Political springtime in Russia: the people and the parties emerge from winter hibernation


The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) warns that according to its latest polls, 48% of respondents consider it entirely likely that deteriorating living standards will lead to widespread protest rallies. What’s more, 35% of respondents would be prepared to take part in such protests themselves.

The VTsIOM poll results reported by the Kommersant newspaper show that the percentage of respondents who would be prepared to protest in defense of their rights is higher now than it was in a similar poll done in early 2005, at the peak of widespread protests against the monetization of benefits.

The press maintains that the rise in such attitudes was facilitated by the latest wave of political protests against rising rates for housing and communal services.

What’s more, 45% of respondents described the rallies as spontaneous protests by citizens, while only 15% said they are organized by political parties.

Oleg Kulikov, secretary of the Communist Party (CPRF) Central Committee, told the Gazeta newspaper that this perception is a consequence of “the state’s news and media policy,” aimed at “downplaying the role of the CPRF, which is organizing 90% of protest rallies in the regions.”

But Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the CPRF Central Committee, says it’s probably a good thing that people barely notice the role of parties in organizing the protest movement. “It indicates that political awareness is starting to emerge in our society,” Melnikov told Kommersant. “When it awakens, it will sort everything out.”

VTsIOM Director Valery Fedorov told Kommersant that when respondents say they would be prepared to participate in protest rallies, this is “nothing more than words.” In Fedorov’s opinion, “high expectations of widespread protests are only an indication of the public’s mood,” and there are no grounds to expect a “Paris scenario” in Russia, since Russian citizens lack the “collective grass-roots organization abilities” of the French. What’s more, Russian society lacks an active minority capable of turning “passive expectations into action.”

The opposition claims that it’s failing to activate the high protest potential of Russian society due to a “media embargo” imposed by the authorities.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-leader of the Russian Republican Party, told Kommersant that opposition parties can’t even place “a paid advertisement about an upcoming demonstration” in the media.

Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Mitrokhin complained to Gazeta that “no party except United Russia can get any coverage in Moscow’s municipal newspapers.”

Motherland (Rodina) party spokesman Sergei Butin told Gazeta: “United Russia’s presence in the media has gone beyond the bounds of decency.” Motherland’s policy council has sent an official enquiry to the Public Chamber’s commission on communications, information policy, and free speech. The appeal notes: “Restricting freedom in a number of media, especially television, has become a marked trend of late, and this is doing substantial damage to the whole democratization process in Russia.”

Citing President Putin’s address to parliament last year, Motherland requests the Public Chamber commission to “assess the state of media freedom in Russia, particularly as regards fulfillment of President Putin’s demand for all political parties to have equal access to television airtime.”

Yabloko is taking a different approach. Sergei Mitrokhin has written a bill on guaranteeing all political parties equal access to the media in the city of Moscow. The bill proposes distributing media coverage quotas depending on the proportion of the vote each party obtains in elections, with a minimum of one article per month.

Gazeta notes: “United Russia’s factions in the Duma and the Moscow city legislature are certain to be against the opposition’s media initiatives.”

Vladimir Medinsky, president of the Russian Public Relations Association and Duma member (United Russia faction), told Gazeta that he doesn’t “get the impression that the opposition is being treated unfairly.” What’s more, says Medinsky, “Yabloko leader Grigori Yavlinsky often haughtily refuses to be interviewed on television, and media coverage of Motherland’s recent congress was entirely adequate.” In Medinsky’s opinion, the opposition’s problem isn’t a lack of equal access to the media, but “a different credit of trust.” He said: “The united democratic forces just whine, rather than presenting policy programs. They’re failing to perceive what voters want.”

Sergei Glaziev, co-leader of the Motherland faction in the Duma and co-founder of the Motherland bloc, said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that removing Motherland from the field of politics has been advantageous for United Russia in particular.

According to Glaziev, Motherland can well be considered as a kind of “prototype of a party with broad public support, a party that could aspire to victory in a clash with the Kremlin-backed party.” Thus, all its recent misfortunes – the Motherland bloc splitting to form a parallel faction headed by Sergei Baburin, followed by Dmitri Rogozin’s resignation as party leader – are nothing other than the result of sabotage by United Russia.

Sergei Glaziev: “All they have to do now is take the final step: drag the Motherland party off the political stage. And that’s what they’re doing.”

Glaziev says that Rogozin’s resignation as leader was a serious political error: “I think he meant it as a tactical maneuver: step down as party leader in order to stop the party being targeted, and then make a comeback once the situation changes for the better.” But these tactics are wrong, says Glaziev: “It would be useful for Motherland to get some experience in real political conflict. It can hardly expect any substantial voter support if it sacrifices one leader after another for the sake of a comfortable existence.”

