Back in early December, just as many of us thought that Russia was slipping back to Brezhnevite stagnation, something truly amazing happened. Mass demonstrations occurred, shaking the country’s political establishment to the core. Why and how?
Let’s look firstly at the political reasons. A fairly large portion of the Russian middle class, and their children, actually perceived President Medvedev to be a reformer and were happy to let things drift on in the hope that he would eventually stop the rot of corruption, even while a wiser and more Kremlin-savvy minority said that the whole Putin-Medvedev tandem was a fix-up from the very beginning. When Medvedev and Putin eventually spilt the beans in September and announced that they were in fact going to swap jobs, they confirmed people’s worst fears by announcing that such a scenario had been agreed at the start of their political collaboration. The announcement was made in a matter of fact way, with no understanding that this is not the sort of thing leaders are supposed to do, which was all very disheartening for those Russians who believe that politics can still be influenced by the people.
Their disgust was almost palpable. Even Putin’s true followers booed him at a wrestling match in November, which was somewhat astonishing because Russia’s leader, good at discovering buried treasure, shooting whales and staring down the muzzles of grisly bears just doesn’t get booed, especially on home territory.
Now it was clear why virtually none of Medvedev’s legal reforms had actually been implemented. They were never meant to be. It was all a sham. How could it have been anything else?, the die-hard pessimists told us. But most people were prepared to give Putin their support because they had faith in him and the system he created, which has enabled most to earn more than before. Never mind the odd arrest here and there, and various journalists being shot. With the Russian economy now gradually but inexorably moving towards a “state capitalism” model, with the state in this case owning or part-owning 62% of all businesses, and the traditional Russian media more or less quiescent. Who needs unwanted opinion anyway?
The government became hypnotised by its own success, something that happens to all ruling factions and individuals which enjoy ultimate power for long periods of time. The Russian elite, no longer afraid to flaunt its wealth in Moscow's restaurants, boutiques and up-market residential districts, where over 50% of elite apartments are now bought by civil servants, became clumsy in its over-confidence. It genuinely thought that the new tandem, which is really a continuation of the liberal-KGB trade off from the early 1990s, would last for a thousand years.
Self-hypnosis has the unfortunate side-effect of cutting the hypnotised subject off from reality. The tandem did not account for the fact that young Russians are not North Koreans ready to cheer and cry with joy when ordered to when the new (old) leader is wheeled out. The young are internet-savvy, and do not share the old blind-obedience-to-the-leader mind-set which their parents have. The young are too young to remember even Yeltsin, although they are now in their teens and twenties. They feel themselves to be part of an international community which shares mostly European individualistic values, and some of the good old hedonism that goes with them.
The government was surprised by public reaction after it falsified the results of the State Duma election of December the 4th. This was after the rather crude hatchet job by the state controlled media on the Golos election monitoring organisation carried out before the election. That was all too reminiscent of Soviet media attacks against Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, both eminent human rights activists. Now people in their 30s and 40s and older started to join the demonstrations. Basically, the government, in its insensitivity, went too far. People realised that if they didn’t make a stand, they would never again have the chance to do so. It may already be too late.
Echo Moskvy had even advised listeners not to vote at all in the December the 4th elections. When voters heard that 99.5% of Chechens had “voted” for the United Russia, many regretted that they had not heeded the radio station’s advice. Many voters were livid when they heard about the extent of election fraud. Election rules, such as the one that automatically passes on a vote for a party that does not make the 5% barrier to the party that wins, in a proportional manner, only became clear to the general public after the event. The election was a farce.
If no rigging had taken place, Putin would still have won, and he would have earned some respect from voters. Independent observers put United Russia’s real majority at “only” 42% instead of the official 49%. Wouldn’t that have been enough? When re-elected with only 42% though, Mr Putin’s party would have to have shared power with other parties. That is something that Putin and his close circle is clearly not inclined to do.
