The Week In Russia: The Death Of An Anti-Perestroika Icon And A Wagnerian Riddle In Belarus
By Steve Gutterman July 31, 2020
The fears of a perestroika foe who has died at age 81 have echoes in President Vladimir Putin's political planning, and Russia's intentions in Belarus face new scrutiny after Kremlin-linked mercenaries are arrested and the embattled authoritarian who is arguably Putin's closest foreign ally accuses Moscow of a plot to destabilize elections.
Protests persist in Khabarovsk, and an American ex-Marine is sentenced to nine years in prison in what the U.S. ambassador calls an "absurd" ruling in a trial over a drunken incident last summer whose crucial details are in dispute.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Nina Andreyeva didn't like perestroika, and neither does Vladimir Putin, apparently.
Andreyeva, a St. Petersburg chemistry instructor who rocketed to fame when she railed against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program in a letter published in the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossia in March 1988, died on July 24 at the age of 81.
Andreyeva's letter, which included a defense of dictator Josef Stalin and was the first real criticism of perestroika (reconstruction) in the tightly controlled Soviet press, became a kind of manifesto for opponents of Gorbachev's reforms.
Possibly ghostwritten by someone with a dog in the political fight of the late Soviet era -- which at the time, of course, was not known to be the late Soviet era -- the letter remained a topic of discussion and debate as change picked up speed and spun out of Gorbachev's control.
Its publication came three years before the hardline communist coup of August 1991, which was aimed at turning back the reforms and preserving the Soviet Union but ended up accelerating the country's disintegration and preceded its demise that December.
Andreyeva's name later receded into the blurry background of those momentous times, as Russia moved on into the 1990s and then segued into the Putin era as the Kremlin bells struck midnight and the year 2000 began.
When that era may end is unclear, and Putin has ensured that it could potentially last until 2036 by securing a constitutional amendment that allows him to seek two more six-year terms after 2024.
The fear of perestroika -- the fear of too much change too fast, a restructuring that could leave him out of the ruling structures -- may have prompted him to open up the most direct path to many more years in power, Aleksandr Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of its website, wrote in a July 30 article.
'A Flamboyant Change Of Heart'
Despite a few hints in the weeks before the amendment setting Putin's presidential term count to zero instead of four was proposed in March, the move surprised many who had parsed his comments for years and concluded that he was far more likely to step down in 2024 -- or earlier -- and preserve power by other means.
Putin is often described as pragmatic, but Baunov suggested that in this case, he had a "flamboyant change of heart" brought on by fear of "ushering in a perestroika 2.0."
With real incomes dropping and economic growth underwhelming even before the coronavirus pandemic – and now expected to shrink at least 6 percent, the biggest contraction in more than a decade, polls show that "the Russian public no longer values 'stability' and the status quo as much as it did a few years ago," Baunov wrote. "The public is increasingly hungry for change."
As a result, Putin has taken to using the word "breakthrough" to describe what Russia needs. But this word "suggests a break with the past," Baunov wrote -- and Putin does not want a break that is big enough or clean enough to leave him in the past.
To put it in terms perhaps appropriate for a Saturday morning, Putin knows Russia needs a breakthrough but fears he will end up like Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner's unfortunate cartoon nemesis -- busting though a barrier only to find that he has gone off the edge of a cliff on the other side and is suspended in midair, legs windmilling furiously over the abyss.
"The limiting factor now is that Putin and his inner circle fear change could get out of hand," Baunov wrote.
He suggested that this was a major factor in Putin's decision to quash "tandem" partner Dmitry Medvedev's hopes for a second term -- along with the hopes of those Russians who saw Medvedev as the candidate of change and reform, at least in relative terms -- and return to the Kremlin himself in 2012 after four years as prime minister.
This time, the political analyst concluded, "the paradox is that by choosing what he regards as the safest option both domestically and geopolitically, Putin may condemn Russia to a new period of stagnation --and thereby become the unwitting godfather of the very perestroika he seeks to avoid."
The people's hunger for change is evident in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, where people have been protesting for three weeks -- in numbers ranging from the hundreds to the tens of thousands -- over the arrest of now-former regional Governor Sergei Furgal.
In fact, they voted for change in 2018, when they elected Furgal -- now charged with involvement in two murders and an attempted murder in 2004-05 -- by a large margin over the Kremlin-backed incumbent from the United Russia party, which dominates politics nationwide but is unpopular.
Those two characteristics, dominance and a low or decreasing level of popularity, may now be shared by Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the long-ruling Belarusian president who is facing the challenge of his career in an August 9 election that is expected to hand him a sixth term -- at least officially.
