I’m struggling to decide whether the recent events surrounding Aleksei Navalny are more macabre, or more absurd. For the moment, at least, I’m going with macabre. That seems the only reasonable conclusion, when the man is still at death’s door.
Navalny – whose place in Russian politics is well summarized by Morvan Lallouet – is only the latest in a string of opponents of the current occupants of the Kremlin to fall ill under mysterious circumstances. That list also includes Petr Verzilov, Vladimir Kara-Murza (twice), Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, Aleksandr Litvinenko and, by some accounts, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Depending on your definition of poison, in fact, this isn’t even the first attack on Navalny himself.
In a recent interview, timed to help drum up support for a constitutional reform that would strengthen the power of the presidency and potentially extend his rule until 2036, Vladimir Putin said, among many other things, the following:
What is democracy? It’s the power of the people, that’s right. But if the people elect their higher authorities, then those higher authorities have the right to organize the work of the organs of executive power in such a way as to guarantee the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population of the country.1
Putin was, in fact, talking about the United States, lamenting the fact that American state governors failed to fall in line with President Donald Trump’s orders, whether on COVID-19 or the response to Black Lives Matter protests. But it was also a statement of political philosophy, encapsulating much about how Putin sees the source of his own power, its structures, and its limitations—three fields that are at the heart of the latest combined issue of Russian Politics & Law.
We should always retain the capacity to be surprised.
I am not an expert on Belarus. I have done precious little research there, have few contacts and no insider knowledge. I am, then, watching the scenes of protest very much like many others for whom the country has been on the periphery of our attention: with rapt bewilderment.
As Vladimir Putin launched the public campaign for his constitutional reform, he took the opportunity to tell Russia a bit about the United States, and about democracy in general.
“What is democracy?” Putin asked (rhetorically, in more ways than one). “It’s the power of the people, that’s right. But if the people elect their higher authorities, then those higher authorities have the right to organize the work of the organs of executive power in such a way as to guarantee the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population of the country. And what’s happening there [in America]? The president says, ‘We need to do X’, and the governors say ‘Go to hell.'”
I’ll say it: Sometimes I get it wrong. Or not quite right. Which is almost the same thing.
In case you’ve missed it, today’s news is that Valentina Terehskova, a United Russia Duma Deputy and the first woman in space, proposed ‘resetting’ Putin’s presidential terms, allowing him to run again. The Speaker of the Duma called Putin. Putin said ok. And that was that.
If I might be allowed to be an activist for a moment, rather than an academic, I’d like to tell you a story.
In September 2011, when I was living in Moscow, I went to meet a friend and colleague — a Russian academic at a major Moscow university — just to catch up, and to talk about some research we might do together.
When I walked into her office, the look on her face was one of despair. Quiet, composed and dignified — but emotionally and morally eviscerated. I did not have to ask her why.
For the latest another addition to my (very long) list of reasons why the community of international relations scholars who call themselves realists should be banned from using the term, see (if you have the stomach) Tom Graham’s latest foray in Foreign Affairs. If you don’t have access to the journal, you can get the gist of the idea from Serhiy Kudelia’s Facebook post below: