The fruits of Putinism and the Putin-Medvedev tandem.
As the Russian winter turns to spring, the country has seen a return to opposition politics, political competition, and dissent within the corridors of power, and the election of a more opposition-minded parliament and an all-too-familiar president. Regardless of what US mainstream media and academia have told you, the liberalization and re-democratization of the winter-spring transition from the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev to that of Vladimir Putin are nothing new. December’s watershed events were the logical outcome of a four-year-long process that marks Russia’s return to democratization and market reforms and perhaps a longer-term transition without revolutionary excesses preferred by Putin.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party’s poor showing in December’s Duma elections, along with the mass demonstrations for free and fair elections and the re-democratization proposals introduced by Medvedev in their aftermath, should not have been a surprise. Sovietological groupthink made Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika 1.0, Boris Yeltsin’s revolution from above, and that revolution’s failure to quickly bring democracy surprising, and russological groupthink has left us unprepared for Medvedev’s long-denied thaw and Perestroika 2.0. The new Moscow spring and Perestroika 2.0 are real and need to be properly understood by presidential candidates and policymakers alike.
The Medvedevian Thaw
By picking the moderately liberal Medvedev as his successor, Putin signaled a softening of his previously more hard line policy of rolling back democracy and restoring the institutional integrity and autonomy of the state. Medvedev in turn signaled the upcoming reforms during his presidential campaign with his slogan ‘freedom is better than non-freedom.’ Medvedev began meeting with opposition figures and soon instituted a series of reforms which he gradually strengthened over his four years: reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, prison reforms, sentencing reforms, judicial reforms, and anti-corruption measures.
To be sure, all of these measures have produced limited results so far. But they have brought these problems into the focus of the larger part of the elite and society, and over time they should produce better results. Indeed, Russia moved up on the Transparency International ratings last year, and the Kremlin has been responding rapidly and more aggressively to recent transgressions committed by the police and corrupt officials.
Moreover, Medvedev took the first baby steps in rolling back some of Putin’s anti-democratic counter-reforms to the political system. He guaranteed more time for the opposition on television, and state television programming became more open. By early 2011, leading opposition figures were again appearing on state television, adopting a practice that had continued on state-controlled radio Ekho Moskvy through both Putin’s and Medvedev’s presidencies. In 2010 Medvedev turned to the political system proper by restoring the 2016 Duma elections the 5% barrier for the percentage of votes needed by parties to take seats in the Duma, thus repealing Putin’s raising of the bar to 7%.
That same year, Medvedev replaced the mayor of Moscow. The new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, immediately adopted a more liberal regime for opposition demonstrations, and those demonstrations began to be allowed to occur regularly with little or no interference from the police. This presaged the orderly atmosphere in which the December 2011 mass demonstrations took place, with both regime and opposition conducting themselves properly by any democratic standards. At the same time, police, prosecutors and the courts began cracking down on the ultra-nationalist, skinhead groups, and other perpetrators of hate crimes. They received praise from human rights activists, if not the Western media, which issued forth the constant drumbeat that Medvedev was Putin’s puppet and all the talk of reform was just that – talk.
It remains unclear to what extent any of these changes in word and, yes, in deed, caused tension within the Putin-Medvedev tandem. With Medvedev taking the more liberal stance and Putin the more conservative, there were a spate of issues on which the tandem’s halves issued contradictory statements: whether Russia is a democracy, presidential pressure on court decisions, police beatings of demonstrators, the decision to support the US position on Libya, and several others. Among others, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who jumped the Kremlin ship after Medvedev announced he would step aside for Putin to run in the 2012 presidential election, claims that the reforms announced in the wake the December mass demonstrations were drawn up in early 2011 but were held back. This suggests there were tensions within the tandem over the pace and/or extent of re-democratization.
Civil Society Resurrected
What is clear is that the signal sent by Medvedev’s words and the tandem’s deeds was clearly received by society and opposition elements. They lost much of their fear of the authorities and began to act more boldly. The ‘Blue Bucket’ movement emerged in 2008 and became popular for its street demonstrations and Internet calls aiming to end hundreds of thousands of state apparatchiks’ special privileges, in particular their private limousines with flashing blue lights. A similarly influential movement aimed to block the building of a highway through Moscow’s ancient Khimki Forest. A more successful movement was that which emerged in St. Petersburg in 2007 to oppose the building of a Gazprom skyscraper near the city’s historical center. The regime responded to each of these movements in different ways. The St. Petersburg movement forced the city administration to withdraw its support for the project on 9 December 2010, forcing the project to relocate far from the city center.
These movements were often associated with, or supported by Russia’s numerous but weak democratic parties and human rights organizations such as the ‘Yabloko’ party and the ‘Memorial’ human rights group. The St. Petersburg movement against the Gazprom City project united the city’s opposition movements and parties as never before. This helped to produce the United Russia party’s poor showing in the December 2011 Duma elections in which it won just 36% of the vote, with democratic-oriented opposition parties like Yabloko (12%) and Just Russia (24%) joining to equal the pro-Kremlin vote.
