite his overwhelming majority in the polls? Why is United Russia’s party line hammering away with its economic populism and revisionist history of the 1990s, while at the same time the country hosts the world’s most ostentatious “Millionaire Fair” and buys 158% more champagne? Why would the president order a man like Kasparov to be jailed, drawing international media attention, if he isn’t even expected to capture a small percentage of the vote?kasparov11261.jpgSome people explain these incongruities as part of Russia’s historical political legacy. For example, Lilia Shevtsova argues in her new book that even after the fall of communism, “Russia’s claim to great-power status remains an important means of rallying society and preserving the centralized state. To this day the elite’s vision of the Russian state is based on territory, military power, international prestige, and personalized power as the means of attaining them, and, finally, on identifying an enemy to justify that form of governance.” Despite the fact that the siloviki would probably hold on to power in a real election, the president still must rail away at invented foreign enemies and their alleged opposition representatives because that’s what the Tsar’s subjects are used to.Another theory put forward is that Putin wants much more than to just simply win the vote, but rather win it with a shocking overwhelming majority on such a scale that he could earn the alleged “political capital” and legitimacy for the rest of the world to overlook all of his broken rules, democratic dismantling, and unlawful manipulation. For this reason the government won’t tolerate even the smallest demonstrations, and are eager to show that if you publicly disagree with the president, you go to jail.For me, I think the jailing of Kasparov reveals tremendous insecurities related to an unsustainable state model. We all know that these price controls will backfire as they have in every single desperate case a government has attempted to implement them. We know that the Russian people are only just now beginning to get a cruel taste of the worst aspects of Dutch disease, as the petrodollars flow in and rapidly drive up prices. We all understand that the administration is terrified of this, as it soon could begin to impact Putin’s popularity.For a man who has benefited from one of the most extraordinary lucky streaks that macroeconomics can offer, basing his entire platform on his achievements of stability and prosperity, of course you can see why he would deploy the OMON to beat protesters the second that food prices escape his control. Put these complex pressures into the context of the spy wars and the brutish campaign to oust one of the last remaining civilian reformers, Alexei Kudrin, and you have a pretty explosive situation.The question we all have to ask ourselves with respect to this dramatic overreaction to the opposition is what does Putin know about Russia’s future that we don’t? Whatever it is, I can’t imagine that it’s good news.