But now the party’s future is in doubt, since “the presidential administration is carrying out political reforms that leave no place for Motherland party.”

Sergei Glaziev: “They have three parties: United Russia, Zhirinovsky’s party, and the CPRF. A fourth is being held in reserve: the Party of Pensioners. And they don’t need anyone else.”

Glaziev allows for the possibility that the Kremlin might also need “another puppet party to imitate the liberal democratic direction,” but Motherland would hardly be necessary for that.

Marat Gelman, a prominent political consultant who “took part in arranging media coverage for the Motherland bloc in the last parliamentary election,” according to Moskovskie Novosti weekly, says that Motherland should “contemplate its ideological errors.” Under no circumstances should it try to take votes from any other party – and that includes “rushing to the left.”

But Gelman is inclined to be pessimistic about Motherland: “I fear the party won’t be able to cope. It will turn into a minor party like the Party of Pensioners. After all, sometimes it’s harder to restructure a party than to start from scratch.”

Nevertheless, as Moskovskie Novosti reports, new Motherland leader Alexander Babakov is making active efforts to revive his party. For a start, he is establishing a centralized structure for it and consolidating the forces that once supported the Motherland bloc under the party’s brand-name.

Babakov started centralization by introducing some new media relations rules for Motherland’s senior functionaries. The party’s leaders, who always used to be easily accessible to journalists, are now flatly refusing to talk to the media directly; they are working via press secretaries.

Anonymous sources within Motherland told Moskovskie Novosti that this innovation is “a direct order from the new leader, who wants to prevent intra-party disputes from becoming public knowledge.”

Fortunately, not all party leaders are that strict.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and its tireless leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are using entirely different tactics.

Zhirinovsky’s deputy, Alexei Mitrofanov, has an article in the same issue of Moskovskie Novosti: he explains the credo of the LDPR and its leaders. It sounds completely consistent with the recommendations of prominent 19th Century revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky. It’s a credo of “rational selfishness.”

Alexei Mitrofanov: “Let’s live for ourselves. Let’s not rush to join either the West or the East. Let’s do whatever is advantageous for us, and refrain from doing what is not advantageous for us.” For example: “if cooperating with Iraq or Iran is advantageous for us, let’s do it. Don’t listen to the West.”

All the same, it would be preferable to avoid annoying the West too much, “especially in the field of ideology.” As for domestic policy, “we should move toward democracy, but slowly, without rocking the boat.”

The slow pro-democracy course proposed by the LDPR entails regional leaders being appointed, some ethnic regions being abolished, and “looking after national defense and the law enforcement agencies” – but no return to “the defense sector accounting for 70% of the economy, as in the Soviet era.”

Most importantly – so that citizens will understand everything as they should – politicians have to be open to the media: “It’s not enough to formulate the right concept. People must be informed about it and come to believe in it.” In that respect, Mitrofanov is happy to report that his boss remains “unsurpassed.”

Naturally, the first requirement for realizing ideas is a party: “Public opinion can’t be changed just by writing books and speaking at round-table conferences.”

But even a party may not suffice: “Colossal reserves of energy are also required, to spend every day arguing your point, persuading people, convincing them to join you.” Any and all methods can be used for that: “Some people are impressed by stirring words, others by humor, or the sight of a politician dancing at a night-club in a red jacket, or swimming in an icy river.”

It’s hardly surprising that other politicians appear rather bland against such a vigorous backdrop. What’s more, they seem to be aware of it. At any rate, some politicians are clearly backtracking.

Irina Khakamada, prominent democrat and Our Choice party leader, announced the other day that she has grown disillusioned with politics and intends to pursue civic activity. For that purpose, Khakamada has established an inter-regional social solidarity foundation, giving it the same name as her party.

Khakamada explained: “We’ll collect as much money as we can, but it’s easier to get donations from the private sector if your organization has social objectives, not political objectives.”

“There’s no politics in Russia these days,” Khakamada told the Gazeta newspaper. In her opinion, there’s a substantial disunity trend in the pro-democracy camp. This is all because “the pro-democracy forces still lack a real leader. All the leaders, from Mikhail Kasyanov to Vladimir Ryzhkov, have voter support ratings of 1-3%.”

She invited her fellow democrats, from Kasyanov and Garry Kasparov to Grigory Yavlinsky and Nikita Belykh, to “summon some courage, reach out to each other, face the public, and say: to hell with your parliament – people will believe and support us anyway.”

But Khakamada is not quitting politics entirely. Her foundation will join the movement of pro-democracy forces being established by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and Khakamada will become a member of the movement’s presidium. Gazeta notes that Kasyanov recently confirmed his intention to run for president in 2008, and Khakamada has stated repeatedly that she supports him.

