By Paweł Piotr Styrna l April 1, 2012
“It does not matter who votes, but who counts the votes” – Joseph Stalin. (Source of image on right: BBC News).
In a rather unsurprising development, Vladimir Putin has been declared the winner of the Russian presidential contest of March 4. Officially, the victor garnered 63.6 percent of the vote, followed by communist Zyuganov’s 17.2 percent, oligarch Prokhorov’s 8, chauvinist Zhirinovsky’s 6.2, and socialist Mironov’s 3.9. Thus, Russia appears poised for six more, if not twelve, more years of increasingly authoritarian Putinism.
Much indicates that the election results were rigged and that the levels of manipulation surpassed even those of the December 2011 Duma (parliamentary) elections. For example, the independent watchdog group “Golos” (Voice) has reported over one-thousand complaints of electoral fraud. Skynews, on March 5, reported multiple cases of voter fraud including the abuse of absentee ballots “on a massive scale,” ballot box stuffing, repeat voting – especially the use of a technique called the ‘carousel’ where “voters are bussed around polling stations to vote multiple times.” The Control2012.ru website reported over 5,000 voting violations. Observers monitoring the vote, numbered a record 27,000 across Russia.
The protestors – 15 to 20,000 of whom filled Novyi Arbat Street on March 11 – would certainly wish to generate an Orange Revolution-type scenario in Russia. However, historic traditions of liberty were stronger in Ukraine – which had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – than in Muscovy-Russia. Also, unlike in the Ukrainian case, which pitted two major candidates against one another (Yanukovych vs. Yushchenko), it is unclear who would emerge as the viable alternative to Putin.
So far, the Russian opposition remains an eclectic group lacking a coherent and charismatic leadership. The lackluster leaders that have surfaced, such as the “new liberal” Boris Nemtsov, or the unabashed communist, Sergei Udaltsov (the leader of an outfit known as the Vanguard of Red Youth, an organization whose symbol is a red star containing an AK-47 rifle), seem unable to inspire the public at large. The Russian protestors are united by little more than their common opposition to the Putin regime. They constitute a veritable hodgepodge of political currents, ranging from liberals to communists and ultra-nationalists.
The liberals offer mostly high-flying rhetoric about human rights and stemming Russia’s march toward authoritarianism. The unrepentant and unreconstructed communists wish to restore the perceived glory of the former Soviet Union in all its totalitarian hideousness and are quite open and frank about this objective. The radical nationalists of various stripes also wish to resurrect an empire run from Moscow and protected from Western cultural influences and southeastern demographic incursions (particularly immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus): a “Russia for the Russians.” Not infrequently, the two currents overlap, producing a Sovietonostalgic amalgam known as “National Bolshevism.” In many ways, the ideology of the Putinist regime, consisting in an attempt to reconcile the Soviet legacy with Russian nationalism, may itself be viewed as a form of National Bolshevism. Of course, it is crucial to emphasize that Russian nationalism is by no means monolithic, nor are all of its manifestations necessarily unsavory and detrimental to freedom. During the Soviet period nationalism was perhaps as influential of a factor fuelling opposition to the communist yoke as the related issues of human and civil rights, if not even more so. Thus, even in the Russian context, nationalism may be a vehicle of popular mobilization used for both evil and good.
In addition to the above orientations, the protest movement also includes such groups as the masked radical feminist punk rock band, “Pussy Riot,” whose main complaint against Putin is his “conservatism,” sexism, and machismo. All of this reinforces the necessity of performing our due diligence prior to deciding which segment of the opposition – which remains an enigmatic phenomenon to a large extent – to support. Slogans of “Russia without Putin” are by no means tantamount to calls for freedom.
Since the West operates primarily within today’s liberal paradigm, it is most likely to sympathize with liberal-centrist and left-of-center elements of the Russian opposition. That, of course, assumes that European and American leaders will dare to jeopardize their relations with the current Russian government. However, even if a liberal government managed to emerge in Russia, it is worthwhile to remember that the liberal period following the abdication of the last Tsar was rather quickly exploited by the Bolsheviks to seize power, and the relatively liberal Yeltsin era gave way to a chekist restoration under Putin. In other words, the idealistic guardians of the principles of human rights may prove less than effective in keeping the forces of totalitarianism and revolution at bay.
In the short run, however, a Russian Spring seems unlikely. Putin’s circle appears more determined to cling on to power than Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian regime. So far, the protests have failed to attract large masses of ordinary Russians, allowing the government to marginalize them. Putin’s popularity appears to have certainly dropped and his strongman charisma has faded, as many Russians have come to see the regime as increasingly stagnant and corrupt.
Yet, it is unrealistic to expect that disenchantment with the current masters of the Kremlin will automatically breed revolt. As is the case in any other country, most people are preoccupied with their personal affairs of daily life, leaving little time for political activism. Moreover, decades of totalitarian terror have discouraged challenging the structures of power. The common mentality boils down to: “why seek out trouble, especially since nothing will change anyway?” Last but not least, events during the past hundred years of Russia’s history have come to teach the country’s inhabitants that change is not always and necessarily for the better. This preference for stability undoubtedly works in favor of the current regime.
Clearly, any opposition movement will have to grapple with the above challenges. At this juncture, the dominant stance among many ordinary Russians appears to be one of awaiting further developments. Whether the opposition movement may count on their support depends largely on its ability to convince the people that it offers a serious alternative to Putinism. Otherwise, the current Russian regime will continue to rule the largest country in the world until a major economic, military, or geopolitical crisis shakes its hold on power. Hardship in the wake of a hypothetical fall in the prices of oil and natural gas or humiliation on the international arena are much more likely to bring down the Putinist regime than any of the current street protests.
Note: This analysis is a sequel to an article written prior to the election. To avoid redundancy, some admittedly important details have been omitted. Readers wishing to familiarize themselves with the indispensable background are advised to consult the pre-electoral piece (see Paweł Piotr Styrna,“Russia’s 2012 Presidential Election: Yet Another Term for Putin?” February 27, 2012, SFPPR News & Analysis).
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.