Pure Putinism

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The Russian president shows his true face. Can’t he stop this? 

It happened overnight. The Kremlin announced on December 9th that Russia’s giant state-owned news agency RIA Novosti would cease to exist. RIA was always close to the Kremlin but some respected journalists still worked there and because of its numerous foreign clients, RIA had some room for critical reporting.

That’s now over. RIA Novosti and the “Voice of Russia” radio channel will be reconstituted as something called “Rossiya Segodnya” or “Russia Today”. There is already a patriotic TV channel which goes by this name. Now the news agency, the radio station and the TV broadcaster will switch from soft power PR to pure Putinism. There was a specific Russian point of view and a “managed” editorial before, but now the fear is that it will be brought to Kremlin line in every respect: Authoritarian, antidemocratic, homophobic and antiwestern.

It is still not clear whether all the offices of news agency, radio and TV will be combined into one. But even if that doesn’t happen, the smell will be the same: Putin’s aftershave. And that is not everyone’s favourite fragrance. As the new overlord of this state media empire, Putin appointed a TV anchor called Dmitri Kiselyov. Kiselyov recently said live on air that he thinks gay people should not be allowed to be organ donors. Instead, their hearts should be burned as unfit for further use.

No one should be surprised. We have known Putin’s true face for long enough. Even if, as the Russian blogosphere speculates, he tried for quite a while to halt ageing and enhance his features by injecting Botox into his face. That is what opposition politician Ilya Yashin calls the three stages of Putin’s career: 2000-2008: president. 2009-2012 – ex-president. 2012 – Botox resident.

Putin is also trying cosmetic surgery on his politics. On Thursday, the Day of the Russian Constitution, the Kremlin chief plans to announce an amnesty for young mothers in prison. This could set “Pussy Riot” activists Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina free, Moscow insiders believe. But that would simply be part of Putin’s stage management. An amnesty would not amount to an admission of serious judicial mistakes, it would simply be an act of Tsarist mercy.

For exactly 10 years it has been clear what kind of Russian leader we are dealing with. In autumn 2003, Putin had the then richest man of Russia Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested. He destroyed his oil company Yukos, absorbed its assets into newly created state company Rosneft and sent the disgraced former oligarch and potential political rival to a gulag in Siberia. That’s the essence of Putinism: central control over everything of political and economic value in Russia. It was not so clear at the outset in 2000, when Putin removed the first generation of oligarchs from power. After all, they had manipulated and exploited the first elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. But Putin’s real interests became apparent soon enough. With Khodorkovsky’s arrest, he let the mask of the reformer slip.

The former KGB officer unites the most terrible Russian traditions: the paranoid control mindset of the Soviet secret service and the greed for ever greater fortunes of the new Russian oligarchs. Nobody has so far been able to prove conclusively that Putin and his close circle are enriching themselves through secret shareholdings in big state companies or through simple bribes. But opposition politician Boris Nemtsov claims that just during the preparation of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, $30 billion out of the $50 billion budget for these record-breakingly expensive games has disappeared into a black hole.

Putin still sits relatively comfortably on his throne in the Kremlin – for the third time after a stint as prime minister. But the symptoms of his ageing show in the way he governs: like a good tsar, he pardons Pussy Riot, whom he had sent to a prison camp for two years after they sang a critical punk prayer in a Moscow cathedral. And like a bad tsar, he closes down the last media outlets which were still able to tarnish just a little the official image of their leader. Nicholas II comes to mind. So does Josef Stalin. And Leonid Brezhnev. 

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz