The protest movement
Joera Mulders
December 28, 2011
1 Comment

The placard reads ‘Don’t like this condom? Take another. You have a choice!” After the link: my thoughts on evolving protests and political developments. What constitutes real change? And what are the chances to make real change?

Change is empowerment

First of all, my definition of change does not necessarily involve a change in leadership. To me change means the empowerment of society to the point that it realizes that a strong majority will not tolerate falsified elections, corruption and other types lawless behavior from people in official functions, who – and this is important – are part of that same society. 

For this to happen, the awareness needs to grow that friends, neighbors or bystanders will not tolerate certain behavior.

The search for such an awareness is what the last two mass protests are about. People do not come to see the speakers on stage. They come to see who else has come, to find out who else feels like them, who else wants change. And the dynamic is that everybody is surprised by the size of the turn out, by the acquaintances they unexpectedly meet. People realize that they are not alone and that makes them feel empowered. Empowered to stand up, not only during a demonstration, but in those many others events that make up daily live.

For real change to happen, this empowerment needs to reach a critical mass. A change in the political leadership of the country may become a symbol of that empowerment, but it will not necessarily be the same thing. As long as society will tolerate corruption and partake in it, there will be corruption. Even under a most saintly new president. A good Tsar, doesn’t mean a new Russia.

Not out of thin air

Second, this process of empowerment has been long underway. And even though his loyalty to Putin makes Medvedev look weak, society has a lot to thank him for. The current president did much to guarantee the free development of the internet. For example in April he gave an important exclusive interview to the online TV channel Dozhd. Over the past months Dozhd or RainTV has become the media outlet for the protest movement, showing debates with politicians that could not compete in the elections, live coverage of the protests and studio debates with the protest organizers and sympathizers. Over the past years Medvedev also repeatedly pointed out that the gap between the information available on the internet and as broadcasted on TV should not become too large if television would want to preserve its credibility, thereby paving the way for the unprecedented objective coverage of recent protests on the federal channels.

But of course this change is not as much thanks to Medvedev as well to the many initiatives of civic or low budget journalism like, ridus, the blue bucket movement and many more. And it’s not just the internet. Go to a bookstore in one of the larger cities and be amazed at the size of the corner with books about law, about citizens rights. People across the board are interested to learn about their rights. The union of car owners for example is a very powerful social force, uniting against corruption of traffic police and car inspections. Up until the last weeks this change had not manifested itself as a shared experience. Now it has.


Third, the top leadership is very well aware of the inevitability of these developments; the maturation of society headed by the middle class in the big cities. Think of Putin what you want, but it has been the stability in the past decade, which creation he supervised, that gave room for society to mature. Under his leadership many families’ day to day problems like food, housing, jobs, transport have been solved. The material appetite of the middle upper class has been soothed. Now the time has come for other aspirations.

When high government officials in past days said that the reforms for more political freedom put forward by Medvedev in his recent address had been planned a year ago, they are not lying. These plans have always been on the table. The question has always been the timing. At what point will the liberally oriented part of society outgrow its patriarchal counterpart?

Or as the decision makers would phrase it: ‘When will society be ready for more political freedom?’. The current system of managed democracy was created after at the end of the nineties Russia found itself on the edge of disintegration. Direct elections of governors facilitated the creation of fiefdoms of local populists and induced the complete disorder of regional and federal jurisdictions, law-, and tax systems. To rescue the nation, the country had to be brought back in line, even when that meant that people were considered ‘unqualified to vote’. The notion that people who have something to loose will vote more responsibly is a valid argument, but at the same time depriving them of a choice does not permit people to learn by trail and error. What’s more, the current system of managed political plurality has not been able to breed a new generation of public politicians. The system has outlived its purpose. Even its creators  realize that it is time for change. The only question is when and in which dose.

Did I just draw a saintly aureola above Vladimir Putin’s head? No, the elite’s argument for change is not altruism or idealism, but self-survival. The maturation of society is an inevitable component of future economic growth. An elite with the long term intent to keep profiteering from economic growth will have to adapt to a changing society. Some already seem to know how to. Others will have to learn.

Putin’s decision to run again clearly shows that the decision makers decided upon a gradual form of liberalization or at least a level of liberalization that had to be counterbalanced by a conservative presidency. Was this a miscalculation? The wave of protests is certainly unprecedented and a manifestation of a broad desire of change. But the unprecedented scale of the protests should also not fool us in thinking that progressive forces already constitute a majority. Putin will not be the president of the economic avant-garde, of the new generation and the big cities. He will be a president elected by the provinces and ‘old style’ patron client relations. Progressive? No. Democratic? Yes. Stable? Let us see. Six years is a long time.

Ironically, his decision to return to the Kremlin, may force Putin to liberalize faster than planned.

The power vertical is but a myth, but the system is a moloch

Fourth, the power vertical is a myth. The federal leaders do not micromanage local events. The Kremlin may talk to Moscow mayor Sobyanin or with Interior Minister Nurgalyev, but it does not talk to the Moscow police chiefs in charge of day to day events. The Kremlin may talk to the head of the Investigation Committee or the Minister of Justice, but it does not talk to a local procurator or judge. Orders rarely make it down the chain. Reality rarely comes up the chain. Decision makers at the nots of the system decide which orders go down and what information goes up. The prevailing mood is careerism. Don’t do anything that could embarrass the person who will decide on your promotion. This makes the system extremely rigid and difficult to change.

Therefore, while the Moscow police has at last found a different strategy of permitted and well organized demonstrations, that decision seems local in nature and not part of a wide new type of order coming from the Kremlin that targets all law enforcement and courts in every little cormer of Russia. The contradiction provided by the permitted protests and the sentences against for example hunger striker Udal’tsov are not part of one big conspiracy. They’re the result of individual decisions in a system, that is changing only very slowly.

