Putin and Russian Democracy

By Metta Spencer

Moscow is booming. There are swanky new buildings all over the place, and Russia has survived the global recession better than most other countries. This year its economy will grow 4.3 percent. There are new cars everywhere, and you won’t see a dent or scratch in any of them. Almost everywhere you go, you’re in a wi-fi hot spot. The city’s population is officially 11 or 12 million but guesstimates range up to 18 million, many of the newcomers being Central Asians—called “Tajiks” whether they really are or not.

By bizarre ancient tradition, Russians require people to register their whereabouts within three days of arriving anywhere. My host and I spent four hours at the local post office registering me. Whenever he made a mistake they required him to start over, filling out multiple copies of long forms, which supposedly go straight to a warehouse and are never seen by anyone again.

Today this registration ceremony is explained in terms of the urgency of curbing the influx of Tajiks, who work largely as street cleaners and encounter racism and exploitation. Some people expect an ethnic civil war to arise between these immigrants and nationalistic Russians. On the other hand, my Jewish friends tell me that they no longer encounter anti-Semitism; Vladimir Putin is not anti-Semitic, and that makes a big difference.

I arrived in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, which gave me a basis for appraising Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, since I had also arrived in Moscow on the eve of his own inauguration in 2008. Nobody claimed he had accomplished much, but many people credit him with good intentions, which is less often so when it comes to Putin.

During my three-week stay I interviewed twenty people, in addition to chatting with cab drivers, old friends, and protesters at the “Occupy Abai” camp, which formed after a street demonstration by 40,000 people against Putin’s inauguration was broken up on May 6.

I love going to Russia. The government is pretty awful but the people are smart and voluble. You can have more good conversations about ideas there than anyplace else I know. Since my hosts were journalists with excellent connections to political leaders, activists, and the military, I also gleaned some scuttlebutt that I’ll recount later. But first let me narrate the story as it is usually told.

An Uncontroversial Account

At the end of 1999 when the drunk and ailing Boris Yeltsin made a gift of the Russian presidency to a competent former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin, most Russians felt relieved. Yeltsin’s eight years had been a chaotic transition to “bandit capitalism,” which he had justified by calling it democracy, thereby giving democracy a bad reputation. For example, Ksenia Sobchak, a TV celebrity (who according to legend is Putin’s own godchild) had originally responded like a normal Russian:

“I would agree to some period of authoritarian rule if it yielded its own fruits—if, for example, after the wild 1990s, an authoritarian leader had [improved] the economy and imposed order. Many people in 2000 were in fact expecting specifically that from Putin. And I was mentally ready to go that way. But now people have realized that to some degree they have actually given up freedom, but they have not received anything in exchange.”

Hence the glamorous Sobchak, like millions of other Russians, joined the opposition against her godfather. One evening in mid-May, I watched her on the podium, charming a crowd of 2,000 protesters. I had come there, to the “Occupy Abai” camp, witness and marvel at it. Yet I realized that these new activists were not typical of the whole Russian population. Indeed, not every politically savvy person who wants democracy is willing to join in the protests. I wanted to know why not.

Ms. Sobchak was not quite correct, I concluded. Russians had received a lot in exchange for their freedom—a higher standard of living and political “stability.” Putin had fulfilled this part of the deal—but the deal itself just wasn’t good enough to suit this educated crowd, who now want not only prosperity but also democracy. Their grievances, unlike those of the Occupy movement in North America, are political, not economic. These middle-class urbanites demand free and fair elections and a rule of law that defends human rights.

But there are economic problems too—especially pervasive corruption, which has increased continuously since Yeltsin practically gave away Russia’s natural resources and industries to a few swindlers, making them into multi-billionaires: “oligarchs.”

When Putin came to power, he set about reclaiming these resources and putting them under the control of the “siloviki”— authoritarian pals from his KGB days—spies, law enforcement and security service officers, and the military.

