Do Russians really want democracy?

December 13, 2011

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

MOSCOW — This weekend it was the Russians who took to the streets. Authorities claim there were no more than 25,000 protestors while organizers say there were at least 50,000. No matter the number, the protests have taken a sharp turn and seem to have depth in their anger.

Russia is far from a full democracy, but it is enough of one to prompt its electors to indignation that their presidential choices had been radically “improved”.

The current unrest on the streets and the widespread revulsion over solid-seeming evidence of ballot rigging show that many get very annoyed if their democratic choice is falsified. In conversations with students, regional journalists and a few older people in Russia last week, I was left in little doubt of the anger felt by many among them — and many among them had been Putin supporters.

The rule of Vladimir Putin — eight years as President of Russia, four behind the Presidential throne while Dmitri Medvedev sat uneasily on it, never quite looking the part — was not, after all, a defiance of the laws of political gravity.

Here was a politician who had achieved, by democratic means, the power of an authoritarian. Putin built his power during his first term as president and had it confirmed with his second term and then again in the election of his proxy, Medvedev, to serve the term which he, under the constitution, could not.

His power controls the government, the Duma (parliament), the regional governors, the military, the police, the secret services and most of the media, or certainly the most important part of it, television: in a country of 140 million, no daily newspaper has a circulation of over a 100,000.

The judiciary can also usually be relied on to bring in the “right” sentence when it is important to the state to do so. Businesses, even very large ones, also toe the Kremlin line: those who think of defiance need only reflect on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the greatest among them, now serving out a second sentence in Siberia.

Putin had high popularity and complete control: what could go wrong?

Here’s what the experts think could:

The economy, which has been the basis of Putin’s popularity, has been stagnant since the financial crash of 2008, scorning his assurance that Russia is immune from such Western diseases. But just the opposite is true: Russia’s economic woes run deep. In a recent paper, “The Russian economy to 2020″, Brookings Fellows Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes demolish the claim that the economy is modernizing. They write that Russia “is not a young, dynamic emerging economy. It is an old economy still burdened by a legacy of 60 years of misallocation and faulty development”. The Soviet Union is not a legacy easily sloughed off.

Earlier this month, a Pew Global Attitudes survey showed that Russians (as well as Ukrainians and Lithuanians) “are unhappy with the direction of their countries and disillusioned with the state of their politics…most believe that the changes that have taken place since 1991 have had a negative impact on public morality, law and order and standards of living”.

And in a lengthy report, “Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia”, the European Council for Foreign Relations writes, “the economic crisis has laid bare Russia’s governance crisis. Growth is also constrained as a consequence of weak institutions, the personalization of power and fusion of property and power that defines Russian politics”.

There are other, more vivid signs, like the booing that greeted Putin when he attended a martial arts demonstration a few weeks back. His popularity, which is somewhere between 35 and 40 percent, is still relatively high for a leader in financially troubled times, but it is quite far down from the sixtieth percentile, where it had resided for some time.

Russia has stopped being a success. It is “more sick than BRIC” as economist Nouriel Roubini puts it. Indeed, there is much doubt as to whether it should have been put in a group with Brazil, India and China in the first place.

Russians, however, are not opposed to a strong ruling hand. In fact, a Pew survey shows they prize a strong hand more than democracy. To be sure, that sentiment plays into Putin’s favor.

But many, especially students, after years of what observers describe as remarkable passivity, now show a rebelliousness more often associated with their stage in life. One reason: the prevailing corruption in universities, where entrances and degrees are routinely bought by rich parents, and where the richer students flaunt their wealth. A visit to the elite Moscow State University, Mikhail Gorbachev’s alma mater, revealed many expensive German cars in the student parking lots.

Moscow, where I lived at the end of Soviet times and in the poor, turbulent years of Boris Yeltsin’s rule, has become a consumers’ wonder (and a poor person’s despair). It’s now surrounded by malls, vast IKEA depots, gleaming car sales palaces and every sort of fast food concession. Restaurants in inner Moscow are now among the most expensive in the world, and the cafe next to the Moscow Conservatory, where you could get tea for a few roubles, now charges $10 for a cappuccino and a piece of pie. The next generation of musicians — the Conservatory produces many of the greatest string and piano players of the 20th century – continue to converse merrily enough outside in the cold. But in the provinces, especially in the villages, much is still the same.

Russia’s population, however, is shrinking fast. Men tend to die in their fifties, and the drafted armed forces are a byword for cruelty … to their own recruits. These recruits still serve in the Northern Caucasus, where Chechnya is pacified but mini conflicts constantly break out. The rich, the clever, and the criminals make their wealth in Russia, but then stream abroad and spend it in London and Paris, like the Tsarist era aristos. A huge gulf separates the winners from the losers — and the winners rub it in.

Even normally level headed Russian analysts sound apocalyptic: political scientist and head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Sergei Karaganov, a keen tracker of trends for twenty years, recently remarked that if the country’s Far East continues to depopulate, “it is very likely that Russia, east of the Urals, and later the whole country, will turn into an appendage of China — first as a warehouse of resources, and then economically and politically”.

The former British ambassador to Moscow, Andrew Wood, in a recent book-length conversation with Russian liberal analyst Liliya Shevtsova, said “Russia (has) a kind of bureaucratic-authoritarian regime in quasi democratic disguise”.

If — it is no longer a question of when — Vladimir Putin, a chauffeur’s son turned KGB Lieutenant Colonel turned leader of all Russia, receives his third mandate from the Russian people to be their President next March, little will change, say most experts, both Russian and foreign. Putin rules, as he often says, through a “vertical of power” — that is, with power concentrated at the center and with all other institutions subordinate to him, either de facto or de jure.

No fool, and perhaps no natural tyrant, Putin may seek to shift to a greater liberalism to contain and address the rising discontent. But because he is no fool, he will know Machiavelli’s warning that this is the most dangerous maneuver for a leader, even more so when attempted in a stalled economy.

It may well be true that Putin’s occasional warning to Western leaders that Russia needs a strong hand to guard against other reactionary forces – has some validity. People want their voting to be clean, but the rest of what democracy and capitalism has brought to their country has little support. This disillusion has been long growing. In her conversation with Wood, Shevtsova remarks, “it was during Yeltsin’s time that democratic values were discredited in people’s eyes, because they were used as slogans to disguise the emergence of oligarchical capitalism and a corrupt state”. Putin was set to change all that, but has not.

The stability of Russia, on which much more than Russia’s fate depends, is no longer assured. The carapace of the USSR drags on the economy, and on the politics and the society, too. Getting rid of it, becoming “normal”, is a long work in progress. And, most likely, a turbulent one. Much trouble still lies ahead.

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