Of course I’m talking about the Russian neofascist Liberal Democrats led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. What did you think?
Mr Zhirinovsky’s party stands for ‘washing Russian soldiers’ boots’ in the Indian Ocean, and he once made a racially abusive remark about Condoleezza Rice. He then compounded the insult by implying she should come to Russia to be sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers. Miss Rice’s response hasn’t been recorded, but it’s a fair assumption that she turned the invitation down.
The only reason I mention the party led by ‘Mad Vlad’ is that it did rather well in the Russian Duma race. Not as well as Zyuganov’s communists, who placed, but it did show. If the election were ever unrigged, as various oppositions demand, then these parties would probably get another 10% of the popular vote. Not enough to win the election, but enough to send a message to progress merchants who assume that, in a tyranny, any change is always for the better. That assumption is being proved wrong in the Middle East, and you can bet your bottom ruble it’ll come a-cropper in Russia. Provided, of course, that the ‘alpha dog’ Putin allows it to be tested.
Meanwhile, the protest rally in Moscow’s Swamp (Bolotnaya) Square on 10 December brought in a crowd whose size is estimated at somewhere between 25 and 150 thousand. In any case, in the apt remark of the Russian columnist Yulia Latynina, ‘it was a hell of a lot’ (my translation softens the line a bit). The alpha dog’s first reaction to the unfolding protests was as traditionally Russian as vodka: he blamed Hilary Clinton, to whom he owes his robust soubriquet. That didn’t work, but it was worth a try: Blaming outlanders does tend to strike a chord with the mysterious Russian soul. Thus it was the Germans surrounding the tsars who ruined Russia, the Jews surrounding Lenin and Stalin who massacred 60 million — name your own villains, as long as they aren’t simon-pure Russian. It’s not as if in this case Col. Putin thought the cheated electorate would think that Mrs Clinton had personally polled ‘a hell of a lot’ of people, ordering them to come to Swamp Square. No, it’s just that the dastardly Hilary and her ilk had egged the Russians on with their subversive sermons on democracy and free markets. Yes, this was definitely worth a try, but it didn’t take the alpha dog long to realise he was barking up the wrong tree.
For his next trick, the good colonel explained that the unfolding events have nothing to do with him personally. Contextually he acknowledged that some ‘irregularities’ might have contributed to his United Russia’s landslide. It was the personal pronoun that he repudiated. United Russia, howled the alpha dog, is in no way ‘his’. He, Col. Putin, isn’t a Duma member and therefore neither belongs to the ‘party of thieves and crooks’ (as it has become affectionately nicknamed) nor consequently leads it. That’s a bit like saying that, once Lenin became head of the Soviet government, he severed his links with the communist party he had founded. Now, if the first reaction was ever so slightly knee-jerk, the second one hints at the strategy the alpha dog is going to pursue in the March presidential elections.
Again he’s reading the Russian soul, or at least history, well. The Russians traditionally blame their ever-present misfortunes not on the ‘good tsar’ but on the ‘bad ministers’. The tsar (Secretary General, President) hides behind a metaphysical halo. He’s both the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the merciful God of the Gospels. The moment he descends from the cloud and begins to look, a bit, like a corporeal man, they’ll pounce and blow him apart (Alexander II) or riddle him with bullets (Nicholas II). But as long as he stays up there, he’s safe. It’s his ministers (party, immediate circle, police) who take the blame.
Putin clearly wishes to distance himself from United Russia, whose ratings are much lower than his own. It’s entirely possible that to that end he’ll break his pact with Medvedev (bear, in Russian) and toss him to the hound dogs. To mix in yet another zoological metaphor, sometimes it takes a scapegoat to protect a sacred cow. But one way or the other he clearly expects to win in March on the platform of his personal one-dog crusade to clear up the mess left by the ‘thieves and crooks’. One suspects this was Putin’s strategy from the start, which is why the two elections were cleverly scheduled on either side of the New Year’s break, which in Russia tends to be very long and, how shall I put this politely, rather exuberant.
It appears that, for the time being, Putin has decided to refrain from the use of force. Bump off the odd journalist in a dark Moscow alley (over 40 of them on his watch), rough up a dozen activists, or even radiate an opponent in London, and the bad publicity will soon fade away. But open up on a crowd of ‘a hell of a lot’ of protesters, and before long people will start talking serious atrocities. Not that Putin would have any moral qualms about a spot of target shooting — no, as all those photos of his muscular torso show, he’s a man’s man, nastoyaschiy muzhik in Russian. And the Russians don’t want their leaders to be wimps (Dave Cameron, ring your office). They like their muzhiks. The problem is that the whole project of glasnost and perestroika was designed as principally a PR exercise for Western consumption. And Stalin-like violence would get stuck in the West’s craw, spelling the end of the project. Can’t have that, can we?
For fear of emulating Cassandra’s fate I usually steer clear of her exploits. But I’m willing to make an exception in this case: the alpha dog will do fine. He has already laid the groundwork for electoral victories in perpetuity: no viable political opposition exists. The Western-style liberals are craven, weak and inept — as demonstrated by their willingness to form staunchly principled alliances with assorted fascists. In March, given the choice between the alpha dog and Zyuganov’s guard dogs or Zhirinovsky’s rottweilers, the Russians will shrug their shoulders: a distinction without a difference. Then they’ll wince and vote for the devil they know, rather than one they don’t know or one they wish to forget. And if they don’t, we have another rigged election to look forward to.