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Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011

Civil reawakening in Russia?


By TINA BURRETT

It came as no surprise to Russian citizens that parliamentary elections held Dec. 4 were neither free nor fair. Elections in Russia have become increasingly managed since Vladimir Putin's first stint as prime minister in 1999.

Even before Putin, under President Boris Yeltsin, elections were manipulated by the Kremlin and their oligarchic friends in the media. In 1996, the ailing Yeltsin barnstormed to victory in presidential elections, despite approval ratings of just 3 percent mere months before polling day. Since then, Russian voters have viewed official election results with a large degree of skepticism. But until now, few voters were willing to actively challenge the legitimacy of the electoral system or that of the regime manipulating its results.

The protests seen in Moscow since last Sunday's elections suggest that Russian civil society is slowly awakening. Protests against the ruling regime over the past decade have rarely drawn more than about 200 people. But the rally held after last week's election attracted closer to 5,000 demonstrators.

Many of those attending the rally were responding to calls on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The 2011 Duma election is the first in which the Internet has played a significant role in Russia. Since the last round of national elections in 2008, Internet use has quickly spread across the country, even penetrating Russia's remotest regions.

Although the significance of the medium should not be overstated, the flurry of online criticism of Putin and his party, United Russia, in the months preceding the election has had a discernible effect on voters, especially on the young.

Over the past 10 years, the ruling regime strangled freedom in the mainstream media with barely a murmur from society. But online and offline, Russian citizens are rediscovering their voice; in one case quite literally.

When Putin appeared at a mixed martial arts championship at Moscow's Olimpiisky Stadium on Nov. 21, his post-fight speech was booed by the audience. Footage of the incident went viral on YouTube, where it received over 1.5 million hits in 48 hours. When the Kremlin tried to explain away the incident by suggesting the audience were booing defeated U.S. fighter Jeff Monson, young Russians flocked to the American's Facebook page to assure him and the world that Putin was the object of their jeers.

Following the booing incident, journalist Yuliya Latynina predicted that "either the regime will destroy the Internet or the Internet will destroy the regime". Latynina's prediction proved ironically prophetic. On Election Day, the website of her employer, the editorially independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, was taken down by hackers. The website of Golos, the only independent organization monitoring the election, was also brought down by attacks, after days of government pressure. The timing of these attacks and others against independent NGOs and liberal media sites suggests the involvement of the Kremlin.

Unlike the Chinese government, until recently Russia's leaders have made few attempts to control access to information on the Internet. But the Kremlin is right to fear the unfettered flow of information on the Web. At this election, voters made good use of social media to expose election fraud. A video from Moscow posted on YouTube showed pens in polling booths filled with invisible ink. In another film from Siberia, ballot boxes were shown arriving at a polling station already one-third filled with votes. Several YouTube users filmed buses, nicknamed "carousels", transporting the same people to various polling stations to vote multiple times.

High-profile stories in the blogosphere, such as the protests in defence of the Khimki forest, have brought to the fore a new generation of opposition leaders. Last week, Russia's most prominent blogger was sent to jail for 15 days for publicizing a demonstration the night before the election against vote rigging and Prime Minister Putin. Thirty-five year-old Alexei Navalny is the de facto leader of Russia's disaffected youth. His blog, which exposes corruption at all levels of the Russian government, receives tens of thousands of visitors a day. Navalny represents a threat to the Kremlin, as his anti-corruption blog exposes the clear gap between government rhetoric and reality. United Russia made fighting corruption a central theme of its 2011 election campaign. But a war on corruption has been promised in every election since 2003. After 12 years of Putin, corruption, and much else, is worse not better, and voters are running out of patience.

Since the United Russia Congress in September that saw Putin and Medvedev announce their job swap next year, public support for the ruling tandem has declined. Although Russians are grateful for the stability Putin delivered after the chaos of the Yeltsin era, many now feel his rule has outlived its usefulness.

While voters were willing to tolerate his brand of semi-authoritarianism in the boom years of the mid-2000s, since the economic crisis of 2008-2009, many have recognized the need for change.

As the popularity of the ruling regime has waned, several of its former allies have jumped ship. One example is Sergei Mironov, leader of A Just Russia, a political party set up in 2006 with the blessing of the Kremlin. Mironov and his party have been distancing themselves from Putin since last year. In November this year, when Putin addressed Parliament, a number of deputies from Mironov's party refused to stand in greeting to the prime minister; an unusual display of rebellion that was joined by lawmakers from the Communist Party.

Growing discontent with Putin, and activism within Russia society, will not prevent his return to the Russian presidency in 2012. The lack of a clear alternative to Putin coupled with the Kremlin's control of administrative resources will guarantee his victory. During his first two terms Putin was blessed by favorable circumstances. His third term will not be so easy.

The 2008-2009 financial crisis has left insufficient funds to finance the badly needed modernization of Russia's infrastructure. Youth unemployment is above 25 percent; pensions, health care and education are badly in need of reform; and the Russian economy remains perilously dependent on the export of natural resources.

Russian voters have already given Putin a decade to tackle Russia's social and economic ills. Unless he comes up with a genuinely new approach to these old problems, voters are unlikely to give Putin another 10 years at the top.

Tina Burrett is asssistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan.


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