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Even before the election night returns came in on March 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin was introducing his successor to a select crowd at a Red Square rock concert.
At his side and dressed in a dark leather jacket that served only to emphasize his short stature, slight build and corporate lawyer-like demeanor, Dmitri Medvedev appeared slightly dazed. After all, until this moment, he had spent most of his professional life in back rooms, taking orders, not giving them.
The 42-year-old Kremlin retainer had never before been elected to anything, had no political base of his own and became well-known to most Russians only after Putin named him as heir apparent last December. Medvedev gave a brief, halting speech pledging to continue “the plan that Putin proposed.” A smiling Putin then congratulated Medvedev and assured Russians that this was, indeed, their new president.
Medvedev’s victory has been scorned by critics as a triumph of “managed democracy,” a system that reached its climax under Putin, in which the Kremlin defines the political agenda, stage-manages the process and mobilizes the population to validate the whole exercise with their votes. As one Moscow journalist, Sergei Strokan, remarked, “Putin could have nominated his dog, and it would be duly elected and inaugurated as president.”
Most Russians were aware that their votes weren’t likely to change much. According to a post-election poll by the state-run VTsIOM center, 88 percent of Russians thought Putin will continue playing “an important role” after he steps down in May, while only 10 percent expected Medvedev to fully assume his presidential functions.
On the other hand, there seems little doubt that the majority of Russians went along with – and even embraced – the charade. More than two-thirds turned out to vote, and more than 70 percent of them voted for Medvedev.
Only two serious opponents to Medvedev had been permitted in the race. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov garnered almost 20 percent, twice his usual vote. With around 10 percent, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky also exceeded expectations.
In post-Soviet times, Russians have had an “Against All” option on their ballots, and those protest votes were officially tallied. But last year, that right was taken away by the pro-Kremlin Duma – the country’s legislative body – for reasons that seem all-too-obvious.
Catharsis for the inmates
After eight years of Putin, the country has a rubber-stamp parliament dominated by a single party, whose only stated policy is loyalty to the Kremlin. A new leader is selected, as Putin himself was, by a small circle of insiders and then is endorsed in a tightly choreographed public exercise that hardly deserves to be called an election.
Though Russia’s civil society is vibrant and growing, nongovernmental groups with any politically sensitive brief – such as environmental or human rights activists – have been rolled back.
Major media are in the hands of the state or Kremlin-friendly businesses. Even though there is no direct state censorship (as far as one knows), nightly news broadcasts increasingly sound as if there were. A few media outlets seem to buck the trend, but even these live at the whim of powerful, Kremlin-connected owners.
For example, the Moscow radio station, Ekho Moskvi, which has become a last refuge for outspoken liberal voices from the ’90s, is actually owned by Gazprom-Media, a wing of the state-owned natural gas monopoly.
The crusading weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where the late journalist Anna Politkovskaya hung her hat before she was assassinated, and which still publishes an occasional piece of genuine investigative journalism, was bought out a couple years ago by billionaire aviation tycoon Alexander Lebedev, who partnered with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to close the deal. Some say it’s little different from the USSR’s policy of allowing a few daring, small-circulation publications such as Literaturnaya Gazeta or the journal Novy Mir, which served only to illustrate the extent of media control.
“It’s true that we have some permitted outlets which are useful for the authorities to prove that there’s freedom of the press in Russia,” says Viktor Shenderovich, creator of the political satire program Kukli, which was driven off the air about a year after Putin came to power in 2000. Shenderovich now has a weekly commentary show on Ekho Moskvi. “We’re like the inmates of an insane asylum,” he says, “who are allowed to come out and shout a bit while our doctors take notes, then we’re led back to our cells.”
There is a narrative, believed widely in the West, that Russia was building democracy during the ’90s, and it was only with the arrival in the Kremlin of former KGB agent Putin that the backsliding began. Most Russians scoff at that, for they see the ’90s as a time of economic whirlwind, social misery and the rise of Kremlin oligarchy.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a left-wing philosopher who holds the distinction of having been arrested by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and also by the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin – in both cases, ironically, because he actively espoused democratic socialism – argues that the single brief flowering of popular democracy in Russia came toward the end of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika era. In that moment, which lasted about two years, Communist Party rule evaporated and grassroots initiatives filled the void, he says. Multi-candidate elections took place on a level playing field with enthusiastic mass participation.
“It ended pretty quickly after Yeltsin came to power,” says Kagarlitsky. “They started dismantling it as soon as the [neoliberal] reforms started kicking in.”
In the Putin era, millions of Russians have enjoyed a type of prosperity that has allowed them their first trip abroad, even if only a cheap holiday package to Cyprus, Egypt or Turkey. Huge shopping malls have sprouted in Moscow and other large cities, complete with food courts and multiplex cinemas. The average street newsstand is short on serious political reading matter but boasts a full range of Western consumer titles, from Vogue and Men’s Health to Better Homes and Gardens.
