Vladimir Putin will be sworn in as Russia’s president for the third time next week, but he will confront a more skeptical public, a newly energized civil society and a broader-based opposition, observers predict.
“After 12 years in power, Putin has increased his control over the country’s major institutions, the siloviki and state bureaucracy,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, and co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom. But he will face growing “opposition from civil society as an increasing number of people reject his authoritarian model of government and demand more democracy and rule of law.”
Russia’s increasingly politicized urban middle class is driving the rejuvenation of civil society and the political opposition’s expansion – socially and geographically – beyond the traditional urban liberal dissidents.
Non-governmental groups have been transformed over the past three years and do more to stem corruption than the authorities, said Yelena Panfilova, an outgoing member of the presidential human rights council.
“Russia today is not the same country it was when I joined the council three years ago; first of all, it’s about the society, not the authorities,” said Panfilova, who heads Transparency International’s Russian division.
Public opinion is less tolerant of official corruption and more skeptical of the ruling elite’s promises, reports suggest.
“Rules requiring government officials to disclose income in official reports don’t seem to be instilling confidence to Russians,” The Moscow Times reports, “as a new poll by the Levada Center shows only two percent of people believe officials disclose all sources of income.”
As Putin prepares to assume the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev, the incumbent’s legacy is a matter of public debate – and ridicule:
In 2009, the soft-spoken Mr Medvedev startled political observers with an article titled “Russia Forward!”, in which he lambasted Russia’s “primitive” economic dependence on natural resource exports, and spoke out against authoritarian rule, implicitly criticising Mr Putin, his predecessor.
While most of his pledges remained mere words, they had impact nonetheless. “He made a very harsh diagnosis of our society – archaic economy, backwards political system, massive corruption,” wrote Yevgeny Gontmakher, a political analyst, in a May 2 editorial in the news website Gazeta.ru. “A large number of people believed that if the president said such a thing, it must be true, and what’s more, thanks to Medvedev’s message, the impression was created that something could change.”
“Medvedev made it possible for Bolotnaya Square to happen,” said Igor Yurgens, an adviser to the president, referring to the site of the winter’s first major protest.
But now Medvedev’s “detractors are gaining the upper hand,” reports suggest:
Political epitaphs have flooded Moscow’s papers in the last week, as Russia prepares for the Monday inauguration of Mr Medvedev’s mentor, Vladimir Putin, as president. The tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets rudely described Mr Medvedev’s style as “Like the outtakes from a Mr Bean movie”.
Until recently, most of the middle class was “politically passive and focused on consumerism,” said Ryzhkov, an executive member of the World Movement for Democracy. But this changed with the “Snow Revolution” against the orchestrated transfer of power from Medvedev to Putin and the subsequent electoral fraud in the Duma and presidential elections.
“The protests reflected irreversible changes. Russian society has become a dry peat bog, waiting for a spark to ignite it,”writes Georgy Satarov, director of Indem, a Moscow think tank.
The Kremlin has reacted by offering tentative reforms, he notes, but “even as the authorities try to dilute their own initiatives – for example, resumption of elections for regional governors, removal of barriers to party registration, or the establishment of independent public television – they have provided new opportunities for political participation.”
Civil society’s growing political assertiveness is also evident in the resignation of several prominent members of the presidential human rights council, reflecting doubts over Putin’s commitment to improving human rights.
During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, the Civil Society and Human Rights Council highlighted several cases of rights violations, including that of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. But rights advocates expect Putin to veto further consideration of the high-profile cases of Magnitsky and jailed ex-Yukos executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, that have frustrated reformers trying to promote rule of law.
“We couldn’t resolve the main problems with the Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky cases,” said Mara Polyakova, a council member overseeing legal reform.
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin is one of at least four members of the council who plan to resign.
“I do not consider him a legitimate president,” said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, who rejected the results of the March 4 election. “The volume of falsifications approached a critical level.”
Transparency International’s Panfilova believes the council has outlived its usefulness.
“It’s no secret that I came to the council because I hoped that we would be able to do very much. But now I think I will (be able to) do significantly more through … public activity,” she said.
The former Soviet dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, also expressed frustration with the council.
“We have done a small part of what we were planning to do,” she said
“It’s not that we didn’t do everything we wanted to do, it’s that we accomplished so little of what we wanted to do,” Alexeyeva, 84, told a press conference.
“To be disappointed, one must first be charmed,” Panfilova quipped, adding that this was not the case with her, since she realized that Russia still has a long way to go before its citizens can enjoy full human rights and social justice.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Svetlana Gannushkina is also expected to leave, one of many activists alarmed by Putin’s xenophobic campaign claim that NGOs receiving foreign funding were unpatriotic front organizations for other states’ interests and the Kremlin’s promotion of pro-government NGOs of GONGOs like the Nashi youth movement.
“The council largely exists to support non-government organizations, and (Putin) has repeatedly moved in another direction,” Oreshkin said. “He tries to replace institutions of independent civil society with pseudo-independent ones. Independent foreign financing is practically considered betrayal of the homeland.”
While official initiatives like the council have fallen into disrepute, independent NGOs have thrived, says Ryzhkov.
“New nongovernmental organizations have been formed, and tens of thousands of volunteers who monitored the recent elections disclosed evidence of electoral fraud on the Internet, which has played a critical role in mobilizing the anti-Putin movement.
The democratic opposition should now focus on the five issues that will “ultimately prove the undoing of Putin’s autocracy in the next six years,” he says: electoral fraud and manipulation; corruption; judicial and police abuse; destruction of historic, environmentally valuable sites; and censorship and propaganda in the state-controlled media:
Opposition-minded Internet resources are multiplying, including online television stations such as SOTV and Dozhd TV. In the future, as Internet usage continues to increase among Russians, this is bound to have a negative impact on the Kremlin’s near monopoly on television.
But the Kremlin is mounting a counter-offensive against civil society and the democratic opposition evident in the official sponsorship of orchestrated protests against sexual minorities, critics of the Orthodox Church, and the West.
“Trying to ensure stability, the regime is awakening forces that it will not be able to control,” writes think tank analyst Satarov, citing the “nationalism and homophobia that Putin and Medvedev have mobilized against the liberal wave.”
“Fortunately, the awakening of Russian society, the geographic broadening of political opposition, and the advent of a new generation unshackled by Soviet habits of mind and behavior has given the country an opportunity for genuine democratic reform that 12 years of Putinism had seemed to bury,” he writes on Project Syndicate.
“The only way Putin knows how to govern is by falsifying and manipulating elections, buying the loyalty of corrupt officials, keeping the courts obedient and controlling the main media outlets,” says Ryzhkov.
“But that is the very model of government that a growing and powerful civil society finds completely unacceptable. The future belongs to them.”