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Commentary: For Virginia state government, secrecy is too often the norm
What do you have the right to know about what your state government is doing?
In Virginia, not a lot.
Virginia, like the federal government and all 49 other states, has a freedom of information law that rests on the idea that the public’s business should be accessible to the public. Governments are allowed to keep certain sensitive business secret, but it’s on them to justify why the secrecy is important enough to deviate from the norm of giving the public access to public information.
We don’t do it that way; if we’re being honest, everyone in Richmond knows that. In practice, Virginia government too frequently operates as if the Freedom of Information Act were reversed: Secrecy is the norm, and it’s the public who has the burden of justifying why the state should deviate from that and make documents open and accessible.
Here’s how it stands in Virginia.
The General Assembly isn’t subject to FOIA laws. You have no right to see lawmakers’ emails, correspondence, or other internal business.
Judges aren’t subject to FOIA.
The State Corporation Commission oversees utilities, banking, insurance, and other business-related sectors and isn’t subject to FOIA.
The governor’s office and the Office of the Attorney General technically are, but secrecy exemptions written into FOIA have been construed so broadly that they routinely block the release of information on tenuous grounds.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration’s recent refusal to release 87 of 90 records related to the crafting of the Virginia Department of Education’s abrupt policy shift on the treatment of transgender students is a case in point.
Ben Paviour, a reporter at a public radio station and NPR affiliate VPM News, recently requested all drafts of the new model policies, any email correspondence related to those drafts and records that include the words “trans” or “transgender” in emails with Superintendent Jillian Balow between Aug. 1 and Sept. 19 of this year.
The Virginia Department of Education acknowledged it had 90 records responsive to his request. But it chose to withhold 87 of them — a chunk that amounted to 315 pages of documents — citing the “Governor’s Confidential Working Papers” exemption in FOIA.
The transgender issue isn’t the point here. The point is that if you’re going to construe correspondence and documents related to public policy changes within the executive branch as “confidential working papers,” then you’re basically saying the public doesn’t have the right to know what decisions are based on. You just want them to trust you.
Youngkin isn’t the only Virginia governor to use the working papers exemption as a shield, although his administration does appear to be leaning into it with enthusiasm. Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe cited the same exemption to claim he didn’t have to release a list of the roughly 206,000 felons whose rights he restored in one fell swoop.
Virginia’s FOIA Council said McAuliffe did — but the FOIA Council is advisory only and can’t make anyone do anything. McAuliffe didn’t agree to release the list until he was sued by Loudoun County’s commonwealth’s attorney, and a civil settlement was reached. By that time, the whole issue was moot because the Supreme Court of Virginia had decided the governor hadn’t had the power to carry out a mass rights restoration that way.
There’s an important lesson Virginia’s government sends here: We might be denying access to documents unlawfully, but you’ll have to sue us to make us reverse course. That will be expensive, and it will take a very long time, and probably by the time it is resolved, the information will be largely irrelevant.
The General Assembly sometimes will pull itself together to make vague noises of concern, but again, its members aren’t subject to FOIA themselves. And they’re hardly models of transparency either.
Let’s not forget that the legislature’s system of crafting the state budget via conference committee means small groups of legislators end up negotiating billions in spending behind closed doors.
Officials will often tell you, striking a tone of wistful regret, that their hands are tied when it comes to exemptions.
They aren’t. The exemptions are not absolute prohibitions. State and local governments can choose to withhold records under the FOIA exemptions — and while sometimes that choice is clearly the responsible and right decision, it is indeed a choice, one that is supposed to rest on whether the need for secrecy outweighs the norm that the business being done for the public should be open to the public.
Politicians of all parties like to tout transparency. So let’s be transparent here: In Virginia, more often than not, the government doesn’t actually think you have the right to know what it’s doing.
