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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Buffoon State Is No Laughing Matter

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Russian historians past and present have often liked to contemplate Russia's role in the community of nations. For example, the supposed spirituality, piety and forbearance of the Russian peasantry suggested to some nationalist thinkers that Russia could ultimately blaze the path to Christian salvation for the materialistic, decadent West.

A rather darker view, emerging after the bloody decades of revolution, civil war and Stalinist purges, was that Russia, with its tragic history, was meant to provide a cautionary example to other nations how not to arrange their affairs.

I would like to join this debate with my own, somewhat frivolous notion of Russia's role on the world stage. I don't know about the past or the future, but today Russia seems to act more like a global buffoon.

At the circus, acts by acrobats, tightrope walkers and animal tamers are usually larded with appearances by clowns, whose job is to mimic and ridicule all those nerve-wracking, death-defying stunts. This time-honored tradition in what is probably the oldest surviving form of popular entertainment is meant to relieve tension and, by way of contrast, to underscore the difficulty of those acts.

Since the end of the Cold War, most nations of the world have developed a strong impetus toward democracy, non-ideological freedom, human rights and a market economy. Russia, too, has put on many of the appurtenances of a modern state but only, it seems, in order to mug in this costume for laughs.

Laughs were provided aplenty in late March, when nationally broadcast fisticuffs erupted on the floor of the State Duma, pitting the Liberal Democratic Party against deputies from the ultranationalist Rodina faction.

Now, fights do sometimes break out in other parliaments around the world. What made this particular spitting-boxing fracas especially delicious was that all the factions in the current Duma are, one way or another, the creatures of the Kremlin.

The ruling party, United Russia, has no ideology at all. Its sole raison d'etre is to support President Vladimir Putin's legislative initiatives. The Liberal Democrats -- whose very name is a sick joke, in light of the party's leadership and platform -- are said to have been set up by the secret police as a sanctioned outlet for popular discontent with reforms. In any case, their leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is one of the most durable presences on Russia's political arena. He has been lampooning the legislative process since 1990.

The Communists might have qualified as genuine opposition, but Putin seems to pine for the Brezhnev era almost as much as they do and has revived quite a few aspects of the good old Soviet Union. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and company should have few real disagreements with Putin's government.

And last but not least, there's Rodina, which was a blatant creation of the Kremlin, designed to split the Communists ahead of the 2003 Duma elections.

And so, devoid of ideological meaning, the Duma fight was more like a vulgar barroom brawl -- or rather, one of those slapping routines so successfully performed by the well-known Russian clowns, Bim and Bom. "Hello, Bim." "Hi, Bom." Slam! Pow!

The politics of the street are even more surreal, whether you take the pro-government, proto-fascist youth movements, Nashi and Moving Together, or the National Bolshevik storm troopers. Nashi have just held a grotesque Victory Day rally on Leninsky Prospekt, herding together 60,000 out-of-towners in white T-shirts with the Russian national anthem printed on the back. Meanwhile, the leader of the National Bolsheviks, Eduard Limonov, may be a major modern writer, but as a hybrid of the biggest dictators of the 20th century, he often looks more like a character from the "Springtime for Hitler" musical in Mel Brooks' film, "The Producers."

Even the Russian presidency is faintly clownish. Russians still groan at the mention of a tipsy Boris Yeltsin conducting a German military band, and, if truth be told, the story of their current president is no less amusing. We have here an obscure former KGB colonel handpicked as heir apparent in a backroom deal by Kremlin insiders and wealthy oligarchs. Just four months later, he was catapulted to supreme power and soon turned savagely on his own benefactors.

An American friend recently filmed on hidden camera a routine bribery transaction with a traffic cop. A stuffy policeman extracting a bribe as if it were his birthright in plain view of other drivers and his colleagues not only made for a damning indictment of corruption in Russia but also for a truly hilarious piece of documentary cinematography.

Russia's judiciary has had plenty of other opportunities, too, to demonstrate both its seriousness and independence, such as in the notorious spy trials against academics and scientists of recent years.

Or then there's the recent conviction of Sakharov Museum employees for putting on an art exhibition. Meanwhile, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov inaugurated his second five-year term in office by announcing that his agents were hot on the trail of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The list of government buffooneries can go on indefinitely to include, for instance, the federal tax collection agency, which takes property from taxpayers and undermines the nation's tax base by scaring away foreign and domestic investors.

Or then there's the Russian Orthodox Church, which made sure that Russia was one of only a handful of countries -- be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or pagan -- that the late Pope John Paul II failed to visit.

My buffoon state theory goes to show that the oft-heard accusation that the Russian political and bureaucratic classes are utterly incompetent is just plain wrong. Clowns are usually fantastic acrobats, jugglers and tightrope walkers in their own right. In some ways, they are even better and more versatile than "serious" performers. They just do it differently. Russian leaders, too, are skilled -- but they are skilled in buffoonery.

In fact, the moment a public figure in Russia stops goofing around, he or she is promptly tossed from the ring. Just look at Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As long as he stuck to the unwritten rules of the Buffoon State, everything was fine. But the moment he decided to build a serious, transparent oil company and use his wealth to try to create genuine civil society and political opposition, he ended up in the dock. There is no doubt that if he had chosen to sink his billions into a foreign soccer club and impersonate a British aristocrat, he would have remained free and wealthy.

The antics of the Buffoon State may be amusing for outside observers, but not for the Russian people. As the Russian proverb goes, "I'd be laughing, too, had it not been my own fool." Instead, many Russians want to have serious political, business and cultural leaders, not a bunch of clowns.

This was the message of the recent Victory Day celebration on May 9 in Moscow. The government, as usual, worked hard to turn it into a circus, but the nationwide outpouring of gratitude toward World War II veterans was clearly deeply felt and sincere. Defeating Nazi Germany was perhaps the one serious thing Russia achieved under its Bolshevik rulers and their successors -- or at least one that all Russians can be proud of.

Alexei Bayer is a New York-based economist and a columnist for Vedomosti. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.