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Vladimir Putin Has One Reliable Set of Allies: Russia’s Iron Ladies
Vladimir Putin Has One Reliable Set of Allies: Russia’s Iron Ladies
Kenya: Averting an Avoidable Crisis
Kenya: Averting an Avoidable Crisis

Vladimir Putin Has One Reliable Set of Allies: Russia’s Iron Ladies

Originally published in The Guardian

The president’s useful anti-feminists legitimise a slide towards a patriarchal society – and offer no political challenge to his macho leadership.

Strength, patriotism, patriarchal values and a macho leadership style characterise Vladimir Putin’s current term as president. Strangely, this traditionalist authoritarian agenda has often been promoted by women.

The few Russian women who are represented in the highest federal posts – just 15.8% of the parliamentarians in the Duma, three of its 33 ministers and three of 85 regional governors – are usually responsible for “social policies” – healthcare, education, or social issues. Many female MPs are elected in accordance with common stereotypes of female leaders – celebrities, cosmonauts, Olympic champions and television hosts. All are expected to be cooperative and family oriented: in December, several female MPs protested against long parliamentary sessions, saying they needed to be home in time to feed their husbands.

The few liberal women who make it to the upper federal posts are either high-level, professional technocrats helping the regime run smoothly, or women with reputations as democrats who help legitimise non-democratic procedures. But they do not shape the political agenda.

Instead Putin can call on one special, truly politically active cohort of women: the conservative, pro-religion anti-feminists. Putin’s iron ladies have a crucial function in propaganda, politics and the initiating of decisive laws. Feminist scholars posit that including women in decision-making leads to policies that are more responsible, less confrontational and more likely to address issues of interest to women and ordinary citizens. However, Putin’s female political elite mostly refutes such an analysis.

The role models are women such as senator and ex-MP Yelena Mizulina, famed for her comment: “Even when a man beats his wife it doesn’t hurt as much as humiliation hurts a man.” Mizulina initiated the recent decriminalisation of domestic battery and the notorious 2013 law banning gay “propaganda”. She consistently advocates a ban on abortion, or the need for parents’ or a husband’s permission – despite the fact that only 12% of Russian women support an abortion ban. She also calls for the elimination of surrogate motherhood, and the seizing of children from gay couples – and advocates naming Orthodoxy as “the basis of national and cultural distinctness of Russia” in the constitution.

Putin can call on one special, truly politically active cohort of women: the conservative, pro-religion anti-feminists.

Putin’s anti-feminists champion repressive, controversial laws and practices. These include: restrictions on rallies and demonstrations; the “foreign agents” law that paralysed and stigmatised NGOs with foreign funding; curbs on civic freedoms and intellectual debates; and support for the state’s intervention in citizens’ privacy. The latest package of laws proposed by MP Irina Yarovayarequires telecommunications companies to assist the government in breaking into encrypted messages, increases the penalties for “extremism” and bans praying outside of “specially designated places”.

The human rights ombudswoman, police general Tatyana Moskalkova, supported the Chechen authorities’ policy of burning down the homes of insurgents’ family members. In 2012, after the protest by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s cathedral of Christ the Saviour, for which three of its members got two years in prison, she proposed a law criminalising any “assault on morality”.

In this way Putin’s conservative female cohort help to shape and legitimise state ideology and propaganda, which compensate for a lack of reform and defunct institutions, and strengthen a regime that depends on these women to forge popular support. Propaganda portrays Russia as a distinct centre of power with unique values and “spiritual bonds” that combine Soviet, imperial and Orthodox values in a unified world view.

This eclecticism makes it easy to sell and promote the “Putin brand”: that of a pragmatic, strong, traditional leader, embodying masculine behaviour, and representing a resurgent Russia that challenges and offers an alternative to the “morally corrupt west”. According to Olga Vasilyeva, Russia’s education and science minister: “It is impossible to build the future without a foundation, and that foundation is patriotism – anything else is unimaginable.” She referred positively to Joseph Stalin, who, in her view, revived patriotism.

Putin’s female elite come from different generations, backgrounds and political pedigrees, from Soviet-era communist bosses and former democrats of the 1990s to young nationalists and Orthodox activists. Anna Kuznetsova, the new ombudswoman for children, is a 35-year-old ultra-conservative mother of six, wife of an Orthodox priest, and a monarchist. Natalia Poklonskaya, currently an MP, and popular as “the most beautiful prosecutor of Russia”, mobilised support for the annexation of Crimea.

