Parliamentary Elections in the Russian Federation (2)Posted: December 15, 2011
Protests started immediately after the parliamentary (lower house, or Duma) elections of December 4, 2011. What are they about, or against? Mostly, they seem to be against the way the political system and Russian society work – or, rather, about the many ways in which they do not function. The many ways in which these last elections were incorrect are not the actual reason – these were not the first tainted elections. It is more about being fed up, about having had enough of how democracy is derailed, detained, postponed in Russia. Putin’s ten-year rule has brought increased overall prosperity to Russia (the proportion of the middle class increased from 10% to 30%), as well as order and stability (cracking down on the oligarchs, increasing control of regional bosses etc.). The cost of these advances, and the very means of realizing them, however, was an increased centralization of power and the autocratic government of Putin and of the circles of power around him. Could it have been achieved otherwise? Coming after the economic and social (but not political or democratic) disaster of the Yeltsin years, Putin’s rule stabilized Russia and directed it on a more positive path: economically, yes, but not politically.
And so it happens that this is not enough. It might be that Putin and Medvedev have a vision of “enlightened despotism” (to use a metaphor – their’s is not quite a despotism), gradually moving from using concentrated power to stabilize the country, to engaging the country on an more and more democratic path. Negotiating such an equilibrium, and maintaining it, however, are tremendously difficult tasks… When is it the time to give in, and when does one have to hold back the reins of power? It seems that the regime looked upon the recent demonstrations with the same questions on their minds, oscillating between the need to crack down and the idea of allowing these people to manifest themselves. During the latest day of protests, however – of Saturday, December 10, when more than 50,000 people gathered in Moscow, and many other thousands in about 90 cities across Russia – it seems that the regime decided to behave in a friendly, acquiescing manner. It might have to do with clearly perceiving that these protesters are educated, middle class Russians – they’re not the rabble, no are they the extremes. Also, their numbers are formidable – it is no longer just a fringe movement. If so, these protesters are the future of Russia, in that they represent the class that would be the most susceptible to develop the democratic and civic habits and attitudes that could actually sustain a functioning democratic political system. One suspects that the ruling elite does not think that these habits are yet developed in the greater part of the Russian population (again, the Yeltsin years of lawlessness being the proof). But how far can one go? Cracking open Pandora’s box means that all that is inside will probably want to come out, all at once; the experience of authoritarian China, of the economic and social reforms in the 80s being followed by the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989, is telling in this sense.
One would hope that these demonstrations, the largest in twenty years (!), will coalesce and strengthen the political self-awareness of the economically, socially and intellectually decisive Russian middle class. Will it result in concrete political alternatives? This popular movement does not seem to be about political alternatives – the Russians are less naive, or much too cynical, for that. As one of the funny signs raised on Saturday said, “I did not vote for these bastards. I voted for other bastards. I demand a recount.” So it is not about this or the other party: it is about the functioning of the system itself. And that is such a refreshing thing, one that might actually encourage the ruling elites to look on these protests as a sign of increased political maturity on the part of the Russian electorate – something that is good, and indeed essential, for the (democratic) political future of Russia.