All sorts of unprovable rumours have been flying around about Putin’s “Russia Inc,” where the Prime Minister and his inner circle control from 10% to 15% of the country’s GDP, making Putin one of the richest men in the world. No one really asked if it's OK for Russia to adopt the state capitalist model. Many high-level officials seem to believe in it with almost religious zeal, and this is perhaps the government's strength. People at the top think they are doing the right thing, which makes them more dangerous.
It is a mistake we western analysts make when looking at Russian politics and thinking that personal greed is politicians' only motivating force. There is a new ideology, called state capitalism. Mr Putin and the cult of the super-rich may not be state capitalism's best advertisement, but he is not alone.
We also tend to forget that Russia, unlike most other Eastern European countries, did not kick most of its public servants out of office after the fall of communism and start with a new bunch. Old habits die hard. Replace communism with state capitalism, the territory of the Soviet Union with the Eurasian movement that Putin would like to regenerate, and there are remarkable similarities. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, if this is what people want. The fact is, the general public has not been consulted on these matters. Worse, most are not interested enough.
Certainly our own capitalist models are showing signs of stress at present, which is another reason for the new Russian state model to gain more support here. We ourselves are partly to blame. Under state capitalism their is less need for public accountability, and the border between expenses and bribes becomes blurred. Because the state's interests are more important than the individual's, human rights issues are put on the back burner.
If the likes of Aleksey Navalny comes to power, an independent tribunal will most likely investigate allegations of corruption and abuse of power, and it is highly likely that Putin and others would have a tricky future. Apart from corruption, there are also allegations of murder of certain journalists and the use of prison sentences for various business leaders who did not agree with rules of the game. Mr Putin has no intention of even being a Kuchma, let alone a Mubarak. A Saddam Hussein is out of the question. In other words, Putin's government needs a whacking majority, and it considers arranging this through fraud to be almost normal.
After the 4th of December elections, correctly sensing the people’s mood for the first time, the government had the good sense to allow the big nationwide demonstrations to take place, but failed miserably on the follow-up.
At first, demonstrators asked only for a re-run of the Duma elections and the resignation of the head of the election committee. Of course there was an element of anti-Putin heckling in the demonstrations on the 10th of December in Bolotny Ploshchad, but the main thrust of the argument was for honest elections. Demonstrators did not want to be like the West which makes Putin’s cold-war accusations, in particular about his “friend” Hilary Clinton financing the demonstrations, seem completely out of touch. This was an internal debate, a striving for a more transparent and democratic governance. Demonstrators were constrained, polite and civilised, as were the police.
In an attempt to regain control, the already lame-duck President Medvedev made vague promises about reinstalling direct election of governors, and making it easier to register a minority party, but unsurprisingly, nobody believed him.
Meanwhile, Putin, unable to perceive the extent that public opinion has swung against him, continued his rough-and-ready attack on the demonstrators. In a call-in TV show on the 15th of December, he ridiculed them, saying that he mistook a symbol of the protests, the white ribbon, for condoms. "I'll be honest, though it's rude: I thought it's anti-AIDS propaganda—that they are contraceptives." All attempts to split and vilify the opposition failed, and only turned pubic opinion more strongly against the Prime Minister. Credibility, once destroyed is virtually impossible to regain.
Because of Putin's knee-jerk reaction, on the 24th of December, when twice as many people turned out as on the 10th, the rhetoric was far more pointed against Putin, and already seemed to exclude any possibility of compromise or negotiation with the government. The prime-minister managed the impossible: uniting all opposition parties, albeit, against himself.
On the 26th, during a cabinet meeting, Putin once again rejected demands for an election re-run and accused the opposition of having no unified programme, “no clear way of reaching its aims and nobody who can achieve something 'concrete'”. As would any fighter, Putin would like to see his opponent clearly. But the demonstrators were not calling for a new strong leader. If anything, the message from the street was that we have had enough of strong leaders; let’s have a fair democratic system; and to start with, let’s have fair elections and civic activism against falsifications rather than creating a vanguard or political force.
