8 Dec 2011
In the aftermath of last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, several large-scale opposition demonstrations are scheduled across Russia. The largest is expected to be the “Rally for Honest Elections,” planned for December 10th, Saturday afternoon, in Bolotnaia Square, not far from the Kremlin in Moscow. As I write this now, nearly 33,000 people have RSVP’d for the event via Facebook, promising one of Russia’s largest assemblies of anti-regime political forces since Vladimir Putin entered the Kremlin.
With an eye to this year’s ‘Arab Spring’ and last decade’s ‘color revolutions’ (and indeed America’s recent ‘Occupy Wall Street’ phenomenon), many in the media are highlighting the mobilizing role of online social networks in organizing and politicizing previously dormant pockets of society. Thanks to the Web, analysis and observation now spread to the corners of the Earth in seconds, instantly and easily disseminating photographs, videos, and ideas between strangers united only by their shared interests and concerns.
In the spirit of this digital community, I’ve asked twelve fellow bloggers and micro-bloggers of the anglophone Russia-watching world to contribute brief reactions to the last week’s events. Unaware of who else was participating, these individuals agreed to share their perspectives as bloggers. The result, I hope readers will agree, is a fruitful diversity of informed opinion from some of the Web’s most prominent and colorful Russia-watchers.
Without further ado (and in alphabetical order), here are the solicited comments:
I’ve been watching the unrest in Russia on sites like Twitter and Tumblr. It was obvious even before the election happened that there was going to be fraud and no one expected a fair election. The cases of election fraud where recorded and uploaded to YouTube, then shared on twitter and other sites. They spread fast and upset many Russians who were already mad at the “party of crooks and thieves,” igniting the unrest in Triumph Square, which has also gone viral.
Some journalists are remembering the Arab Spring and think, or maybe even hope, the same will happen in Russia. It is a little similar: you do have pro-government and anti-government people in the street. However, journalists and others comparing this to the Arab Spring is actually bad for the opposition in Russia because then anti-government protesters will be seen by average Russians as working for American interests. The tweet by John McCain is just ammunition for pro-government forces. Comments like this give leverage to the government, as they can say the unrest is just meddling by foreigners to destroy Russia. This is what I have seen in many articles. These journalists or experts suggesting revolution will only make Putin and his regime stronger in the end.
Something had changed, and the mechanisms of the Kremlin machine seemed to need oiling. Ever since the tandem announced the decision that Putin would retake the presidency from Medvedev, “stuff” started happening. The gaggle of Russia-based, English-speaking journalists and Russia-watchers on Twitter are some of the sharpest [users] on that social media network—they’re a pleasure to follow and read, as facts and opinions emerge, take shape, are compared, and make it to published form.
As for the Russian Duma election itself, voting fraud employed techniques well-known to residents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani “carousel” voting has been documented in this 2010 RFE/RL video report from Baku, and has also been seen in Yerevan. The rude and aggressive behavior by election officials that Julia Ioffe encountered (as noted in her New Yorker report “Russian Elections: Faking It”) is very reminiscent of Armenian youth activist Karen Tovmasyan’s 2010 experience observing blatant election fraud in Yerevan.
Armenian Twitter users varied in their opinions about the post-election unrest. While supporters of Armenian’s opposition movement such as Tovmasyan (@HimaKaren) optimistically hailed the protests as the start of Putin’s removal from power, others such as bloggers @ditord and @kornelij downplayed it as an event that would quickly subside, leaving Putin ensconced at the top for perhaps another decade. My own view lies somewhere in between, perhaps best articulated by Brian Whitmore’s (@PowerVertical) post “Nothing Has Changed and Everything Has Changed”: “The air of omnipotence that Putin has enjoyed…is gone.” When Toto pulls aside the curtain, we see a middle-aged man at the controls, not a Great and Powerful Wizard, and his days are suddenly numbered. The question is, what is that number?