Rather than cracking down on the opposition, the Internet, or other media – as the journalistic, academic, expert communities’ portrayal of Putin’s Russia would have led us confidently to expect – Glasnost 2.0 accelerated on state television and demonstrations continued as the December Duma elections approached. Although those elections sparked demonstrations against the less than free and fair December 2011 Duma elections, the campaign and voting were the most free and fair since Putin’s assumption of the presidency in 2000. Thus, Putin’s United Russia party received 15 percentage points less (49.3% compared with 64.3%) and 77 fewer seats (238 instead of 315 out of the 450 seats) as compared to the 2007 Duma elections.
The public’s reaction to Duma elections was a consequence of the decline of fear and a culmination of the rising expectations about democratization created by Medvedev’s thaw. So too was the government’s reaction. Thus, rather than cracking down on demonstrators and ignoring the protests, the regime responded with a substantial re-democratization of the political system. Medvedev proposed, the parliament passed, and Medvedev signed into law in a period of just four months the following reforms: the elimination of the requirement that political parties gather signatures to run in parliamentary election at the federal, regional, city, and district level; a sharp reduction in the number of signatures needed to register presidential candidates for parties (from 1 million to 100,000) and independents (from 2mn to 300,000); a sharp reduction in the number of members a party needs to be registered and a streamlining of the signature and registration process; a restoration of direct elections of regional governors abolished by Putin with a non-mandatory presidential ’filter’ or vetting process and a mandatory municipal ’filter’. The latter should help to empower Russia’s traditionally weak city and local governments. The establishment of a public television channel will likely bring the kind of free speech and access by the opposition to national television, which has only existed on Ekho Moskvy radio so far. Other reforms are still in the drafting stage.
Along with Putin’s election victory in March, opposition candidates won several mayoral elections, including those in major cities like Tolyatti, Yaroslavl, and Oryol, as well as in Chernogolovka outside Moscow and Naryan-Mar, a small regional capitol. When the United Russia party attempted to steal one of those elections in Astrakhan, new polling place video cameras (instituted by Putin after the public’s negative reaction to the Duma election) and the opposition candidate’s hunger strike forced the federal election commission to send the case to a court for a decision on whether to annul the results.
After the elections, the new Duma began to function more democratically. United Russia shares almost half (14 of 29) the committee chairmanships with opposition parties, compared with only 18% (6 of 32) in the previous Duma. Its new chairman, Sergei Naryshkin, promised cooperation with the parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition, and some of the leaders of opposition parties organizing the protests movement and without seats in the Duma were allowed to address the Duma in January in relation to Medvedev’s December democratization proposals. Nearly one-third of the Duma voted against Medvedev’s appointment as prime minister. Finally, the Supreme Court restored the registration of one of those leaders’ parties –the Republican Party chaired by Vladmir Ryzhkov – after years of banishment from politics.
Now, most analysts and journalists will denounce and reject all the above. They say: “Mikhail Khodorkovskii is still in prison, those responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitskii are in prison, and endemic corruption, and other trends persist.” There are people who hold the view that “Putinism continues under Medvedev and will continue after Medvedev.” The problem with that view is that it ignores at least half of the truth, while focusing solely on the other half. If A changes his shirt and B is asked if something has changed, it would be odd for B to respond simply that A is wearing the same pants. If one is to take off both blinkers, then it has to be agreed that though much remains the same, much has also changed in Russia during 2008-12.
Perestroika 2.0’s Contingent Futures
Russia has entered a transformational stage that will be marked by growing political struggle. Thus far, the Kremlin has responded by expanding the space for political expression, participation, and competition. However, transformational periods are meta-stable and highly contingent. Numerous factors – economic stability, the correlation of political forces and leadership, the unity of the ruling group(s), the strength and effectiveness of state and societal institutions, changes and continuity in political culture, and the international environment – can tip the scales. Things can tilt in the direction of a transition to democracy imposed by the ruling group – as occurred in Taiwan, South Korea, and Mexico in the 1990s – or one negotiated by moderate regime and opposition forces, as occurred during the Polish and Hungarian transitions from communism and the Spanish transition from Francoism.
Although Putin and Medvedev would prefer a gradually imposed transition, they are likely to be forced into moving more rapidly or even negotiating a transition pact with opposition moderates. Indeed, transition began with the negotiations and minor compromises made by Medvedev with the opposition over the details of his re-democratization legislation. Whether those talks continue depends on the above-mentioned factors. One danger is the coalitional nature of revolutionary movements and the presence of significant nationalist and communist elements within the ‘white ribbon’ nascent revolution from below. If things turn violent, then devolution into revolution or authoritarian restoration becomes more possible.
If not, as societal demands for democratization grow, the Kremlin will face a stark choice: a full and rapid imposed transition to democracy, vs. a revolution from below that can only be quelled by force and more authoritarianism. Another possibility includes a regime split, with one group staging an illegal seizure of power and carrying out a revolution from above, which could be either democratic or authoritarian. Ultimately, it seems very unlikely that Putin can muddle through two terms, or even one, with little or no change.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.