The Disappointments of Russia’s December Protest
Talk about a letdown. Timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of last year’s surprising post-election protests, the latest round of Russian opposition protests barely got off the ground. Registration permit from the authorities denied. A police (and journalist) presence that numerically overwhelmed the puny rally.
For a year punctuated by euphoric highs (see: massive turnout in the freezing cold) and glaring lows (see: Pussy Riot), it seems fitting that the final event for 2012 would fall squarely into one of the two categories.
In essence, the past six months have witnessed a clear shift in momentum away from the opposition movement. Numerous laws and regulations have come into effect limiting free speech and the right to protest, while Putin’s political party crushed its opponents in recent regional elections. Even more gravely, targeted pressure continues to build on individual activists: Alexei Navalny, a key leader, now faces three separate criminal charges; Sergei Udaltsov, the radical leftist who is more often in handcuffs than not, has been accused of organizing mass riots; and you know things are bad when opposition-owned car washes are being demolished.
This should not be read, though, as a one-sided indictment of the Putin regime’s role in the opposition’s recent struggles. For all the harassment from above, the opposition has been uniquely effective in limiting its own popularity in society, negating any chances at a real political role. Much of this centers on the oppositions inability (or unwillingness) to engage the regime on actual issues of importance to the Russian people.
Take the recent elections to the Coordinating Council for example. Here’s a body ostensibly designed to unite the disparate factions of the nonsystemic opposition (liberals, nationalists, etc.) with free Internet-based elections and presumably the authority to direct the movement as a whole. However, to quote Interfax, Council members recently:
[quote]approved a document stating that the body’s main goal was to realize comprehensive political reforms, including freedom for political prisoners, an end to the “repression” of opposition leaders, rotation in office, and reforms of the judiciary and police.[/quote]
All well and good. Russia’s political life direly needs reform and attention. But, in a country where the minimum wage still amounts to $155 a month, is the average citizen east of the Urals ready to go out on the streets for the sake of political prisoners? Survey data suggests not. Plus these declarations seem to be more about securing the self-interests of the opposition members themselves (freeing their compatriots, getting into office, etc.) than an altruistic concern for general societal welfare. What might actually get the ball rolling would be if the Russian opposition quit wasting time debating which slogans to use and actually developed some workable proposals on real issues.
A great place to start would be pension reform. Russia’s well-known demographic problems, mainly a disproportionately aging population, are placing undue strain on national budgets. The age of retirement must be raised (it’s currently 55 for women, 60 for men), but the government recently avoided making politically painful decisions to alleviate the financial pain at the cost of its main voting constituency: pensioners. Proposals abound for fixing the system, but the opposition has been conspicuously absent in the debates. Technocratic criticism of real government failures, alongside with tangible policy ideas, could help change the popular perception of opposition leaders from rowdy firebrands to competent functionaries.
[pullquote_right]Putin’s support revolves around the “authoritarian bargain”: economic growth and social stability in exchange for political obedience.[/pullquote_right]
Or take education reform. Recently signed legislature has sparked street protests among teachers and educators concerned about rising costs for basics such as biology, chemistry, arts or music. National policymakers dismissed the criticism, passing the bill with little to no input by the people affected by it the most. Once again, the opposition has failed to politicize issues of real importance within society, nor capitalized on widespread and pre-existing discontent among key groups.
Support for Putin revolves around the “authoritarian bargain”: economic growth and social stability in exchange for political obedience. But the regime’s primary solution for addressing pressing “bread and butter” issues has been to throw massive amounts of cash at them, the majority of which lines corrupt officials’ pockets. This cannot be a long-term strategy, especially with a view toward declining oil prices and stagnation in the Russian economy. Creativity is sorely needed.
However, for years politicians of all stripes in Russia have been solely occupied by winning elections and reaching higher office; the intraelectoral periods can get so dull here politically that you wonder what all these aspirational leaders do with their down time. There is incredible opportunity for new ideas to penetrate and influence the barren political discourse. This requires the opposition to start acting like a real political party: building grassroots organization, using polling to understand the demands of future constituents, and engaging in policy debates. But none of these moves grab headlines, which seems to be the primary motivating factor for opposing the regime.
The real danger of not developing in this manner is a regression to Russian politics a la 2006, with fragmented and scantily attended protests, largely dismissed by the general public as too radical, too out-of-touch, and too Westernized. Hearts and minds are best won by creative ideas and workable solutions. Martyrdom on the streets can only take you so far.