I don’t think this really sets me apart from other Russia watchers, but the scale and intensity of the post-election protests have really taken me by surprise. I basically assumed that “the rules of the game” were pretty much set in that UR would get a majority that was not so Soviet-like and fabricated as to be obviously ludicrous (nothing on the 99% level) but large enough to keep all the other parties in check. It looks like things turned out a little differently.
Since my blogging is a side-project that I do in addition to my usual 9-5, I haven’t been able to do anything particularly crazy when it comes to following the protests and keeping abreast of the latest news. Mostly, I’ve been following my Twitter feed where people such as yourself, Julia Ioffe, Miriam Elder, and Sean Guillory have been putting out a truly impressive, and sometimes bewildering, array of both English and Russian language sources of information. Most the time Twitter can be pretty tame as a medium, but in times like this it is an invaluable tool – there were times over the past several days where virtually the entirety of my Twitter feed was occupied by up-to-the-minute accounts of what was going on in Moscow which almost allowed me to feel as if I was taking part myself.
As for the overall discourse, I think it’s perhaps a bit misguided in overstating the role of young urban liberals, or at least in overstating the role they would play in some sort of post-Putin system. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but the early protests in Egypt were primarily run and organized by “the Facebook generation” though the ultimate political benefit accrued almost entirely to extremely retrograde movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Will the same thing happen in Russia? Not necessarily: a lot of what happened in Egypt can be explained by the fact that Egypt is generally a much more backward, poorer, and less urban society than Russia. But even the estimates of what a totally non-rigged election would have looked like have Yabloko getting less than 7% of the overall vote (or less than a quarter of what United Russia would have gotten). I don’t think this means the protests are “bad” or that the authorities are justified in crushing them, I think we just could stand to be a bit more realistic of what Russians themselves want and, judging by their voting patterns, it’s not a triumphant return of liberalism.
Thank you, Kevin, for inviting MBK Center to contribute. As you mentioned, you were interested in hearing what people are reading and hearing about the post-election events this week.
Out of the plethora of analysis, two ideas stood out to us. The first came from Vedomosti editor Maxim Trudolubov, who argued that we are witnessing a breakdown in the social contract of the Putin era, whereby voters “agreed” to sacrifice some democratic freedoms in exchange for stability, order, prosperity, etc. This anger over a stolen vote marks a reversal from these years of apathy. Much emphasis has been placed on the way the “arrangement” was (mis)handled when Putin assumed to take the presidency back without consultation. Not since LeBron James televised “the decision” to take his talents to South Beach has such a popular vehicle so quickly become an object of scorn. But what Trudolubov notes is much bigger than that: he writes about a cultural shift in which “the heroic collective spirit of Soviet times is long gone,” while individual success has become the “dominating value.”
The second idea that goes back to the perils of rising expectations. Julia Ioffe has a piece quoting the young Nashi and Duma member Robert Shlegel, who complains that citizens are getting greedy, arguing that with “the emergence of the good things” that demands have changed, focusing not just on how to survive, but also how to live with dignity – which includes a role, minimal at least, in how public affairs are conducted.
But both of these perspectives are also problematic — on the one hand, there is a cultural shift toward some form of individualism, or worse, selfishness, while the other assumes that people are protesting out of some sort of unreasonable motive. But when you watch a YouTube video of an election official casually filling out hundreds of ballots to vote for United Russia, just what kind of suspension of apathy were they hoping voters would have?
What has happened this week is interesting, unforeseen, and meaningful. But let’s not blow things out of proportion. Remember, it was only last year that 12,000 people gathered in the streets of Kaliningrad to demand the resignation of a widely unpopular governor (appointed by United Russia) who had raised utility prices, and assail the party and Putin over a variety of grievances. Similar anti-Putin protests took place in Vladivostok in 2008. In both instances, there were a number of premature celebrations among the oppositionists predicting the imminent fall of Putinism. That didn’t happen, and no one should expect it to happen in the next few weeks.
Yet still, this week could be a game changer. If United Russia is no longer reliable or credible as a platform, then what instruments will be used to bring Putin back into power next year? Will we see the inevitable counter-revolution of teenagers and pensioners bused in from the regions to protest in favor of Putin? More mass arrests, or is a new level of violence coming soon? What does seem clear, and quite different from the past, is that the Kremlin lacks a consensus strategy to deal with the current situation, and that this causes significant discomfort.