A sampling of recent Virginia FOIA controversies
- Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office refused to disclose communications with the Virginia Department of Education regarding major education policy decisions on school COVID-19 guidelines and equity initiatives, as well as communications with the Virginia Community College System over the hunt for a new chancellor. (Virginia Mercury)
- News organizations sued the Youngkin administration to try to gain access to the information coming into the education tipline the governor publicized as a way to stop the teaching of critical race theory in schools. (Associated Press)
- The Supreme Court of Virginia refused to unseal judicial disciplinary records detailing the suspension from the bench of a Virginia Beach judge who also served as chair of the Virginia Parole Board. (Virginia Mercury)
- Emergency management officials refused to release details about Virginia’s hiring of an outside consulting firm to help boost PPE and testing resources during the earliest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, including 120 pages of recommendations and reports on the state’s handling of the crisis. (Virginia Mercury)
- During then Gov. Ralph Northam’s tenure, the executive branch redacted nearly all of the Office of the State Inspector General’s report on alleged misconduct by the Virginia Parole Board. (Virginia Mercury)
- Democrats advanced legislation to expand the working papers exemption to two recently created cabinet-level positions. (Virginia Mercury)Northam argued he doesn’t have to reveal his calendar because of the working papers exemption (Virginia Mercury)
- Then Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration and Virginia State Police resisted FOIA requests related to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, including requests from the former federal prosecutor the city hired to review how public safety failures allowed violence to break out. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
- McAuliffe refused to release an independent investigation by Virginia State Police into an incident where a Black University of Virginia student was slammed to the ground and bloodied by Virginia ABC police. (Virginian-Pilot)
- A judge fined former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn $500 for an overly dismissive FOIA response her office sent to a Northern Virginia lawyer seeking records about her decision to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol. (WTVR)
- Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli argued that FOIA doesn’t apply to the Office of the Attorney General. He later walked the claim back. (Washington Post)
by Sarah Vogelsong, Virginia Mercury
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
Revitalize or Die
At the northern terminus of Sky Line Drive in the Shenandoah Valley sits the town of Front Royal, Virginia; a town of around 15,000 situated in one of most spectacular natural settings one can imagine. I visited Front Royal last week to facilitate a Civic Pride Workshop. The Director of the Chamber of Commerce, Niki Foster, reached out and said she felt her community was dealing with a number of the issues I discuss in my writing. She explained she was worried that apathy was taking hold of her town and was hoping to try and stir up some emotions. I feel like this is my calling in life and I was excited for the chance to help.
It was a stunning drive down from Pittsburgh, through Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. Moody skies, winding roads and hundred year old farms guided the way. After checking in to my hotel, Niki gave me the tour around town. Taco Bell, CVS, Rural King, Dunkin’- the depressing suburban staples of commerce had not passed over Front Royal. The tour continued out to the new hospital, we passed by the subdivisions and headed back towards what seemed like the center of town, but we arrived at more sprawl. Growing a little concerned, I asked my host if there was, in fact, a downtown. I mean I was pretty sure I had seen photos of it before visiting, but I couldn’t figure it where I was in context to our tour. Niki laughed off my question and explained that we would be visiting downtown shortly, for dinner. Downtown was charming, a narrow Main Street with four of five blocks of two and three story mixed-use buildings filled with cute shops and restaurants. We dined at a fantastic downtown brewery and were joined by a some of the cities most ardent supporters.
On my way out for a run the next morning, I ended up on the front porch of my bed and breakfast, looking for some stairs. The scene was both stunning and depressing. The town is nestled in a valley and the sun was just beginning to peek over the ridge line of the range to the east. The scene would have been breathtaking if not for the enormous Super 8 and McDonald’s signs blocking the view.
I can imagine that not long ago, this old bed and breakfast would have enjoyed uninterrupted views across this picturesque valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains providing a dramatic setting for every morning’s day break. While still beautiful, certainly not the same. The development that has proliferated over the last 50 years is a scar on the landscape and in complete conflict to its surroundings.
There is no context to these buildings, no consideration as to how to blend in or interact with something so special. How could such a gorgeous scene ever been allowed to be so mistreated? How could so many paradises been paved and so many parking lots put up?
I continued my run with this stark contrast on my mind, knowing that development does not have to be at odds with its surroundings. For thousands of years, it wasn’t- and I decided to make this point in my talk later that morning. I took a photo of a downtown restaurant and a suburban one. I took a photo of some downtown shops and some suburban ones. I took a photo of a suburban plaza and a downtown plaza and I took a photo of a busy suburban street and Main Street.
Everyone always asks my impressions when I come to their town, so I made the decision to start my talk there. I explained that Front Royal had a lovely and quaint downtown and historic residential district that they appeared to be hiding from outsiders by placing trash all around it. This got me some questionable looks. I explained that the best part of town was nearly hidden to passersby. All the good stuff has been encircled by all the bad stuff and now it’s hard to find the good stuff. Nods of agreement, albeit some rather reluctant.
