Saturday, September 04, 2010

Russia: August 2010

"The ghost of Khimki forest that is haunting Russia is the harbinger of a new perestroika, a replay of the one that took place nearly a quarter century ago."---"Призрак Химкинского леса, или Метель августа"---Stanislav Belkovsky in Slon.ru (8-27-10)

According to Russian tradition, one should never make any plans for August because the month always holds some unexpected disaster. Perhaps the title of Solzhenitsyn's novel August 1914, which recounts Russia's disasterous losses during the Battle of Tannenberg, is a nod to this Russian superstition. Wikipedia notes:

The plot primarily follows Colonel Vorotyntsev, a staff officer attached to the Russian Second Army invading East Prussia under command of General Alexander Samsonov, with numerous side plots involving other characters, both on the battlefield and elswehwere. The unprepared army's failures mirror those of the Tsarist regime.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blogger Brian Whitmore has written an interesting article titled "The August 'Revolution'" (8-31-10):

Vladimir Putin's provocative interview with "Kommersant," which hit the newsstands Monday, provided a fitting end to what has been a tumultuous August in Russia.

Putin taunted and belittled the opposition, which has found its voice and has shown a renewed confidence of late, saying they do little more than "say things around the corner from a public toilet and the whole world hears about it because all the television cameras will be there." Those who attend non-sanctioned demonstrations, he added, can expect to "be beaten upside the head with a truncheon."

It was vintage, trash-talking Putin, complete with the scatological "waste 'em in the outhouse" style rhetoric has become his trademark when he wants to play tough guy. The "Kommersant" interview was one of a series of media appearances Putin granted as he drove a vintage yellow Lada on a manly four-day road trip across Siberia.

Putin's stunt appeared designed to deflect media attention away from a series of victories for Kremlin opponents.

The most dramatic of these was President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to suspend the felling of Khimki forest, slated for destruction to make way for a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway, pending further study. Environmentalists had been trying to save the forest for years. Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a Khimki newspaper who reported on the issue was severely beaten in 2008. Efforts to stop the felling crystallized with spirited protests this summer.

Medvedev also decided to review the country's forest code, enacted by Putin in 2007, which ecologists say heavily favors the timber industry at the expense of protecting Russia's woodlands.

And finally, the decision not to retain the embattled Georgy Boos as governor of Kaliningrad met a key demand of the opposition in Russia's Western exclave, who had been agitating for his removal since January.

Medvedev's most recent nods to opposition sentiment came just days after thousands gathered on Moscow's Pushkin Square for a demonstration in defense of Khimki forest.

They also reversed decisions made by Putin's himself, reviving the inevitable chatter about whether the ruling tandem is on the verge of splitting up.

But what is more interesting, and in the long run more consequential, than this palace intrigue and tandem tea-leaf reading is the exciting dynamic that is emerging in Russian society -- and the ruling elite's confused, and often confusing, reaction to it. A coalition is emerging around the idea that the way Russia has been run for the past decade has reached the point of diminishing returns, will no longer cut it, and needs to be changed.

In many ways, Russian civil society began to come of age in the crucible of this long hot August. [See the full text and thoughtful comments.]

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