MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti) – Russia’s already poor image took another hit last weekend with the arrest of former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and the heavy-handed tactics of the police against demonstrators in Moscow, pictures of which went around the world.
Despite the claims about the Kremlin’s media clampdown in Russia, however, REN-TV, a private, but largely pro-Putin channel, showed vivid pictures and accounts of the various demonstrations in Moscow and broadcast a critical interview on the police action with Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy. REN-TV also showed various politicians giving speeches, including Mikhail Kasyanov, Russian prime minister until spring 2004.
The weekend’s events came after similar widespread criticism from opposition parties and groups that the authorities had employed administrative and legal methods to prevent them taking part in several regional elections in March this year.
Last week also saw the Russian elite in high dudgeon after the U.S. State Department criticized Russia’s record in its latest report “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy.” Although some conceded that the points made were valid, the criticism was for the most part dismissed as interference in Russia’s domestic affairs.
In the run-up to the Duma elections in December 2007 and the Russian presidential elections in March 2008, an increase in political activity and demonstrations is obviously to be expected as part of the normal electoral cycle and in fact has already begun.
1996 vs 2007-8
But one has to wonder why the authorities seem so worried about the opposition. The current situation is in some ways reminiscent of the 1996 presidential campaign, when the Kremlin and the oligarchs feared that the communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov could win the election, not least because of the uncertainty about the first round of voting due to the presence of a third candidate, the popular General Alexander Lebed. Many observers thought that Lebed could force the election into a second round by preventing one of the two main candidates from gaining an absolute majority and open the way to a Zyuganov victory.
This analysis prompted the famous – and notorious – decision of the oligarchs to fund Yeltsin’s campaign to ensure his re-election and co-opt Lebed into the administration afterwards. But a reasonable case can be made that the Kremlin’s analysis was wrong – and that something similar is happening now.
Numerous taxi drivers – those excellent barometers of public opinion – saw the situation rather differently in 1996 than the Kremlin’s advisors. They often told me that it was best to leave “the current lot” in power since “after stealing everything, they would now finally get round to doing something for the country.” I encountered the same views among ordinary Russians and, later in the 1990s, among people in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well.
This attitude often translates into loud complaints about the status quo, but such dissent should often be seen more like voting at the mid-term local council polls between general elections in the United Kingdom – an opportunity to express disapproval or discontent with the way things are and send a warning to the current government.
But “when the chips are down” and people have to make a real choice about who will be actually be in government, Russians are likely to vote for the status quo. Their fear is that a change of power will not lead to the relatively minor political, economic and social changes voters are used to in Western democracies, but to real instability. The latest developments in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan prove the point.
Russia is stable…
The general political and economic situation in these two election years of 2007 and 2008 is different from 1996 on three important counts.
First, the president now enjoys massive support and few doubt that Putin would fail to win a large majority if the Russian Constitution allowed him to run for a third consecutive term.
Second, Russia now enjoys a level of macroeconomic and political stability it has not seen since the 1970s – considered by many Russians to be a good time, rather than a period of “stagnation” as Gorbachev claimed.
Third, and most crucial, however, is that in recent years, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, three former Soviet republics, have seen major political change, prompting speculation that an orange revolution on the Ukrainian model could occur in Russia.
As Mark Twain quipped, forecasting is difficult, especially when it concerns the future. But it is hard to envisage such a scenario in Russia. Nevertheless, the fear of instability is one of the main concerns of the Russian political authorities and is doubtless a major reason why the Kremlin has tightened up the rules on NGOs, which it accused of being in the pay of foreign governments.
…in contrast to Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan
The former Soviet republics might look rather similar from the outside, and among the many ties that bind them are the Russian language as a lingua franca and trade, including the oil and gas pipelines running across the former Soviet Union. But profound differences remain between the 15 former Soviet republics.
Russia has achieved strong and uninterrupted economic growth since 2000, a situation that stands in stark contrast to the situation in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Kasparov has claimed that many people, especially in the regions, are dissatisfied that they have not benefited more from Russia’s newfound wealth and macroeconomic stability. Even if this is true, such dissatisfaction is still a long way from the real social pressure needed to effect the kind of “regime change” seen in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Besides, any real pressure is likely to force the Kremlin’s hand, as in early 2005, when the government made a hash of its policy to convert in-kind benefits to pensioners such as free travel on public transport to cash payments. The Kremlin quickly made concessions in the face of mass street protests and is likely to do so again if faced with a similar situation.
Many analysts here argue that the Kremlin will in any event use its huge cash reserves from oil and gas to increase pensions and public sector pay in the run-up to the elections to sweeten the electorate and secure its hold on power.
This may well happen, but it is hard to see how the current elite could lose power, so bribing the electorate is hardly a sine qua non to remain in office. As I have argued in a previous column, the Russian opposition is weak and fragmented and has little to offer in the way of new ideas. Against this, the government has managed to increase pensions and public sector salaries and get them to the recipients on time – a marked contrast from the 1990s.
The danger of an orange revolution is also less in Russia simply because its population structure differs from Ukraine, which is split between Russians and Ukrainians.
And Russia is very different by virtue of its sheer size from the small countries of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, where corruption is readily on view because everyone seems to know or be related to someone involved in the government, and/or in shady business dealings.
Russia’s problem is that after the high centralization and tight control of the Soviet Union, things became far too liberal and nearly slid into anarchy, which brought a torrent of Western criticism.
In the early 2000s, Putin bought a welcome degree of stability, both politically and economically, which again brought a torrent of Western criticism.
The danger now is that the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction again. President Putin has often said that every country has to develop democracy in its own way, but the sort of action we saw last week merely serves to undermine Russia’s cause, especially when the current regime has so little to fear.
Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.
Now available at https://sputniknews.com/analysis/2007042064085976/, the site of the Sputnik news agency, the successor to Russian state-owned RIA Novosti’s international branch, which became defunct in 2013.