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Published: Sunday, 11/24/2013

COMMENTARY

‘Most powerful’ man in world might not be invincible after all

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST
Mike Sigov Mike Sigov
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has enjoyed considerable attention in the media as the 2013 Forbes most powerful person in the world.

By contrast, some of the world’s least powerful — migrants, largely Muslim, who were harassed by the mob in Moscow during riots last month — did not.

Mr. Putin, however, owes his prolonged stay in power — in part — to the undocumented immigrants who fall prey to ethnic Russian supremacists venting their frustration with Russia’s systemic corruption. This is much safer than protesting against “the world's most powerful” one and risking imprisonment or confinement to a psychiatric ward.

When Ivan beats up Ahmed, flips his car, or busts his store windows, he distracts attention from the real culprits — police, without whom Ahmed would not even be there. Boris at the police station takes the bribe when the time comes to check Ahmed’s documents and then shares some of the bribe with his boss, who further splits it with his superior, and so on to the very top — all in full compliance with Russia’s ”poniatiya” or “[unwritten] notions [of what is just],” which function in the place of a legal system.

But playing a supremacist card is a double-edge sword, especially in a multi-ethnic, multi-religion autocracy. Just consider the fate of the Soviet Union, which fell apart in 1988-1991, or Yugoslavia, which followed suit in the early 1990s.

Russia is a state where more than 100 ethnicities coexist, including 20 million Muslims who make up about 15 percent of the population of about 140 million. It wouldn’t take long for ethnic non-Russian groups across Russia to reciprocate with riots against ethnic Russian minorities in respective ethnic territories.

Kremlin ideologists are aware of that threat to Russia’s territorial integrity and hence to the presidency of the “world’s most powerful person.” Tellingly, one of the members of Russia’s rubber-stamping parliament has “come up” with a bill that once passed would make any analytical publication about Russia’s statehood such as this a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

The Moscow Patriarchate bureaucrats, who rule the Russian Orthodox Church much like Mr. Putin rules Russia and fully support him, praise him as a strong leader who has “restored greatness to Russia” — read oil-dollar and natural gas-dollar windfall he shares with them.

Earlier this month, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, who heads the so-called World Russian People’s Council, presented Mr. Putin with the council’s newly established award “for preservation of Russia’s great power statehood,” as Russia’s Kremlin-controlled media reported again and again, on television and in print.

Russia, however, is experiencing a falling market share as a natural gas exporter, especially in Europe, and a tougher competition as a producer and exporter of oil and natural gas as it fails to reinvest enough revenue into the crumbling infrastructure. Much of the revenue is looted while foreign companies are reluctant to invest in Russia, where political risks are high, as witnessed by BP’s troubled Russian ventures.

Economists predict that Russia’s stagnant economy is near recession, if not a full-blown crisis. Once it hits, Ivan will be far less manageable by the Kremlin as well as the ethnic minorities across Russia, threatening the very existence of Russia’s statehood.

So all his new laws, awards, and titles don’t make Mr. Putin any more capable of remaining “powerful” than your garden-variety dictator — despite his trumpeted role in the recent NSA whistleblower scandal and Russia’s controversial role in Syria, his most prominent “accomplishments” in 2013.

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

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



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