The Russian Protests in Context
Jan 2012 12

The Russian Protests in Context

Posted In Blog,Politics

by RedBstrd

Recently, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow, Russia to voice discontent with parliamentary elections that they argue – with good reason – were rigged. These protests have attracted notice from both an international audience and the Kremlin – which claims that they represent unrest spurred on by foreign agitators within the US State Department, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike much of the protest within Russia since 1991, those who added their voices to the calls for new elections were not simply Communist Party pensioners railing against a social system which has no use for the elderly. Instead, the 60,000 protesters tended to be young, college educated, and organizing through social networking sites.

While the numbers on Prospekt Akademika Sakharova seem to have fallen short of the 120,000-200,000 turnout figures that some activists have offered, these protests are the largest that Russia has seen since the end of the Soviet system. Likewise, they are the longest lived, snowballing from small rallies into the mass protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaia Square on December 10th and the even larger December 24th protest. Incensed at the results from the December 4th parliamentary results, which emerged amid a storm of Youtube videos of ballot-stuffing, Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny helped organize a rally against Putin’s United Russia party, which he labeled “the party of crooks and thieves.” This rally attracted a few thousand people and drew condemnation from government officials. Navalny became an internet sensation when Duma member Konstantin Rykov labeled the blogger a “cocksucking sheep.” Whether by accident or hack, President Medvedev’s twitter account repeated the slur. A number of these smaller protests led to the December 10th mass rally, which drew praise from famous Russians such as Gorbachev and Kasparov, and encouraged similar protests in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and many other Russian cities. The celebrity voices were joined by Russians less well known outside of the country, such as Boris Nemtsov (a liberal politician), Boris Akunin (an author), and Aleksei Kudrin (the former finance minister).

The election results were a clear rebuke to Vladimir Putin, offering only 49% of the popular vote and barely over 50% of the parliamentary seats to United Russia, despite over 5300 cases of documented voting fraud (according to Russian election monitor Golos) and implausible turnout. According to official numbers, for instance, the war-torn Chechnya had a 99% turnout and 99% of those who voted did so for United Russia, including 90% of those registered for the social democratic A Just Russia party.



[ Image: Saddam Hussein would be jealous of the 146% turnout depicted here. Source.]

By the official count nationwide, Putin’s United Russia won half of the vote, trailed by the Communist Party in second place (with 19% of the vote), A Just Russia (the social democratic party) in third place with 13% of the vote, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (a right-wing nationalist party) in fourth place with 12% of the vote. The liberal party, Yabloko (Apple), failed to meet the 5% Duma threshold, securing only 3% of the vote. While these numbers are unreliable due to the widespread fraud, they represent a nearly 15% drop in United Russia’s control over parliamentary seats (from 64% to 50%) since 2007. While 2011 has turned out to be an important year in protest and mass politics, the drop in support for Putin among Russians over the last four years is remarkable.



The Background

Much of the reason why Putin’s popularity has dropped in recent years and months can be explained through two articles drafted for the occasion of 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Coinciding nicely with the outbreak of protest in Russia, historian and “Sovietologist” Stephen Cohen and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev each drafted an article for the occasion for The Nation. What they write likely comes as a surprise to American readers, who have been subjected to two decades of triumphalist narration claiming that the Soviet Union collapsed due to its inability to keep up with Reagan’s military spending (they never tried to do so), economic collapse (the economy was stagnant, not in crisis until the market reforms), or democratic/nationalist revolution (even today the majority of Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union as a political entity). 


Cohen writes:


This history-changing event took place surreptitiously at a secluded hunting lodge in the Belovezh Forest near Minsk, in what is now Belarus. On December 8, 1991, heads of three of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics, led by Boris Yeltsin of Russia, met there to sign documents abolishing the Soviet state.

Elsewhere, he adds:


No less important, most Russians do not share the nearly unanimous Western view that the Soviet Union’s “collapse” was “inevitable” because of inherent fatal defects. They believe instead, and for good empirical reasons, that three “subjective” factors broke it up: the unduly rapid and radical way – not too slowly and cautiously, as is said in the West – Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev, and to occupy the Kremlin; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in “privatizing” the state’s enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it.

Likewise, Gorbachev explained:


Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, the Soviet Union was not destroyed by any foreign power, but as a result of internal developments. First, in August 1991 the anti-perestroika conservative forces organized a coup against my leadership that failed but weakened my position. Then, on December 8, defying the will of the people, who had supported renewal of the union in a referendum in March 1991, the leaders of three Soviet republics – Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belorussia – meeting in secret, abolished the Union.

Whatever feelings individuals may have about the plausibility of a Soviet reformation, what is important for understanding the subsequent two decades of political and economic life in Russia is acknowledging that the breakup of the USSR was the result of a small group of political elites for their own interest. While their goals lined up with those of many Western observers, the pro-market “shock therapy” was deeply unpopular in Russia. In fact, a constitutional crisis broke out in late 1993 after the Duma rejected Yeltsin’s nomination of Egor Gaidar as prime minister – due to his support for Yeltsin’s economic plan. Yeltsin won the constitutional struggle by calling on the army to suppress and abolish the Duma with force – something not within his constitutional authority.



