Russia won’t have a colour revolution (1). The rallies on 5 and 10 March called by groups contesting the results of the presidential election did not attract the numbers hoped for and the organisers admit they need to express their dissatisfaction another way. Yet the authorities would be wrong to behave as if everything was back to normal. After a period of unprecedented popular mobilisation, which began during last December’s parliamentary elections, Russia seems more divided than ever.
Even allowing for the degree of fraud observed (2), Putin’s re-election is no surprise. For a large proportion of the electorate, he seems the only candidate who can guarantee stability in Russia, which has been shaken by a series of political and economic crises since 1991. Major demonstrations followed the parliamentary elections, but even then most people did not want a complete change of direction. The party in power was able to play on this state of mind by promising continuity, and electoral legislation put in place in 2000 prevented the opposition from fielding credible candidates.
This manipulation generated a massive opposition movement. Those most attached to democratic values, which every Russian leader since Boris Yeltsin has claimed to champion, were horrified at the cynicism with which the “tandem” announced their role-swap: incumbent president Dmitri Medvedev presented his predecessor and prime minister’s candidacy on 24 September 2011; Putin returned the favour by promising to make Medvedev premier when he was elected.
In Moscow and many provincial cities there were large and increasingly hostile demonstrations against the official candidate during the election campaign. The shock to Russia’s political landscape, and above all to public opinion, has been severe.
United Russia, the party in power, was successful in the parliamentary elections but has been saddled with a damaging nickname popularised through the internet: “party of swindlers and thieves”. The Communist Party has been weakened, as has its candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who came second in the presidential election. So has Vladimir Zhirinovsky, candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (the traditional nationalist party), who was relegated to fourth place. Putin’s active social policies (increasing pensions and raising wages for groups such as teachers and healthcare workers) and his subsidies for traditional industries have undermined the influence of the Communist Party; his patriotic rhetoric has cut the ground from under Zhirinovsky’s feet. Grigory Yavlinsky’s Russian United Democratic Party (Yabloko, once presented as a Russian social-democratic party) has been marginalised even more. It was squeezed out of the Duma by electoral fraud and so was unable to present a candidate for the presidential election.
A motley collection
Big opposition meetings have turned the spotlight on the role of extra-parliamentary movements, some of whose leaders Medvedev met in March. These movements represent a motley collection of different political persuasions, but are united in their rejection of the practices of the current administration. Besides a severely divided left, there are two major currents. The first is rightwing, described as liberal, and still fragile. Its proponents believe radical democratisation is a must if Russia is to return to economic growth. They include celebrities, such as former chess champion Gary Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, but the surprise runner is Mikhail Prokhorov, who took third place in the presidential election. The billionaire oligarch campaigned against election fraud and stated his intention of giving a shape to this liberal current by forming a new party. But his fortune, in a country that remains hostile to oligarchs, and his assertion of the need to reform the labour code are even greater handicaps than his lack of political experience.
The second current is nationalist. In spite of Putin’s renewed patriotic stance, it has swelled, independently of the political parties, amid xenophobic campaigns and violence against migrants (which drew a far smaller police response than the pro-democracy protests). Riding on demagogic slogans similar to those used by its European counterparts, this current has benefited from the ambiguous position of Alexey Navalny, internet celebrity and harsh critic of establishment corruption.
Faced with huge protests, the government mobilised its supporters, making substantial use of administrative resources. It resurrected the bogeymen so often used in the past — “enemies of Russia” and “traitors to the Motherland”. Then it showed signs of being prepared to meet some of the demands. Before the elections of 4 March 2012, Medvedev initiated discussion in the Duma of a number of bills aimed at reforming parts of the electoral system (bringing back the election of regional governors, making it easier to register political parties). But Putin has talked of putting in place safeguards that would limit the reach of these reforms.
On 5 March the Russian weekly The New Times published an interview with Igor Yurgens, head of a thinktank said to have links with Medvedev. The title of the article was significant: “We’ve lost.” In it, Yurgens analysed the power struggle in the immediate entourage of the Medvedev-Putin tandem, describing it as a contest between two unequal forces. The first — of which he considers himself part — sounds like the people demonstrating on the streets of Moscow in December 2011 and January 2012: the liberal intelligentsia, teachers, students, researchers and the emerging middle class — people in favour of opening Russia up to the outside world and rapid, deeper democratisation.
