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Watching Inauguration from Moscow

inauguration.jpgToday at noon in Washington DC, Barack Obama was sworn in as the President of the United States.  It was hard not to get swept up in the excitement of such a historical moment, even among us hardened cynics who may be wary of impossibly high hopes.  Here we had the ultimate ceremony of democracy (even bigger than voting day), being pulled off with aplomb and the production value of the open ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.  Every television commentator seemed keen to emphasize the “transformational” setting of the event, and indeed, it would be hard to imagine hundreds of thousands braving the cold had any other candidate arrived to that podium. Obama’s inaugural speech was profoundly ideological and driven by a certain vision of America’s role in global relations. I’m not one to say whether or not the new president will be able to fulfill his promises, but if today’s objective were to generate considerable pride, conviction, and fortitude across new boundaries of the American polity, I believe he succeeded handily.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic and on the other side of Europe, the mood couldn’t be more different in Moscow.

I am of course not suggesting that Russian citizens are any different from Americans in their pride and conviction or depth of national identity, nor would I discount that the Kremlin knows how to carry out a spectacular made-for-TV presidential inauguration that would compete with a Superbowl halftime show (in fact, I would argue that it is more well scripted).  What was most strikingly different was that today in Washington we could see an important moment in civic conscience – a vast sea of people who felt they had a stake in their system of governance, and an investment in the success of fellow citizens.

On the same day in Moscow, we had a people and a power growing distinctly apart.  Bearing in mind that it is not every day that this country experiences a double murder in broad daylight of a human rights prodigy and a young journalist, and taking into account that Stanislav Markelov was largely unknown to many Russians, what we are seeing in Moscow is not optimism, energy, nor a common belief in the national project, but rather indifference and resignation punctuated by isolated morale outrage.

These murders are very bad for Russia, not only for its reputation abroad (which frankly, following the gas war and invasion of Georgia, functions on a different calculus), but also domestically, given the blind trust which has been directed toward the Kremlin’s de facto power and responsibility for society.  A crime so brazen, which would have been considered outlandish even in the worst days of 1990s gangsterism, is now happening before the eyes of not a weak but rather strong, leviathan state, and with its tacit approval or at least tolerance of impunity. 

What will happen is probably predictable:  the West will weakly complain and demand investigations, the prosecutors will go through the motions, many shoulders will shrug, and then the issue will get inextricably tangled up into the Chechnya issue (which could soon hit another boiling point).  No high ranking government official has said a single word to express their concerns, disgust, or regret over this murder.  The result is not immediate, but it would seem that Russia’s social capital has just taken a nosedive comparable to the performance of the RTS in recent months.  It was not just Markelov who died on the bloody streets of Moscow, but the constitution as well.

Unless we see one faction of the government summon the courage to try something, the Kremlin will default to their status quo crisis management: distraction.  The present leadership is praticed and skillful in political sleight-of-hand, hiding domestic problems and shortcomings in governance by emphasizing external enemies.  It is in fact the core element of “sovereign democracy” – the argument that unfortunately, at this stage of development, too many outside actors want to interfere in the country’s elections, therefore certain rights and freedoms must be curtailed until the Russian citzenry is judged by its leaders to be of a maturity to vote.  So what, said many citizens, if sovereign democracy works, it works.

But the murders of Markelov and Anastasia Baburova show that this social pact is breaking down.  It is becoming widely and publicly acknowledged that the current administration is wholly unable (or perhaps unwilling) to protect its own citizens, and that a bullet to the head on a Moscow sidewalk is understood as the ultimate expression of legal nihilism.  Further, the comparison with the formerly hateful and arrogant George W. Bush administration is no longer equally viable.  Today the United States inaugurated its first African-American president, delirious with self-congratulation and drunk with possibility, while the relatively young president of the Russian Federation can point to dictatorial constitutional changes as the biggest achievements.

The next U.S. government already looks to be positioning itself to handle the rhetorical games of the world’s authoritarians.  There were even parts of Obama’s inaugural speech that I suspect were felt quite painfully by those in the halls of the Kremlin:  “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Throughout the past 24 hours, I was bracing myself for some sort of stunt from the Russians – perhaps the testing of a missile, some audacious troop movements somewhere, or any other major announcement or verbal attack which could serve to bring the spotlight back.  We saw this happen when Obama won the election, as he was greeted with congratulations from even Hugo Chavez and Ahmad Ahmadinejad, Putin and Medvedev greeted him with the prospect of missiles in Kaliningrad.  Already we can see Russia adjusting its rhetoric, appearing unsteady and undecided on how to handle Obama to the best of their own public opinion.

For those watching this inauguration ceremony in Moscow, there appeared to be both wonder and confusion.  Over at HuffPo, Boris Mamlyuk has some entertaining anecdotes about how various Russians and expats were taking it in.  Some students at a watch party were intimately aware of the details of the American process, and could identify even minor congressional players on TV.  Another wanted to know how it was possible for so many people to march in Washington without the threat of violence and without the government feeling threatened by their presence.

The latter question here, it seems to me, speaks volumes about this increasing distance between the public sphere and the power – one that seems to have been given a new measurement by the deaths of Markelov and Baburova.  Later this week, this month, and this year, the United States will sink back down to reality and its discontents, and face up to the facts that optimism can’t be a panacea.  But the situation for Russia is even more difficult, as we are going to continually see this question come back to whether that state serves the people, or if the people are the enemy of the state.