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Published: Sunday, 6/9/2013

COMMENTARY

Putin stokes anti-U.S. hysteria to distract Russians

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A wig, a compass, a pack of 500-euro banknotes, and a recruitment letter featured as “evidence” in the latest U.S.-Russian spy scandal, which was widely televised in Russia compete with a picture of a low-level U.S. diplomat held face-down on the sidewalk of a Moscow street.

The props appear too good to be true.

So did the official Russian claim that the diplomat in question was heading to a meeting with a Russian state security official he was allegedly trying to recruit. But those props are good enough to make an average, TV-watching, Internet-ignorant Boris partake of the anti-U.S. hysteria unleashed in the Russian media.

The Kremlin has used the scandal to justify a recently enacted Russian law that obliges any nongovernmental organization such as human rights watchdogs receiving foreign grants to register as a “foreign agent.” Hundreds of organizations were put on notice, some were closed, and others dropped their foreign contacts sponsors — struggling to replace them with domestic ones.

The persecuted opinion poll organizations in Russia include the Levada-Centre in Moscow. It has a reputation as a nearly unique source of objective information on Russian public opinions on different domestic problems as well as on international politics, including the U.S.-Russian affairs that are at their lowest point since the Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and a few of his old buddies-turned-tycoons are tightening the screws to make sure that persistent mass anti-corruption and anti-government protests in Russia don’t come to a head the way it happened with other corrupt regimes during the so-called Arab Spring. Mass protests have plagued the Putin regime since the last rigged election of the country’s parliament in December, 2011, gave absolute majority in the parliament to his ruling party.

Independent experts estimate that kickbacks to bureaucrats by businessmen in Russia typically range between 50 and 100 percent of the amount involved in the transaction.

And for the regular citizen such as the good Boris, little is possible without a bribe.

In a 2010 public opinion poll by the Levada-Centre, about 15 percent of responders admitted to giving a bribe in the preceding 12 months.

By independent estimates, the amounts of more or less standard bribes to police, municipal workers, public health officials, court officials, public education officials, military draft officials, and business regulating authorities, have since grown several times.

In 2011 alone, the dollar equivalent of the average bribe value went up from about $2,000 to about $8,000 according to government sources, with no official figures available since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.

The Kremlin’s attack on public opinion poll organizations means that the regime considers it vital to be able to play down the scale of corruption.

Mr. Putin attempted to distance himself from the notorious corruption scandals by ousting several bureaucrats such as Anatoly Serdyukov, then the defense minister, who was fired in November, 2012.

Ironically, the mere appearance of fighting corruption puts Mr. Putin at risk of losing the support of millions of Russia’s bureaucrats who now feel unprotected. Russia has so far run on the principal known as “ponyatija,” or an "understanding" that taking bribes is OK as long as you share them with the higher-ups.

So now that the Russian bureaucracy is starting to have doubts about Mr. Putin, he fans an anti-U.S. hysteria to distract them with imagined threats.

That explains such props as a wig, a compass, and a pack of $500-euro bank-notes. It is strange the Kremlin hasn’t thrown in a cloak and a dagger for good measure.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: 419-724-6089, sigov@theblade.com, or on Twitter @mikesigovblade.



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