Despite a clampdown in which top would-be challengers have been barred from the ballot and in at least two cases jailed, while many other people have been detained during demonstrations, large crowds have gathered in cities and towns nationwide to back Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is essentially running as the candidate of the united opposition. Tens of thousands of people rallied in Minsk on July 30.
The already remarkable run-up to the least predictable election in Belarus since Lukashenka took office in 1994 took a turn for the bizarre this week when authorities in a country that is one of Russia's few allies and arguably has closer ties to Moscow than any other arrested 33 alleged contractors from the Kremlin-linked private military company Vagner and accused them of planning "to destabilize the country" ahead of the election.
Broadly, the Belarusian state's narrative -- telegraphed by Lukashenka just days earlier, when he predicted that "professional soldiers, bandits" would be dispatched abroad to foment a revolt in Belarus -- was that the mercenaries were there to mount a Moscow-backed coup. Such a suggestion fits well with one of the tacks the authoritarian leader has frequently taken in the past few years to seek to rally support: by saying or insinuating that Russia is eager to swallow up Belarus.
The Russian ambassador to Minsk said that the men had been en route to another country and had missed their flight, and several analysts and experts on paramilitary groups including Vagner said the evidence at hand indicated it was unlikely that they were on a mission inside Belarus. Widespread disbelief of the Belarusian state's claims did not stop Lukashenka from using the incident -- whatever its true nature -- as a blunt tool in the presidential campaign.
On July 30, a day after the arrests were announced, the state Investigative Committee issued a statement linking the mercenaries with two jailed opposition leaders – Mikalay Statkevich and Tsikhanouskaya's husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, both of whom it said face charges of plotting riots, a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison.
No Urge To Merge
If the contract soldiers were merely transiting through Belarus, the question remains as to whether Russian authorities might have been in on a plan to use the incident in a bid to tame the Belarusian opposition and shift momentum in the election. Russia's intentions regarding the vote are murky, but for the next few years the safest bet for the Kremlin could be to have Lukashenka remaining in power, albeit weakened by growing public dissatisfaction.
Also, it may be worth noting that if the mercenaries were not in Belarus in the capacity that Lukashenka suggested -- as part of a Russian influence campaign or takeover plot – this does not reverse more than 15 years of both overt and shadowy evidence that Putin's Kremlin wants more influence over Belarus.
Since the start of his fourth term in 2018, Putin has been pressing Lukashenka to integrate the countries more closely in a Union State that has existed largely on paper since the 1990s. Lukashenka has balked, perhaps recalling the time in 2002 when he was the one pushing for a tighter merger and Putin called his bluff, proposing speedy integration but making clear that it would turn the Belarusian leader into little more than a provincial governor.
A suggestion that more aggressive designs on Belarus exist in the Kremlin came on the same day as the arrests of the alleged Vagner fighters were announced, when the political-analysis Telegram channel R.Politik cited an unnamed source as saying that purported Vagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin and the influential secretary of Putin's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, have been working "on a project that explores the idea of completely integrating Belarus into Russia's territory."
Such a plan sounds awfully ambitious, given the trouble Putin seems to be having with more modest integration efforts -- R.Politik commented that it sounded like the kind of thing "typically pushed by Putin's hawks" and that Putin might not be "ready to opt for full integration, given that such plans may result in mass protests in Belarus." But the source's statement may have been meant to serve a purpose amid the current tension -- as an echo, for example, of Putin's warning to Lukashenka in 2002.
A 'Preposterous' Case
There have also been questions about the purpose of Russia's prosecution of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was taken to a Moscow precinct house after a drunken night out with his girlfriend and others in August 2019, and was later charged with endangering the lives of the officers who took him to the station.
On July 30, Reed was handed a nine-year prison term -- a "ridiculous" conviction and sentence following a trial in which the prosecution's case and the evidence presented against Mr. Reed were so preposterous that they provoked laughter in the courtroom," U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan said in statement.
Sullivan said that he had spoken to Reed's father, Joey Reed and "assured him that we will not rest until Trevor is freed and returns home to the United States."
The Russian government may be hoping that, when Reed is freed and returns home, it will be as part of a swap for Russians behind bars in the United States: Kremlin critics, lawyers, and observers have charged that Moscow is using Americans like Reed and Paul Whelan, an American who was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in June on an espionage charge he denies, as pawns for potential use in prisoner exchanges or other geopolitical deals.
"It all looks like a provocation designed to obtain a certain resource that can be used later in international negotiations," Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov was quoted as saying by The New York Times. "This can be a bargaining chip."
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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