It seems that Vladimir Putin has severely underestimated the reactions to his announcement that he would again run for the post of President. From Putin’s perspective, the move seemed quite logical: the reforms instituted by Medvedev have not achieved the expected results (even though there has been some tangible impact). Also, there is the fact that United Russia had been performing badly in the polls throughout 2011: he clearly thought that by returning himself to the presidency, he could boost support for the party.
His choice has backfired. The older generation of Russians probably approved of this, as they like to see a father-like figure leading the country. However, the new generation of Russians felt cheated and took to the streets after the elections on Sunday, which Putin had turned into a de facto pre-presidential election. At first, I was not really impressed by the demonstrations in Moscow, but now that people are planning demonstrations in more than 80 cities in Russia, I’m far more excited. I found the reactions to the defeat of United Russia particularly interesting: Medvedev seemed more confident while Putin was clearly worried. The “manager” of the political process in Russia, Vladislav Surkov, managed to make a parody of himself by proposing that “Russia needs a new party for the angry middle class,” after he so enthusiastically destroyed that possibility by removing Prokhorov as the leader of the Right Cause Party just a few months ago. Other younger members of United Russia, like journalist A.Khinshtein, have expressed their frustrations, as well.
Some of the journalists and Russia experts have already started to predict what can and might happen. Notably, some Dutch journalists seem to be anticipating a revolution. I don’t think we will see a revolution, but if we do, I expect it will be bad for Russia. Others predict that Putin will get rid of Medvedev or that Kudrin might return. This could happen, of course, but it will not solve the government’s fundamental problems: Kudrin is not popular among Russians, which leaves only Medvedev as a “bridge” between the generations. It might well be that Putin will start relying on Medvedev more and more as a Prime Minister after his victory in March. Whatever the outcome, the Kremlin elite will need to address the problems and demands of the younger generation. Even when this all blows over.
This protest appears to consist of people who are frustrated and angry at the system. They are angry because they feel like their voice was taken away from them. And they are angry because corruption is making it difficult to live. They feel as if Putinism has failed them. But as Egypt and Tahrir have shown us in the last year, a movement of angry people can only get you so far.
A movement needs clear leadership, and right now this movement doesn’t seem to have one. Stanislav Belkovsky is still advocating Alexei Navalny and something Belkovsky calls Liberal Nationalism (as an American this seems a bit of an oxymoron, and I question what exactly that would look like). But as we saw on Unity Day, even Navalny can only appeal to a small portion of the middle class: young Russian Hipsters, apparently (or at least those with Internet access).
Despite the lack of focus and leadership of the protesters, at some point Putin and the Kremlin will have to make some concessions. And Vladimir Putin is not someone who makes concessions. Currently, Putin is dragging his feet and promising vague changes to take place after he becomes President again. But that may not be enough. Difficult choices must be made in the Kremlin in the coming days.
The Russian parliamentary elections have been incredibly exciting. The results, the street protests, and the debate swirling around what the Kremlin will do next has injected an urgency in Russian politics that’s been missing for a while. There are several things I’ve noticed, some obvious, some not, about the last few days. First, is the pervasive use of technology and social networking among activists. As many have pointed out, Twitter, YouTube, Iphones, etc have played a similar role in Russia as in other countries. What is crucial about these technologies is that not only do they document events in real time, but more importantly, they create a counter-narrative that cannot be suppressed or counteracted through a medium, that, frankly, the Kremlin doesn’t seem to even understand.
Second, the discourse about the meaning of the elections has several parallel layers that don’t intersect. There is the government which obviously is trying to save face by giving recognition to their drop in support with promises of changes in personnel. For the most part, though, the Kremlin thinks it can use a combination of technocratic alterations to satisfy its constituency and force to quell civil unrest. The second discourse is that of expert intelligentsia. Most of the mainstream critical Russian press has been giddy about the elections and the protests, but their commentary has been sober and mostly concentrated on speculating the Kremlin’s next move. Also, their rhetoric is mostly focused on systemic themes: Russian political development, the relationship between state and society, the place of liberalism, and changes in societal attitudes. Despite their disparate viewpoints, they all seem to agree on one thing: Sunday’s elections were a major watershed.
