A new civic activism is emerging to challenge Putinism’s “distinctively Russian blend of authoritarian politics and dirigiste economics,” claims veteran dissident Lyudmila Alekseyeva (above).
Putin fashioned a new social contract by strapping the civic apathy that followed the Soviet collapse to the economic growth initiated by his predecessors: in this prosperity-for-docility pact, Russians would accept limits on their rights and liberties in exchange for rising living standards.
But the global financial crisis and falling commodity prices mean the regime is no longer able to meet its side of the bargain, Alekseyeva notes, prompting the emergence of a newly assertive civil society. The new civic activism is evident in the Strategy-31 demonstrations in support of the right to peaceful assembly and in citizens using the internet to generate “flash mob” protests, and disseminating cell-phone images of officials’ civil-rights violations.
In the run-up to the December 2011 State Duma elections and the March 2013 presidential election, officials are concerned by the new activism. The regime’s constitutional engineering precludes any prospect of change through the electoral system, leaving civic activism as “the only way to challenge Putinism’s standard-bearers,” she concludes.
The WikiLeaks revelations may be irresponsible and willfully damaging, but they are providing some insight into – or at least confirmation of – the nature of Russia’s sovereign democracy.
Vladimir Putin’s power vertical emerges as a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are so intertwined in a “virtual mafia state,” notes one observer, that “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organized crime] groups.”
US ambassador John Beyrle notes that the same “criminal elements enjoy a krysha [a mafia expression meaning roof or protection] that runs through the police, the federal security service, ministry of internal affairs (MVD) and the prosecutor’s office, as well as throughout the Moscow city government bureaucracy.”
While the leaked cables reveal something of the scale of Putin’s personal corruption, President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent actions seem designed to confirm his subordinate status as Robin to Putin’s Batman.
Since he assumed the presidency Medvedev has promised to end Russia’s legal nihilism, curb corruption and promote modernization. Some democratic activists have been encouraged by recent initiatives on human rights and engaging civil society, but others suggest his reforms are largely cosmetic and that he has failed to deliver on his promises of modernization and ending legal nihilism, shown little inclination to confront the authoritarian siloviki that underpin Putin’s rule.
“Medvedev’s much-vaunted political reforms are, in fact, only superficial measures that in no way alter the political monopoly held by the ruling bureaucracy and the overwhelming dominance of United Russia as its primary political tool,” writes former State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, a steering committee member of the World Movement for Democracy.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t help fantasizing that Medvedev might signal some serious intent in his third annual state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly this week. Would Medvedev address the attacks against Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin or the murders of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, and others? Would he allow new opposition parties to register and permit serious opposition candidates to contest the presidential elections?
Well, no, he wouldn’t.
If anyone had any doubts about whether Medvedev would do something to stay on for a second term, this address should put them to rest,” writes Nikolai Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Medvedev’s time appears to be up.”
Lyudmila Alekseeva, is head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy. She received the NED’s 2004 Democracy Award for work in promoting democracy and human rights in Russia.