Meanwhile, the press was reporting on Kasyanov’s visit to the Irkutsk region this week.

As the Vremya Novostei newspaper points out, most of Russia’s news agencies ignored this event completely. “Until now,” says Vremya Novostei, “the state-controlled media have taken delight in ridiculing the new opposition leader. State-employed political consultants and the special services assisting them have taken delight in planning disruption scenarios for Kasyanov’s visits to the regions.” The trip to Irkutsk, however, was unusually quiet: “No anti-Kasyanov rallies by the Our Own (Nashi) movement, no passionate speeches by legislators, no organized protests by pensioners, no evasive regional politicians, no omniscient television journalists.”

According to Vremya Novostei, the reason is that on this occasion, Kasyanov has raised an issue the Kremlin is very uncomfortable about: construction of an oil pipeline from eastern Siberia to the Pacific port of Nakhodka.

Kasyanov has criticized a construction plan, already approved by the federal government, that risks causing substantial environmental damage to Lake Baikal. The pipeline route, to pass within 700 meters of Lake Baikal, has generated a wave of protest rallies in the Irkutsk region. One rally was even attended by Governor Alexander Tishanin (“timidly, in the capacity of a private citizen”).

Vremya Novostei explains that Kasyanov is an especially unwelcome newsmaker in this case, since he has far too good a knowledge of the subject.

Initially, back when Kasyanov was prime minister, a northern route for the pipeline was also being considered: next to the BAM railroad, 100 kilometers from Lake Baikal. Later on, however, the cheaper southern route was chosen: in effect, running directly along the Baikal shoreline.

Kasyanov has pointed out that this option is seismologically unsafe: an 11-point earthquake was recorded in the proposed construction area in 1957. “There is sure to be an accident,” said Kasyanov.

According to his sources, the environmental impact commission was manipulated in order to secure permission for construction. Kommersant quotes Kasyanov as saying that “people with no experience in environmental protection” were appointed to the commission. In Kasyanov’s opinion, an environmental impact assessment of this nature cannot be considered valid: “Although all the residents of the Irkutsk region and the rest of Russia are protesting, the authorities insist on going ahead with construction.”

Kasyanov says that the authorities should be forced to change their decision; and if construction starts anyway, there should be “a large-scale campaign to counter it.”

Meanwhile, Irkutsk region legislator Yuri Korenev told Kommersant that Governor Tishanin’s participation in anti-pipeline protest rallies amounts to “acknowledging that the region is not independent and its governor is incapable of upholding the region’s position.”

Kasyanov agrees: “These are the first results of the hierarchy of governance: when a governor attends protest rallies instead of discussing the issue with the federal authorities.”

Thus, says Kommersant, the pipeline has changed from a purely environmental problem to a political problem.

Argumenty i Fakty weekly reports that Mikhail Kasyanov will soon hold a congress for his new movement: the People’s Patriotic Union. According to Argumenty i Fakty, this is Kasyanov’s attempt to “compensate for the special operation that denied him leadership of the Democratic Party of Russia.” A movement isn’t a party, of course, says Argumenty i Fakty; a movement isn’t entitled to participate in parliamentary elections. On the other hand, the movement will be much harder to split.

Overall, according to Argumenty i Fakty, the somewhat increased activity of political parties, along with their leadership changes, are clear signs that the next Duma election is approaching. And this much is indisputable: the only opposition forces to be granted the right to exist will be “those that don’t criticize the Kremlin in the event of serious problems.”

This is why party sponsors are being promoted into leadership positions, as in the case of Motherland’s new leader, Alexander Babakov (“their business assets are the best guarantee of loyalty”); this is also why the authorities tolerate some opposition forces and ostracize others.

Igor Bunin, general director of the Political Techniques Center, told Argumenty i Fakty: “By 2008, no parties will have colorful leaders. Only Zhirinovsky might be permitted to show a light veneer of opposition during the election campaign, since he always cooperates with the Kremlin after an election. The others are advised against playing at populism… The objective is simple: to maintain the United Russia party’s undisputed dominance.”

“Politics has become a secretive matter that happens in offices, behind closed doors,” adds Alexander Prokhanov, chief editor of the Zavtra newspaper, in the same issue of Argumenty i Fakty.

As for the possiblity of a “protest explosion” against the social reforms, VTsIOM Director Valery Fedorov told Kommersant that it could only happen if the protesters gain “some real experience of taking action successfully”: in other words, if the authorities start changing their policies in response to public protests.

But if protest rallies remain futile, people won’t want to waste their time on protests, says Fedorov; instead, they will “think about how to accept and fit into the new conditions.”