The last discourse is that of the liberal opposition, its media, and street protesters (I would also include much of the Western media here too). There is an atmosphere of revival and revolution, and for good reason. The response to the elections, particularly among educated urban youths, has reinvigorated an aimless and wilting movement. Rather than analyzing the new situation, they are fueled by their convictions, sense of injustice and lack of recognition. What is most ironic is that many of these youths are products of Putin’s successes. Though their actual numbers on the street have been small, they have been impressive, particularly in their defiance of authority. Also, like many movements today, their support shouldn’t be measured by the bodies in the street. They have a growing constituency backing them on the Internet. The challenge of the opposition will be to materialize that virtual following into a concrete social force. My concern, however, is that the opposition will fetishize protest as it has in the past. Street protests have diminishing returns especially if there is a sense that they aren’t going anywhere. At some point the opposition is going to have to consolidate, strategize, and build for the long-term. As much as the rhetoric of a “Russian Winter” is in the air, it is important to remember that the vast majority of Russians support the system. Their deference toward United Russia may be waning, but they still overwhelmingly back the other sanctioned parties.
This brings me to my last point. The crucial voice missing is that of the Russian citizen who sincerely voted for one of the parties on the ballot. The only time I’ve heard the voice of “Ivan Ivanovich” is in a report on how Russian state television isn’t reporting the protests. Besides that there has been little attention paid to what he or she thinks, what this vote says to them, or how they see the future. Like many other instances in Russian history, they are not invited to the conversation. In fact, to the players above, “Ivan Ivanovich” is nothing than the dark muzhik devoid of any political subjectivity. If this is indeed a new situation, ignoring this voice could have vital consequences on the course Russia takes in the future.
You want to know my guilty secret? Every day – elections or no – the first site I check for news about Russia is RIA Novosti. I’ve been impressed by the depth of their coverage and the (comparatively) even handed way that they’ve covered the elections, although the cynic in me wonders if its just a facade of open debate put on for foreign audiences. Plus, they’ve got pretty infographics.
The second tool I’ve found really useful is Google News. A quick search for ‘Russia election’ is a great way to get an overview of what the major press outlets are saying about the Russian elections. Although, I have to say, I’ve been disappointed by the spectacularly simplistic way that the election has been covered by most in the west – “a fraudulent election, followed by liberal opposition protests that are being crushed by the Kremlin” is the standard message, delivered by lazy hacks with varying degrees of breathlessness and, for good measure, littered with references to Russia’s Arab Spring (colored revolutions are yesterday’s news). The best thing about Google News, though, is that if you refine your search, you can drill down to some of the more interesting news sources and get access to some more nuanced reporting and opinion.
(Top tip: there’s also a Russian language version of Google News – news.google.ru – which uses Russian news sources)
The third and final step is, of course, twitter, which is where I keep up with the most interesting analysis (of wildly varying viewpoints) and any breaking news. I also find twitter’s short, often snarky, exchanges a great place to bounce around ideas about the implications of the election and to develop my own thinking. I usually follow English language feeds because my Russian is (charitably) a bit crap and I tend to read Russian tweets slower than new ones arrive. Although occasionally I delve into Russian language twitter feeds for more detailed research or up to the minute news, I’ve found that the important news filters through to me fairly quickly.
“Russia’s Generational Wars.” What exactly have we been witnessing this week in Russia? A civil war? A ideological struggle between competing economic systems? A political death match? A revolution?
Actually… it’s none of the above. Rather, what we’re witnessing in Russia is a generational stand-off. In many ways, Russia’s current unrest is part of the broader “global generational wars” that have already spawned the Arab Spring, the riots throughout Europe, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. Of course, Russia’s generational war has its own flavor and was sparked for its very own unique cultural reasons.
