Russia’s long political calm is coming to an end

October 14, 2009

Something quite extraordinary is happening in Russia. Slowly but surely, the monolithic political system that has held together in Russia for most of the past decade is coming apart

Today, in an unprecedented step, deputies from all three of the opposition parties in the Russian parliament staged a walk-out, demanding a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. They are protesting against the results of local elections that were held in various parts of Russia on 11 October. Not for the first time, the pro-government United Russia party largely swept the board, amid widespread allegations by the opposition of vote-rigging.

There’s nothing new about opposition parties claiming violations in Russian elections. The most vocal opponents, liberals such as former chess champion Gary Kasparov, have long taken their discontent to the streets. But partly through its tight control of elections and the media, the Kremlin has largely succeeded in marginalizing these uncompromising critics.

What’s far more unusual is outspoken criticism of the regime from the three official opposition parties represented in the Russian parliament (or Duma): the Communists, left-leaning Fair Russia party, and nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. These parties have traditionally been extremely docile, and unwilling to criticize the country’s leadership. For them to stage a joint walk-out is remarkably out of character.

What’s especially intriguing is that this isn’t the first crack to appear in Russia’s previously solid political edifice. It follows several extraordinary events over recent weeks, all of which point towards growing tensions at the top.

The first of these events was an article which President Dmitry Medvedev wrote in September, containing remarkably strong criticisms of Russia’s political system, and the state of the nation in general. Medvedev’s article even contained a thinly-veiled criticism of United Russia, the major pro-government political party headed by Putin.

A few days later, an advisor to Medvedev, business leader Igor Yurgens, caused quite a stir by outspoken comments at the Reuters Russia Investment Summit. Yurgens predicted a coming confrontation between conservatives and liberals in Russia, and warned that if Putin attempted to run again for President, he risked becoming “a new Brezhnev”.

Then there’s the extraordinary situation that has developed around Alexander Podrabinek, a journalist and former political prisoner. Because of a bizarre row over the name of Moscow café,  Podrabinek got into a confrontation with Nashi, a Kremlin-backed nationalist youth movement, which has been noisily picketing his home. What was oddest about the affair was the public bickering it created between different parts of the Russian political establishment.

Last but not least, Medvedev has been less than whole-hearted in his support for Yuri Luzhkov, the veteran mayor of Moscow. In August, Medvedev sent out a message to local authorities, urging them to allow opposition candidates to stand in local elections. That message was ignored in Moscow, and many other localities, long used to pulling every string to help United Russia. Following United Russia’s controversial landslide in Moscow, Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters: “Moscow authorities are not ready to live under new standards.


All of this helps to provide context to today’s remarkable events in the Duma. Medvedev and his aides have been dropping more and more hints about their dissatisfaction with Russia’s present, tightly-regimented political system. This has clearly emboldened liberal advisors, opposition politicians, and other critics of the system, many of whom wouldn’t have dared to voice similar protests when the scarier Putin was still President.


That doesn’t mean that Medvedev is spoiling for a fight with Putin. On the contrary, both leaders are probably very conscious of the fact that their personal alliance is the main thing now holding the system together. They now face a considerable challenge in trying to keep the emerging tensions under control.


What it does mean is that, in his efforts to introduce a bit more democracy into Russia’s rigid body politic, Medvedev has inadvertently lifted the lid on simmering tensions between rival tendencies within the Russian elite.


And if that sounds familiar, it means you know your Russian history. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also found himself in much the same boat. In an effort to jump-start economic reforms, he promoted “Glasnost” – openness – introducing political competition and greater freedom of the press. What Gorbachev never anticipated was the shock his policy would deliver to the petrified Soviet system. Within a few years it had all fallen apart – much to everyone’s surprise.        


History never repeats itself exactly of course. What’s clear is that Russia is now heading into uncharted political waters. And they may be a good deal stormier than the ones we have grown used to over the last decade.

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