“We’re not going to be commanding anybody,” said businessman Georgy Vasilyev, former director of the board of telecoms giant VimpelCom, and member of the newly formed League of Voters. This point, however is likely to have been lost on the opposition, as they fall into the lion's den, into the trap of finding a leader instead of reforming the system itself.
Towards the end of January, the same old strong-arm tactics were used by the government, such as the arrest of 60 people on New Year’s eve on Triumph Square in Moscow as they chanted “Russia will be free.” They were demonstrating for the right to free assembly, which is guaranteed by Article 31 of Russia’s constitution. I live near Triumph Square and saw how the Moscow City Council under Luzhkov initially attempted to stop these bi-monthly meetings by using the novel method of starting development work on an abandoned underground shopping centre project. Work soon stopped, but the barricades to prevent people gathering on the square have remained.
That evening, in his New Year’s Address, Putin said he wished well-being and prosperity "to all our citizens regardless of their political persuasion, including those who sympathise with leftist forces and those situated on the right, below, above, however you like." In Russian, as in English, this carries a clear sexual innuendo. It would be difficult to image a more crass, offensive and stupid thing to say to middle-class voters.
Equally crude and damaging for United Russia was a botched photo-montage job showing Aleksey Navalny meeting with Boris Berezovsky in London. The caption stated that he had “never hidden” the fact that Berezovsky, a wanted man in Russia, was funding his struggle against Putin’s re-election as President in March. Once again, lack of subtlety provided a field day for the bloggers, tweetters and other social network site users. Comparisons were made with the Kremlin’s manipulation of images under Josef Stalin in the 1930s to discredit critics of the Soviet regime or airbrush them from history.
Only in mid-January did the government re-group and start to make concessions. This was after Patriarch Kirill said in a televised interview that it would be a “very bad sign” if the country’s leaders failed to heed recent protests over perceived electoral fraud. Change is needed, the Patriarch said, but revolution must be avoided at all costs.
“If demonstrations ahead of the 1917 revolution had ended in the expression of peaceful protests and had not led to a bloody revolution and a fratricidal war, Russia would have had a population of more than 300 million and would have challenged or maybe even surpassed the United States from the point of view of economic development,” he said.
At the same time, Putin started his counter-campaign to the middle classes. Writing in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, he seemed to at least acknowledge the importance of democracy: "There can't be real democracy without policies accepted by the majority of the population and that reflect the interests of this majority.” This was dismissed by Yabloko party chairman, Sergei Mitrokhin, as being a direct "overture to the middle class," while dismissing it as "a very intelligent publicity stunt."
On the 16th of January, President Medvedev asked the State Duma to reintroduce elections for governors in what looked like a major concession to opposition protesters. Three years previously, President Medvedev declared that gubernatorial elections would not be held in Russia again for 100 years. Officials rushed to make clear that the draft legislation, which is supposed to become law in March, the same month the new president is elected, does not allow the president to reject candidates as previously suggested by Prime Minister Putin. However the bill’s wording leaves many questions unanswered and many have said that this concession is too little and comes too late to head off more social unrest. Only those political parties with seats in parliament will be able to name gubernatorial candidates, and the president will retain veto power over them. The best, and only really free, election procedure would be real direct elections, and this is not what the government is proposing.
Whilst grand overtures of words to the people continue, and the people's attention is turned to street demonstrations and the new illusion of “open government,” important governmental posts are being shuffled. Under the original rules of post-Yeltsin democracy as mentioned earlier, the government at least retained a veneer of liberal-democratic politicians. Now there are none. Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian Presidential Administration since September 2004, and a deputy prime minister since 2007, became the leader of the State Duma on the 21st of December. According to unconfirmed sources, Naryshkin worked for the KGB and studied at the KGB Red Banner Institute in the same group as Vladimir Putin.
Somebody else who Putin trusts was also promoted that week, also an ex-KGB operative. Sergey Ivanov is now head of the Kremlin administration. Sergey Mitrokhin told Interfax: “Perhaps he [Putin] counts on Ivanov’s extensive experience in the state machinery which he could use in a role of anti-crisis manager.” Dmitry Rogozin, seen by many to be a pro-Putin demagogue was appointed vice-premier.
