Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quick Russia

Parliamentary elections are coming up this weekend this Sunday in Russia. It is widely predicted to essentially be the death of the Russian opposition with only Putin party and the Communists making it into parliament (it is hard to really call the communists an opposition party, not because they are so supportive of Putin, but because they are so far from an alternative being a mainly populist party supported by a dwindling population of pensioners). I will get to that in a second, but first...

Why it's time for the annual millionaire faire in Moscow. Need a new private jet? How about a diamond studded cellphone? No? Well maybe you you'd be more interested in a new luxury sedan with ostrich leather tires to make your thirty car garage a little more interesting?

Yes, Russian had 53 billionaires worth a total of $282 billion and 103,000 millionaires who are worth $670 billion. Th evast majority of which live in Moscow. Yes, the oil and gas businesses are booming and times are good...for sum. Any sort of ridiculous luxury items make me angry (makes watching tv or anything about Sourthern California difficult), but these sorts of showing of wealth when so much of Russia's population lives in poverty. It is sad not only because so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few, but because the extreme concentration of wealth in once city detracts from the development of infrastructure in other cities. Moscow is quite pleasant, and yet with few exceptions the difference between the infrastructure in Moscow and any other Russian city is shocking (as the saying goes, Moscow isn't Russia, yet oh so many Westerners take it to be).*

As mentioned above Sunday is the parliamentary election day in Russia. Though Putin isn't up for re-election the campaign is being run as if he was. To be fair, even Russians know that the Duma is little more than a rubber stamp, so in that sense I suppose it is natural that Putin takes central stage, since people know he is pulling the strings anyway. The slogans have been things like "Putin's plan - Russia's victory" (Putin's never mentioned having a plan), [place the name of you city here] is voting for Putin, and "I believe in Russia, I believe in myself."

Ironically the election ads have been very similar to the opening sequence a Russian remake of Little Britain, contrasting text of Russia's greatness with images of quite the opposite. The election rhetoric, however, places a strong emphasis on fate, Russia's re-emerging greatness, and the importance on unity above all else. Sadly, it is all very Soviet rhetoric and whether intentionally or not says quite about Russia and many Russians insecurity, and Russian culture's intolerance towards any sort of difference (intellectual, political, ethnic).

I'm including this picture because Putin looks like a pimp

Also, remember when I said Georgia was acting like Russia by trying to blame someone else for all its problems? Well perhaps concerned that Georgia was going to take away it title of "most likely to blame whoever they are mad at for whatever is pissing them off" (my favorite is still by far Russia saying Georgia fired the missile into a Gerogia village, not Russia), Putin blamed the US for discrediting the upcoming Russian election by discouraging election monitors to go to Russia...though Russia denied the OSCE's election observers visas.

So who is the Russian opposition? There are a number of parties. The more experienced opposition politicians have by and large grown jaded and are not making as big as push as in the past. Key figures from the Soviet past have reemerged to fight what they see as Russia's sliding back into its old Soviet ways. One of those is Garry Kasparov, a famous Soviet chess player, who says he will campaign for the presidency and has been arrested multiple times trying opposing the government's refusal to allow his peaceful protests (sadly, in Russia neo-nazis are oftne allowed to march where democratic paty's demanding more freedom having their protests violently broken up). Gorbachev too has returned to politics albeit with less outward conflict with Putin.

The figure who interests me the most is, partially because I have been reading his work, is Vladimir Bukovsky. One of the most famous Soviet dissident, Bukovsky (pictured above) spent decades in prison, Siberian exile, and solitary confinement for his activism in demanding multi-party democracy and greater individual freedom. A remarkable individual from a society that tended to produce few of them and tried to break those it did. Bukovksy returned to Russia seeing in current events the restoration of much of the Soviet Union's political culture. He will also be running for the president.

Bukovsky is an impressive figure, but in today Russia he is all but irrelevant. No one care's about the past. The sad thing is that it wasn't people like Bukovsky who led Russia right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. You had that in Czech Republic with Václav Havel. These were people who wanted a different Russia and believed democracy did not just mean more than one lkind of sausage in the supermarket. Instead, since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has been led by people not only by individuals who were deeply ingrained in the Soviet system ( Yeltsin), but who saw little fault in it (Putin). Is it any wonder then that there has been a turn back to unity coercing culture of the Soviet Union? Is it even surprising the party the will win an absolute majority on Sunday is called "United" Russia?

* On a slightly tangential note it is interesting to compare with New York. Modern Russia is often compared with the Robber Baron days of the US. In those days too you had an obscene juxtaposition of wealth of poverty, on the head the super rich came from across the country to build their supper mansions (it's a bit later but think about the Midwestern millionaires in the Great Gatsby), and on the other you had the slums of recently arrived immigrant with absolutelyu nothing.

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