It’s hard to hear criticism of your town. I get it. Who really wants some outsider coming in to tell you what they really think? But that’s the job. I don’t believe we afford ourselves a chance to improve if we aren’t first honest about our problems. Sometimes things are great, sometimes we make mistakes. It’s okay, but we have to be able to admit them to address them. While I might be more popular if I were to tell towns how great they are, I feel like this would be a disservice to them and their efforts.
Front Royal had repeated the same mistakes of every American town and developed in a manner that facilities a loss of beauty, community, local wealth and local pride. It’s my job to help cities stem the tide of apathy by fostering civic pride. One of the ways this happens is through beauty and aesthetics, another is through local ownership. So with this in mind, I showed the crowd the photos I had taken that morning.
Behind me, on a theater screen, a photo came up of a locally owned restaurant in the downtown, then I put up one of a chain restaurant. I asked the crowd which one they preferred. No big surprise. Same with the set of shops- local stores vs chains. Again with a hotel, and a plaza and the same with Main Street and a sprawl street. In each case, the crowd nearly unanimously stated they preferred the locally owned older downtown version. I explained that they are providing the same service, but in a vastly different manner.
So I asked the crowd, if everyone prefers the locally owned, smaller, cuter, older version, then why do they only build the newer chain version that no one prefers? Why did Front Royal, or any town for that matter, stop building what everyone prefers and insist on building what no one likes?
This is the question all of us should be asking of our towns. How did we get into a situation where only the ‘stuff no one likes’ gets built? Why would a town decide to scar the immaculate landscape for a restaurant no one claims to like? Why do we only build the type of housing that people don’t seem to prefer? What the hell happened? Why are we building this trash?
We bought into a narrative and much to our detriment. We’ve been sold the idea that all development is good. That all investment is healthy and that to be relevant, a town has to take part in the sprawl Ponzi scheme. We squandered something beautiful under the guise that sprawl would bring us more jobs, more money and more convenience, but it has done none of those things.
Sprawl robs communities of their money, it replaces good jobs with bad jobs, the authentic businesses with cookie cutter chains, it pulls people apart and destroys natural beauty. It makes no attempt to blend in with the surroundings, it shows no concern for local taste or history, it does not give- it only takes. It adds nothing of value and takes everything of value.
The situation Front Royal finds itself in, is the same in every town across the country. We attempted something different with the built environment and simply put- it failed. It has been an abject disaster and we must accept that sprawl development will never make our communities better, it can only do them harm.
Going back to question I asked of the audience, why have they stopped building what people prefer? Someone answered “Demand.”, but the audience was nearly 100% in favor of type of development that is no longer built, so that doesn’t add up. Someone else said “Cost.”, and yes, sprawl is cheaper for those who build it, but exceedingly expensive for the community. Another person added money into the mix, but sprawl takes money out of the community. There was a lot of head scratching, really. What have we done?!
And this is where we find ourselves. Continuing to build in a manner that makes our places worse. We tried sprawl and it didn’t work and now we have to be able to say no to it. We have to raise the standards that sprawl depressed. We have to begin the process of pulling out the codes that only allow for more sprawl. We have to turn our backs on the people that continue to push this agenda and attempt to sell us something that is patently bad for us.
Front Royal is beautiful, it is special and it is a place that is worth fiercely defending. I am grateful for the community for inviting me and for spending a day with me to discuss these topics that I believe are vital to the future. What I would like to leave the residents of Front Royal with is this; it is your decision. The shape of your community is up to you. No one from outside can tell you what your community should look like and how it should behave. No developer or national chain should have the ability to destroy something you hold dear. No one gets to dictate how your community is built except the people of your community. Because the sad truth of the matter is this- with each parking lot, fast food joint and big box store, a place gets a little worse, the landscape a little less inspiring and a community becomes a little harder to love. With each new bit of sprawl, it becomes harder for residents to remember what once mattered about their town and harder to locate that sense of civic pride. As appearances decline and attachments dwindle, there is only one thing capable of filing the void, and that is apathy. And we must be vigilant in our efforts to stem the tide of apathy.
Revitalize or Die
Will Warren County School Board vote to give your tax monies to the liberal lobbying group VSBA? (Virginia School Board Association)
Do you say the VSBA isn’t run by liberals? A search of https://www.fec.gov/ shows that many of the board members have given to ActBlue (an American nonprofit technology organization that enables left-leaning nonprofits, Democratic candidates, and progressive groups to raise money), with some giving to Al Sharpton for Prez, Obama for Prez, Dems for NY House, John Brown for Congress and more.
