Earning Respect by Flogging

In the report issued by the Institute of Contemporary Development titled “21st-Century Russia: Reflections on an Attractive Tomorrow,” the authors call for “strong steps against the bureaucracy hindering modernization.” President Dmitry Medvedev tried taking the first of those steps in his heavy-hitting speech before the Interior Ministry, but the effect was less than thrilling.

I admit that Medvedev’s decision to dismiss 17 generals with a single stroke of his presidential pen seemed to me a sufficiently drastic move to convince Russians that their leader is serious about reform. But subsequent events quickly dispelled that illusion. During a visit to a Moscow editorial office, I asked what the staff thought of Medvedev’s dismissals. In place of the expected comments about how he is getting tough with law enforcement officials, I heard nothing but complaints about how Olympic judges had shortchanged Russia’s favorite figure skater, Yevgeny Plushenko, by only awarding him a silver medal. I ended up having to explain to them the whole story about the generals and the police from beginning to end.

“Well,” the chief of the PR department responded, “if the president had wanted to send a strong signal showing that he was serious about reform, he chose the wrong time to do it.”

That reaction made me realize just how important and difficult it is to send a strong signal — the results of which ultimately determine whether a Russian leader succeeds or fails. The 19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin was the first to remark upon this fact. In one of his fairy tales, a bear that became lord of the animal kingdom kicks off his new reign by catching and eating a tiny finch that happens to fly past. Having expected an act of savage cruelty from their master, the rest of the animals are deeply disappointed in this lackluster display of force and nothing the bear does later — no matter how atrocious — can save his reputation.

As political analyst Dmitry Furman once quipped: “The best way to engage a Russian in a constructive dialogue with the authorities is to flog him.” With great personal respect and growing alarm we watched how former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev categorically refused to flog his citizens, even when they clearly deserved it, and  he quickly fell out of favor with the Russian people.

Gorbachev was succeeded by President Boris Yeltsin, who only tormented the Russian people throughout most of his term. But Russia’s rich historical experience has taught the average person to differentiate between a flogging administered for the common good and an execution intended to satisfy a leader’s personal ambitions. That is why the “mean-spirited” Yeltsin was even less popular than the “kind-hearted” Gorbachev.

Then along came Vladimir Putin with his classic “take-charge” approach. After he established his authority during the second Chechen war, he avoided committing atrocities and managed to ensure that people finally received their meager salaries and pensions on time. Those policies are what made Putin the country’s national leader.

In contrast, Medvedev, who tried to be tough by cracking down on generals, got off to a false start. But fate has given him a second chance. After Russia’s poor performance in the Olympic Games, the people are united in their hunger to see not just a proper flogging but a veritable bloodbath for the country’s sports officials. Judging by the fact that Medvedev on Monday called on the country’s Olympic bureaucrats to resign or face being fired in disgrace, he is intent not to miss this opportunity. This is how Medvedev is entering his third year as a great democrat and modernizer.  

Alexei Pankin is editor of WAN-IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.

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