The government is now no longer afraid of relying more strongly on the other major forces (other than the liberals) in Russian politics, that is the “siloviki” and the security services, both of which have ample support in Russian corporations and the armed forces. All of the new appointees are completely loyal to Putin, and will remain loyal even in the midst of mass public uprisings. This does not bode well for the people on the street. However most people are not very aware of the new dangers, and not able to grasp the real danger, even if told about it.
If we take into account that Mr Putin will never leave power voluntarily, then the choice is probably not between a democratic open society which many, including some traditionally naive western journalists, think will simply roll into power, and Brezhnevite stagnation, but between a militaristic government, a security service-dominated government or a continuation of what we have now: a sham democratic government which will enhance the state's role in the economy at the expense of human rights, if necessary using the military and security services more fully. Both China and Brazil seem to be doing very nicely out of this arrangement. In pure economic terms, these countries are performing better than the old West. The only thing left to argue for is that there should be safeguards put into place to limit the abuse of power. But even this may now be impossible to achieve because the old nomenklatura have already been successfully reappointed as senior managers and owners of semi-privatised businesses.
The opposition claim, that it is now in control because it has its own media, is to a certain extent true. In controlling the media, the powers have actually turned public consciousness against them because the more they control the traditional media, the new media has only expanded and became the only source of information to be trusted. The new media is much more sophisticated and slick than the TV-dominated old media. The people in power basically blew the media war. How?
The nature of the new media means that messages cannot exist for long there unless endorsed, ”liked” by a number of people. False information is not accepted when reviewed by large numbers of people. President Medvedev was humiliated after posting a message on his Facebook page denouncing the demonstrations of the 10th of December. Propaganda is instantly exposed. This is completely different to the vertical, one-way, top-down old form of media which does not need to be endorsed if it is government-financed. Anybody can post a message on the new media, those messages which are the most meaningful are seen by the most people, whereas in the old media, only those messages which the editor or leader chooses are viewed. There is little or no interactivity in the old media.
This is a way of thinking, an agility and adaptability and a refusal to accept the world as it is that is completely at odds with the ”TV generation” mentality. Having said that, I think it would be a mistake to allow sociologists to proclaim the advent of a new type of human being, a kind of social networking half-human, half-smartphone. The grape-vine has always been a more reliable method of gathering information in Russia. There has always been a very developed “us and them” concept here. The social networks are updated forms of the grape-vine
The disadvantage for the protesters is that horizontal systems are not brilliant at establishing command systems, and that is a problem which Russian protesters have yet to overcome. How will they be organised, and who will organise them? With weak democratic systems in place, only the appointment of a strong leader who is prepared to fight will bring meaningful change. However taking part in “their” game means entering the lion's den, and it is not yet clear whether the bulk of Russians themselves, traditionally conservative when it comes to a showdown between the old and the new, will choose the new.
Alexey Navalny is emerging as the most popular opposition leader. He has tapped into deep anger about corruption, and at the rallies he is able to get tens of thousands of people shouting “we are the power”. And yet some are wary of his flirting with nationalism, and point out that apart from being anti-Putin and anti-corruption, he has no political programme to speak of. Rallying people is great, but unlikely to bring about any meaningful change. Given the government’s entrenched position, real dialogue is unlikely—or worse still, meaningless.
If the government wins again in March, it is entirely likely that there will be spiralling violence, which will lead to a clamp-down and consolidation. With Putin safely back in the Kremlin, he may not be able to resist the call for greater public security and a return to the old, safe ways. All the more reason, the opposition says, to come out against Putin in March. True, as long as opposition members understand the real nature of the beast they are fighting. They are not fighting just one person, they are fighting a whole establishment, an entrenched way of life, a result of an old trade-off between the reformers and the conservatives. I hope the opposition wins, but I wouldn't be surprised if they don't.
How many of us are brave enough to wear our white ribbons?