Putin is not the problem
Translated by
Nils van der Vegte
January 18, 2012
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Original appeared in Rosbalt
Author: Daniil Kotsyubinskiy

We have a government that can’t explain why its is needed by the country. We have an oppposition that doesn’t understand what to do with power. Question: Does society need such a government and opposition?

Do we for example need a “national leader”, who is not able to answer questions of the people spontaneously and thus panics and refuses when called to participate in TV debates? Imagine that he would have to answer a question like ‘who are you’? The horror. Who needs a national leader, who in one newspaper article extensively discusses the terrorist Khattab, the economic performance in 1989 (good thing he did not discuss 1913), writes about ‘traditional religions’ and ‘upward social mobility’ as well as about the educational aspirations of the young and the bright prospects of the middle class. In other words – about almost everything, except the real political challenges faced by the Russian government since the results of the parliamentary elections (held on the 4th of December).
And while Putin is unable to answer the question why Russia needs him and with him the notorious elections ‘in the Churov way’,  the opposition is completely unable to explain why a re-vote is needed before urgent reforms and new public programs can be started.

Putin, by the way, has always noted the ideological emptiness of the Russian opposition: ‘Today, they talk about different reforms of renewal of the political process. But what are they proposing? How to re-arrange the power? Pass it to the best people? And then what? What are we going to do then? I fear that we will have practically no discussions about what should be done in other areas, after the elections have passed…”

What can the opposition say about this? How can they object? They can’t! Because they still have not decided what they are fighting for.

The only reform that is important to the opposition is the return of the direct gubernatorial elections. But first, these governors – as clearly demonstrated in the 1990’s – aren’t necessarily democrats themselves. And second, it was the Kremlin that decided bring back these direct elections. This move has left the opposition embarrassed and they have no other choice than to applaud it.

As for as the other ideas of the opposition are concerned (when you leave out the ‘it is necessary that..’, ‘judges must…’, ‘…the police should’, ‘people need to …’ etc.) one can only conclude that the opposition itself is in general quite satisfied with the current presidential vertical, which is an anti-democratic structure of the state.

The leader of Parnas, Boris Nemtsov, is for example convinced that the only thing that should be limited is the ability of the head of state (as well as governors) to remain in office for more than two times. ‘The power of the president should be limited, meaning that the president should be chosen for two terms maximum. I f we had a normal constitution, Putin would have retired.’ In other words, everything in Russia would be great if a president wouldn’t have the possibility to run for a third term. In this case, after the ‘bad’ Putin we would see the ‘good’ Nemtsov who would – of course! – use the power vertical solely for the benefit of the people.

But, maybe, it is not the leaders Putin and Yeltsin, who we should blame. Is the real culprit not the authoritarian structure of the Russian state? Maybe the problem is that, unlike in democratic countries, in Russia it is the president and not the parliament, that forms the government and that the subjects of the Russian Federation are not immune to direct control from the centre?

No! Boris Nemtsov believes that a vertically-presidential model of government is quite good for a country as Russia: ‘Russia is a complicated country, a country that I know very well. A parliamentary republic is only suitable for most mono-ethnic states. For a state with complex interethnic relations, which such huge differences between regions, a parliamentary republic is inadequate. I do not support this idea.’ Why and when did Nemtsov decide that a parliamentary republic is only suitable for mono-ethnic states? (and what about India, to ask just one simple question) remains unclear. Nor does it really matter. What matters is that Nemtsov with his call for ‘honest elections’ does not want to do away with the ‘vertical of power’. What he wants is a change of ‘Tsar’.

The same way of thinking and the same kind of dream project can be found with Alex Navalny: ‘I think that the specifics of Russia, its size, the composition of the population and so forth means that in our country, the president should have more powers than in most European countries…’

But where, you might wonder, is the guarantee that such an all-powerful president wil not become a new Putin or a new Stalin? Indeed! Where is that guarantee? Only in the high moral qualities of this new president? Not in parliamentary control over that same president! That’s for sure. To quote Navalny again:  ‘Someone should put things in order… without any iron hand, but by law… It is necessary for a president to establish moral and ethnical guidance’.

Unlike other opponents, Navalny has besides vague words at least has some kind of reform plan. This was written in 2007 as a manifesto of the Russian-nationalist movement Narod [people]. ‘I still agree to every word. Navalny said recently. In the document he urges ethnic Russians to start referring to themselves as the Russian people [as opposed to citizens of the Russian Federation.] All good and well but such a ‘plan’ cannot be considered a program of political reform.

It is not surprising that when oppositionists do not seek radical democratic reforms, their main objectives are usually based on short-term issues. This is well illustrated by the program, recently published by the leader of the ‘Left Front'; Sergei Udaltsov.

First, its most important points are: ‘the immediate release of political prisoners’ and second – the truly sacramental – ‘resignation of Vladimir Churov, the head of the Central Election Committee’.

What follows is ‘a fundamental revision of the law on elections and political parties’. This can be considered as already successfully adopted by the Kremlin and ‘almost implemented’.

His fourth point is ‘the abolition of censorship in the media and restoration of free speech’.

And only at last there is the call  ‘to revise the Russian Constitution to dramatically reduce the role of the president.’ At least we are talking about the main thing now. Even though it was pushed to the very end. But still, the question remains: A reduction of presidential powers. Great! But to which level? In what way? This is the whole point. Much will depend on the answers to that question. Will we return to the old rusty autocratic ideas or will we finally enter a real and not phoney, ‘democratic experiment’?

The paradox is that what we see in Russia today is a political revolution that is  a movement against the ‘vertical’ rather than a movement against Putin. The people that took to the streets are not dreaming about changing the ‘bad Tsar’ with a ‘good’ Tsar. In contrast to Nemtsov and other wanna be ‘Navalnies’, ordinary demonstrators do not want a new ‘national leader’. What we want is civil and political rights. Once and for all!

This explains the whistling of ‘new leaders’. Book author Boris Akunin said that ‘it is necessary to turn Russia into a parliamentary (as opposed to presidential) republic’. Unfortunately very much like the opposition politicians Akunin continued to say that “it is necessary to limit one person’s stay in power, with a maximum of two five-year terms without the possibility of election in the future. What kind of ‘parliamentary republic’ he wants remains unclear.

The only conscious and credible ‘political leader’ is Russian society itself. How all this will continue will depend on how events will develop. If the Muscovites decide to take it to the streets once more and protest en masse, maybe they will succeed to ‘disarm” the authoritarian regime. ‘Today, more depends on the protests than we think’, Moscow Carnegie Center Expert Alexey Malashenko writes. If protests can continue, if the opposition can maintain its cohesion, if we can turn the demonstration in February in some kind of a revolution, maybe we realise that there isn’t just a ‘them’ but also an ‘we’?

If however the people get tired of the revolution because of a lack of idealogical impulses from their leaders, then the ‘revolution of the white ribbons’ will go nowhere and the country will again be stuck between a shameless government and a quagmire, mediocre opposition.

I hear how Putin and his opponents are loudly screaming: “What can we do! There are no alternatives!…”