Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Creeping Russian Fascism

Or so says Masha Gessen in the current issue of The New Republic. I've blogged about Masha before. Her articles on current Russian affairs are always informative and well worth the read. The article is a must read, but alas, I think you need a subscribtion to read it (which begs the question, why don't you?!), so I will excerpt it at length.
According to a study by the independent Levada Center, 80 percent of Muscovites believe they were not told the truth about Beslan, and 63 percent blame either the government or the security forces for the disaster. According to an eyewitness, on September 7, a young man emerged from the rush-hour crowd at a Metro station not far from Red Square, shouted, "Shit, I can't take it anymore," poured gasoline on his body, and tried to set himself on fire. He was immediately seized by police, but he seemed to be expressing the popular sentiment: Russians really can't take it anymore. According to the Moscow poll, 77 percent believe the government and its security forces cannot protect them from terrorist attacks in the future.

...Several of the most outspoken Russian journalists were prevented from getting to Beslan. Newspaper reporter Anna Politkovskaya was hospitalized after she passed out on her plane to southern Russia. She was poisoned, and she believes the poison came from the security forces, which wanted to keep her from the scene. Meanwhile, Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky was arrested at a Moscow airport for allegedly getting into a fight, which he believes someone picked with him after prodding from the security forces. Babitsky was allowed out of jail the day after the crisis ended. Then, two days after the massacre, the editor of Izvestia, Russia's largest broadsheet, was fired following the newspaper's detailed and graphic coverage of the crisis.


here are two reasons the next Russian government will be a fascist one. First, Putin has annihilated all opposition except for the Kremlin's pocket opposition, an extreme nationalist party called Motherland. The Kremlin's creation of Motherland was part of a time-honored government strategy of advancing false dichotomies to demonstrate that the sole alternative is far worse than the incumbents. But, almost as soon as it was created a year ago, Motherland took on a life of its own and has become a relatively popular political force.

The second reason is that fascism is what Russians want. They tell pollsters they are willing to sacrifice their freedoms. They say they want all Chechens to be evicted from Moscow and other large cities. They crave an extreme crackdown. "A totalitarian state cannot be blackmailed by the threat of death of civilians," said Mikhail Leontyev, one of Russia's most prominent pundits, in his nightly commentary on federal Channel One, the most-watched network. "Terrorism happens only in democracies." Leontyev's words express both the Kremlin's and the public's agenda: Polls show that a majority of Russians will readily cede their civil liberties to security services. The security services, in turn, are behaving accordingly. Last week, Moscow police beat up a Chechen man, famed cosmonaut Magomed Tolboyev. Human rights advocates say beatings of ordinary Chechens and other Muslims are now commonplace occurrences in Russia.

But, if his measures do not prove sufficient to protect his people, Putin will likely lose power. And, in a country with no democratic mechanisms for changing leaders, that change of regime could well be violent, a combination of popular riots and a rebellion of the security forces. As the anger overflows, Russians will demand a leader willing to take even more extreme measures.

Who would emerge from the violence? Right now it's hard to predict. One candidate is Dmitry Rogozin, leader of Motherland and former leader of a fascist political organization called the Congress of Russian Communities. Another possible candidate is Eduard Limonov, a writer whose Nationalist Bolshevik Party is the only viable grass-roots political movement in Russia today. The Kremlin is scared of the ultranationalist Limonov, who was jailed for his political activities and released just over a year ago. But Limonov, though he inspires many young Russians to tackle politics, may ultimately prove too Western for Russia, because his platform makes no reference to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Or it may be someone else. In the near-total vacuum that is Russian political life today, a new name can surface very fast. But the fact that Rogozin and Limonov are the two names most often bandied about points to the part of the political spectrum from which the new leader will emerge: He will be an extreme nationalist dictator. There is indeed something to be more terrified of than terrorism.
Terrifying indeed. Read the rest.

UPDATE: The Economist has more.