In order to understand those cultural reasons, we must remember that there are three very distinct segments of society in Russia today. First, there’s the Vladimir Putin’s generation (i.e. the last Soviet) that is comprised of people over 50 years old. Then there’s Alexey Navalny’s generation (i.e. the first Russian) that is made up of young people under 35 years old. Finally, there’s Dmitry Medvedev’s generation of 35 to 50 year olds who came of age in the 1990′s (i.e. the lost generation). What we’re witnessing right now is an escalating generational power struggle that pits a young Russian generation against an older Soviet generation. Surprisingly, it was a rare political misstep by Putin and/or Surkov that was the potential root cause of this week’s flare up.
Until the United Russia party convention this past September, there had basically been a tacit understanding between the older and younger generations that Dmitry Medvedev would continue to serve as an interim caretaker in Russia’s political secession plan. All agreed that Medvedev was the least worst solution. Had Medvedev announced in September that he would run/stand for reelection to a 2nd term, most of the young urban generation would have begrudgingly pinched their noses and bit their tongues because unlike the youth in the other generational wars, Russia’s youngest generation has relatively good economic prospects. Medvedev, with his Skolkovo innograd (Russia’s Silicon Valley project), his highfalutin pronouncements on civil liberties, and his appealing techno-geek veneer would have let him serve as the political bridge, which would span Russia’s generation divide for another 6 years.
But something strange happened on the way to the convention. Putin got spooked (a topic for another time) and he decided that the original secession timetable should be pushed back (not at all uncommon… just ask Rupert Murdoch). The result was that the tandem awkwardly switched places and Medvedev begin a surrealistic dance as he campaigned as the new leader of the United Russia party (think: the class nerd who suddenly becomes the capo of the gang that steals the other kids’ lunch money). In the process, Medvedev sold his soul, invalidated his liberal credentials, and abandoned his role as the de facto political voice for Russia’s under 35 generation.
Vladislav Surkov (i.e. Russia’s Karl Rove), for reasons still unknown, was unable to balance the competing egos of Medvedev and Mikhail Prokhorov (owner of the Brooklyn Nets and a member of the Brat Pack Oligarchy). Thus, Prokhorov threw a very public and embarrassing temper tantrum, took his basketball, and quit the political game when he learned that it would be Medvedev who would be filling the Prime Minister’s chair for the next 6 years. Thus, the conditions were set for a perfect political storm in which the most sophisticated and modern segment of society, that young “first Russian” generation, was left completely and utterly without any political voice.
Since we know that nature abhors a vacuum, it’s not really that surprising that an unknown political wonder-kid, Alexey Navalny, would arrive on the scene as the newest Russian political superhero (think: JFK but with the Southern vote). While Medvedev and Putin toured the country attending rubber Chicken Kiev campaign events, and Surkov was too clever by half… Alexey Navalny quietly showed some surprisingly wise political instincts and did something nobody thought possible… he created a coalition of strange bedfellows that merged the moral activism of Russia’s urban liberals with the emotional patriotism of Russia’s nationalists.
Sunday’s elections and their obvious and insultingly clumsy incidents of voter fraud were simply the spark that lit the “bonfire of the indignities.” The result is that’s we’re now living in uncertain times over here in Russia. The escalating protests this week in Moscow, with the very definite possibility of nationwide demonstrations this weekend, has everyone treading on eggshells. Where it all leads, nobody knows. However, what should be quite obvious to everyone by this point, is that whatever the ultimate solution, it must quickly and fully give Navalny’s generation a real and substantive voice in Russia’s political life. Managed democracy is dead. If Putin remains firm in his belief that he must/will be a candidate for President in March (wouldn’t he be happier as the Chairman of a newly merged Rosneft/Gazprom) then he’ll have to offer the young protestors something of real value in order to put an end to Russia’s generational wars. Your move Mr. Putin.
Text to come later. (Hopefully.)
