Virtual politics and real bullets

The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, renowned for her reporting on the North Caucasus wars, was murdered yesterday in an evident assassination (three shots, two to the chest and one to the head) in the lift leading to her home. It was the birthday of the Russian President, and just after the birthday of the Russian-appointed prime minister of Chechnya, who she was about to accuse of torture. After a week of rising hysteria in the Russian media and state, with a wave of goon-squad assaults on Georgian businesses and the collection of sinister lists of Georgian-sounding schoolchildren – what, pray, is the purpose of this? – this ought to inter any lingering myths of Russian democracy. It is time to grasp that we are sharing a continent with a very large tyranny, in fact, that we never ceased to do so.

Exactly what will happen next is unclear, but the worst must be assumed. The reaction of Europe so far appears to be deafening silence. See the BBC report above for a tasty quote from the secretary of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, suggesting she was killed by “self-appointed executioners”. Self-appointed? I don’t think his Midlands constituents lost very much when they voted him out back in 2004. No Baltic gas pipelines were involved, so German silence is a given, France will presumably continue to find Russian support on the UNSC useful, and Britain will probably shut up – hasn’t Tony Blair prided himself on his personal relationship with Putin? (Personal politics, the great delusion of the last hundred years.)

If you need any convincing, I recommend Andrew Wilson’s book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. This is a truly impressive march through a morass of deceit and state-sponsored bullshit, whose central thesis is simply that most of Russian politics, as it was marketed both to the Russians and also to the western politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats who funded it through the 1990s, does not exist. Parties do not have members, policies, or constitutions, and do not represent real interest groups. Even when, like the Communist Party, they actually do exist, they are frequently not actually trying to win the elections-sensationally, Wilson quotes a senior Communist as being horrified how close the party came to unwanted victory in 1996.

Instead, parties, movements and politicians are usually prepared from whole cloth for specific political projects, and created in the public mind by a barrage of TV advertising for the mass and outrageous web propagandists for the elite. It is possible to buy an entire political party, tailored to one’s specifications, from $100,000.

The aim of all, he argues, is to further the power of the bureaucratic-security complex and the rich who court it and are in turn courted by it. Wilson gives persuasive evidence that the tradition of state-manufactured parties began in its modern form before the end of the Soviet Union, in large measure to ensure the security caste’s continued existence, and that its history returns to the late Tsarist period and the Revolution.

At the centre of all this is a new profession, the so-called political technologists, a curious hybrid of US-style spin doctor, ad exec and political thug who organise things like the Christian Liberal-Democratic Party of the Ukraine, which espoused markedly unchristian views, called for the establishment of dictatorship, existed entirely to divert votes from other parties, had no members, offices, or employees, and was established by a team of PR experts from Moscow. Their doyen is Gleb Pavlovsky, of the “Foundation for Effective Policy” – actually a commercial company, but one almost certainly funded by the secret services – whose most famous utterance is probably “we are creating a communications system that can be switched from peace to war at any moment”.

It is hard not to see that exactly this has occurred over the last week.

The more polished “technologists” like to speak of postmodernism, of the provisional nature of truth, and other such fashionable stuff (Wilson’s book, among other things, is a fine compendium of this stuff – there are some truly grotesque remarks). But, of course, the real interests are anything but superficial. They are nickel mines, oil pipelines, defence industries, serious money. They are bullets fired in lifts. What is most worrying, though, is that virtual politics is not unknown far from Russia. Crack political consultants claim to register the reactions of focus groups to filmed speeches without the sound (and therefore without the content) and advise politicians accordingly. The intelligence is being fixed around the policy. People who claim to be Democrats recommend renaming taxes “membership fees” on the basis of research into linguistics. We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality. One non-Russian polit-tekhnolog calls the other side, to tell them they are going to contest the vote.

In Russia, the next election will be between the United Russia (Medved/Bear) list and the Party of Life, a name which has been used at every post-Soviet election. No-one even troubles to deny that it is the creation of Putin’s PR advisers.

Perhaps the good news is that, as pointed out here, betrayal brings authoritarians the rage of the convert.

RIP Anna Politkovskaya.

For everything else, my opinion is that every wind turbine is a vote for independence from these people.

4 thoughts on “Virtual politics and real bullets

  1. Excellent post. Russia is looking more and more like a frightening beast everyday. Corruption is rampant, repression harsh and now unashamed ethnic cleansing with a Nazi echo. Where will all this end?

  2. So Mother Russia isn’t nice to most her children. She wasn’t for at least 300 years. So this isn’t exactly new. At least this time they got no odd ideology to export.

    We’ll deal with them the way we deal with all external powers. We find a reasonable compromise. We don’t have to love or admire Russia to have sensible cooperation.

  3. Thanks for the tip, Alex. Myself I’ll tomorrow pay a visit to library and see if they’ve got the book. It’s a very tragic land, that Russia.

    I’m a Finn, and my people have always had that special, famously awkward relationship with Russia. On one hand, the everyday attitudes are quite harsh and prejudiced, even racist. On the other, there’s still this stink of self-censorship (or Finladiserung, as Germans called it) with which we and our media had to live through the entire Cold War. Old habits seem to die hard. Partly it’s surely due to history -I don’t know how many careers, even lives, were ruined in 60-70′s by a stigma of being anti-Soviet- and nowadays Russia is also our most important trade partner, once again.

    And after all Russians form today the biggest, and usually the wealthiest too, group of tourists coming to Finland, and are similarly the biggest foreign population that lives here. So I reckon that attitudes towards them are changing into something better.

    I’d say that now it would be a turn of our politicians to show that the world is changing and Finland -or the whole Western Europe, for that matter- can come to normal, straight terms with Russia and its wrongdoings. At end of November there will be an EU-Russia summit in Helsinki and there’s an Amnesty campaign for bringing human rights abuses onto the agenda. It will probably do very little but you can nonetheless sign it here.

    Peace to Anna Politkovskaya’s memory. Humanity has lost a very brave woman.