‘A mixture of anger and despair.’ Ilya Shablinsky on important events of the past week: Prigozhin’s attacks and which lawyer would best serve the superconservative course in Russia
Photo by Sergei Chugunov

15 May 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Spektr.Press

The expected offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces along different sectors of the huge front promised to be the main event of the past week. And…to some extent it was. Immediately after President Vladimir Zelensky’s interview with a number of major Western media outlets, in which he said there was no need to hurry with the offensive and what was needed was to save strength, reports of a sharp increase in the intensity of hostilities began to come in from various parts of the theatre of operations. As usual, the tone was set by pro-Russian war correspondents. In the evening of 11 May and the morning of 12 May, they began to report that Ukrainian armed forces had broken through Russian defences in various areas, in particular, on the flanks of the battle in Bakhmut. This included activity in Kharkiv region (where tank columns were recorded moving) and Zaporizhzhia region.

Soon, however, the tone of reports from the front lines became calmer – it seemed that the military correspondents had been shouted down. At the same time, the Russian Defence Ministry acknowledged the retreat of Russian military units from positions north of Bakhmut and their occupation of ‘more favourable’ positions near the Berkhovskoye reservoir. Well, of course ‘more advantageous.’  And that’s all the Defence Ministry’s description of the new stage of the battle has consisted of so far.

Ukrainian officials, on the other hand, continued to refer to all the actions of the the Ukrainian army in the Donetsk region as defensive actions.

It is necessary to recognize the critical importance of each movement along the entire thousand-kilometre line of the front, especially in its key sections. Important both in terms of the fate of the war and the fate of the regime established in Russia. Any news from the front lines becomes the object of close attention by analysts. Although the ‘fog of war’ prevents many details from being seen. And they are sometimes made up.

But the fact remains that there are no signs of a large-scale military operation on the part of the Ukrainian armed forces as yet (let us emphasize these two words). Everything that is happening looks more like ongoing preparations.

The latest statements of Evgeny Prigozhin, informal head of the Wagner PMC about the situation on the fronts, the ‘shortage’ of shells experienced by his group and, finally the fact that the situation on the battlefield is not quite adequately assessed at the very top, need to be considered in close connection with these events. The head of the PMC expressed this thought very aphoristically, identifying a certain key figure in this drama. Literally, Mr. Prigozhin said: ‘The happy grandfather thinks he is well. What’s the country to do next?  If he turns out to be right, God bless everybody. But what should the country do, what should our children, our grandchildren, the future of Russia do, and how should we win the war if it turns out, I’m just supposing, that this grandfather turns out to be a complete asshole?”

That is, from the subject of the shortage of ammunition, the head of the PMC made a completely unexpected lunge in the direction of the unnamed main person of the ongoing tragedy.

A little later, he seems to have already deeply regretted what he said, demanded that he be understood correctly and suggested two or three possible identities of the person he designated ‘grandfather’. But I don’t think that convinced anyone. I think that everyone who heard these sentences perceived these words as invectives against Putin.

Which, by the way, explains some features of the relationship between the dictator and his former cook, who had got at his disposal several tens of thousands of professional soldiers (now diluted with a criminal element) and tanks, artillery and so on attached to them. This relationship, by all appearances, was not so cordial at all. A former criminal convicted of a number of violent crimes and a successful entrepreneur, owner of a chain of expensive restaurants, no doubt felt indebted to the head of the state for his sudden elevation and the opportunities that opened up for him. But now, it seems, he doesn’t. It happens. The risk of death and the sight of the death of many of your comrades-in-arms probably changes something in a person’s psychology. The challenge, which at first seemed quite solvable, turned out to be impossible and, in general, to have no solution.

A mixture of anger and despair now possesses Prigozhin. He has achieved popularity, but this is hardly any consolation. The essence of the drama unfolding before our eyes is, in my view, that many people, and maybe most of the current ruling elite (except the obvious fanatics), are experiencing feelings similar to those of Prigozhin. But they certainly can’t express those feelings, since they don’t have the forty thousand soldiers and the tanks they come with them. By the same token, this support group may not help Prigozhin either, if Putin retains his power, and can satisfy his desire for revenge for a few more years yet. As everyone knows, he has a very strong sense of revenge. The lackeys who surround him know it. And their representatives in the Duma have already canceled Prigozhin’s speech to the deputies. What kind of speech can he make, if he speaks so rudely about ‘grandfather’…

I think in a little while, and the head of the PMC, the recent hero of Bakhmut, will already be accused of treason or something similar. If the lackeys give the command.

Prigozhin is a gangster. But not an idiot. And performing the idiotic role of a stupid executor seems to be more and more difficult for him. But other members of this community are so far coping with it.

The main event, that what is called the ‘9 May parade’ was noted for, was the transportation by electric car of the overweight and flabby Belarusian dictator Lukashenko from the Lenin Mausoleum to the eternal flame near the Kremlin wall. The dictator, guilty of murdering dozens of his compatriots protesting against yet another brazenly rigged presidential election, is now performing the rather shameful role of junior partner to an aggressor state. It provides its territory for attacks on neighboring Ukraine. Perhaps this role also serves as an additional burden for Lukashenko. But his senior partner apparently wants something more from him. Something the Belarusian dictator may not be able to bear. 

