Special Report | Is Russia ready for its own Spring?

On December 4 Russians will go to the ballots to elect their representatives to the Duma, with the Presidential elections set for March 2012. But with the results of both rounds already obvious, could disillusion with a broken system eventually turn into an Arab-style revolution? Franco Galdini reports from St Petersburg.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 20:47 - 2 Comments

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Demonstrators taking part in the Strategy 31 rally on Nevsky Prospekt on Aug. 31 are surrounded by police officers. (Photo: ALEXANDER BELENKY / The St. Petersburg Times)

On the 31st of this past August, I was standing with a friend in front of Saint Petersburg’s centrally located Gostiny Dvor shopping centre-cum-metro station, along the famous Nevsky Prospekt. As on the 31st day of every other month in several locations around the country, a few hundred people slowly gathered to peacefully demonstrate against the Russian government’s undemocratic practices and intolerance vis-à-vis any kind of political opposition.

Thirty-one is not a casual number. It actually refers to Article 31 in the Russian Constitution that is supposed to guarantee freedom of peaceful assembly, which states:

“Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.”

That, at least, is the theory. However, permits for such kind of demonstrations are allegedly very hard to come by in the first place, making such gatherings informal and, consequently, technically illegal.

Compared to the diminutive attendance at the event, which at various stages numbered between two and three hundred people between demonstrators and curious onlookers, the massive show of force displayed by the police and riot police forces reminded me of Cairo 2005. At that time, the newly-born Kifaya (‘Enough’) movement was busy organising Egypt’s first ever free demonstrations in decades, where opponents to the Mubarak regime took to the streets and chanted slogans against the ruling party, then President Hosni Mubarak and his son – and heir-apparent – Jamal.

It was the disregard for any semblance of democracy with which Mubarak seemed set to bequeath his reign to his younger son, a policy referred to in Arabic as ‘tawreeth’, that particularly angered protesters. After decades of rule by the same clique, Egyptians were starting to feel that – quite literally – ‘enough was enough’.

Then as now in Russia, the police and riot police put up a show that, with hindsight, revealed the regime’s weakness more than its force. In Cairo, police trucks whizzed by the few hundred demonstrators on both sides, seemingly unmoved by the possibility of running someone over, whereas riot police in full gear stood in front and at the back of the moving crowd. Sometimes, a demonstrator or two were grabbed and taken away to a police truck, where it was alleged they were given a sound beating.

In Saint Petersburg, before the demonstration was set to start, police and riot police could be seen in their hundreds around the full perimeter of Gostiny Dvor’s Neoclassical building, with the sole exception of the side at the back. Police trucks were unnervingly parked in front of the metro station and at the sides, along Nevsky Prospekt and on the corner with Sadovaya Street, whilst a police helicopter was hovering in the air and at one time came worryingly and provokingly close to the Prospekt.

The demonstrators were very ingenious in carving up a small space for their protest to be heard: a small crowd would gather around a few activists sitting on the ground, in an attempt to claim back that public space long-denied to them, an idea which was to become central to the Occupy Wall Street and similar movements around the world.

At times, the crowd would slowly enlarge the circle for someone to take centre stage under various disguises, whether dressed up as a bear (the current President’s surname contains the word medved, which means ‘bear’ in Russian) or as a garbage man with a big shovel pretending to scoop up rubbish from the street, an allusion to the corrupt political-economic system dominating life in Russia. Many would draw the number 31 on their foreheads and arms whereas a vagrant held his hands up alternating the numbers 3 and 1 with his middle fingers. Intermittent chants of ‘svaboda, svaboda’ (‘freedom, freedom’) interspersed the protests.

A banner read: ‘Elections without an opposition are a crime,’ perhaps echoing the title of the world-famous Russian novelist, Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, where a crime is closely associated with a punishment.

Not in Russia, or at least not for now. For although the nature of the demonstration was peaceful, it was met with disproportionately harsh measures. The riot police pierced through the outer ring of the crowd and ruthlessly mopped up those who had become the focal point of the protest, who then swiftly disappeared into the police trucks. Some attendees told me that they would probably be beaten up, brought to the police station, interrogated and then released the same day or a few days later. That was the reason why some activists were busy distributing leaflets offering free legal services to all present.

Elections without democracy

The upcoming December 4 elections for representatives to the Russian Duma appear to be run as a family affair within the ruling party’s house. At the ruling party, United Russia’s annual congress last September 24, Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev effectively agreed to swap Russia’s top political spots in a show of smug confidence that made a travesty of Russia’s already poor democratic credentials.

That the elections’ results are a foregone conclusion is evidenced by the fact that, as regularly pointed out by protesters and Russia watchers, there is no opposition worth speaking of in Russia, and whatever opposition may have been allowed to exist has been watered down to such an extent so as to ensure it will not pose any real challenge to the Kremlin, whilst offering a convenient facade of democracy.

The story of would-be-legal party Volya (‘Will’) and its founder, Svetlana Peunova, is a case in point. On a pamphlet distributed at another picket in Saint Petersburg, one could read of Volya’s own odyssey for legal registration, which has yet to materialise. In fact, the party’s founder and its members have been subjected to a string of acts of harassment by the authorities, including being formally charged of various wrongdoings, only to be cleared after lengthy legal proceedings.

Likewise, four consecutive times party representatives have submitted an application for registration to the Ministry of Justice which, for as many times, rejected it over legal technicalities. Needless to say, it is now too late for Volya’s representatives to take part in the forthcoming elections and for their leader to run for President in March of 2012.

