While I don’t pretend to be an expert on Canadian politics and society, I study Russia for a living and this New York Times Op-Ed by University of Montreal professors Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour strikes me as exactly right:
WHEN Vladimir V. Putin first came to power in Russia, Quebecers could not help but laugh. Poutine, as he is called in French, is also the name of a Québécois fast-food dish made of French fries, gravy and cheese. But these days the laughter is over, as Quebec gets a taste of Mr. Putin’s medicine.
This assertion is not hyperbole, given the draconian Bill 78 adopted by the provincial government of Jean Charest. Charest, a “liberal,” is clearly also an authoritarian, given the formidable police powers he has focused on the student resistance to massive tuition increases. Under Bill 78, Mr. Putin’s Moscow Police (and they are his Moscow police–he just elevated Moscow’s police chief to Minister of the Interior) and Montreal’s police (in particular) could almost be twins seperated at birth. Certainly, the world was hardly shocked when Moscow police descended on one of the largest mass protests in the Putin era, in which 20,000 demonstrators tried to express their displeasure with the dubious presidential election results on March 5th or the brutal crack-down on the May 6th demonstrations. That these largely peaceful rallies were subjected to mass arrests, with independent journalists being roughed up and leaders detained fits right into the Western narrative on the authoritarianism of Putin. But now fast-forward to the Quebec of May 23rd and where is the difference in tactics? All over Quebec, police have made arrests and threatened independent media , including an astounding 518 arrested in Montreal alone. Yes, Moscow police have arrested nearly 1000 people since the beginning of demonstrations, but the Montreal police have arrested at least 2500. It goes without saying that with controversial tactics such as “kettling,” many protesters have been roughed up in Quebec just as in Moscow. The real difference between Quebec and Russia? Quebec has codified into law a much more repressive regime than Russia. Bill 78 grants the government powers that Putin wishes he had–and therefore he is going about getting them. The “free speech” provision of Bill 78, that “Anyone who helps or induces a person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same offense,” is beyond even what Putin has asked for, though Joe Stalin certainly would have approved (just take a look at the infamous Article 58–under which so many millions were sent to the Gulag– especially clause 11). So here, the government of Quebec is giving lessons to an attentive Putin how to suppress inconvenient dissent.
Lest anyone think that Mr. Putin and the western neo-liberals such as Mr. Charest are worlds apart, remember Putin has accomplished an impressive record of neo-liberal social engineering–in particular developing a low “flat tax” (beloved of conservative parties the world over), “reformed” pensions and “monetized” social welfare programs such as the provisioning of health services (slashing benefits in the process) and harassment of independent unions (despite his Potemkin use of the official union to present a May Day solidarity tableau with the workers). He only modestly reversed the oligarchic “privatization” of the 1990s (much to the disgust of the Western business press) and has been mobilizing elite youth to state controlled “voluntarism” in ways that mirror neoliberal pablum on “a thousand points of life” or “the big society.” His alliance with the Orthodox Church to legitimize the state while making it a major distributor of charity fits very much with various right-wing “faith-based initiatives.” It is hardly accidental that this most anti-socialist of Russia’s politicians believes the social safety net should be administered as a charity, not an entitlement, by “social organizations” (in reality, the most socially conservative institutions in that society pressing archaic social norms like the patriarchal family on recipients of state aid). Indeed, Putin has been so effective in pursuing neo-liberal policies that perceptive observers of Russian politics such as Boris Kagarlitsky have long understood the Russian political system as a hybrid ne0-liberal autocracy. Such “hybrids” have, of course, been known before.
So, it seems to me both Mr. Charest and Mr. Putin both believe in administering the same neoliberal medicine of privatization and gutting the welfare state (especially state-supported education), but with Bill 78 Mr. Charest is opting for naked police-state tactics that Mr. Putin has long preferred, but neglected to legally codify. It seems to me that Mr. Putin is not simply providing not simply a taste of the medicine to Mr. Charest he has been doling out in Russia lo these many years, but has provided a virtual Putinian transfusion into Quebec’s body politic. By their unsanctioned marches and loud banging of pots (a tactic favored by Russians during the “anti-monetization” demonstrations of 2005), the citizens of Montreal and Quebec are showing an allergy to these methods. I hope they reject the transfusion completely.