And it will not be the political leadership that will change the system from top down. They can either organize a few surgical show trials or fire everybody. The latter is inconceivable. The former will have limited effect. Real change will have to come out of society itself. Not by demanding the politicians to do something, but by showing friends, colleagues or local bureaucrats that being corrupt is equal to being a social pariah.

Evolution, not revolution

Fifth, the majority of protestors does not want a revolution. They may want to bite the hand that feeds them, a little … , they will not bite it off.  Many have well paid jobs in the service economy that depends on the petrodollars distributed through Kremlin Inc.. There is respect for ‘the civic position’ of the protest movement leaders, but that respect will not necessarily transfer into votes would these leaders stand on a ballot. They may attract protest votes, but none of them comes close to being electable. They only ‘leader’ who can honestly say that people came to see him speak on Sakharov is Navalny. A Levada poll conducted among the protesters that day however revealed that about as much people would vote for Yavlinsky as for Navalny. Why? Because in Yavlinsky they see a man who could rule the country. Navalny on the other hand can be seen as the anti-thesis to Putin, but he is no alternative to Putin.

Within the protest movement new leaders are emerging. Afisha editor Yuri Saprykin for example, who has been instrumental in the organization of the demonstration on the 24th. Or journalist Ol’ga Romanova who supervised the crowdfunding of the expenses for the stages and sounds installation. There is Ilya Ponomarev, a Duma deputy for Fair Russia, who functions as a binding figure among the different interests within the organization. There are also the cultural professionals like the writer Boris Akunin and TV host Leonid Parfenov who inspire people with their ‘civic position’. There are even others that try to follow their example. These days it is fashionable too be critical of power.

I really believe this movement could revive Russia’s political system, but not within the current election cycle. A replay of the Duma elections as demanded by the protests will not solve the current problem of a lack of viable alternatives to United Russia. People will again have to choose between experienced, populist, corrupt politicians and a protest vote for unexperienced, populist politicians, who will likely be as easily corrupted by power. Exemplary is the popular protest slogan: “I did not for for you swines, I voted for the other swines.”

Eventually voters will want to choose between different parties with experience of governance, each with more experienced and fresh faces, but such a level of political competition is not something that can be created overnight. It will take years to grow.

The decision makers know they need start now. These elections will not result in a revolution, but if nothing chnages the next may. The best option the protest movement therefore has is to constructively work with Medvedev’s suggestions for political reform and use the opportunities that will be provided by those reforms to build real forms of political competition from bottom up, starting with municipal and regional elections.

The ultraliberal proposals made by Medvedev will be weathered down in the Duma, where the interests of the existing parties rule. There are legitimate reasons why its not prudent to make it too easy to register a political party. Things that come cheap are easily discarded. Democracy does not benefit from hundreds of new parties functioning as platforms for regional businessmen that want a piece of the administrative pie. The current problem is not that there are not enough parties. The problem is that there are not enough parties that really want to govern.

The communists and LDPR have been satisfied with their presence in the parliament, thereby avoiding the responsibility of governance. The liberal non-systemic opposition has up till now preferred to dream of reconquering the Kremlin, rather than prove their worth in a region or city. Nikita Belykh, the governor of the Kirov Oblast is the notable exemption. If the leaders of the protest movement really want change they should follow his example and show the voter they can be a viable alternative to the United Russia politicians at the local level.

Collectively, the protest leaders should use the opportunity provided by Medvedev’s reform proposals to rephrase their demands in a constructive manner with the goal of creating a real political presence in the years to come. Some will be more ready to do this than others, but here again the recent protests may provide a valuable lesson. For years the protest movement refused to agree with Moscow authorities about the permits for their demonstrations, insisting it was their right to protest, whenever and where ever they wanted. These protests never garnered much more than a few hundred or thousand participants. The legal demonstrations at Bolotnaya and Sakharov however were visited by tens of thousands of people. Presidential Candidate Prokhorov said it clearly: ‘Yes, the authorities will try to use me. But we in turn should try to use the authorities.’

Change from within

Last, this means that to achieve tangible results the protesters will have to work with the reformers within the system. Putin’s decision to run again was a defeat for these reformers. I suspect that decision was made around April 2011, after which Putin set up his  National Front and Medvedev stopped talking to the liberal-oriented constituency.

But the tide has turned and not only because of the protests. At the end of his presidency Medvedev completed his most important mission for Kremlin Inc, opening the door for Russia to enter the WTO, which will make it easier for Russia’s rich to buy up foreign assets. His more liberal course has finally proven its profitability to the economic elite.

NTV’s neutral to positive coverage of the protests has been met with much surprise, but is not so difficult to understand, when one remembers that NTV is not as much Putin’s ‘state channel’, as it is Gazprom’s channel. The economic elite will never stake all its wealth on the political future of Putin alone.

Meanwhile the castling of the Medvedev and Putin teams is in full process. Surkov leaves the Kremlin, generating all kinds of conspiracy theories. But as he says himself it is not a promotion, nor a demotion, but a new life. And ask for yourself who will be more capable to make his new position count? Sergey Ivanov as chief of the Presidential Administration? Or Surkov as Vice Premier for modernization? I expect that when the smoke clears up in the summer of 2012, we will see a very energetic and powerful White House (residence of the government) and a rather disconnected and conservative Kremlin.

Another indication of a liberal tide is the support shown by the new Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin for Medvedev’s political reform plans, suggesting even that a ‘presidential filter’ on party candidates for governor elections would not be required.

Within the tandem construction Naryshkin and Surkov functioned as the compromise figures between Putin and Medvedev. Based on these moves, whom do you think they see as the future for Russia? Putin or Medvedev?

  • Anneke de Laaf

    Excellent analysis!!