VSBA’s main stated goal is to be a strong lobbying voice for School Boards in Richmond. But what they lobby for is the liberal WOK agenda and more. Still not convinced?
VSBA also sponsors seminars for school board members where they have had speakers come to tell them how terrible Younkin will be and to make sure he and Republicans are not elected. (They lost that election) And they asked board members to lobby their delegates in Richmond to restrict the gun rights of Virginia residents and other liberal ideologies.
You might say that is all in the past, but a look at a future seminar sponsored by VSBA has speakers like Kenita Matthews, who is part of the Biden-Harris Administration. That doesn’t sound non-partisan. And there is Dr. Fagan, a “Leadership, Diversity, and inclusion scholar, and practitioner.” She is the founder of Global Leadership Group providing consulting and leadership coaching to an organization, communities, and executives in the field of Diversity, Inclusion, and other WOK ideologies. (Yes, I added the last part)
So really, the VSBA has been and still is a liberal lobbying group and if you don’t want your tax monies going to support such a group, then come on out October 5th, 7 pm at Warren County Government Center to let your school board know where you stand.
Remember, only you can stop the Liberal WOK agenda from destroying our schools by showing up.
Front Royal, VA
Are You Struggling To Start Your Day Off Right?
Are you struggling to start your day off right? Do you feel overwhelmed by the number of things that need to get done?
If you’re looking to start your day positively, you need to have a plan. And there are a lot of ways to start your day positively.
Getting up early in the morning might not be everyone’s favorite thing to do. But starting your day off right is important for your productivity and keeping you focused throughout the day.
Many of us wake up in the morning and ask ourselves, “How am I going to start my day?”
When you’re unsure what to do first, it can be hard to start off positively. In this post, we’ll talk about some simple things you can do to start your day positively and feel more productive and less stressed out.
Positive Ways To Start Your Day
One of the biggest challenges for most people trying to be productive is starting the day off right. Trying to get some serious work done is usually not as easy as just waking up and working for hours straight.
Your brain wants to rest, so you’ll feel sluggish, tired, and unmotivated for the first few hours. That’s why it’s essential that you find a way to start your day on a positive note so that you can build momentum from there on.
For starters, the most important thing you can do is stop and breathe. Most of us don’t do this at all or tend to ignore it, which is why our minds get overloaded and stressed out.
When you’re feeling calm, you’re less likely to get frustrated over things, and you’re more likely to perform better. Start off the day by taking time to clear your head and center yourself.
The next thing you need to do is drink some water. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day keeps you hydrated and replenishes your body. The other reason you should drink water is that it’s a great way to flush out toxins in your system.
Another way to start your day positively is to exercise. Going for a walk or jogging, if you can, will give you more energy to get things done, and it’ll make you feel better.
These are a few of the best ways to start your day positively. You can pick and choose what you want to do, but just ensure that you’re starting off on the right foot.
Prepare The Night Before
Most people spend their entire day running around doing whatever they need to do. But most people have no idea how to prepare for the day ahead.
Instead, you should come up with a simple and short list of things you’re going to do each day before you start your day – preferably the night before.
If you do this, you’ll be able to get your head in the right place as the day progresses. You’ll know what you need to do and what you need to leave to other people to do.
You’ll know what you need to do and leave it to other people, and you’ll also know what needs to be done the next day. This will make your day more efficient, and you’ll be able to do more of what you need to do without having to run around trying to figure out what you need to do.
You’ll then be able to spend your day in a productive manner, without wasting any time, and actually get a lot more done than you ever thought possible.
Organize Your Day
There are many reasons why people fail to progress on their goals. Most times, it’s due to one thing or another that keeps them from actually achieving anything.
That being said, one of the most common reasons people give for failing to accomplish any of their goals is a lack of organization. They don’t know how to prioritize things, they don’t know what steps they need to take to get to the next step, and so on.
If you’re looking to get to your goals, you will need to become organized. That means creating a to-do list that will help you make the necessary moves and follow through on them. You’ll need to take your goals very seriously and make sure you put them on your to-do list every day.
You might start off small, but before you know it, you’ll have several tasks on your list. Before you know it, you’ll be on the road to accomplishing your goals.
In order to do this, you’re going to have to figure out the most important thing you need to accomplish. If you’re just setting your goals and not putting them into action, you’ll never actually progress towards them.
