Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why does Putin bother to arrest the "Other Russia" protesters? Because he can.:

In the past year, things have changed. The still-unsolved murder of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya was followed by regular physical and verbal attacks on the president's opponents. Typical of the latter was Pravda.ru, which last spring called the anti-Putin opposition a "motley army of deviants, criminals, wannabe politicians, fraudsters and gangsters on the fringes of Russian society." Putin himself calls them scavenging "jackals" who live on foreign handouts.

But if they really are deviants and jackals, why arrest them? If Putin really is wildly popular, why bother calling them names? Kasparov himself answers this question—one of many political mysteries in Russia at the moment—by arguing that Putin is far less secure than he appears to be. During a recent lecture in Warsaw, I heard him convince a large crowd that Russian opinion polling in general should be taken with a grain of salt: In an authoritarian society, especially a post-Soviet one, who tells the truth to a stranger over the telephone? He also claimed that polls asking more specific questions—"Is your city well-run? Is your mayor corrupt?"—produce a far less contented portrait of Russian society than questions like, "Do you approve of Vladimir Putin?"

Maybe so—but that doesn't exclude the other, grimmer explanation, which is that Putin beats up his opposition because he can. The dollar is sinking, Bush is fading, and Europe still doesn't have a unified Russia policy. Meanwhile, Russia is awash in oil money, next week's parliamentary elections will go the Kremlin's way no matter what, and why should the Russian president care if there's some name-calling in the Washington Post?

Putin and his entourage have already got most of what they wanted from the West—including the chance to host a G8 summit in St. Petersburg. If this weekend's photographs look like they were taken 30 years ago, why should they care? Few in Russia will see them. And most of those who do will surely draw the intended conclusion, keeping well away the next time a crowd gathers in a Moscow square.