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Kasyanov on the KGB Mentality

elections1127.jpgFor his latest column, Gideon Rachman of the FT talked with Mikhail Kasyanov about why the Russian government is cracking down with such exceptional brutality before an election they seem guaranteed to win. Yesterday Bob commented on a couple of these theories on the blog, while Kasyanov simply points to the risk averse mentality of the KGB: The trouble is that in eliminating one minor risk – that the liberal opposition might do better than expected – Putin’s government seems to be creating a bigger risk. According to Kasyanov (admittedly, not an impartial observer), Putin is keen to stick formally to the constitution and step down as president next year because “he wants to be viewed by you guys as a democrat.” But when famous opposition figures like Gary Kasparov are being slung into jail, Putin’s democratic credentials appear more and more tarnished in the west. Today’s highly acerbic FT leader is – I think – fairly representative of how opinion in the west is shifting. Quentin Peel wasn’t going to let his colleague have all the fun, so he has chimed in to comment that democracy is failing in Russia because the people don’t care, and have a conflicted understanding of what it means as a governing system.

From the FT:

Crackdown in RussiaThe only thing that surprises me about the Russian government’s crackdown on the opposition ahead of the Duma elections on Sunday is how heavy-handed it is. President Putin is clearly keen to preserve the facade of Russian democracy and his party is cruising to victory anyway – so why bother?An explanation of sorts was offered to me recently by Mikhail Kasyanov – once Putin’s prime minister, and now a leader of the increasingly fragmented and harried opposition. Kasyanov says that the current regime in the Kremlin is “based on the KGB spirit”. He thinks that “Putin would win anyway, but the KGB mentality is risk averse. If they can eliminate risks, they’ll do it.”The trouble is that in eliminating one minor risk – that the liberal opposition might do better than expected – Putin’s government seems to be creating a bigger risk. According to Kasyanov (admittedly, not an impartial observer), Putin is keen to stick formally to the constitution and step down as president next year because “he wants to be viewed by you guys as a democrat.” But when famous opposition figures like Gary Kasparov are being slung into jail, Putin’s democratic credentials appear more and more tarnished in the west. Today’s highly acerbic FT leader is – I think – fairly representative of how opinion in the west is shifting.It is quite likely that this Sunday’s Duma elections will end up with just two parties represented in the Russian parliament – Putin’s United Russia and the Communists. This will fit well with Putin’s international strategy of presenting himself to the west as the least worst Russian alternative. But if the elections are widely written off as a charade, then Putin is weakened internationally.That matters because he still has to handle the even trickier presidential transition. Most people seem to think Putin will stick to his word and go in May – but will somehow arrange matters so that he remains the most important person in Russia. (Kasyanov buys this analysis; the only person I’ve heard who is absolutely adamant that Putin will not step down is the even less impartial, Boris Berezovsky)The liberals and democrats – who are likely to be wiped out in the Duma elections – will try to re-group for the presidential poll. They are all struggling to try and sound hopeful. Kasyanov – who almost certainly is planning to run himself – reckons that if the liberals can unite around a single candidate, they could get 20% of the vote in May’s presidential poll and get through to the second round “and if we do that, everything will change.” The trouble is that there are quite a lot of “ifs” in that scenario.