Russia: A Change in Name Only

Writing in the Seattle Post Intelligencer Lara Iglitzin, executive director of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which has supported NGOs working for human rights and democracy in Russia since 1989, says that Russia is singing the same old neo-Soviet song:

Is there hope for change in the post-Putin era in Russia?

Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev has been president of Russia for two brief months. On a recent visit to Moscow, there is palpable optimism for change – although tempered by political reality. “We have a whiff of a thaw in the air,” said Arseny Roginsky of the leading human rights organization, Memorial, using a word closely tied to the Khrushchev era when repressive measures under Stalin were eased.

Yet no one can predict whether that thaw is a reality or just a dim hope. “No one knows where the balance of power lies at this moment,” Roginsky continued, pointing to the current guessing game as to who will hold real power in Russia tomorrow – Putin (in his new job as prime minister) or the newly elected President Medvedev. No one disputes that Putin has the upper hand today. Having centralized political power during his eight years as president, Putin still pulls the political strings in Russia.

While it is too soon to tell if Putin and Medvedev are heading for conflict, in fighting and tension between the Putin and Medvedev circles could be good for Russia’s political system. “If there are two centers of power today, it would be better for civil society, even if the two camps are similar in aims,” says Roginsky, “because it would provide a space for political influence and activism.” Currently, observers agree there is essentially no political life in the country that impacts the state other than what is masterminded from above. Politics has become institutionalized.

“There is 100 percent control of the political sphere. Nothing unexpected can happen without the Kremlin pulling the puppet strings,” says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. She is skeptical that Medvedev’s election holds any promise for the development of civil society and true political opposition in Russia. While the new president is viewed as a possible reformer, both because of his non-KGB background and his rhetoric since taking power, Putin still has the capacity to limit Medvedev’s scope of action. There is little room for autonomy in his actions given Putin’s huge power base in the government. “Putin has been the only decision-maker, with the authority of a monarch. It will be years before Medvedev develops his own power base that could provide a check on that power,” Lipman predicts.

The government has sidelined political opposition in Russia today despite its tolerance of free speech to a great degree. The Kremlin won’t target everyone who dares defy the system in speech– as long as it feels unthreatened by the dissent. And while the traditional Russian “kitchen conversations” of the past – the private space where Russians were allowed to discuss their views openly – have now expanded to a much larger, more public place, none of it has much if any impact on politics.

An annual, highly critical and well-attended international conference on democracy and Russian politics is held in a big Moscow hotel – with no political results. A recent newspaper expose of money being siphoned off by corrupt officials in the banking community even named names – yet elicited no reaction by the government. On the plus side, the editor of the paper wasn’t thrown in jail – yet no criminal investigation was launched. This results in a total marginalization of any opposition voices.

A booming Russian economy, propped up by oil money, has provided the cover for the Putin drive to centralize political control. Putin routinely compares the wealth-soaked country of today unfavorably with what he calls the “terrible 1990s” – the Yeltsin era of political and economic instability– contending that people suffered under Yeltsin’s brand of democracy. Putin has trumpeted his successes, arguing that Russia can succeed without openness, without democracy – can become rich without freedom. “This was democracy in the 1990s, and it was bad for you, Putin has implied,” says Yuri Dzhibladze of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. “Putin has skillfully manipulated the court of public opinion.” Indeed, Russians now live better and have asserted themselves on the global scene: two powerful arguments that have led to Putin’s popularity.

These are persuasive claims for a populace that is living better today than ever, even if the economy rides on the strength of global oil prices. In Moscow it is clear that money is everywhere and corruption is not far behind. Economists agree Russia faces serious challenges and needs to modernize. Yet everyone is risk averse. “The temptation to muddle along is extremely strong,” notes Roginsky. Not yet faced with the crisis confronted by Gorbachev in the waning years of the Soviet era, Russia’s government erratically responds to today’s problems one by one. “When a problem flares up, the government throws a few pennies at it. It’s like emergency medical care,” says Roginsky. Russia was never as rich as it is today.

Yet as the disparity between the very rich and the very poor grows ever wider, it could lead to a social cataclysm, particularly if oil prices drop. While everyone lives a bit better (“except the NGO community,” Roginsky says wryly) much of society is unhappy. Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, the 81-year old veteran of the human rights movement, agreed. “Big business hates Putin for what he did to Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” the oil tycoon who crossed a line into political opposition and was subsequently targeted and imprisoned. “The military hate him because he has ruined the army.” They are not alone: Journalists remember life without censorship during the Yeltsin era. Pensioners resent that their stipends buy less today. Judges have seen their autonomy restricted. Dissatisfaction is widespread, if muted.

Why is this opposition not expressed at the ballot box? Aside from the overt political manipulation of the electoral system resulting in a lopsided result (people were pressured at factories, colleges, businesses and hospitals, for example, to fill out their ballots in front of bosses, just as in Soviet days), people have supported Putin, his protйgй Medvedev and their policies “only because they know nothing else,” Alexeyeva asserts. “They have traded political freedoms for a bit more bread and a calmer life.”

Within this context, it is difficult for the small but active human rights community to have their voices be heard – and for their work to make an impact. “The public doesn’t support civil society, doesn’t take human rights and the rule of law seriously,” Dzhibladze says. The brightest hope today is Medvedev’s talk that reforming the judicial system is a priority. Today, corruption up and down the judiciary threatens the stability of the country. Political bosses still run the show locally. While critics are skeptical of how far Medvedev can go, there is a demand from the business community and parts of the government to make the courts more accountable – and truly independent. Bureaucrats and businesses want to protect themselves from Khodorkovsky’s fate by ensuring an autonomous judiciary. They also want to ensure that they don’t lose their ill-gotten financial gains.

The Carnegie Center’s Lipman concludes that without a strong civil sector in Russia, all talk of a thaw – or real change – will be moot. “Without public activism, all we can hope for is mercy from the bosses. They will throw us something, and we will be grateful.” Until the society forms coalitions that are willing to take risks and to challenge the power structure step by step, change will be slow. Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, having experienced more ups and downs than many of her colleagues, remains optimistic: “In 10-15 years, Russia will be a normal country – in its own way.”

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