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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Stunning Miscalculation

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After observing Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov during the Victory Day parade on Red Square, military affairs analyst Vitaly Shlykov had the following to say: "Russian generals will be afraid of this guy. But the president doesn't plan to use him to frighten anyone else. The rest of the world has nothing to worry about."

Stalin's purges stripped the top brass of any desire to be an independent political player. Yet when the infighting among the political elite has become particularly intense, the position of the military has tipped the scales. This was the case when Beria and Khrushchev were deposed, as well as in August 1991 and October 1993.

We are now approaching another watershed moment. President Vladimir Putin seems bent on going down in history as the first Russian ruler to step down according to schedule. Putin and his inner circle must understand, however, that the departure of the person who stands at the pinnacle of the power vertical will inevitably lead to an escalation of the feuds within the elite. And in a society with fledgling democratic institutions, the consequences of such escalation are impossible to predict.

The decision to put Serdyukov -- formerly head of the Federal Tax Service and a close ally of Viktor Zubkov, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service -- in charge of a military bureaucracy that suffers from all the same vices as the civilian bureaucracy effectively eliminated the military as a political force. Some might call this a Byzantine arrangement, others -- civilian control of the armed forces.

Compared with this clever maneuver, however, some of the Kremlin's other recent moves are difficult to fathom.

The first of these is the case of the Educated Media Foundation, the legal successor of Internews, and its president, Manana Aslamazian. Aslamazian was detained in late January at Sheremetyevo Airport for failing to declare less than $3,000 in cash in excess of the $10,000 legal limit. Then last month, the foreign-funded nongovernmental organization was shut down temporarily after police raided its Moscow office and confiscated computers and documents.

The paradox is that Putin and Aslamazian think alike on a number of issues. Putin has said many times that the economic independence of media companies and sound management practices are the cornerstone of an independent press. The Educated Media Foundation was teaching sound management techniques to regional television stations.

Putin talks about the dictatorship of the law. The Educated Media Foundation conducted large-scale projects that helped regional media to bring their activities into line with current laws.

Given this coincidence of goals, it would make much more sense for the Kremlin to give the Educated Media Foundation its blessing and let it get on with its good work rather than the heavy-handed approach it has taken.

At present, the regime's top priority is to ensure a smooth succession when Putin steps down next March. With this in mind, the Kremlin's biggest mistake was to underestimate Aslamazian's charisma. She is passionately devoted to her work, exceptionally unselfish and very kind. Her students, who work in many Moscow and regional television stations, hold her in the highest regard.

By subjecting Aslamazian to persecution that exceeds all reasonable limits, the government has personally offended thousands of journalists and media managers. And a shared personal affront can bind people even more tightly than shared beliefs and interests. Among the more than 2,000 people who recently signed an open letter to Putin in support of Aslamazian there are quite a few who would be unlikely to join forces in any other cause.

I find it impossible to comprehend how the same leaders who neatly neutralized the military could turn around and needlessly antagonize the press, which in periods of transition can prove no less destructive than the generals.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.