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Is Putin’s ‘roof ‘ going to keep out the hard rains of his falling popularity?

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Putin’s in a pickle and Russia’s in the soup. At least that’s what many who write about the “Dear Leader” and his country seem to be saying. But is it so? Certainly there is disruption, the kind of disruption that sits just below the skin, breaks out into turmoil, then all but disappears from sight — temporarily.

A wand of disquiet and agitation waves above the land; and anyone cognizant of the chaos of participatory politics that swept through Russia in the decade leading up to the revolution of 1917 may shake either with dread (if you are a bureaucrat or politician) or joy (if you are one who believes in the progress of democracy). Certainly, the events of 1917 showed how that wand can be transformed into a scepter of bloodthirsty authority wielded against the people.

In recent years, renowned journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya and activist lawyer Sergei Magnitsky have been murdered. High-profile magnates like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and reformist businessmen like Alexei Kozlov were arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to penal colonies. Demonstrations of tens of thousands of disgruntled citizens are taking place on the streets of Russia’s cities. These may not be the harbingers of a Russian Spring, but the country’s opposition is no longer locked in ice.

Three members of the all-female Russian militant feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot were taken into custody for two months for “disorderly conduct” while performing on the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They face a possible seven years in prison if convicted.

Pussy Riot’s act is highly provocative. The women, dressed in colorful garb, with faces covered, shout out lyrics that challenge authority in its many guises, often using language unprintable in almost all the world’s newspapers. “Holy Mother,” they sang on the altar in late February, “drive out Putin !”

It was church officials who first threatened criminal charges for “blasphemy, sacrilege and insult to religious feelings.” God only knows how Putin feels about Pussy Riot; but when dogmatic church and autocratic state close in, it doesn’t leave much wiggle room for anyone caught in the middle.

A book published this week by Shueisha International goes a long way in explaining the rise and rise of Putin. It is titled “Putin — Saigo no Seisen” (“Putin — the Last Holy War”) and its author is Yoshinori Kitano, a man who has lived for more than 20 years in Russia. Kitano was the first Japanese to graduate from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He publishes a mail magazine about Russian affairs that boasts 32,000 subscribers.

Kitano maps Putin’s course from his early days as a KGB spy to him becoming president — an office he returned to last month after a pro forma hiatus in the role of prime minister. The book analyzes in great depth the maneuvers taken by him to purge Russia of his rivals and consolidate power.

According to Kitano, Putin’s goal is to bring about the downfall of U.S. hegemony — although with Benjamin Netanyahu and a host of fanatic Republicans around, he may only have to patiently wait.

The book portrays the Japanese public as being naive and unwilling to extricate themselves from their “peace stupor” — still appearing to believe in the all-mightiness of U.S. power and the goodwill of Americans to look after their interests.

“The days of ‘the era of peace’ are on the way out,” writes Kitano. “The days when the United States will no longer defend Japan are approaching.”

His thesis is that the world is already at war. This is a war for resources such as oil and gas, a war that will decide which country or countries will reign supreme this century. Putin is determined that Russia comes out on top.

Putin’s popularity, though some 20 to 30 percent down from its zenith around 80 percent, is no puzzle. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 plunged Russian society, under the lax and inept leadership of Boris Yeltsin, into a dizzy state of decline. By 1997, 50 percent of Russia’s wealth was controlled by seven individual oligarchs — Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky among them.

As Putin began to see it, these oligarchs were in the process of handing the Russian economy over to foreign, particularly U.S., interests. If Russia let its oil and gas reserves fall into foreign hands, he figured, Russia would be turned into a vassal state with by far the world’s largest provable reserves of natural gas. (In addition, Russia produces and exports more oil than any other single country.)

Putin saw the oligarchs establishing an alternative state within Russia, and he cracked down on the men he considered its architects.

Russia’s GDP had fallen, during the ’90s, to 57 percent of what it had been in the first year of the free-market economy. Kitano points out that Yeltsin’s popularity at the end of his tenure was 0.5 percent. No one, not even Yeltsin, could get drunk on proof that low.

Russia defaulted on its national debt in August 1998. After that, a dramatic rise in the price of oil and the institution of some sensible currency reforms paved the way for recovery. Putin jumped on that moving pavement and transformed it into a fast-moving escalator up.

Wide-ranging financial reform and political restructuring heralded a period of annual growth that averaged 7 percent up to 2008. Ironically, this produced an informed and relatively cashed-up middle class that has become the core of opposition to Putin’s often ruthless authoritarianism.

In “Putin—the Last Holy War,” Kitano delves into Putin’s seething anti-Americanism, quoting the president when, last year in Beijing, he called the U.S. a “parasite.” In Putin’s eyes, the Americans played Yeltsin like a tipsy marionette. Then there was the Bush-Putin honeymoon around the time of 9/11 — though that sweet phase soon waned away.

Putin’s paranoia about the U.S. reach into Russia’s elections stems from his belief that the U.S. is still intent on surrounding Russia with antagonistic states and preventing it from rivaling the U.S. for resources and power. In this context, Russia’s support for Syria and Iran makes perfect sense to the Russian leadership. They may be the last friends Russia has in the Middle East.

Kitano chastises a Japanese public that falls for U.S. claims of righteousness, its rhetoric on the preservation of peace and its “selfless” delivery of liberty to the world. He urges them to see the U.S. (and Russia’s) stances for what they are: attempts to control the flow of oil and gas in the coming decades.

Corruption is more ubiquitous than God in Russia; and while the Internet is relatively free, journalists are fearful of attacks on their person by government-condoned thugs. You can get by in Russia if you have the right people looking after your interests. But not everyone has the money to pay for a krysha (literally, a “roof”), the Mafia jargon for “protection.”

The question in 2012 is: Will Putin eventually have his semi-permanent “roof” whisked away in a tornado of protests and polemics that well might tear through Russia?

There are about 30 members of the punk-rock group Pussy Riot. One of their songs proclaims, “Egyptian air is good for the lungs / Let’s have Tahrir on Red Square !”

Putin take note: A roof is only as good as the pillars that prop it up.