His methods were not constrained by a fine regard for the law, as for example when his courts confiscated the giant oil company Yukos from its oligarch owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and jailed him. A leading silovik, Igor Sechen, headed the state oil company Rosneft, which absorbed the assets of Yukos. Khodorkovsky accused Sechin of organizing his arrest and plundering his company.

Russia is the second biggest oil producer in the world, and the price of fossil fuels has soared, enabling the state to increase social benefits. Under Gorbachev, oil sold for as little as $7 a barrel, but under Putin for as much as $147. For a while, economic prosperity can cover a multitude of political sins, including the exclusion of competitors from public fora. Grigory Yavlinsky, the economist who founded Yabloko Party (which belongs on the political spectrum among the Liberals or NDP in Canada and the Democratic Party in the US) told me in 2008 that he was no longer allowed to speak on television. Soon Yabloko was no longer even represented in the parliament. Russian voters realized that elections were a sham but, finally recovering from the prolonged stress of the economic transition, they hardly cared.

Siloviki and Civiliki

After two terms as president, Putin was constitutionally obliged to step down in 2008. When he named Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, human rights activists were pleased. Although Medvedev would have less influence than Putin, he sounded like a modernizing democrat. In contrast to Putin’s hard-line siloviki associates, his team were civilians whom he had known in law school in St. Petersburg. Punsters called these new liberal officials “civiliki.”

Unlike Putin, who disliked the Internet, Medvedev owned iPods and tweeted. He visited Silicon Valley and resolved to build a comparable centre, called Skolkovo, near Moscow. He seemed to pursue his liberalizing goals seriously, and did accomplish a bit. Putin had already created an advisory group, the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society, to study societal problems. Medvedev improved it, appointing pro-democracy activists who had been persecuted under Putin.

Yet Medvedev’s presidential goals remain unfulfilled—particularly with respect to the rule of law. His Council gave him a terrible report about the now-famous case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was imprisoned, abused, and deprived of medical care until he died in agony in 2009. This was Magnitsky’s punishment for exposing the theft of $230 million in tax revenue by corrupt government officials and police, whom he named. Someone who had been present when Medvedev heard the report told me that he had looked horrified and had resolved to bring about posthumous justice.

Unfortunately, that would have required him to control Putin’s siloviki, who run the police and prisons. He was apparently unable or unwilling to do so. Only 22 senior officials were fired—none of them charged with a crime—whereas the European Parliament has identified fully 60 Russian officials connected to Magnitsky’s death who will henceforth not be permitted to enter EU. Their assets may even be seized. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has been investigating the case, but there is resistance in the regime against international interventions. Instead of prosecuting more officials, the police are going to put Magnitsky himself on trial three years after his death. He will be the first ghost ever prosecuted in Russia!

The Magnitsky case remains a problem for Russia. During the Cold War, US-Soviet trade relations were limited by the “Jackson-Vanik” amendment of 1974, a law designed to pressure the Soviets to permit the easy emigration of Jews. Obama wants it to be repealed, but the senate may instead replace it with legislation penalizing Russians implicated in such cases as Magnitsky’s. Russian officials have threatened to retaliate with similar legislation against the United States.

In any case, as Medvedev approached the end of his presidency, he seemed to try harder to democratize Russia. He proposed to reinstate direct elections for regional governors instead of appoint them, as Putin had done. He suggested that half the deputies in the lower house (the State Duma) be elected directly rather than by means of party lists. He planned police and court reforms to make it less likely that people accused of economic offenses will be jailed. He favored making it easier for political groups to form parties. He proposed to tighten control over government officials’ spending, and to create a new government procurement system to tackle state corruption. And he proposed a new public TV channel, independent of state control.

Unfortunately, Medvedev made these constructive proposals too late. They were clearly offered as a concession to large protests that had begun against the “tandem” Putin-Medvedev regime.