You can think of your to-do list as a simple calendar. Every day, you’ll write down what you want to accomplish for the day, what’s the most important task to get done, and what’s the least important.
You can also add your goals to your to-do list. The easiest way to do this is to write them down in an actual physical calendar. When you’re out and about, you can simply flip to that day and see what you need to get done that day.
It’s really as easy as that. Now, you might be wondering if you should also include your dreams on your to-do list. While dreams are great, they’re not really meant to be accomplished in such a short timeframe.
You can always write those down, but they’re only meant to be a part of your overall goals. After all, achieving your dreams is much easier once you’ve already achieved your other goals.
If you’re having a hard time thinking of what your to-do list should look like, you can use the following method to help you:
Break your to-do list into smaller parts. You want to break your to-do list into parts that are easy to complete. Don’t think of it as a giant list.
Think about what you need to do and what your to-do list should look like.
Break it down into the most important steps, then continue from there. By breaking it down into smaller steps, you will be able to accomplish your goals and reach your dreams.
Once your goals are set, your to-do list should be relatively easy to figure out.
When it comes to achieving your goals, there’s no better time than now. You might not be able to start now, but once you get going, you’re sure to get moving. You can’t start now and then wait for the right moment to get started.
The right moment is now. You just need to get up and get going.
Commentary: Why not Virginia? An open letter to Florida, Texas guvs on immigrant junkets
Dear Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida,
I have watched with keen interest your kind efforts to provide free transportation for new immigrants to visit some of our nation’s grand cities.
I recall the time in my childhood when I first saw the gleaming towers of New York City – magical sights I had only glimpsed in movies and on our black-and-white TV of buildings that seemed to comb the clouds.
Same for Washington, D.C., and its venerable sites such as the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, the White House and the Pentagon – symbols of American freedom and might known worldwide.
Ditto for Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. The list goes on and on.
To round up these new arrivals from abroad — the tired and the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, as it were — from their entry points in your states and whisk them off on one-way chartered bus and airplane junkets to these enchanting metropolises with literally just the clothes on their backs is so darn … special.
But come on, guys. Spread the wealth!
So far, you’ve shared these new Americans-by-choice only with political jurisdictions governed by Democrats.
For instance, New York City: The mayor is Democrat Eric Adams, and it’s in a state whose governor is Democrat Kathy Hochul. Chicago’s mayor is Democrat Lori Lightfoot, and another Democrat, J.B. Pritzker, is the governor of Illinois. The mayor of our nation’s capital, Muriel Bowser, is also a Democrat, as are the mayors of L.A. and San Francisco and the governor of California.
Y’all sensing a pattern here?
You both have an embarrassment of riches – particularly you, Gov. Abbott, with families crossing the Rio Grande in unprecedented numbers in their flight from the brutality, lawlessness and repression of failing communist regimes in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua. These folks, children and adults, have trod thousands of dangerous, blistering miles across South and Central America to reach the land of the free and the home of the brave so they can feed and shelter their families.
And, Gov. Abbott, you have a point that migrants are crossing the border with Mexico, including your state, in increasingly high numbers, a fun fact borne out by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s own data. It shows that more than 200,000 a month have entered by the southern border since March.
So I get it. Texas shouldn’t be expected to handle this solo. To a lesser extent, same goes for Florida and the refugees who reach its shores from Cuba, still an insular gulag and an economic basket case 63 years after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution.
Then why limit your immigrant excursions to cities and states governed by the opposition party? That I don’t get.
Consider my beloved Virginia. Opportunity abounds here!
Almost every year, the financial news cable network CNBC ranks our commonwealth either the very best or among the top states for business. And those businesses need workers! Bigly!
Across the spectrum, from private business to government offices, people left the workforce during the “great resignation” at the height of the pandemic with no plans to return, a phenomenon not reflected in unemployment statistics. Many businesses are so short of staff that they burn their employees out working them overtime just to keep their burgeoning backlogs manageable.
Why are these people enduring such peril and privation to reach the United States? For freedom and security, yes, but specifically for jobs: An honest day’s wages for an honest day’s labor. What they need, Virginia has.
Yes, there are states more needy, but WalletHub ranks Virginia ninth in its research on states where employers are struggling the most with hiring. The same study shows conditions are less dire for employers in Texas (ranked 26th) and the Sunshine State (46th).
And Virginians are among the most giving folks in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. Its research ranks Virginia as the eighth most charitable state. Not to throw shade on your states, sirs, but the same survey ranks Florida 37th and Texas 40th. (OK, I was throwing shade.)
