A new term for a new tsar

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A new term for a new tsar

Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidential elections… again. A victory for the “Kremlin tsar” was not actually in doubt, and if the obvious reason is the lack of a well-organized opposition, there are other reasons that are no less significant.
Without any prejudice against Russia’s political history and great heritage, and keeping in mind that it is capable of exterminating mankind and destroying our planet tens or even hundreds of times over, the country has never experienced or practiced democracy, at least as defined by and conceived in the West. 
Russia moved from the primitive state of the Volga Rus — as depicted by the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan, the envoy of Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir, who ruled between 908 and 932 AD — to the Volga Bulgars, to the tsarist era. Thanks to three tsars — Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine II — Russia became a European and global power.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 ended the tsarist era. Subsequently, the communist Bolsheviks assumed absolute power, albeit in the name of the working class. Between 1917 and the USSR’s collapse in 1991, many faces, slogans and principles changed, but nothing really changed regarding Russia’s imperialist ambitions and its authoritarian style of government.
In practice, the old tsar — then the nation’s leader and protector of the Orthodox Church — remained a virtual tsar who retained absolute power. The spirit of comradery was rarely in view during leadership changes among its commissars, ideologues and “people’s heroes.”
The accepted norm was either execution, deposition or exile — whether in Mexico, where Leo Trotsky was murdered, or Siberia, where several leading comrades ended up working in collective farms, power stations and “retirement” homes.
But the USSR — the world’s largest country, with a land mass of more than 22 million sq. km —eventually collapsed after it failed to regenerate itself, cure its economic ills and improve its view on human rights.
This great country, which pioneered space exploration and dominated almost half the planet, failed when it became clear that its communist leaders — such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Putin — had nothing to do with socialism or the proletariat lifestyle.
It collapsed when its “red tsars” turned against their own slogans, idealism and sermons broadcast to millions worldwide, who believed in them, and even fought and died trying to fulfill them. The irony is that Soviet communism fell in Moscow but remains alive and well in Havana, the capital of Cuba. 

Putin embodies almost all the elements of Russia’s identity, and its nationalistic and religious pride. His psyche is infused with its imperial voracity, and the pains of its defeats and besiegement through the centuries. So after his coronation yet again, nobody should ever expect from him anything different from his systematic destruction of Syria under the pretext of confronting terrorists. 

Eyad Abu Shakra

Following the demise brought about by former comrades, a new regime dawned. It has been a hybrid system comprising former Communist Party apparatchiks brought to the top by nepotism and personal loyalties; a hotchpotch of mafias; and front men of Western business rushing to penetrate the new Russia through wholesale privatization. The aim was to occupy what was the heart of the falling giant, and its largest and richest constituent.
It is fair to say the USSR’s demise began with Gorbachev’s accelerating concessions to the West’s most belligerent anti-Moscow leaderships. Dancing to the tune of cynical Western praise of his “vision” and “courage,” he went too far in a naive and premature opening up. His actions were bound to worry the old guard about selling out socialist ideals and the USSR’s power. 
In the meantime, there was the rising star: Yeltsin. The former boss of Moscow’s Communist Party shocked many observers in April 1990 during his visit to London, when he showered then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the staunch anti-socialist and avowed enemy of trades unions, with admiration. 
The old guard’s unsuccessful, desperate coup attempt in the summer of 1991, in the faint hope of “rescuing” the USSR, actually accelerated its collapse, more so when Yeltsin rode the wave against it. The attempt itself showed beyond doubt the fragility of the political, intellectual and economic structure of a regime that had passed its sell-by date.
With Yeltsin’s rise and the USSR’s demise, Russia began a new phase in its history, virtually in every respect except its distance from true democracy. The hybrid system inherited all the ills of the former Communist regime, but not its promotion of socialism and “peoples’ friendship.” However, it was never in the interest of the victorious West — after a long and fierce confrontation with the USSR —to uncover the full truth about the new regime.
On the contrary, the West was ready to overlook strident corruption, and the growth of diverse mafias and fake democracy, as it regarded Yeltsin merely as the receiver of a failed business. Actually, it was vital for Western capitals that he continue his destruction of the power that had threatened their interests for so long.
Still, Russia remains much larger than any individual, and as time passed, seasoned political and well-connected loyalists moved to reclaim their presence. Among them was Putin, the ambitious and steely former KGB man who stealthily managed to find his way into Yeltsin’s inner circle.
Ruthlessly putting down the second Chechen uprising (1999-2000) was the blood baptism of the new leader rising from the intelligence community’s dungeons. Putin, who hails from St. Petersburg, the old tsarist capital built by Peter the Great — Russia’s greatest emperor — is a man with a strong memory and formidable willpower. 
Putin embodies almost all the elements of Russia’s identity, and its nationalistic and religious pride. His psyche is infused with its imperial voracity, and the pains of its defeats and besiegement through the centuries. So after his coronation yet again, nobody should ever expect from him anything different from his systematic destruction of Syria under the pretext of confronting terrorists. 
Furthermore, amid America’s confusion and Europe’s distraction, it is worth recalling one of Putin’s quotes: “No one should have any illusions that it’s possible to achieve military superiority over Russia; we will never allow it.” So today we are witnessing the confirmation of a new kind of tsar, albeit through the ballot box.
  • Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.
    Twitter: @eyad1949
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