There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the blogosphere in recent weeks responding to an article by Michael Idov in the New Republic. It is an impressive piece of writing that makes some interesting points as well as unavoidably glossing over some of the more complex issues in contemporary Russian politics, yet the article succeeds: not since Perry Anderson’s article way back when in the London Review of Books have I seen bloggers of such different political backgrounds see validation of their views in this report. …And that’s always a sign of good journalism. However, there are still some fundamental problems with Idov’s portrayal of Kremlin politics for me. Although his prose is watertight (all the guys over at SRB love that Idov says reporting on Russia requires the avoidance of “a heap of memes” left from the Cold War – language that grad students eat up), this florid depiction also conceals a flawed assumption about the teleological unity, purpose, and coherent direction of events in the Kremlin. Anyone who has spent time trying to work with the Russian government knows that this image, actively promoted by the executive, is a myth, and that political power and influence in Moscow is extremely fractured and overwhelmingly accidental.
Idov might have successfully avoided the Cold War memes, but he does fall victim to another trend: the continuous efforts by journalists to paint Medvedev as a docile puppy (the artwork for the article says it all). This diminutive depiction is wrong, and serves as an attempt to simplify a generalized chaos central to the present clan warfare that the Kremlin is currently experiencing. For those who have come into contact or conflict with the cabal that surrounds Igor Sechin understands that the “totalitarian construct,” as perhaps unconsciously promoted by reporters like Idov, does not suit today’s Russia.There is a certain messiness to the Kremlin’s leadership and an anarchy of a policy vacuum that is difficult to measure or quantify, especially when drowned out by the false noise over Putin’s popularity (Idov writes “As Muscovites like to repeat, Medvedev “will wake up every day and see the President’s face in the mirror.” Now that he’s got the gig, he may also hear the echoes of that Red Square chant–“Pu-tin! Pu-tin! Pu-tin!”–pulsing in his head, and dream of a similar reception for himself.“) . Putin may well be popular, but he has not been successful in recreating the system of conveyor-belt policy. United Russia is a much more ironic name for the party than you can believe.The reality is that we have a condition of “state capture” of individual and independent policy silos by various cliques. We are in the midst of life and death clan fights, often based not upon power but private interests and businesses, and the use of political prisoners which reaches the very top of the government (and I’m not just speaking about Mikhail Khodorkovsky here – does no one ask why Sergei Storchak is imprisoned?). Inflation is rising, production is falling, corruption is out of control, as clearly evidence by the ill-timed raids, arrests, and visa troubles for TNK-BP.Into this chaotic vacuum of warring clans walks the highly accomplished young lawyer Dmitry Medvedev, immediately met by Western analysts as a pawn and a failure, ready to be eagerly written off before day one in office. How can anyone claim to understand the battles he will face if there is a fundamental unwillingness to engage intelligently with him with a pragmatic understanding of Russia’s present reality?It is clear there is a desire for a freshening of relations with the West – and, as long-time Putin foe Andrei Piontkovsky has pointed out, this desire must be shared by many inside the Kremlin. There are billions in petrodollars that need a positive Western reception, and many of the prevailing cooler heads realize that Russia’s economic future must be built and secured now. There may be a series of areas of strategic partnership that are possible, however the West seems so very far away from having even a basic understanding of how to advance with Moscow.The fact of the transition alone is important. The reasons for it are based partly on the legitimate fears of prosecution for many in the present leadership. These folks are interested in reaching out and having their new construct integrated into Western norms. They believe that their unique mixture of energy, nuclear arms, and a UN veto give them tremendous soft power in critical areas of tension in the world. They don’t want a new Cold War because this is not in their economic interests. It is not in the interests of any of the clans today.I do congratulate Idov on a well-written piece that successfully cut through the noise and bad reporting on Russia, it’s just that when we are so conscious of avoiding memes, we tend to create new ones.