Effectively, elections notwithstanding, Russians are left with one obvious scenario: Medvedev, currently President, will become their next Prime Minister; whereas current Prime Minister, Putin, will return as President for a third term. Furthermore, the constitution has been conveniently changed to lengthen the president’s term from four to six years which, coupled with the possibility to run for two consecutive terms, practically speaking, means Putin could stay at Russia’s helm until 2024.

It thus seems fair to ask at this point whether Russians are going to passively accept such a state of affairs, given the combination of personal autocratic rule cum social polarisation between the extremely rich and the abjectly poor that Putin has effectively supervised, all in the name of stability.

When I put this question to several people from different walks of life, many a time I was told that the average Russian is more likely to put up with the daily struggle for survival than to challenge the status quo. This was usually ascribed to a somewhat unspecified russky harakter, or Russian nature, one and the same explanation I had been given countless times before to describe the apparent political stagnation in the Arab world. The Arab mind was not “wired” for democracy, the argument went, let alone to rise up to claim its basic democratic rights.

This was all the more surprising though in a country with such a time-honoured revolutionary tradition as Russia’s. However, uneasiness with revolutionary upheaval becomes clearer in the light of the traumatic events of the past two decades, during which Russians witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and found themselves bankrupt twice in less than ten years. In the eyes of the general public, political-economic instability has become associated with the liberal reforms of former President Yeltsin, to whom Putin represented a welcome stabilising alternative.

A change of season?

However, the world has changed a great deal since 1999, when Putin first became Russia’s President. As stability steadily turns into stagnation and corruption, it is extremely hard to fathom what the majority of Russians think in the absence of a political process that allows for free and fair democratic competition. It is perhaps not surprising then that little news of the Arab Spring has trickled through to Russian national television, apart from items criticising NATO’s war in Libya or pandering to Russia’s latest initiative to solve the Syrian imbroglio.

That warm October night back in Cairo in 2005, when walking back with an Egyptian activist friend to his home in the plush Zamalek neighbourhood, I couldn’t hide my scepticism at his claim that those demonstrations marked a turning point in Egypt’s political culture. His point was that the bar had been raised to the next level and it would thus be extremely hard for the regime to turn the clock back. When I met him again this last February in Cairo, his words were echoing loudly in my head and their meaning unfolded in front of my eyes as I ventured into Tahrir Square.

It would admittedly be tempting, with the hindsight of 2011, to see revolutionary potential in any place where some similarity with the Arab world could be drawn. After all, one youth leader in Tahrir Square told me that they were as stunned as anyone else to see the spontaneous outpour of people protesting in the Egyptian capital and all around the country.

Indeed, in the streets of St Petersburg today, in 2011, revolution may feel as remote a possibility as it did then in Cairo in 2005. Still, the Russian elites would do well to take notice of the growing discontent within the general public with their perceived detachment from the predicaments of ordinary Russians, the small but persistent demonstrations around the country being one obvious indicator thereof. Lest it all turns into something much, much bigger later down the line.

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Franco Galdini

Franco Galdini is a freelance analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He lived for 10 years in the Middle East and North Africa, where he worked in various capacities with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

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Ирина
Nov 22, 2011 11:22

Недемократичные выборы…

– эта формулировка настолько сильно укоренилась в головах жителей постсоветского пространства, что понятия «выборы» и «недемократические выборы» часто просто взаимозаменяемы. Говоря «выборы» ты по умолчанию подразумеваешь «недемократические выборы».

Как житель этого постсоветского пространства хочу отметить, что для нас в первую очередь важно знать и понимать: после выборов не будет хуже, чем есть. Такова, наверное, славянская душонка. В своем большинстве мы не думаем о революциях. Мы мечтаем о стабильности и возможности завтра предугадать действия власти!!!

И собственно россияне, в отличие, например, от украинцев, могут это сделать. Я даже думаю, что они в некой мере этим довольны.

Большая часть населения этой страны знают и понимают чего ожидать, если будут идти по накатанной дорожке и оставаться приверженцами действующей власти.

«Так зачем рисковать?» – скажет россиянин.

Вон, Украина очередной раз рискнула, и как следствие снова подстраивает свою жизнь под происки новой власти. Правда, всё это происходит вслепую, так как опять же не знает, какое налоговое нововведение будет резко введено завтра, или какую льготу тебе срочно отменят.

Каждый из нас хочет быть немножко безнес-планёром своей семьи, своего маленького бизнеса и так далее. И даже возможность им быть иногда кажется счастьем.

Марина
Nov 28, 2011 14:10

When we say that the results of elections are obvious, we mean that whatever happens on December 4, the authorities will definitely falsify them in their favor. The ways to do that are numerous, starting with voting via dead souls (those who really died), and ending with those who just wouldn’t come. Every registered person who ignores elections presents his vote to Putin’s United Russia party. In my family we watched that regularly after my daughter had left for the USA, and my son for Belgium, their names remained on election lists, and we were not allowed to write down the information that they did not live in Russia any more. My husband and I are living currently in Belgium, and I have no doubt that our ballots will be filled in the “proper ” way. I wonder how many international observers will come to Russia and if, they can ( at least in some cases), decrease falsification or make the falsification public for the whole world? . The Kremlin is confident that it can manipulate the elections and push through the party of thieves. What can we do to unmask today’s theft of votes?

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