Election fraud has long been an important tool for the Russian government in managing or — perhaps more accurately — “faking” democracy. One of the key reasons why the government has been able to get away with this fraud is its monopoly over information. The recent post-election unrest seems to suggest that the government’s control over information is slipping. Although it is impossible to know for sure, the scale of the falsifications this time around were likely no greater than in the past. The key difference this time, however, is that bloggers have posted a vast array of online content (including youtube videos and blog posts) showing blatant examples of voter fraud. Despite massive distributed denial of service attacks, the sheer scale and grainy reality of this information has proven impossible to contain.
The massive online exposure of the falsifications and the ensuing protests likely do not spell the end of the Putin regime or the first step to a dramatic “Russian spring”. But they do suggest that the Russian government is losing a critical weapon in its attempt to manage democracy: monopoly over information. Although the influence of the internet on Russian politics is likely overstated (see Morozov’s “net delusion” argument”), the recent post-election unrest suggests that the internet can play an important role in undermining the Russian a key government weapon in managed democracy. The obvious next question therefore is whether the Russian government can find more effective ways of renewing their information monopoly next time around.
William Partlett is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution. These comments are his own.
“Why I’m organising an anti-election fraud rally in London.” It all started really spontaneously. On December 5th, like anyone not attending the rally at Chistye Prudy, I was glued to my laptop screen, watching in awe as Moscow, my home town, erupted in the biggest public protests in 20 years. I was thrilled, but at the same time feeling helpless and detached from my friends and colleagues in Moscow, who were chanting, marching, tweeting madly, running away from the police, and getting beaten and detained. I almost felt like hitching the nearest flight to Moscow.
At some point, one of my Russian friends in London, equally stupefied by what he was watching on DozhdTV (‘RainTV,’ virtually the only independent Russian TV channel) and elsewhere, turned to me and suggested: “Hey, maybe we should do something here in London?” Dictum factum, I started a Facebook group and included all of my Facebook friends based in London. “Alright,” I thought, “we’re going to stand around with some placards, tweet for a while, take a couple of pictures to send to our friends in Moscow and that’ll be it.”
The next thing I know, I’m managing a 500-strong rally at Trafalgar Square. I’m getting calls from Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester, and Sheffield from people wanting to come to our demonstration or organize their own — which is kind of overwhelming! I’ve never organised any public protests before (although I’ve been to quite a few, both as a journalist and as a participant), and I’m not at all involved in politics. I never even wanted to be a political journalist in the first place — but I guess you just can’t be a journalist in today’s Russia and not be political. These days, even the most timid nerds whose media careers mostly consist of reviewing indie gigs in Moscow’s smallest clubs are sharing the latest riot police evasion tips and angrily tweeting things like ‘Down with the party of crooks and thieves!’
So, I’m now in charge of a massive demonstration ten times the size that originally discussed with London’s Metropolitan Police. Who are all these people? They probably belong to the 2,000-plus people who voted in the Duma elections on December 4th at the Russian embassy in London, and most voted for any party but United Russia. I was an observer at that polling station, which was probably the freest of fraud of all the thousands of voting stations across Russia and its embassies worldwide. Now that I think of it, it’s pretty cynical: 2,000 voters are statistically insignificant, so nobody would bother chartering planes for Nashi to import rigged absentee ballots into or away from London. Unsurprisingly, at Britain’s three polling stations, EdRo lost epically, attracting just 10% of votes, ahead only of the nondescript parties the ‘Patriots of Russia’ and the Prokhorov-less ‘Right Cause’. Yabloko clocked some 40 percent. Now, if you look at Central Election Commission of Russia’s website, the overall votes-abroad result for United Russia was 63.91%, with Yabloko at just over 7 percent. Apparently, United Russia’s most loyal supporters prefer living somewhere outside of this supposedly ‘United’ Russia. In the bombed-out and mostly deserted Abkhazian town of Ochamchira (official population 4,702), more than 12,000 votes were cast for United Russia.
These examples go on and on. I think the point is clear: our votes have been stolen in a scam so massive, so brash and obvious, that it broke the political apathy of Russia in the 2000s. People simply won’t put up with that anymore.