July 17, 2013:
In Russia opinion polls show that the decade long transformation back into a police state is losing popularity. Most Russians believe the government is prosecuting protestors and reformers out of spite, not because the accused have broken any laws or threaten public order. Russians want order and prosperity, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that most Russians don’t want their police state past restored. This is particularly the case when the government tries to take control of organizations that provide useful independent opinions. Thus, the surprising (to the government) public opposition to recent attempts to curb the independence of the Academy of Sciences. This organization was government controlled during the Soviet period, but was always respected because science was one of the few areas where the communists made Russians proud, and became independent of the government after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The current government sees the Academy of Sciences as another base for malcontents and critics. In this case, the scientists have more support than the government.
Despite the growth of public opposition, Russia continues its transformation back into a police state. It’s not just reformers who are attacked; foreigners are demonized and foreign aid organizations were recently banned. The government wants to eliminate independent Russian charities as well. This is based on the fear that any independent organization is a potential threat to the state. Very Soviet, and this attitude has some support inside Russia where paranoia thrives because many still see enemies of the state wandering around everywhere.
The new police state mentality requires a lot of external enemies to make Russians frightened enough to tolerate all the new restrictions. This includes using the state-controlled media to demonize the traditional (Soviet era) enemies (West Europe and the United States). This has caused a lot of anger and frustration in West Europe. For example, government propaganda complaining about Western anti-missile systems as a ploy to disarm Russia, not stop missile attacks from Iran or North Korea, is seen as absurd by other Europeans. This paranoia, constantly delivered by state controlled media, finds many receptive minds inside Russia. Here, paranoia about the outside world, especially the West, has been a cultural staple for centuries. Senior Russian military leaders openly discuss how Russia might be forced to attack Western anti-missile systems, in self-defense. This was mainly for internal consumption but it alarms foreigners.
Despite growing government persecution (often using the same methods the Soviets invented), pro-democracy and anti-corruption groups continue to hold public demonstrations. There is also growing discontent among senior government officials about the return to the Soviet past. Unlike the Soviet bureaucrats, the current ones are more aware of the outside world and understand that police states are not as economically successful as true democracies. Early in the Soviet period those with knowledge of the outside world were purged (and usually killed) from the leadership. Currently, pro-soviet style officials believe that police-state powers make it easier to take down corruption. This is depicted as a fantasy by reformers, who point out that communist police states only remain un-corrupt for a short period before the rot sets in. The big problem in Russia is that for centuries the government has been a police state, one imposed by “enlightened” czars. The Soviets dumped the monarchy, expanded the police state, and suppressed the market economy. That did not work, but there’s no general agreement in the current leadership about exactly why. Many Russians just feel more comfortable with a “strong man” in charge, be they czar, communist, or the deliberately macho Vladimir Putin. Most Russians will tolerate a tyrant if there is peace and prosperity. But this time around Russians want some limits on their protective tyrant.