Yurgens’ second force is a powerful conservative lobby in every part of the government apparatus and supported by traditional sectors — the military-industrial complex, hydrocarbons, agribusiness and the armed forces — which, he stresses, are afraid both of change and of external attack. The names he mentions can also be found in an astonishing table, also published in The New Times (3), showing the links between Putin and political leaders and businessmen from these sectors, from major transport infrastructure and from two key elements of the system: the banks and the mass media.
This network accounts for more than half of Russia’s gross domestic product, and more than three-quarters of its export capacity. State control has increased still further in recent years. The press constantly attacks the practices of the companies involved, whose business comes to a great extent from government contracts: it accuses them of systematically overstating costs (taking advantage of their monopolies), shifting profits offshore, and a lack of transparency that favours corruption.
Apart from disputing election results, popular mobilisation has focused on a demand for greater transparency, justice and democratic control of decisions, and against the outrageous privileges enjoyed by the new nomenklatura that has emerged from 20 years without the separation of powers. Little wonder that the colour chosen by the demonstrators for their ribbons, badges and balloons was white. Their protests were directed at corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power at every level. In spite of repeated promises by Medvedev and Putin, there has been little visible progress. No senior officials removed from their position in recent months have been dismissed on grounds of corruption or abuse of power.
’We need a great Russia’
Two American researchers who have examined Putin’s career describe a man fascinated by history whose primary aim is to restore his country’s power and dynamism. His role model is Pyotr Stolypin (4), prime minister under Czar Nicholas II, famous for repressing the 1905 revolutionary movement and instigating major but unfinished reforms. Putin’s favourite quote paraphrases Stolypin’s rebuke to the Duma in 1907: “We do not need great upheavals. We need a great Russia.” Looking back on key episodes of Putin’s political career, first as deputy to Saint Petersburg’s first reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, then as heir apparent to Boris Yeltsin, the researchers point out the apparent contradiction between his reiterated support for the idea of open markets and the need to build democracy, and his firm intention of preserving an omnipresent and centralised state.
Putin’s time with the KGB and in Saint Petersburg — during a turbulent period for Russia — seems to have made him deeply suspicious. His suspicions have been reactivated by the colour revolutions and later by the Arab Spring. He fears a new period of troubles. He is also certain that the recent demonstrations have been secretly manipulated by foreign organisations. In a series of long articles published during his election campaign he reiterated the idea that Russia must renew itself in every field, while protecting itself from the external pressures that seek to weaken it.
This distrust, directed both inwards and outwards, has produced a paradoxical stance. To develop democracy only within a framework of absolute control defeats the principle of democracy. Medvedev, who is still president, is considering new anti-corruption legislation (5) and the new chairman of the state Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, is proposing to increase significantly the role of Russia’s parliament (6). But Putin has threatened radio station Echo of Moscow and private television channel Dojd (The Rain) TV, famed for their lack of respect for the establishment, and the government has put pressure on Alexander Lebedev, part-owner of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
What will Putin do when he takes office on 7 May? German political scientist Alexander Rahr thinks this new mandate will turn him into a reformer. But many believe Putin will simply use smoke and mirrors to give the Russian people the illusion of change, less like Stolypin and more like Grigory Potemkin giving Catherine the Great the illusion of success. It remains to be seen whether the opposition will be able to organise itself politically and influence these choices.
1) The “colour” and “flower” revolutions, such as Georgia’s Rose revolution in 2002 or Ukraine’s Orange revolution in 2004, were attempts to overthrow governments through popular mobilisation.
(2) See the first report of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; Russia’s independent election watchdog Golos (www.golos.org) describes the fraud in detail but suggests Putin would have been elected even without it, at the first round.
(3) The New Times, Moscow, 31 October 2011.
(4) Fiona Hill and Clifford G Gaddy, “Putin and the Uses of History”, The National Interest, Washington, 4 January 2012.
(5) Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, 14 March 2012.
(6) Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 15 March 2012.