Old Political Farce for a New Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 162

The new political season in Russia officially started last week with the decree on holding the State Duma elections on December 4 signed by President Dmitry Medvedev in front of representatives of officially recognized parties (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 30). Perhaps the most characteristic feature of this parody on democracy is the lack of novelty as the dominant United Russia party proceeds to a guaranteed victory reducing the old-fashioned communists and noisy populists to the margins of the rigidly controlled political arena. A new quasi-party led by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov provides only petty entertainment, while liberal opposition is strictly excluded from the process and its proscribed rallies gather a few dozen activists (Kommersant, www.grani.ru, September 1). The most famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky still publishes reflective and strikingly optimistic articles (The New Times, August 29).

Yet Russia has changed vastly not only from the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago but also from the last elections in late 2007, which have established the peculiar duumvirate that leaves real power in the hands of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin while Medvedev preaches about “modernization.”  The first-time voters have no memories of the longing for democracy that brought to the inglorious end the KGB putsch in August 1991, but many of them are fed up with the stifling atmosphere of Putinism that has been around for as long as they can remember (www.gazeta.ru, August 20). The teenagers who cheered the collapse of the boring old order are now approaching their forties and find too few opportunities to advance their careers and too many risks with raising their kids (Novaya Gazeta, August 30; Vedomosti, September 2). Russians are worried about their falling incomes and irritated about the arrogance of the super-rich; they have become obsessed with twitting and blogging but the state TV keeps feeding them propaganda lies while the security services are looking for ways to shut down social networks (Moskovskiy Novosti, August 24).

The most dramatic changes in the last four years have distorted the Russian economy, which is experiencing a crisis that combines the external shocks and internal stagnation in a unique blend. The progressive degradation of the Soviet industrial base brings a series of technological catastrophes, which attract scant attention with the exception of the embarrassingly frequent failed space launches (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 26; Novaya Gazeta, September 1). Legendary corruption, the most spectacular example of which is perhaps the takeover by the state-owned VTB of the Bank of Moscow that used to be the piggy-bank for the team of former Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, destroys economic value in a shameless frenzy (www.gazeta.ru, September 2; Kommersant, September 1). The petro-economy, which delivers the bulk of revenues to the budget, shows a steep increase in only one parameter – production costs – and that translates into a rise of prices for consumers and even in shortages of fuel in the airports (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 3). One major development last week was the deal between Rosneft and ExxonMobil on exploring oil reserves in the Kara Sea, which for the Russian company is not much of an opportunity to invest in Texas as it is a political cover-up for its failed attempt to build a strategic alliance with BP (Kommersant, August 31, PBC Daily, September 2).  

Global oil prices have been on average higher this year than ever before, which has helped in balancing the budget, but forecasts are far from upbeat, and there is a vast shift in perceptions of this dependency upon tapping into “national treasure,” which is seen as a curse that fuels corruption and condemns Russia to backwardness (Vedomosti, September 1). The demands on the petro-revenues have grown exponentially, and the most controversial among them is the colossal program of rearmament, which still cannot revitalize the military-industrial complex. Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov has picked a few fights with aircraft and missile-producing corporations that have mobilized their lobbies to explain away the high prices and low quality (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 2). Whatever compromises are spat out, it is clear that discontent in the Armed Forced runs even deeper than in the defense industries, and the formerly united cohort of siloviki has split into factions pursuing their mercantilist interests. The anger in the decimated officer corps may be focused primarily on Serdyukov but the reliability of the army as an instrument of policy is very seriously compromised.

An observer would not see any sign of these changes at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Dushanbe last week (RIA Novosti, September 3). Nor that the presidents-for-life cherish particularly warm feelings towards one another, but behind their supreme confidence in domestic stability a worry about sudden explosions of revolutionary energy is lurking and prompting them to gang together. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka swallowed his bile from quarrels with Putin and Medvedev and urged his peers to prepare to provide military support to a dictator-in-distress (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 31). Medvedev was not forthcoming with commitments to come to his rescue but he found it opportune to castigate OSCE election observers and to suggest that the CIS could play the main role in monitoring elections in member-states (www.newsru.com, September 3).

The Russian duumvirate probably does not pretend but believes sincerely that it is possible to continue with its political business as usual so that the main event of the electoral season would be Putin’s speech at the United Russia congress later this month (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 2). Russians, however, are not thrilled about marching towards more mature Putinism and only about one third of them think that the country is on the right track (www.gazeta.ru, August 25; Ogonyok, August 8). The country is moving away from the outdated and false political regime as it did in the autumnal Soviet years only in different ways because now dynamic professionals can market their skills abroad and the truth about Potemkin sky-scrapers is only a click away. The real most important event of this fall is probably happening somewhere in the blogosphere as an anonymous author reveals another bureaucratic fraud and asks when exactly enough is enough.