File photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s Thugs May Be Too Much for Its Technocrats

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Many countries present a number of different faces to the world, but Russia goes them all one better. Its government is a Janus whose faces are so at odds they might come from separate species.

One of these faces got a lot of airtime this week. First, General Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard, published the video of his out-of-control rant against anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, who had accused him of involvement in corrupt procurement practices. Zolotov runs an armed force of 340,000, which includes Russia’s elite riot police forces, and Navalny is serving 30 days in prison for organizing an unsanctioned rally. Yet the general challenged the activist to a duel — “in the ring, on a tatami, anywhere.”

“Nobody has kicked your butt the right way, so you’d feel it in your liver,” Zolotov railed. “I promise that before stepping over you and wiping my feet on you, I will stage a show that the entire National Guard cadre will see. And I assure you that you will be ashamed of walking out into the street afterwards.”

The usually media-shy Zolotov didn’t just do something uncharacteristic and publicly threaten a prominent regime opponent. He surprised many of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who watched it with the elocution of a petty criminal mixed with lofty talk of an officer’s honor. The contrast between Zolotov’s office and the manner of a gopnik, a petty thug, was inescapable.

“This man shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public,” investigative reporter Roman Shleinov posted on Facebook. “I think by his very existence next to Vladimir Putin, he’s exposing the group of people in the president’s entourage that initiates the elimination of undesirables overseas and inside the country.” That, according to Shleinov, is a group that sincerely doesn’t believe in any kind of rules and procedures, just in naked force.

On Thursday, the world saw more of this side of Russia when the two men accused in the U.K. of having poisoned ex-spy Sergey Skripal were interviewed by Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, the Kremlin’s overseas propaganda network. The duo looked and sounded as if they had stepped out of “RocknRolla,” Guy Ritchie’s 2008 gangster comedy. Not even Simonyan pretended to buy their clumsy cover story that they came to Salisbury in March to look at the local cathedral’s 123-meter spire. She’s retweeted one of the many memes that circulated on the Russian social networks, in which she asks the men, “Boys, are you sure you don’t work for the special services?” and they reply in unison: “Yes ma’am!”

Again, Russians who watched the video were struck by the two men’s thuggish, dull delivery. These two were also gopniks, not suave intelligence officers; that they were on state-controlled television speaking to the world after Putin said publicly that they should was proof that the Russian government isn’t ashamed of the embarrassingly low standards it sets for its enforcers. 

But how to square that with the other side of Russia? Last week, Russian Central Bank governor Elvira Nabiullina — the woman behind Friday’s surprise rate hike, which came despite Kremlin pushback — gave a lecture at the International Monetary Fund. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde introduced her as a fellow opera lover and a master of the fine art of central banking. “As any opera lover knows very well, great opera conductors need to have remarkable character, intuition, and leadership skill,” Lagarde said. “There is no doubt that Elvira has all these qualities — and more.”

Nabiullina said in Washington, speaking in fluent English: “I should underline that inflation targeting has not only allowed us to decrease inflation; it has also become the basis for preserving financial stability. When a monetary policy framework is transparent, and the policy itself is implemented in a classical, even orthodox way, markets are able to react to shocks in a more orderly manner. And eventually markets become more self-stabilizing.” 

Now contrast that with Zolotov, who barked as he stared at the camera, wearing his full regalia: “And who are you in general, Navalny, I want to understand what you’re made of, where you come from and what for? It’s clear that you’re the product of an American test tube, you are all clones, naturally, of course you’re all puppets!”

Or the language of Alexander Petrov, one of the suspected Salisbury poisoners, who slurred haltingly: “From the start, we were planning to come to London and have a blast, roughly speaking.”

This has been the order of the day since Putin came to power in 2000. His government pursued smartly designed economic reforms during his first term in power, earning accolades from Putin boosters, especially Western financiers. Many were disappointed later as they realized how much power had accrued in the meantime to the gopnik enforcers.

Those Russian technocrats who are out of government don’t have to conceal how they see it. “It’s difficult for a country whose national guard is commanded by a gopnik to hope for a better future,” former Economy Minister Andrey Nechaev tweeted

The two-faced nature of the Russian state isn’t about the mysterious Russian soul or the complex national character, its dark violence finely counterbalanced by a soaring intellect. There is no balance between the thugs and the intellectuals: There is a clear hierarchy, an unambiguous understanding of who works for whom. 

The thugs are the ones who run the country by stifling dissent and providing the force behind corrupt networks. They also make Russia’s key political choices — the decisions to attack neighboring countries, poison opposition activists and defectors, hack foreign political campaigns. Putin is with them in all of this, his smirking defense of all these insolent, often foolhardy moves falling neatly within the dominant gopnik culture. Even when Putin talks like Nabiullina — and he knows how to — he’s only paying homage to the support crew, the economists and managers left to clean up the messes, work out how to live with ever tougher sanctions and maintain macroeconomic stability for a regime with unstable impulses.

These economists and managers have long since made a pact with the devil: They know what kind of system they’re serving, and they’re part of it. Their greatest fear is that their magic won’t be enough to keep Putin’s Russia together at some point, that the gopniks will go too far and make a mess that can’t be swept under the rug. Zolotov’s outburst and the Salisbury fiasco are signs that things are moving that way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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