Evening news broadcasts may be almost as stultifying as their Soviet-era predecessors, but these days they are followed by Hollywood films and familiar-looking sitcoms, soap operas and reality shows. Increasingly, the entertainment is Russian-made and includes some high quality offerings, such as recent TV productions of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
All of this is underpinned by Russia’s extraordinary economic revival under Putin. Since late 1999, when Yeltsin named Putin as heir apparent, the global price of Russia’s main export, oil, has shot from around $12 per barrel to more than $100.
On the back of this, the Russian economy has quadrupled in eight years, while average monthly salaries have grown from around $100 to almost $600. Two years ago, Russia paid off the bulk of its foreign debt, and is now a net creditor nation.
Unlike the Yeltsin Kremlin, which gave away the whole shop to its private oligarchic backers, Putin has banged heads and injected state-led discipline into the business world. He drove away Yeltsin-era oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and effectively re-nationalized much of Russia’s oil and gas resources. Critics say Putin has constructed a state-run bureaucratic oligarchy that concentrates unaccountable economic power in a few hands, even more than was the case in the ’90s, but there’s no doubt it’s been popular.
“Yes, we have authoritarian rule in which the state is synonymous with big business, but people are living much better,” says Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy with the Kremlin-created Fair Russia left-wing party. “Russians think with their pockets. Is that so unusual?”
Putin also exploited the threat of terrorism, which loomed large in the early years of this decade, to reshape Russia’s political landscape. A wave of unsolved apartment bombings in late 1999 was used to vault the pro-Putin party into parliamentary dominance and to legitimize a fresh Russian military invasion of the separatist region of Chechnya. That tiny republic has since been pacified under a pro-Moscow local strongman and is, by most independent accounts, a totalitarian hellhole.
Several Chechnya-linked terror attacks in Russia – including a bloody 2003 mass hostage-taking at a downtown Moscow theater and a horrific slaughter of children at a school in Beslan the following year – were employed to justify sweeping crackdowns on civil rights, curbing the electoral system and extending the powers of security services.
“The present [Putin] administration has been a regime of emergency measures,” says Sergei Lukashevsky, an expert with the Demos Center, a network of Russian human rights groups. During those years, he says, “fear of terrorism was a major factor forming the political system.”
Dramatic expansion of the space for private life, political stability, plus a bit of oil-fuelled prosperity, explains the apparent sheep-like obedience of Russians, say many experts.
“The population has made kind of a bargain with authority, in which we promise to give the stamp of approval to all their political decisions, and the leaders pledge to keep the stability going,” says Strokan, a political columnist with the business-oriented Kommersant newspaper. “Stability means a piece of bread and personal freedom, but for Russians that’s enough for now.”
As democratic as possible
It’s typical of the Putin Kremlin that it has stopped trying to respond to its critics at home and abroad, and started investing petrodollars into changing the narrative.
In 2006, the Kremlin signed a contract with the U.S. public relations firm Ketchum, to advise on ways of improving Russia’s image. Big Russian businesses are funding the new Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, which opened offices in the United States early this year. Its chairman, Anatolay Kucherena, told the Moscow newsmagazine Profil, “Our problem is to defend our people against assessments that are really attacks, to find out why poisoned arrows are being aimed at Russia.”
Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s old propaganda agency, Novosti, has been revamped completely and now puts out a daily multilingual newswire, sponsors a multitude of publications and beams a 24-hour English-language TV news channel, Russia Today, around the world by satellite.
A Soviet-era propagandist would be astounded by the lavish fundingthese organizations enjoy, as well as by the sophisticated, smooth style they employ, which includes airinga wide range of differing views. (Disclosure: I am a frequent commentator on Russia Today.)
At the core of all this public relations activity is the claim that, like those well-stocked shop windows and consumer-driven newsstands, Russian democracy should be accepted as full-blooded Western-style liberalism with a few local peculiarities. After all, it has multi-candidate elections, and the most popular guy wins.
“We do not call it ‘managed democracy.’ For us, that term is a propaganda defamation,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Moscow-based Effective Policy Foundation and longtime political adviser to the Kremlin, who is widely regarded as one of the system’s primary architects. “The system created under Putin is as democratic as it can possibly be, given the real state of our society,” he says.
A not-so-different view comes from venerable Marxist historian Roy Medvedev (no relation to the new president), who says, “There are not yet enough bricks to build a democratic society, such as a big middle class, independent media and independent businesses. I would rather call Russia an enlightened authoritarian society that has begun to develop.”
For activists like Kagarlitsky, who now heads the independent Institute for Study of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow, that debate is no longer interesting. He says big political change will come to Russia from the top – as it always does – perhaps through a future power struggle between Putin and Medvedev.
In the meantime, he says that there is an upsurge of activity in grassroots movements, where people are organizing to defend their living standards, build trade unions or trying to stop local official abuses.
“You in the media don’t notice it because it’s not about dramatic and direct confrontation with power,” says Kagarlitsky, “but it may be a good thing that it’s not politicized, because establishment politicians would try to interfere with it. Let it stay below the radar screen.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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