Surely you’re not holding out on us because our governor, Glenn Youngkin, is a Republican, as are our lieutenant governor, attorney general and lower legislative chamber. Hey, if that’s an issue, ol’ Glenn’s hardly even around here these days. He’s spending tons of time in other states (maybe even yours?) stumping for fellow Republicans in governors’ races. I suspect it will be that way until Election Day … also maybe in the early part of 2024.
Also, if it helps, we’ve got two Democratic U.S. senators in Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. A majority of our U.S. House delegation is blue too, but we do have a couple of super competitive congressional races in which Republicans have a decent shot at flipping seats now held by Democrats. I’m sure those GOP House candidates would welcome your new arrivals into their districts with a laurel and hearty handshake if you saw fit to send them. Shucks, Gov. Abbott, one of them, Yesli Vega, the Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, is a Houston-born daughter of Salvadoran immigrants!
I’m sure there are other needful Republican-governed jurisdictions that would gladly welcome “the homeless, tempest-tost,” just as it says on the Statue of Liberty.
Why, I’d be shocked — shocked! — if GOP governors like Kay Ivey in Alabama, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Tate Reeves in Mississippi, Jim Justice in West Virginia Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas and Kevin Stitt in Oklahoma haven’t already contacted y’all about taking some immigrants off your hands.
Bear in mind that your GOP brothers and sisters will expect a neighborly heads-up well in advance as to how many are inbound and when and where they’re arriving so they can plan a proper reception and whatnot. I know neither of you did that for the surprise charters you’ve dispatched to date, and that’s something that’s not fair either to the host cities up north or to these weary travelers who have never seen snow, have no concept of the freezing temperatures they will experience in a few weeks and have never possessed a heavy coat. Using those people as political props made your largesse look like a petty partisan prank rather than responsible and compassionate governance.
I’m sure that was just an oversight – a repeated, hateful oversight.
But I do believe you’d find life a lot easier if you shared the abundant human resources that have blessed your borders by reaching out to all of your gubernatorial colleagues with goodwill, with common courtesy and without regard to geography or partisan affiliation going forward.
by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: email@example.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
Commentary: EXODUS 20:22 – Upheaval in Gorky Park
Are we watching the last days of Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia? The Russian President is cornered like never before. The Russian people are in the streets, his friends have vanished, his army is in tatters, and his allies are running for cover. Exodus stage left.
In the wake of a colossal setback on the battlefields of Ukraine, he recently called for 300,000 Russian reservists for immediate duty on the front lines. Mr. Putin is quite aware of how this is perceived in foreign capitals. Desperate times require desperate measures. These reservists are desperately needed to fill holes formerly defended by his elite Guards Tank Army. The remnants of that army were last seen fleeing back to Russia a few weeks ago. The opposition is currently upgrading their tank brigades with the spoils deserted by Putin’s legions. The last time Russia mobilized the populace was in response to Operation Barbarossa. (Hitler’s invasion in 1941). Putin is enduring mass protests and a mass exodus from Mother Russia. Long lines of cars are making for the borders, and international flights to anywhere are overbooked. Despite Putin’s best home-spun propaganda – the Russians aren’t buying it anymore and frankly just don’t have the will to fight this war. They want him to leave.
For Putin, this is the worst nightmare he can fathom. The fundamental problems undermining Putin’s effort to mobilize his people to fight are so deep that they cannot be fixed in the coming months.
Time to commit the Reserves
Unfortunately for Putin, Russia does not have the infrastructure to organize, train, and equip these reserves, which can result in any semblance of combat power in the near term. The last time many of his reservists donned a uniform, it was adorned with Soviet patches. That was 1989. Many of these recruits are older, no longer in good physical shape, and obviously aren’t motivated. They are headed to the meat grinder, and they know it. Drone coverage and mainstream media reports mass departures of military-age males in response to Putin’s call to arms. Additionally, most of Russia’s military ‘boot camp’, like training personnel, have already deployed to Ukraine. Putin is not concerning himself with technicalities, though – he just needs people to jump into foxholes immediately.
Aside from the challenges of getting reservists ready for battle, there is also the question of whether the Russian military has enough modern weapons and other equipment for the hundreds of thousands of new troops being pushed forward. All the new stuff has been expended, destroyed, or captured already.
How did things go south so rapidly?
