Will Russia's past determine its future?

Despite civil protests in Russia, it is difficult to see how a transition to democracy can occur since the opposition lacks cohesion - a regrettable legacy of Russia's past

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Can Russia's opposition unite to mount a real challenge?
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Jamila Mammadova
On 16 October 2012 10:01

The unprecedented 2011-2012 civil protests in post-Soviet Russia seemed to portend a change. The trading of places between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, with the latter having announced that the decision had been made a long time in advance, was largely accepted as a disregard for the Russian public.

However, few in Moscow believe in the protest movement today. The middle class, who constitute the driving force behind the opposition, do not possess a political mechanism to convey their requests to the government. Yearning for respect and fairness, they lack the political leadership. In order to understand the current protest dynamics and whether they could succeed, it is important to recall that the corruption and lawlessness that they are protesting against were not spawned by Mr Putin. He inherited them.

Relations between the state and public in Russia were historically governed by a tacit pact of non-interference in state affairs on behalf of society. Until 1917, the Russian Empire was a European superpower which was ruled by Tsarist autocrats. There were no parliamentary institutions or elections. The Tsar could not run the vast state on his own so he had a number of ministers who were appointed by and responsible only to him. Paid by the Tsarist state, the bureaucrats were very loyal.

Freedom of speech was strictly censored as well as books and newspapers. A large police system, the Okhrana, was meant to report suspicious behaviour and to prevent subversive groups from organising coups. The vastness of the Russian Empire was the only complication to the Tsar’s authority.

The Soviet era was not much different. However, starting after World War 2 with Stalin’s death, and culminating with the collapse of the USSR, former Gulag criminal prisoners were gradually freed and became able to infiltrate the top political and economic layers in the post-Soviet world. Their importance grew in the latter period as well as a complicated set of rules (poniatiya) they followed, which they adopted as a code of conduct.

These factors are why the subsequent privatisation and liberalisation of prices in the 1990s, heralded by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Perestroyka, lead to the irreversible criminalisation of the Russian state. Liberalisation was encouraged by foreign economists who knew nothing about Russian underground culture and who failed to envisage the global economic crisis of the late 1990s which was enough to discredit the idea of liberalisation.

A decreased energy price affected investors’ confidence in Russian markets and resulted in a rapid devaluation of the ruble, followed by delayed payments on sovereign and private debts. Unable to sell enterprises and having been under threat of uncontrolled inflation, the government was forced to raise taxes. This incentivised the hiding of wealth where a substantial amount of business operations moved into the shadows.

Due to its higher corporate discipline and the Russian heritage of statehood, the bureaucracy was able to face down the crisis. By applying a Keynesian approach to the economy, the political turbulence was brought under control. Because of its central role in solving the crisis, the balance of power in Russia therefore shifted from business people to bureaucrats with personal connections, which became the only meaningful criteria in internal affairs.

The underlying reason why the opposition movement in Russia has remained extremely weak is because the poniatiya prevail as the most viable ideology.

People who came to protest in Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in December 2011 did not follow any opposition leaders. The elections to the Coordination Council on October 20th, 2012, which are meant to identify the opposition leaders, will result in a choice being made not between organizations with clearly defined programs, but between specific individuals. The obvious inconsistency is that only Nationalists appear to have registered in the ideological category.

Alexey Navalny, Ilya Yashin, and Boris Nemtsov are listed in the General Civil race. Sergei Udaltsov, a radical Stalinist, chose to ignore the Leftist category and also registered to compete for a General Civil seat.

The reason why the most active figures have opted for the General Civil category is because they are devoid of ideology, as well as being reflective of their own misbelief in pluralism. This internal competition weakens the protest movement and will lead to a split in its ranks. If created, the Coordination Council could well become another bureaucratic structure with no diversity of political ideas.

Taking all this into account, it is difficult to see how Russia can transition easily into a democracy as a consequence of the protest movement. The movement needs to develop cohesion if it is to succeed in presenting itself as a viable alternative to the existing regime.

Even if this is the case, any alternative government would also have to grapple with Russia’s traditional legacy of state control which has proved to be very successful at corrupting previous systems of government.

That said, the stability of Russia’s economy and its financial system are still dependent on the cost of energy. “If the oil price goes down to say $60 and stays there for say a year the government has enough resources,” predicts Sergey Guriev, the Chancellor of the New Economic School in Moscow. “If it stays there for two years the government will run out of cash and will not be able to borrow, because the markets will say: “We know you are gone.”

The instability which could occur if the Kremlin stops issuing money to the population might discredit the existing regime, as happened during Perestroyka, putting Mr Putin in a difficult situation. Under such circumstances, the opposition may yet be able to surmount their own difficulties and rise to the challenge before them.

Jamila Mammadova is a Research Assistant at The Henry Jackson Society

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