January 09, 2007

One Last Year of Peace, Perhaps

As 2006 passes into the history books, it might just end up being lost, as nothing of really great significance took place in the country. There also wasn't much in the way of world events that significantly affected life in Russia.

Analysts summing up the last 12 months make mention of shake-ups in the Prosecutor General's Office and the Justice Ministry, as well as the Sakhalin-2 scandal, in which the state unexpectedly played the "concern about the ecology" card in order to increase Gazprom's share of the project's profits. But did these events make much of a wave with Russians?

The option of voting "against all" was removed from ballots, as it was labeled as somewhat offensive. But is that really important? Does anyone really believe that Russians, having lost faith in politicians, will vote for some mysterious and nameless candidate? No such threat ever really existed. Bureaucrats are just making their jobs easier. It's the same story with removing the minimum turnout requirement. Now there is no need to waste time mobilizing "dead souls" and falsifying reports.

The murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former Federal Security Service agent Alexander Litvenenko, both known for their anti-Kremlin stances - came as serious blows to Vladimir Putin's presidency. The Western press is firm in its conviction that Russia is run by horrible people who are guilty of all manner of crimes. But has this changed anything in Russia?

Even government social policies that have generated a fair amount of trepidation among the population haven't brought serious changes. The mass demonstrations of 2005 didn't lead the government to abandon its program, but instead merely to implement it incrementally. Instead of protests, this has lead mostly to bewilderment and confusion.

It's much more likely that a breakup will occur among the ruling elites than that a wave of popular protests will erupt. If the people are confused by the leadership's reforms, then the authorities themselves are even more mixed-up by their own intrigues.

In this situation, it is safest to remain on the sidelines as an observer. By maintaining a distance from politics, the average Russian demonstrates a healthy instinct for self-preservation. In reality, people can't entirely detach themselves from current events. There is no firewall separating us from the authorities. Or at least there is nothing of this sort keeping the authorities from getting at us.

And that is the problem, because the more tempestuous and acute the imbroglio gets at the top, the greater the chances that it will spill over in a way that negatively affects ordinary Russians. As the politicians lock horns, the bureaucracy runs less and less like a well-oiled machine and more and more like a poorly organized terrarium, with each inhabitant ready to swallow up its neighbor at the first opportunity. The 2007 presidential election, which at first seemed as if it would be routine, now threatens to become a contest without rules and with unpredictable results. The people will be nothing more than spectators to the struggle.

It seems as if most Russians are satisfied with this role, in the same way that visitors to a terrarium rarely feel any real sympathy for the slippery and poisonous creatures weaving about in unimaginable combinations behind the glass. The more you observe them, and the closer you look, the harder it is to imagine yourself in their place. Who really wants to jump over the wall and join the fight between the snakes and crocodiles?

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