Some funny, weird, and ominous stories are coming out of Russia since the massive protests that may give a hint about the level of anxiety that they have provoked.
I’ll start with the funny.
The independent Ekho Moskvy radio station reports that “young people in anoraks with For Putin written on them” are handing out a newspaper in Ekaterinburg that aims to discredit prominent leaders of the protest movement. In it, a truly hilarious and sloppily altered photo has blogger and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny standing alongside Boris Berezovsky, with the caption, “Navalny has never tried to conceal the fact that he gets money for his struggle against Putin from oligarch Boris Berezovsky.” Money from an exiled oligarch. Boo, hiss! (“What, not the State Department?” one commenter asked.)
The real photo was of Navalny and a different oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, who happened to be at the Ekho Moskvy studio on the same day for an interview. Prokhorov was for a short time leader of the Right Cause party and has announced plans to run for president against Vladimir Putin in March.
Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Navalny posted the doctored and original images on his hugely popular blog. Then readers started contributing their own versions: Navalny with Stalin, Hitler, an alien, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Napoleon, Chuck Norris, Lord Voldemort, and Putin. Navalny standing with Prokhorov, both laughing while Navalny holds up the V sign behind the floating head of President Dmitry Medvedev.
Next, the weird, also from an Ekho Moskvy report. It seems that workers at a heavy machinery and tank factory in the Urals have had enough of this Putin bashing. After offering last month to come to Moscow and break up the demonstrations, they say they are putting the finishing touches on a tank that they will “drive straight off the conveyor belt to Ekaterinburg,” 140 kilometers (87 miles) south. (What is it about that city?) On the way, they will stage their own pro-Putin demonstrations, culminating in a 28 January rally at their destination.
Just by the way, who owns that tank?
Writing in The Moscow Times, journalist Alexander Golts notes the huge state subsidies that have allowed the plant to outlive its usefulness:
[W]e can see Putin’s core constituency in full color – Russians accustomed to kind tsars giving them government handouts. In return, they are ready to turn a blind eye when those same leaders stuff ballot boxes, play musical chairs with the president and prime minister spots, and give their close associates the richest chunks of state property. If necessary, they are even ready to rally in support of Putin so that state-controlled television can report a ‘balanced’ picture of the demonstrations in Moscow.
Incidentally, despite the presence of all those Putin fans, the town where the factory is located gave only 33 percent of its votes — officially — to United Russia.
Now the ominous. Speaking of tanks, a report in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper says that spending in the state budget for the years 2012 through 2014 will tilt drastically away from social services in favor of the military and police. The defense buildup has been in the news lately – it was one of the main points of contention between former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and President Dmitry Medvedev – but now we see the cost. The newspaper cites a think tank analysis of the budget that estimates cuts to housing and municipal services at more than 40 percent, although it cautions that the budget is nearly impossible to analyze properly as much of it is kept secret.
Another review, based on information the government made available — apparently through a fluke — predicts cuts in education and health care services as a percentage of GDP through the next few year.
On the other hand, defense and law enforcement appear to be getting hefty increases.
These shifting priorities are not a direct response, of course, to the protests, planned as they were before the wave of demonstrations. But, the article concludes on a nervous note:
Against the background of the Arab political upheavals and the European economic instability, the Russian Federation authorities decided to start working on security, having experienced a premonition of something bad. The parliamentary elections and the mass social demonstrations that followed them threw oil on the fire. The regime is moving to a dense defense against violators of its stability, both domestic and foreign.