Managed Democracy in Russia

December 22, 2011

Russia’s State Duma in Moscow. Bernt Rostad

The unprecedented wave of public protest, visible in the continuing anti-government popular demonstrations that emerged in Russia following the recent and largely orchestrated election results to the Duma, are unlikely to subside in the near future.

Russians are demanding reforms and the Kremlin has been slow to address the concerns of the voters.  Russian post-election activism, in fact, adds to the tag-line of 2011 as a myth-busting year.

2011 began with ‘stereotyped and politically reluctant’ Arabs, who staged successful revolutions that culminated in what has been commonly referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’, which uprooted and overthrew well-entrenched autocratic and dictatorial regimes.

This was followed by ‘market-oriented’ Americans who organised the collective, Occupy Wall Street movement, to prevail upon the mighty financial barons.

Now it appears to be the turn of the ideologically-disciplined and authority-preferring Russians to show their displeasure with a yet-to-be reformed political and economic system.

Russia’s democracy, micromanaged for decades by the Kremlin and its long serving, and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, is, by all accounts, slated to be Russia’s next president, replacing Dmitry Medvedev.

Moreover, people have grown tired of their “managed democracy” which limits democratic rights like electoral choice, freedom of speech and media access.

That is why, they are not only demanding fresh elections and those responsible for the fraud committed in this most recent election to be held accountable, but are also chanting the slogan, “Putin has to go”, which has not yet been permitted to be telecast on Russian television.

Russian political culture translates into concentrated authority in order to ensure order and stability. This was true during the Czarist rule, the former Communist era and in the current ‘Putinist’ phase of history.

For the last 12 years Putin has been accumulating power. Eight of these years he served as president and the last four as prime minister. Barring any unforeseen event, he is set to return as Russia’s president for another term or more after the elections scheduled to be held on March 4, 2012.

As a result, many Moscovites, now demonstrating in the streets, hold the view that Putin’s political career should end. But with no real alternatives, because many opposition presidential candidates inevitably get disqualified, many Russians accept Putin as the inevitable choice.

The situation is very fluid and prevailing popular anger with the present political establishment may pave the way for a long period of instability.

As a matter of fact, many Moscovites believe that the president and prime minister misread public opinion and committed an error by announcing on Sep. 24, 2011 that Medvedev will not seek reelection as president and Putin will seek the presidentship instead.

Additionally, the announcement badly damaged the images of these two leaders by presenting them as arrogant and dismissive of the public’s will. Furthermore, even those who were hitherto far removed from Russian politics became politically active.

Prevailing economic uncertainties and rising corruption has resulted in massive popular backlash against the Kremlin. This has inflicted irreparable damage to the system, causing a serious crises of legitimacy for Putin.

The Medvedev/Putin announcement, in fact, shattered the hopes among Russians who expected a top-down evolution of the regime and the introduction of real reforms, however incremental and gradual they might be.

The on-going popular demonstrations is a manifestation of the people’s unease with the Putin and his United Russian party who are perpetuating their party through soft authoritarian means.

Further, it is not a mere coincidence that the government has legitimised the idea of peaceful protest by allowing public rallies in Moscow and ordering the police to maintain a low profile.

Consequently, it will now be increasingly difficult to ban public meetings, as was the established practice in the past, and to brand the opposition as paid agents of the United States - a charge frequently made by Putin himself.

Quite possibly, the Kremlin lacks any strategy to deal effectively with the protesters.

However, this seems highly unlikely given Russia’s long history of authoritarianism.

Whatever strategy the Kremlin decides on, there are no assurances that the public’s confidence will be restored.  They have promised unprecedented salary hikes to the military and police forces. And in an effort to placate the opposition, Putin and his advisors have offered them half of the Duma committee leadership positions, the speakership and assurance of yet more liberal laws.

Further, Putin can sack some of most unpopular stalwarts among United Russia’s leadership or gradually distance himself from the United Russia and create a new party after his expected victory in next year’s presidential election.

Additionaly, the Kremlin might use a divide and rule tactic against the democratic opposition by focussing on nationalist fringe movements and inciting them to prevail upon the pro-democracy protestors.

Above all, Putin may still end up with the last laugh. Putin is in many ways regarded as a stentorian, a unifying figure with a public relations machine that casts him as a macho alpha male who will forever revive Russia’s lost glory.

As there is still no established party system in Russia, organizations like United Russia can take the heat and feel the brunt of public outrage, then vanish and give way to replacements, while Putin emerges victorious.

But all these tricks and tactics notwithstanding, the only option that the Kremlin is not willing to consider is that of initiating immediate political and economic reforms in order to ensure genuine change and accommodate the popular desire for a more open, just, transparent and competitive socio-political environment, once characterized by glasnost and perestroika by the legendry Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the mid-1980s.

Failing to meet these urgent requirements may pave the way for a probable “Russian Spring”, which might be determined by the opposition’s show of strength in a public rally scheduled to be held in Moscow on Dec. 24, 2011.

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