The New Opposition Movement

Last September, Putin disclosed that he and Medvedev would again switch seats; he would become president in 2012 and Medvedev would go back to his previous job as prime minister. There would be an election, of course, but the plan had hatched long before, when Medvedev had agreed to keep Putin’s seat in the Kremlin warm four years to comply with the constitution.

Accordingly, parliamentary elections were held on 4 December 2011, and were followed by the presidential election, on 4 March, 2012. No one had anticipated the extraordinary public reactions to these events. Russians were used to being manipulated politically, yet this time they became enraged and went to the streets, demanding decent democratic governance. Why now?

The sequence of events was probably crucial. First came the disclosure of Putin’s collusion with Medvedev. This news provoked so much anger that lots of citizens decided to become election observers. Three pro-democracy organizations already had received money from abroad to train observers and gather evidence about electoral fraud.

Legally, election observers have to be accredited by some political party or by some media. The main independent party in the December 4 election was Yabloko, which was conferring observer status on anyone who asked, and was also training its own members.

So a huge crowd of ordinary people observed the parliamentary election on December 4 and saw cheating going on. Then they read their Facebook pages and were shocked by the accounts of others who had witnessed the same thing.

One organization, Solidarity, included some dissidents who want an “Orange Revolution” in Russia. It had officially requested a public space to protest on the day following the election, expecting maybe 100 citizens to show up. But because of Facebook and all the observers’ stories, about 5,000 outraged citizens came.

The blogosphere was also crucial. Although there is little freedom of the press, Russians can publish blogs on the Internet without being censored. Almost all bloggers post on one site, “LiveJournal,” and the most popular LiveJournal blogger is Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist. In his blog that day he wrote: “Communists are at Pushkin Square. Be there at 6 pm.” People went to Pushkin Square and then, as more people finished work for the day, they all went on to the Solidarity rally later.

The protesters encountered opposition, especially on the next day, when the pro-government youth group Nashi held a counter-demonstration. Truckloads of soldiers, police, and water cannons were deployed. In Moscow, 300 protesters were arrested and 120 more in St. Petersburg.

It is necessary to request public space for demonstrations one week in advance. Left Front had already applied for the following week, so when the various political groups met at the December 5 rally they all decided to rally jointly with Left Front that Saturday, when they could probably double the initial crowd of 5,000.

In fact, 40,000 people of all kinds came to that demonstration on December 10 at Bolotnaya (“Swamp”) Square. Some were old Communist Party members from Soviet days; Yabloko people, including Yavlinsky; young Left Front radicals, led by Sergei Udaltsov; Solidarity activists, led by a previous member of Yabloko’s youth group, Ilya Yashin; nationalists; and the unregistered People’s Freedom Party (“Parnas”), a pro-business democratic group led by four leading anti-Putin politicians: Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Mirov, and Vladimir Ryzhkov.

Few of the white-ribbon-wearing protesters could hear the speakers, but they stood talking to each other. By the time the rally ended, five main demands had crystallized:

Similar election protest demonstrations met in Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg (where at least 10,000 protesters turned out), Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, and 88 other towns and cities in Russia. Only about 100 arrests were made nationwide on December 10, mostly outside Moscow.

The next Moscow rally was on December 17, led by Yabloko, and on the following day the Communist Party organized one. On December 24, there were rallies in at least eight Russian cities; the Moscow one gathered in Sakharov Avenue.

On February 4, despite bitter cold weather, an estimated 100,000 people came to one. Mikhail Gorbachev sent a message of support and called on Putin to quit. Other big rallies occurred on Sunday February 26 and even on March 5, the day after Putin’s re-election with an absolute majority of votes everywhere but Moscow.

But Putin did not quit. On May 7, he strode into an apparently solid gold room in the Czar’s palace and took office as president for the third time.

Like all sensible Muscovites, my hosts and I had gone to the dacha for four days, where we watched the ceremonies on a huge plasma TV. Inside the opulent Kremlin hall, decorum prevailed. No one even frowned. But we had observed Putin’s motorcade approaching the Kremlin through empty streets. There were no other cars, no pedestrians, not even a dog. Moscow had been cleared and cordoned off. I couldn’t help comparing these silent streets to the vast crowds among whom Barack Obama had walked on his inauguration day.

