Unprecedented social activity in Russia during this week brought attention to the country’s political crisis from all over the world. Russian and foreign media closely followed the course of what might be the beginning of the ‘Russian spring’, while policy analysts attempted to assess the implications of this upheaval.

 

About 1000 people were detained at the protest rallies in the center of Moscow

 

Fraud-tainted election

Russian parliamentary elections took place last Sunday, December 4, 2011. According to experts’ predictions, they were supposed to be a staged and, therefore, boring and meaningless procedure. It should have confirmed that the United Russia party, led by president Dmitri Medvedev and backed up by prime minister Vladimir Putin, continues to dominate the parliament , as well as people’s hearts and minds.

Like so many times before, only government-controlled or the so-called ‘system opposition’ parties (permitted by the government) were allowed to take part in the elections. And like so many times before, United Russia did win the elections, albeit with only 49% of votes (down from 63% in 2007), but still getting the majority in the State Duma. On the eve of December 4, it seemed like the regime had accomplished its mission and it was time for celebration, but this time, something went astray.

It might be too early to say what it was: blatant falsifications, including ballot-stuffing, the infamous “carousel” (when groups of people are bussed from one polling booth to another to cast their votes repeatedly) and “stream” (multiple usage of the absentees ballots) cheating methods, that were revealed and made public via social media by independent observers and voters themselves. It could be the general discontent with the government policies, economy stagnation and overall weariness of the political tandem. Or maybe it was all those reasons resonating together, but on the following day after the elections, five to eight thousand people showed up at the protest in the center of Moscow — an unprecedented number for that kind of social events that would usually bring together no more than a hundred hardcore dissenters. Moscow hasn’t seen rallies that large since 1993.

 

 

This outbreak stunned the authorities and law-enforcement agencies who tried to suppress the social unrest through the use of power. But detaining more than 300 people, including Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of Solidarity opposition movement, and Alexei Navalny, a crusading anti-corruption activist and a top Russian blogger (later, both were jailed for 15 days), only spurred the protest, which continued on Tuesday. Again, thousands upon thousands showed up, and this time around 600 were arrested. Some of them were journalists. Some of them were threatened and badly beaten up by the police [link]. At the same time pro-Putin’s youth movement “Nashi” held another rally in support of United Russia’s victory, but their number was almost tenfold smaller — about 700, mostly teenagers. And it came as no surprise that Russian state-controlled federal TV channels featured “Nashi” in their prime time newscasts and completely ignored the social turmoil disrupting the night, right in the center of Moscow.

Meanwhile, this case continues. The next rally is scheduled to take place on Saturday, December 10. Moscow mayor’s office who had first authorized a 300 people protest at the Revolutionary Square, later went as far as sanctioning the rally for many more at Bolotnaya Square when the number of people who wanted to show support to the fair elections movement hit 30,000 people on a Facebook page for the event. Similar protests in defense of fair elections in Russia will take place in hundreds of cities all over Russia and abroad.

 

Through the eyes of media

As these unexpected and unprecedented events were unfolding during the week, the media all over the world started contemplating if this would be the beginning of the ‘Russian Spring’ (by analogy with ‘Arab Spring’). It is too early to make conclusions yet, but some major points have already been highlighted.

First, as many publications point out, the sheer number of protesters show that the civil society is finally waking up in Russia.

In his article “A Russian Awakening?”, Jeffrey Taylor, contributing editor to the Atlantic, observes that Russia's once apolitical youth has finally stood up for itself, rejecting the prospect of 12 more years of Putin's rule. But though it is a great sign, Taylor raises the question of the prospects of their demands, which at the moment focus on running free elections and Putin’s departure.