Putin’s conservative female cohort help to shape and legitimise state ideology and propaganda, which compensate for a lack of reform and defunct institutions...

Poklonskaya is on the west’s sanctions list for Ukraine as are several others of Putin’s female elite, who zealously support Russia’s involvement in conflicts abroad. It was Valentina Matviyenko, an ex-Communist party leader who is now the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, who gathered members of the senate for an emergency session in 2014 to give President Putin permission to use armed troops in Ukraine. Matvienko promotes cooperation between the state and the Orthodox church, and resists external attempts to “impose alien values” on Russia.

The Kremlin clearly sees these conservative women as useful in legitimising Russia’s slide towards a patriarchal society, promoting security services’ repressive agendas and setting standards of female political behaviour. And when someone like Mizulina proposes extreme traditionalist measures, the Kremlin can curb her initiatives, signalling to society that if not for Putin, obscurantists would rule.

Still, these women enjoy more political freedom than men because they are not seen as political rivals. A recent pollby the Levada Center showed that 54% of Russians don’t want a female president, and 38% don’t want to see women in a senior government role, a 10% increase from last year. Meanwhile, Russia’s future public leaders, mostly men, tend to be bred in closed security institutions and carefully monitored for their loyalty.

Propaganda about “traditional” values works effectively in Russia. Society adapts to its new marching orders, while the acute problems faced by Russian women – domestic violence, unequal pay, the stigmatisation of rape victims, and grave violations of women’s rights in the conflict-torn region of the North Caucasus – remain in obscurity, and unaddressed.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, his wife and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga arrive at the Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, on 22 January 2016. ​REUTERS/Noor Khamis
Statement / Africa

Kenya: Averting an Avoidable Crisis

Kenya’s ongoing electoral standoff could be compounded further if opposition leader Raila Odinga proceeds with a "swearing-in" ceremony that might elicit a tough response from President Kenyatta. To avert the risk of further protests, destruction and bloodshed, all actors should redouble efforts to broker a last-minute deal.

Kenya’s political crisis could come to a head on Tuesday 30 January 2018. Opposition leader Raila Odinga is expected to stage a swearing-in ceremony as the “people’s president” after two contentious elections in 2017. President Uhuru Kenyatta – who was declared victor of those elections – is reportedly readying a tough response, including the arrest of opposition leaders. This could provoke protests, further police crackdowns and much avoidable destruction and bloodshed, while deepening already dangerous levels of polarisation. Time is running short, but both sides should urgently show restraint: Odinga should call off the ceremony; President Kenyatta should agree to an audit of Kenya’s electoral authorities. Kenyan leaders also should consider some form of national convention to discuss reforms to lower the stakes of political competition.

Last year’s presidential election, held on 8 August, pitted incumbent President Kenyatta against veteran opposition leader Odinga. The electoral commission announced a Kenyatta win, with 54.27 per cent of the vote. Odinga challenged the validity of the vote at the Supreme Court. In a historic decision, the judges annulled the election. Their ruling did not show evidence of mass fraud or question the outcome of the election, but found widespread irregularities and illegalities in the tallying, tabulation and transmission of results. The court ordered a new vote “in strict conformity with the constitution and applicable election laws”. This decision was welcomed by many as a healthy – and, in Africa, unprecedented – sign of judicial independence.  

In its aftermath, however, both Kenyatta and Odinga responded with measures that deepened the crisis and widened societal division. Kenyatta, who would have gained from supporting a rerun that could have given him a clearer mandate, instead lashed out at the judges. His allies in parliament passed legislation curtailing the role of courts in future elections, while state security forces killed dozens of protesting opposition supporters. In turn, Odinga insisted, without offering compelling evidence, that he had won the 8 August election. He issued a raft of conditions – most of which were reasonable but many unrealistic in the period before the repeat ballot – for his participation. Some two weeks before the repeat election, he withdrew, citing inadequate electoral reform. Without the main opposition leader, the 26 October vote became in effect a one-man show: Kenyatta garnered 98 per cent of the vote, but with a turnout of only 39 per cent, down from 77 per cent in the first round.

The oath-taking might in principle satisfy core supporters but in practice would achieve little in terms of advancing their interests.

