Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia is the central role played by new media. To be sure, the failure of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to obtain a solid majority in the State Duma, even while cheating, is significant. But the Kremlin-approved parties that profited from the antigovernment protest vote—the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the faux-opposition A Just Russia party—appear unlikely to stimulate reform. The election results thus reflected deep disillusionment with Putin, but utterly failed to provide a road map to future change.
In recent remarks made at the Heritage Foundation, House Speaker John Boehner said that “in Russia’s use of old tools and old thinking, we see nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence.” In using this formulation the Speaker gets things only half right. Moscow is undeniably seeking ways to reassert power and influence. But Russia’s Putin-era effort to flex its muscles is not in the Soviet mold, as the Speaker suggests. The contemporary effort represents, instead, a modern, adaptive form of authoritarianism, whose particular methods and tools pose new challenges.
One of the most popular items pinging back and forth across the internet is the infamousvideo report on the glitzy extravaganza sponsored by the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to celebrate both his birthday and the unveiling of a series of lavish new buildings in the Chechen capital, Grozny. What made the spectacle especially notable was the presence of several celebrities from the world’s great democracies, including American actress Hilary Swank and the Belgian-born Hollywood action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme. In her words of appreciation, Swank said she “could feel the spirit of the people, and everyone was so happy.” “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” she added.