Who Wants Democracy?

The new demand for democracy in Russia comes from a so-called “creative class”—young, educated, middle-class persons who want to live like Westerners. In fact, lots of these people have actually emigrated to the West, and the remainder want to import Western ways.

Three different groupings in this “creative class” deserve credit for promoting the new movement: (a) the Solidarity movement; (b) journalists and bloggers; and © social justice activists.

Solidarity is a movement but can’t be a party, since it adherents are so diverse politically. They share only the desire for democracy. It was founded in December 2008 by Boris Nemtsov and the former chessmaster Garry Kasparov. Internally, it is said to be Nemtsov who runs things. (As we’ll see, he has been running several other projects as well.)

A few Solidarity activists, notably Ilya Yashin, have supposedly received training in nonviolent resistance, a la Gene Sharp, but this may only be a legend that was invented to discredit them. (Putin has convinced public opinion that it is subversive for a group to receive foreign funds—even for such benign projects as giving courses on journalistic ethics to independent media, or on how to run an orderly public meeting, or conduct exit polls, or scrutinize at voting sites, which are the kinds of projects that the US, British, German, and Canadian institutions fund. They do not give money to political parties or candidates or try to determine the outcome of elections.

I keep hearing Muscovites who should know better speculating that Solidarity activists are “paid by foreign nonviolence trainers” to overthrow the Russian government. In fact, I have rarely met any Russian with much grasp of nonviolent resistance. I wish more of them really were instructed by such foreigners as Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution, or the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, or CANVAS in Belgrade. However, I’m told that the names of Russian participants in such foreign workshops are kept on a blacklist, and that journalists and activists who attend them may never get jobs again in Russia.)

Journalists, nevertheless, are a factor second only to Solidarity in stimulating the current pro-democracy movement. The new “creative class” likes to read Western-style publications, such as the Russian version of Esquire. Moreover, although TV and newspapers are generally controlled by the state and limited in what they can say, Russians can now get news from wider sources. Novaya Gazeta, a paper owned by Alexander Lebedev, Mikhail Gorbachev, and its staff, is extremely independent and incurs great risk for its bold reporting. The following people—journalists with that paper or working closely with its journalists—have been killed in the course of their work: Igor Domnikov, Victor Popkov, Yury Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov, and Natalia Estemirova.

Besides Novaya Gazeta, there is one independent, critical radio station, Ekho Moskvy, which broadcasts across Russia, as well as TV Rain, a television channel that broadcasts on the Internet and now on cable. These channels would be considered left-wing in Canada. They promote tolerance and put on shows about homophobia and xenophobia. TV Rain has over ten million viewers. Additional uncensored TV channels may be functioning soon.

Immediately after his third inauguration as president, Putin began seeking to control the content of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which had been used to mobilize the pro-democracy movement. But he will find censorship difficult for, unlike China, which actually controls the service providers in the country, in Russia the Internet is run by private companies using physical sites that are often in third countries. Western countries are probably unwilling to put the Internet under international control, as Putin demands.

Social justice activists are a third brave category of democracy promoters. For example, Peace Magazine recently published a story about Yevgenia Chirakova’s campaign to protect the Khimki Forest. We should also mention Liza MD, a physician with a van who goes around Moscow’s railway stations feeding, diagnosing, and treating the homeless people who hang out there. We should mention the wives who work to exonerate a number of men who have been imprisoned (wrongly, they say) for economic crimes . Another activist group is “Blue Bucket,” an organization that opposes the special privileges of officials and rich people. Flashing blue lights on their cars authorize them to violate all traffic rules, so protesters fasten blue buckets on top of their own cars. Recently, in response to the complaints, Putin has reduced by half the number of people eligible to use the blue lights.