“What else? The Western-style democracy advocated by Grigory Yavlinsky and his Yabloko party and by the now-silent, onetime challenger, former chess champion Garry Kasparov? The hard-line nationalism espoused by, among others, Limonov and his National Bolsheviks? Or some other figure yet to appear? Given Putin's effective marginalization of potential challengers, who is left to stand in his stead? And following Putin's imposition of the "power vertical," based on his authority and that of the intelligence services from which he came, which state institutions have retained enough legitimacy to back a new pretender to the Kremlin throne?”

The second point is the role of social media in the Russian upheaval.

Paul Roderick Gregory, contributor to Forbes.com, credits Aleksei Navalny for this awakening of the civil society in his article “A Blogger Could Start Russia’s Arab Spring”. He reminds that it was Navalny who first called United Russia a “party of crooks and thieves”— an expression that was quickly picked up by many Russians. Gregory argues that Putin’s regime won’t be able to survive when it is becoming “an object of amusement and derision.” “So far Navalny has been an irritating thorn in Putin’s side, but that thorn threatens to infect the whole body,” he concludes.

 

 

Besides that, similar to the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, where authoritarian leaders failed to take control over the social media, Putin has also failed to gain this control. “Putin knows what to do with the Khodorkovskys, the Kasyanovs, and investigative reporters. He has no idea how to manage the blogosphere and Alexei Navalny.”

The third point highlights the role of the traditional media. The fact that some Russian media (state-owned and government-controlled) continue their support of the regime raises the question of their validity and journalistic ethics.

On Friday, David Remnick, chief-editor of the New Yorker, published his remarks on the importance of the way Russian media cover the protests. “The Putin regime is clever: it allows many newspapers, magazines, and Web sites to operate quite freely, but keeps a clamp on the medium that it judges to be most essential: state television. State television today is, in its way, closer to Soviet television than ever.”

But he was not the only one to target the irrelevance of state television. In his brilliantly sharp column, Stanislav Kucher, observer for Kommersant FM radio station, criticizes some of his colleagues for their blatant departure from the basic norms of journalism.

“When for the first time in ten years, in the center of both capitals of our, so far, common motherland, thousands of people turn up to show their attitude towards the elections that the president is speaking about on air on your channel, and you don’t cover it on air — it’s unprofessional. Period. When military equipment is being brought to the center of the capital and traffic is being paralyzed, and you keep quiet — it’s unprofessional too. When your own colleagues are detained and beaten up, and you remain silent — no, I’m not talking about the moral side here — it’s not a dirty act, it’s unprofessional. That’s it. You hide information that might, in the least, impact the mood of millions of people. You can throw all the “TEFIs” that you have won for “the best news programs”. These days you are discrediting yourself, and your profession.”

Finally, the most important point is that it has become crystal clear that Putin’s regime entered a dangerous, self-destructing phase. In his writings for polit.ru, Vladimir Pastukhov of the Institute of Law and Public Policy (Moscow) diagnosed this phase as “Atherosclerosis of Power” and blamed Russian authorities for inadequacy and loss of touch with reality.

The question is how did it unravel? The Economist’s next week cover story with an indicative title “The Cracks Appear” gives a very concise and yet detailed review of the regime’s evolution. The conclusion is quite obvious: if political situation doesn’t change soon, the future of Russia will be unpredictable and, most likely, grim.

“The idea has taken hold abroad that Mr. Putin’s regime, though mildly distasteful, provides stability. That has proved to be wrong. As many Western companies have found, Mr. Putin failed to build the rules-based system that provides the economic security foreign investors need. Nor, as the recent events suggest, has he delivered a political equilibrium. It is not just this week’s protests that are the reason for concern: rising lawlessness in the north Caucasus may cause problems not just for Russia, but for the entire region. Russia is not stable. It is rigid. Unless its tsar moves to reform his dominion, it will become more dangerous—both for its neighbors and for Mr. Putin himself.”

 

The end of the ‘reset’

Meanwhile, following his well-known political technique of blaming the failure of his policies on the “external enemy”, Mr. Putin seems to have found a scapegoat for this unfortunate turn of events.