Each of the other five other leaders who arrived at the parade from the long-unfashionable and defunct CIS club had their own specific individual interests for the day. ‘Victory Day’ under Putin has already long since lost what was important about it, being transformed – at the state level – into a demonstration of imperious militaristic hubris and political loyalty.

Citizens who refuse to show such loyalty, especially those who are popular, should be made to regret it. The famous actor Artur Smolyaninov, already endowed with the status of a ‘foreign agent,’ has now been added to the list of terrorists and extremists. He said in one of his interviews that if he was forced to go to war, he would be on the side of the state that was subjected to aggression – Ukraine. Well, that’s blatant extremism… The poet Nikolai Daineko was sentenced to a real term –  four years – in a penal colony. For reading ‘anti-mobilization’ poems on Triumphal Square on 25 September 2022. The poets Artem Kamardin and Egor Shtovba also took part in these readings. All of them were detained the next day: they were then beaten and tortured.

Taking into account the recent arrest of Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriichuk, the creators of the play The Brave Falcon, the placement of a portrait of Laima Vaikule (who has also spoken negatively about the war) on trash bins, and some other facts, the picture of the intimidation to which creative people are subjected in today’s Russia becomes more or less clear. This is already the situation of a totalitarian state. It is important for the state to make sure that those who have a voice and are visible in public opinion speak out in favour of any adventure undertaken by the state. Well, at a pinch, quietly, quietly sitting under the stool.  We have already been through this.

Participants in the St. Petersburg Legal Forum told us something about the prospects for the further transformation of the Russian state. There were prominent people present: the head of the Investigative Committee, the chairs of parliamentary committees, and ministers. Ideas – fresh and not so fresh – were put forward. The head of the Investigative Committee once again demanded that we ‘get back’ (no, not the death penalty, about that a little later) a state ideology. This time, the author of the idea has already somehow determined the content of this ideology. He did not dig particularly deep, offering to return to the formula of Nicholas I. Well, who would have doubted it?  Orthodoxy – the religious basis of Russia. Autocracy – a form of government, and nationality – the meaning of faith and power.

In general, it was very much as though the high-ranking participants in the forum were competing to see who could be the most ardent zealot for the ultra-conservative brand. If I may put it that way. It is clear that the brand was marked, plastered on the wall by the very highest-ranking officials themselves. And it is clear that every official now has to jump to reach that level.

Here’s Justice Minister Chuichenko calling to deal with those people who wanted to change their sex. He even recommended that these people be treated and the very possibility of sex change liquidated. His deputy Sveridenko came up with the construction of ‘third parties’ in relations with ‘foreign agents.’ These are those people who do not turn their backs on the aforementioned ‘agents’ but, for example, continue to mention them, refer to them, and express respect for them. Such people should, of course, be fined. For starters.

Human Rights Ombudsman Moskalkova suggested introducing a new crime – ‘Russophobia.’  She did not, however, give any details.

However, she was supported by participants quick to discern Russophobia in the arrest warrant for Putin issued by the International Criminal Court.  

These are, in the opinion of competent people, the most acute legal problems facing the country. A country where torture in police stations and detention centres is an everyday occurrence, where lawyers are almost powerless, and judges are dependent and vulnerable.

Let us cast a glance beyond our perimeter, however. Could such realities be part of a current trend, a trend toward reducing the law to a police cudgel?

Consider the latest events in Pakistan, a country that is already far more populous than Russia. Recently, Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, was detained for eight days in Islamabad. These days he is the leader of the opposition. He was accused of misappropriating funds from the Al Qadir Trust. Khan was removed from office on 10 April 2022, following a vote of no confidence in him by parliament. Khan himself claimed that his removal from power was illegal. On the question of this convoluted case and the legality of the said decision we must still admit we are not competent to judge. Rather, we are here talking about something else.

The arrest of the ex-premier was immediately appealed by his lawyers. First of all, they sought bail for their client – Pakistani law allows it. In this case, the doubts about the charges brought against Khan by people against whom he is in opposition were sufficiently well founded.

Yes, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of dozens of cities. Political tensions rose to breaking point. But the problem was resolved (albeit temporarily) in court. The High Court released Imran Khan on bail, after an agreement to postpone for two-weeks placing him in custody.

There were presidential elections in Turkey.  According to preliminary data, none of the candidates in Turkey’s presidential election got more than 50 percent in the first round, although the incumbent for several hours had the necessary lead. And the incumbent President Tayyip Erdogan and the leader of the united opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have now gone into the second round. The political contest in Turkey was relatively fair, and there is no way to say that the electoral commissions, which had been working hard all night, were serving one of the candidates. As usually happens in Russia. The second round of elections is scheduled for 28 May.

We have before us the experience of two large states located in Asia, which in no way belong to the image of the ‘collective West.’ But we see that the main trend in their development, for all their faults, for all the vestiges of past ways of doing things, is the strengthening of the legal system and of the institutions of democracy.

Translated by Rights in Russia

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