Sunday, August 30, 2015

Russia's Surrealistic August

MOSCOW, Russia -- There are still a few days left for all hell to break loose, but Russia appears to have survived August without a major catastrophe this year.


What a long, strange month it's been.

There have been no coups and no defaults.

No submarines have sunk, no trains or shopping malls have been bombed, and no wars have started -- well, at least no new ones.

There's been plenty of stupidity, to be sure: bulldozers running over forbidden goose meat in Tatarstan, the mass slaying of contraband Ukrainian ducklings in Belgorod, and a viral video of a crazed man (or good actor) sticking it to the West by destroying iPhones and iPads, just to name a few examples. 

There have also been the routine exposes of the elite's opulence, this time Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's $620,000 watch and lavish honeymoon on a yacht.

And there were surprises, like the shock resignation of Vladimir Yakunin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest cronies, as head of Russian Railways.

But if this August was largely uneventful, it has been marked, at least among the chattering classes, by a sense of foreboding.

Russia is stuck in a quagmire in eastern Ukraine.

The economy is buffeted by falling oil prices, a sinking ruble, and Western sanctions.

And the best the Kremlin can do is wage a war on foreign cheese.

This, together with signs of stress in the regime like Yakunin's departure, have led many leading Russian commentators to conclude that things cannot continue as they are -- and that something big just has to be coming soon.

Speaking to Ukraine's Espreso TV, political analyst Andrei Piontkovski said "strange tectonic shifts are taking place around the Kremlin."

According to Piontkovski, "panic and confusion" are evident in the elite and "a showdown in the upper echelons of the authorities" is looming.

Likewise, Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, said Putin's relationship with his inner circle has changed dramatically.

"The Kremlin's towers are battling as always," Venediktov told Novy Kaliningrad, using the euphemism for clan wars among the elite.

"But if in the past these battles were waged for influence over the president, now they are being conducted over how to get away from him.

This has to be done gracefully so one is not charged with desertion."

And Valery Solovei, a professor at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations, suggested the whole thing was about to collapse.

"What I think is clear, and even inevitable, is the departure of the current political regime in the not-too-distant future," Solovei wrote recently on his heavily followed Facebook page.

"Its governance has been an absolute failure and this is gradually becoming evident to everybody.
Even propaganda won't save it. And the fall of the regime will likely be bloodless and banal."

So are we on the verge of a palace coup?

Is September the new August?

Who knows?

Russia's chattering classes are notoriously alarmist and the Kremlin's inner sanctum, opaque in the best of times, is a virtual black hole today.

In recent years, the narrative on Russia has tended to swing between two extremes:

Putin Is the Master of the Universe! and The Regime is About to Collapse!

The collapse narrative reigned during the mass protests of 2011-12, the master of the universe meme took hold following the annexation of Crimea and the patriotic wave that followed it.

And the surrealistic August we've just experienced has caused the pendulum to swing yet again. 

Source: Radio Free Europe

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