Yeltsin’s actions were, according to Cohen: 


[...] “neither legitimate nor democratic.” A profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to social consensus and constitutionalism, Yeltsin’s actions were a return to the country’s “neo-Bolshevik” tradition of imposed change, as many Russian, and even a few Western, writers have characterized it. The ramifications were bound to endanger the unprecedented democratization achieved during the preceding six years of perestroika.

There’s no surprise regarding the kind of system which emerged out of a neo-liberal president who was willing to order military force against an intransigent parliament: Russia became an even more corrupt state, one marked with endemic organized crime and systemic benefits to the nomenklatura who were able to seize public assets without fair market competition. In major ways, the Russian state mirrors those of the regimes challenged by the Arab Spring: it is deeply undemocratic, is built upon a massive disparity of wealth, demands civic non-participation in politics, and is helplessly corrupt. In fact, it’s really only surprising that the public has taken so long to mobilize against the Russian state in mass protest.



Despite the overlap in imagery of Russian gangsters, this picture of political and economic life contrasts strongly with the mythology underwriting Western applause for the Yeltsin reformation of Russia. Still, this history is essential for understanding the political and economic system still in place in Russia and what unofficial contract developed between Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, and the public over the past decade.



Cowed by the use of military force on the Duma and free of the mobilization campaigns of the Soviet period, older generations had sank into non-involvement in politics in the 1990s. While they often did not welcome the turmoil of the early Yeltsin years, they also had next to nothing to lose after the economic collapse accompanying the breakup of the Soviet Union and no ability to challenge the force of the army. Putin offered no major adjustment to the Yeltsin system in relation to public control over economics or politics. However, when Putin’s two terms as president (from 1999 to 2008) ended, he had ruled over almost a decade of consistent economic growth. Russians had few illusions regarding their system: it was set up to benefit the few, but their surrender of political activity and say in the economy was finally being bought with very real increases in pension sizes, real wages, and life expectancy. 



The popularity of Putin and United Russia began to plummet in a manner easily recognizable to many in the United States: during the current economic crisis, the Kremlin used its emergency funds to bail out the wealthy, including oil barons. Ordinary people (and indeed industries such as the automobile industry) saw little remedy from state actions and found themselves struggling more desperately for public or private resources. Meanwhile, individuals who faced injustice from the social and legal systems of Russia found supporters from those who felt that they were likewise wronged. In general, critics of the government felt that their contract with the government (political inactivity in exchange for benevolent policies) was not being honored. Unsurprisingly, the public – emboldened by global protest – began demanding that the government honor its unofficial promises, step down, or offer comparable concessions.


Immediately after the December 4th elections, in a disgusting but informative example, Russian nationalists took the opportunity to stage anti-immigration rallies over a few days. These embryonic rallies faced rival pro-Kremlin rallies but contributed to the anti-government, anti-corruption sentiment which exploded on the 10th.


What to Expect

Rallies during the Arab Spring exceeded the expectations that most of us would have wagered on only a few months prior to their outbreak. Unfortunately, the protest movements in Russia do not seem to offer the same prospects of success. The opposition movements lacks the institutional and economic base necessary for challenging United Russia within official channels of power. An electoral recount, for instance, will only take place if Putin and Medvedev decide that such a thing is in their best long term interests. On the streets, prospects look equally bleak in the short term: the oppositions are splintered into three major groups (Communists, social democrats, and nationalists), without a strong liberal bloc. While a Communist-nationalist alliance might be strategic (along the lines of the Patriots of Russia party or the anti-European Union alliances of the early 2000s), it would sit poorly with liberals and a social democratic-liberal alliance would not be able to outnumber United Russia even assuming that the ruling party only legitimately won a third of the vote. Navalny may unite nationalists and liberals into an anti-government front – albeit a scary one.

Fortunately, the opposition movements have neither called for nor initiated violence, aside from Navalny’s violent rhetoric. Likewise, the state has not felt threatened enough to opt for such a solution either.


In the short term, my best prediction is that the Kremlin will continue to offer limited reforms through Medvedev while relying on their control over media, voting regulations, and police force to ensure that Putin wins the presidential election. As long as United Russia can offer the illusion of the possibility of playing the reforming Medvedev against the hard line Putin, the party can gamble against radical actions by the public and try to make gradual concessions to the public on the party’s terms.



In the long term, however, I suspect that Putin’s reign is entering its twilight. Voters are moving into larger political parties (especially compared to 2003), some of which may be able to challenge United Russia in the near future. Likewise, the opposition is gaining public personalities which can rival Putin on an individual level. Aleksei Navalny is the most notable of these rivals at the moment. Though his prior participation in the liberal Yabloko party was largely ineffective, he has an undeniable charisma and has shown himself to be competent in mobilizing the youth. Personalities don’t always make politics, but they can transform protest votes (which I think the 2011 votes largely were) into enthusiastic political participation or, alternately, into fund raising. A strong liberal candidate might be something of a kingmaker in the next decade, either forming a successful coalition with the social democrats or in forcing United Russia to transform itself from a party dedicated to protecting the privileges of a small nomenklatura into a liberal-conservative party more typical of Western political parties. While Putin will remain a major figure in Russian politics for years to come, the nature of his presence will likely change incrementally so that his personal voice will diminish and power will be shared more widely than the present circle of elites who dictate policy in the nation.

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