On December 6, two days after the election, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Russia for a parliamentary election she said was rigged. Her concerns were raised by the OSCE’s preliminary analysis of the election that was, reportedly, marred by “the convergence of State and the governing party,” and countless “instances of apparent manipulation … and ballot box stuffing” on vote day.

On the next day Foreign Policy Initiative's Russia Working Group (members are well-known experts in U.S.-Russia affairs, including Leon Aron, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Robert Kagan, David Kramer, Stephen Sestanovich, Randy Scheunemann, Stephen Rademaker) issued a statement supporting Clinton’s concerns. They consequently called for the Obama Administration further strong statements “against the fraud and deceit orchestrated by United Russia.”

But as the group pointed out — this time more than words, actions are needed. One of the actions that they suggested to undertake should be the passage of the bi-partisan Sergei Magnitsky Act (a bill that proposes to ban Russian human rights violators from entering the United States). “It would send a clear message to Russian Prime Minister Putin and his United Russia party that those guilty of human rights abuses will not be able to travel to the United States or protect their corrupt gains in our financial institutions.” To reinforce that message, the group also called on Congress to confirm Michael McFaul, “a true advocate for democracy, as ambassador to Russia”.

Some of the working group experts wrote their own op-eds for various American publications. In his article at Foreign Policy, David Kramer, President of Freedom House, gave a high praise to the U.S. Secretary of State’s “clear and repeated condemnation of the Kremlin's efforts to rig Sunday's Duma elections”. He also said that it was President Obama’s turn to talk tough about it.

And Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, delivered a clear-cut analysis, explaining why it should be done, in his article at the New Republic. Aron emphasized the fact that this election campaign in Russia has effectively ended the Obama Administration’s pursuit of a “reset” with Moscow.

“It must have come as a shock to the White House to behold the ferocity with which the Kremlin has set about demolishing the reset's most cherished dreams,” he wrote. And then continued: “European missile defense is again Moscow’s bête noir, with President Dmitry Medvedev now threatening to target missiles at Poland and Romania if they dare move ahead with its installation. Russia’s envoy to NATO, meanwhile, has threatened to cut off the vital supply lines to the Western troops in Afghanistan. Moscow’s recent statements on Iran have all but signaled the end of cooperation in the U.N.’s Security Council on sanctions, and it has also voted in the United Nations Human Rights Council against a resolution condemning Syria’s “gross and systematic” crimes against the public. And no progress whatsoever seems even remotely possible on tactical nukes. Moscow is even threatening to withdraw from what the reset’s engineers considered its crowning achievement: the New START treaty.”

While President Obama keeps diplomatic silence, Mr. Putin has already snapped back by accusing the U.S. of interfering into another country’s internal affairs and provoking the unnecessary dispute over the election. As he has put it, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton had “set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal . . . and [they] started active work.”

But as it was duly noted in the New York Times editorial on the following day, Putin’s charges looked bizarre. “It was ludicrous for Mr. Putin to claim that that was a “signal” that brought Russians to the streets three days in a row, despite a heavy police presence and more than 1,000 detentions. The protesters were clear what motivated them: They were outraged by the fraud and tired of the status quo and Mr. Putin.”

 

The Decembrists

Today, more than 30,000 Russian citizens are going to the protest rally and will try to defend their basic human rights. They are going because, as Masha Gessen, an outspoken Russian and American journalist, shrewdly observed in her blog post for the New York Times website, good protests are like great parties: everyone is there and you don’t want to be anyplace else in the world.

The meaning of this undeniably historic turn of events is going to be analyzed and scrutinized for a long time, regardless of the outcome of the December 10’s rally. But again, in Masha Gessen’s words, once the process was underway, the regime was doomed. Because “the more hot air it pumped into the bubble in which it lived, the more vulnerable it became to the growing pressure from the outside. That is exactly what is happening now. It may take months or it may take a few years, but the Putin bubble will burst.”

 

Olga Khvostunova

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