Since then, the standoff has only worsened. Kenyatta has rejected all efforts by religious leaders, civil society, the business community and diplomats to persuade him to engage his rival. Odinga continues to demand fresh elections and, given Kenyatta’s rejection of talks, repeatedly threatened to organise his own swearing-in ceremony and declare himself the “people’s president”. Having postponed several such ceremonies over past months, he has now set the date for 30 January. Kenyatta’s naming, on 26 January, of his full cabinet – appointing only ruling party supporters, in essence closing the door to any form of power-sharing – has foreclosed one option for defusing tensions. This has arguably further spurred the opposition to proceed with the 30 January ceremony, which it plans to hold in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi. Authorities say that venue is off limits, setting the stage for possible clashes between security forces and Odinga supporters arriving in the capital from opposition strongholds or informal settlements around the capital.

Pulling back from the brink

Odinga and Kenyatta are playing a high-stakes game of brinkmanship. Given deep social polarisation and a history of violent clashes between protesters and police, the two leaders’ actions could result in significant bloodshed. They need to pull back. Donors, civil society and business leaders should press both sides to accept some form of compromise to avert a dangerous escalation on 30 January. Western diplomats in particular, who continue to enjoy access to and influence with both men, should redouble efforts to broker a last-minute deal.

Such a deal would involve, first, Odinga calling off tomorrow’s ceremony. The oath-taking might in principle satisfy core supporters but in practice would achieve little in terms of advancing their interests. In return, Kenyatta should initiate talks with the opposition and accept an audit of the electoral system. Thus far, the ruling party portrays such an audit as unwarranted and Odinga’s demand for reform as a sign he cannot accept defeat. But a credible voting system is critical for Kenya’s democracy. While election officials operated in a tough environment, under relentless attack from politicians, the fact is that they failed to gain the trust of much of the electorate, which viewed them as both ineffective and partisan. An independent, time-bound audit would study the electoral commission’s work and develop recommendations for improving future elections.

Donors, civil society and business leaders should press both sides to accept some form of compromise to avert a dangerous escalation on 30 January.

If efforts to strike such a deal are unsuccessful, and the parallel oath-taking goes ahead, President Kenyatta should order the police to exercise restraint and avoid lethal force against protesters. He should also refrain from a crackdown on the opposition, which would only stir protests and further damage an economy struggling to recover from the crisis around last year’s elections. Kenya is routinely named as one of Africa’ most attractive destinations for foreign investment. But repeated clashes on the streets, particularly if they risk further instability, will do little to attract such investment and the badly needed jobs it creates. Politicians from all sides should refrain from inciting violence.

Lowering the political temperature

While the current crisis was triggered by the disputed 8 August vote, its roots run deeper. Since independence, successive Kenyan leaders have entrenched a system of ethnic divide-and-rule, inherited from British colonial administrators, and used an all-powerful and largely unaccountable presidency to reward ethnic allies. Notwithstanding reforms prompted by the violent crisis after the 2007 election, which resulted in a new constitution in 2010 that devolved power, established new checks on executive authority and entrenched judicial independence, Kenyan presidential elections remain winner-takes-all battles for power and control over state largesse. They involve fraught struggles between ethnic coalitions rather than contests over competing policy agendas or political visions for the country.

Ideally, a last-minute deal along the lines described above could create space for further steps to cool the political temperature and seek ways to improve the nature of political competition in future elections. Parliament, in which Kenyatta’s ruling party and its allies holds a plurality of seats with 193 out of 349 seats, should consider the creation of a position of official opposition leader, with a budget and perks. This would offer an olive branch to Odinga, reflect the support he commands (according to the electoral commission’s results he won some 45 per cent of votes in August) and help dial down tensions. It also would be a step toward greater inclusivity. Indeed, such a measure should be considered even if Odinga’s ceremony goes ahead.

Kenya’s leaders should also consider some form of national convention to review ways to reverse the zero-sum nature of elections. Power-sharing, which was used to resolve the 2007 crisis, appears no longer to be an option, since Kenyatta has named his cabinet. Both camps, however, might be open to talks on reform that could help end the cycle of election-driven political crises. These could consider farther-reaching reforms than those in the 2010 constitution, perhaps even examining the presidential system itself to widen representation in the executive. Such reform would likely be unpalatable so soon after a presidential election, but might be considered ahead of the next vote, scheduled in 2022. Moderates like respected former chief justice Willy Mutunga have called for such a convention to discuss fundamental structural reforms that might avert similar crises in future.

Kenya is one of Africa’s better established democracies and the economic and transport hub of East Africa. But its image and position are tarnished by repeated election crises. The 2010 constitution goes a long way toward improving Kenya’s political system and is justifiably a source of pride for the country. But last year’s protracted election crisis suggests further reforms are necessary. The country’s leaders – and Kenyatta and Odinga in particular – should move away from their confrontational positions and instead seek a path toward greater stability and prosperity.