Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Were the recent anit-Putin protests in Russia futile?

A Russian Jotman reader reflects on the recent protests in Saint Petersburg. As many as 8,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate against Putin. Over a hundred arrests followed. The reader writes:

What makes their position vulnerable is that the opposition doesn't seem to have a coordinated and resonant agenda. I mean, the technical details are not sophisticated for the smarter and more conscious people. For instance, none of the speeches at the improvised rally was focused and detailed enough to attract media attention. Blaming Putin and Co for the heck of it is perhaps fair and works well for radicalized youths and impoverished retirees, but not constructive. Where are the concrete concerns that could have been raised?

Issues that the opposition consistently fails to raise and articulate in a nation-wide agenda could include:

  • Suppression of democratic liberties exemplified (but not limited) by in the abolition of local elections;
  • Institutional corruption – most ugly examples are everywhere in the press, but it's never stated that the government should assume responsibility for that;
  • Failure to crack down on violent crime Russia is so famous for. People are paying taxes after all, where's police to defend them?;
  • Failure to conduct open and fair investigations of the most notorious recent crimes – starting from the FSB-associated bombing in 1990s, following with Beslan, and most recently prominent journalist killings;
  • Failure of any imaginable democracy in Chechnya that has now ended up an ancient Oriental tyranny;
  • Failure to reform the army – Russian media is full of horrors of dedovschina, yet no one puts them into a concise message;
  • Worsening relations with most developed countries. Deteriorated image of the nation;
  • Failure of the national justice system – examples are abundant. Unjust prison sentence for Khodorkovsky as just one example
  • Failure of the administrative reform – virtually nothing has been facilitated for ordinary people, while government personnel has multiplied;
  • Failure of the social insurance system – hundreds of thousands aged people subsist on bread and water (in fact pensioners are the sole politically active part of the population).

Without raising concrete detailed concerns, they fail to attract people who might be interested in any of these causes – and these topics are interrelated, because they represent the current state of neverending system crisis. Besides, unfocused "political noise" makes it more convenient for the authorities arrest people for "general disorder". Maybe the opposition is just concerned not to take on too much of responsibility? Anyway, at least they now appear a bit less amorphous, for me.

If Russian polls are to be believed, Putin remains popular in Russia, enjoying the support of around 70% of the Russian populace. As a follow-up, I asked the Russian Jotman reader whether he thought this sort of street protest was futile. The reader replied:

Naively talking, blatant anti-Putinism works wonderful with some romantic liberals (few remnants of the 1960s), radicalized youths (very unusual for young people who are 99% apolitical), and impoverished pensioners – very short life expectancy for the latter – and they cannot be an active street force. As you can see, these are all few and far apart. To really shake the system you have to reach its foundation, its silent conscience, the pseudo middle class – a quiet army of low rank officials, state-owned company employees, school teachers, researchers, doctors, police officers, - everyone who's on the payroll.

This folks have been out of the politics for most of their existence, but they are the supporting force. You can't bring them back to politics (or out to the streets) by blaming Putin because he's one of them, their supporter and benefactor. Even though not all of them agree with Putin's policies, they are not interested in any drastic changes – because they have got something to lose. So you have got have some message that's aimed at this people, respects their interests and concerns, and doesn't threaten their existence. Of course it is more complex, than just a wish list, but a list of claims is an important step to make them understand that it's not fun.

Cynically talking, history knows many examples when massive uprisings were effectively launched with a little and at first unimportant reason (often such as quality of food, lack of salt, fake coins, conspiracy theories etc) – this is more true for very unstable tyrannies with little or no supporting bureaucracy, but in case with Russia, you never know what's going to work. Anything could work, but for the opposition it's important to start probing what could be a most resonant agenda.

As for making their views available to the population, opposition is cut off from media (with a notable exception of online outlets). No access to TV and radio, censoring of printed media. Hence street activity.

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