Misha One Percent

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, was barred on Sunday from running in the presidential election because of supposed irregularities among the 2 million signatures he collected in support of his candidacy. Similar tactics were used to keep opposition parties out of the State Duma elections in December and to harass the street demonstrations organized by Garry Kasparov's opposition coalition, The Other Russia.

Why is President Vladimir Putin so allergic to allowing opposition groups to take part in the democratic process -- especially since opinion polls suggest that his chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, will undoubtedly coast to an easy victory in March? Given Putin's declared commitment to democracy and his concern with improving Russia's image in the West, why doesn't he understand that he has more to gain by tolerating the opposition fringe than by persecuting them?

One possible answer is that the Kremlin's autocratic reflexes make it intolerant of any sign of loss of control. According to opinion polls, Kasyanov is attracting roughly 1 percent support, but this is 1 percent too much for a leadership that seeks total obedience. One problem with this explanation is that the Communist opposition -- to the extent that it is a true opposition and not a decorative one -- is allowed to function and compete in the presidential election.

The Kremlin's puzzling behavior may be grounded more in rational self-interest than in totalitarian neurosis. The Putin leadership was seriously alarmed by the prospect of a Western-inspired "color revolution" in Russia. They watched the toppling of autocratic leaders in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 with increasing concern. The revolutions seemed to follow a script written in the West -- to wit, Gene Sharp's manual for nonviolent revolution, "From Dictatorship to Democracy." The scenario involves confronting rigged elections with mass protests that trigger regime collapse. As Goldfinger said in Ian Flemings's 1959 novel of that name, "Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action."

The Other Russia campaign seemed to be following the same screenplay as their predecessors from Belgrade to Kiev -- a youth movement with eye-catching symbols and protest actions, an appeal for Western support and the creation of a broad, crossparty coalition. In Serbia's "bulldozer revolution," Sharp encouraged the democrats to form an alliance with the nationalist leader Vojislav Kostunic, Serbia's current prime minister, to oust then-President Slobodan Milosevic. This is similar to the way in which Kasparov joined forces with Eduard Limonov's banned National Bolshevik Party.

Why would a Western-oriented democrat make common cause with Limonov's semi-fascist thugs? According to Henri Duquenne, a French researcher who spent some time with Limonov's group, their explanation was that Kasparov needed Limonov's muscular young foot soldiers to bulk up the street protests.

The chances of a color revolution in Moscow may seem remote to Western observers. But then, the chances that the Soviet Union would implode were also pretty remote before 1991. That bitter humiliation is the formative experience for the Putin generation. The Kremlin knows that ordinary Russians are still unhappy with many aspects of their daily lives. Although Putin himself is extraordinarily popular, people have little faith in the electoral process. It is not completely far-fetched to imagine a scenario where the groundswell of popular discontent crystallizes around outrage over a stolen election.

In this respect, Putin seems to be operating on the same basis as U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, as described by Ron Suskind in his book "The One Percent Doctrine." Cheney reportedly said in a November 2001 meeting, "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaida build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." A color revolution would be precisely such a low-probability, high-impact event for Putin. The costs of a color revolution would be extraordinarily high, in his eyes -- the destruction of his country. The costs of him suppressing the democratic opposition are negligible. So the calculus of repression is clear.

Unfortunately, in giving such vocal support to Kasparov and now Kasyanov, the West may be sealing their fate.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.