Corruption Protests, Insurrection and Presidential Elections

M. K. Bhadrakumar

Tue., Mar. 28, 2017

The wave of public protests that swept over Russia on Sunday has strong undercurrents. For a start, it may seem that 7000 to 8000 people demonstrating in Moscow, a city of 12 million population, is no big deal. But then, in Russia’s specific context, it is never so much the number of protesters but the fact that a substantial number of common people take to the streets to air their anti-establishment sentiments at all that needs to be carefully noted.

The protests were largely spontaneous. No one ‘organized’ the protests. The protests had no ‘leaders’. The prominent opposition politician, Alexei Navalny tried to turn the inchoate protests into a political platform and was promptly whisked away by the police. The protests were fuelled by the government’s failure to respond to the demand by Navalny’s public forum known as Anti-Corruption Foundation to inquire into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s private assets estimated to be worth $1.2 billion. Thus, Navalny had a claim on the protesters being his ‘natural allies’. Interestingly, a big share of protestors consisted of young people.

The salience lies undoubtedly in the looming prospect that public corruption is going to be a major issue in the campaign for the presidential election in Russia slated for early next year. Suffice it to say, this is a dress rehearsal or ‘developing story’ – Act 1 in a five-Act turbo-charged political drama.

The police arrested hundreds of protesters on the specious plea that they took to the streets without the prior approval of the authorities for demonstrations, as stipulated under relevant Russian law. This insufficient explanation gets discredited because of the spontaneity of the protests as well as its manifestly peaceful character.

So, how does the government deal with a ‘new normal’ in Russia’s public life through the coming 12-month period as the country tiptoes toward the presidential election?

The bottom line is that while President Vladimir Putin remains an immensely popular figure among Russian people – with a popularity rating that is steadily holding above 80 percent for over an year or two – there is a lot of public disenchantment in the ‘sub-soil’ over the nature of the political system he presides over. In immediate terms, the focus is on Medvedev.

Yet, ironically, Medvedev is identified with the ‘liberal’ wing of the Russian political elite who probably has been an enthusiastic voice favoring Russia’s incremental transformation as a liberal democracy and open economy. Now, the political equilibrium within the system that Putin presides over, which is delicately poised between the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’ – purely in the Russian context – becomes an important consideration for the Russian ruling elite from the perspective of forming national policies.

On the other hand, the ground reality is that the Russian national mood as such has perceptibly swung to the Left in the recent years, especially following the western sanctions against Russia and the perceived threats to the country’s stability and security. The Russian people still have embedded in their psyche the horror of the ‘shock therapy’ that Boris Yeltsin administered to the political economy in the early to mid-nineties (under the influence of western advisers) on the pretext of marching the country toward the clan of liberal democracies, and its spectacular failure by the second half of the nineties.

This is important because Russia does have a ‘silent majority’ that appreciates Putin’s leadership precisely for the reason that he is seen as a provider of stability and predictability to Russia’s national life. Quite obviously, therefore, Putin has a major decision to take. Ignoring the demands of the protesters altogether – or, the dismissal of the government headed by Medvedev – is a non-option because it becomes an admission of colossal failure of leadership and the Kremlin cannot absolve itself of some responsibility for it.

On the other hand, the lawmakers belonging to the Communist Party, who generally empathize with Putin’s policies, have submitted a formal request to the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) to investigate the allegations against Medvedev. Clearly, the communists sense that the groundswell of opinion is far bigger than the few thousand people who took to the streets on Sunday and it cuts across ideological mindset.

Looking ahead, however, this could turn out to be a catch-22 situation. Moving against Medvedev can open the proverbial Pandora’s box because there is no dearth of prominent figures within the Russian political elite who may equally qualify for crucifixion and they could include even close associates of Putin. Simply put, Putin missed the moment that he could have and should have acted on public corruption without allowing things to drift this far when the issue is inexorably becoming dialectical.

Then, there is a practical side. The truth is the state apparatus in authoritarian systems such as Russia or China, which would have immense powers for coercion at their disposal, tend to act rather unimaginatively and clumsily when face to face with public agitations. The glare of public accountability unnerves them. The system is hopelessly ill-equipped in the art of finessing the public’s indignation and defusing social tensions from turning ugly. This is where democracies fare better. A comparison can be drawn with the great sophistication with which the Occupy Wall Street protests in the US in 2011 were finessed and smothered by the Barack Obama administration, although the cause of the protesters was very genuine and compelling and it is a veritable reality that elected leaderships in America ultimately end up serving big corporate interests.

To be sure, there is going to be a psychological factor at work in the coming months as the political temperature begins to rise in Russia. This is the centenary year of the great Bolshevik Revolution and the US security establishment and intelligence feel tempted to see this as payback time. There is already some evidence of that happening. The Cold War era relic of the CIA, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, has played a major role in recent weeks to propagate Navalny’s demands among the Russian public. A color revolution in Russia has been the dream project for the US establishment for a long time and Putin’s ouster from power has been its principal objective. The US intervened in the Russian election in 2011 and will certainly make another bid this time around to prevent — or at least discredit — Putin’s bid for a renewed mandate.

The Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times in an editorial has succinctly framed the Russian predicament today:

  • The geographic, national and cultural factors of Russia call for authoritarian rule, however, it adopts a multi-party election system. It is not an easy job to combine the two. Russia has so far managed the problem well. Thanks to Putin’s high level of popular support, the effect of multi-party elections have been constrained without having permeated into other parts of the country’s political life. However, the West and the opposition forces are pushing to expand the system, making it the biggest uncertainty of Russian politics.

    Russia went through a painful time of national disorientation after the disintegration of the USSR, and the collective memory is still alive today. Russian society still supports Putin despite the economic hardship of recent years, partly because of that experience and memory.

    Many Russians believe that the vast country composed of places with different cultural traditions cannot chart the same political path as the West. They actually tried after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but failed. However, certain forces in Russia advocate the complete Westernization in politics. They are backed by the West

All things taken into account, therefore, Putin may find himself in an unenviable position of having to decide whether to make a bid for renewed mandate in the 2018 election at all, and, should he decide to stand as a candidate, how far to defend the system that faces public wrath, rather than enter the campaign with a positive political platform, which he is entitled to.


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