After all, the west has been cowering in the face of his intrusions in Crimea, Libya, and Syria for almost a decade. A quick answer is that the antagonist in all this is one man – Vladimir Putin – not the Russians themselves. He alone is responsible for the deaths and carnage. He has painstakingly fostered a cult of personality – centered on himself and gradually pushed his rivals aside in his march to dictatorship. Bravado and a few uninvited visits into foreign conflict zones helped his mystique along. The masquerade is convincing, given that he does have the world’s largest arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in his pocket. His conventional facade surely impressed NATO and fooled the Western Intelligence Community. Now we see that the threat of nukes is all Putin has. Russia’s hollow interior and failures on the battlefield are smudging the strong man’s veneer. His regime is ridden with increased elite in-fighting, bureaucratic empire building, and systemic corruption. Cronyism rules. The economy has transformed into a source of personal enrichment for competing elites. Now we find out that the state’s vaunted military modernization was rubbish. The Russians are forced to open their Cold War storage facilities in hopes that the old tanks and machinery still work.
Over the past 20 years, Putin’s state-controlled propaganda ministry has promoted the theme that Russia is great again. Twenty years of hype has crumbled in the aftermath of Putin’s ill-advised invasion. The war has delivered a body blow to the state and to Putin’s painstakingly crafted image. His military has proven to be a paper tiger. The battlefield setbacks and the impact of Western sanctions are choking the economy, along with unrestrained theft of scarce resources by the Russian elite.
The impact of Putin’s decisions
The invasion in February proved to be the spark that threatened to burn the Russian state. Putin is rapidly losing legitimacy at home and abroad. The secret police are angry with him for blaming them for the military fiasco. The generals that haven’t been killed yet are angry that the war is destroying the armed forces. And the blinded populace is, alas – opening their eyes.
As former U.S. Army General and Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.” Putin is running out of friends. Iran may be his only pal now. Russia’s foreign allies are starting to telegraph their concerns and gradually distancing themselves from Putin, as illustrated in multiple scenes on the international stage. As alluded to earlier, the mobilization announcement has resulted in mass upheaval. Thousands massed in Gorky Park to protest. The public is becoming aware of the meat-grinder and doesn’t want their husbands and sons sent to the front. Over a thousand people have been arrested; many others have bought one-way airline tickets or driven their cars to the nearest border. The exodus is only being stifled by state controls and bordering nations like Norway – closing their gates.
Meanwhile, an armed ANTIFA-like resistance movement appears to have emerged in Russia and is actively fire-bombing draft boards and derailing trains. A social media channel that caters to Russian partisans provides instructions on how to assassinate officials. Recently, a military officer at a recruiting station was shot. Local elites throughout Russia are demanding Putin’s resignation.
The Russian army increasingly refuses to fight, and desertions are mounting. So much so that the Duma has passed recent legislation imposing stiff penalties for desertion, surrender, and insubordination. Given the poor condition of front-line soldiers, Moscow has taken to enlisting senior citizens, mercenaries, and hardened criminals. None of these groups can be expected to fight with enthusiasm. The criminals are more likely to vanish into the countryside at first sight. Imagine being an officer in charge of this lot – especially when you sympathize with their disdain.
Putin’s military machine kills foreigners and commits atrocities with abandon — and now it is sending in old men to stop bullets. All that’s left to do is for Russian elites and masses to realize this predicament and do something about it. They need to force the restructuring of the Russian Federation with a post-Putin regime. Most of us can’t believe what we are seeing, but the realization of the Russian state’s collapse is approaching.
On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is quite the savvy operator. He didn’t become dictator of Russia by luck. Unfortunately for us, he still has an ally lurking around the corner – the infamous Russian winter. Putin is counting on the winter to slow the Ukrainian advances and dampen the local protests as the masses move indoors to the fireplace. Meanwhile, he will use this winter pause to shore up his forces and enact measures on the home front to suppress the upheaval.
All this is not lost on Ukrainian President Zelensky. He is rapidly moving food, petrol, and ammunition forward and issuing winter garments to his troops. He must take advantage of his opposition’s low morale and sustain the wave of euphoria from recent victories. He would very much like to utilize the frozen bogs as thoroughfares for an armored spearhead. After all, what else is he expected to do with the influx of Russian armor he recently inherited? Hopefully, he takes a page out of George Washington’s playbook and hits the Russian camps in the winter.
With luck, we will soon be rid of Mr. Putin and write a new chapter with his Exodus 20:23.