Left, Centre, and Right

The pro-democracy movement is extremely diverse—at least according to their political affiliations—but up close, I cannot tell them apart. At the Occupy Abai camp, for example, I spoke with four young activists in their early twenties. One demure girl was a radical member of Left Front, a New Age Bolshevik outfit unlike the old Soviet-style Communist Party. Yet there she was, socializing amiably with two guys of obscure political identity and one who was right-wing. Despite their diversity they, and even some leaders of their various parties, seem to believe it possible to unite the disparate movement into an opposition party. Even if such trusting inclusiveness seems politically naive, it’s a good sign in Russia, the homeland of paranoia.

The leading luminary of the pro-democracy movement is Alexei Navalny, the only Russian to be named in Time’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people on earth. The Wall Street Journal considers him “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.” He used to be a member of the liberal democratic party Yabloko, but was kicked out for being too nationalistic. Trained in law and finance, Navalny bought small amounts of stock in various companies, read the fine print in their documents, and began publicizing and campaigning against their corrupt practices. He had learned certain useful skills in organizing from his experience in Yabloko.

The Left. The opposition movement includes several nationalist and anarchist groups but the most radical outfit is a regular leftist movement of young Communists known as “Left Front.” Their leader, Sergei Udaltsov, keeps his shaven head conspicuously bare even in the coldest weather, perhaps to live up to his inherited prestige as the scion of a zealous old Bolshevik family. He has probably spent more time in jail than any other opposition leader, so he is never required to justify Left Front’s enthusiasm for democracy. Udaltsov announces proudly that his organization seeks “a direct democracy, where the people would have their say through fair and transparent referendums, where they could interact with authorities using the Internet, where they could have a say in social reforms. We are not nostalgic about the Soviet Union, we do not argue for a return to a centrally planned economy where social initiative was stifled.” This, then, is the program of the new, radical Communism, and it sounds unrepentantly liberal.

The Centre. Turning to the centre, we find the most liberal party in the opposition movement, Yabloko, which was led until 2008 by its most prominent member, Grigory Yavlinsky. Under Gorbachev he had led a committee to develop the “500 Day Plan,” which would transition to a market-based economy within two years. Because Gorbachev was ousted, his plan never was tried. However, Yavlinsky ran twice for Russia’s presidency—in 1996, against Boris Yeltsin, finishing fourth with 7.3% of the vote; and in 2000, against Vladimir Putin, finishing third with 5.8%. He refused to run in 2004, pointing out that the elections were rigged. Nowadays he is respected but Yabloko is no longer the leading proponent of democracy, largely because Putin was so successful in excluding his political competitors from media coverage.

Yet Yavlinsky is also partly responsible for his party’s dwindling prominence. In 2008 he told me he did not favor protesting in the streets. Believing that change in Russia can only come from the top, he kept meeting Putin for several years and offering good advice, which apparently was never taken. I call people who take that approach “Termites”; they opt strategically to cooperate with the powers-that-be rather than take a stand as outspoken opponents. Since the rallies began in December, Yavlinsky has often been a speaker, attacking Putin’s regime. Nevertheless, today Yabloko is but one of several pro-democracy parties, and not necessarily the main one.

The Right. The most influential parties in the pro-democracy movement today are on the right side of the spectrum. Logically, these should mainly be competing against Putin’s own party, United Russia. Instead, however, a pro-business party that claims to be democratic will actually pull votes away from centrist liberal parties such as Yabloko. Putin has exploited this possibility by creating a “spoiler” right-wing party, Right Cause, to drain support away from his opponents.

Parties are always proliferating, merging, and collapsing in post-Soviet Russia. There are too many to follow. However, it is worth following the history of two crucial right-wing parties, Right Cause and People’s Freedom Party (“Parnas”).

The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) was founded in late 1999 under the auspices of Yeltsin’s “family.” This so-called “family” included not only his own daughter and her spouse but also his favorite oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky (his tennis partner) and his top political appointees. The SPS was created by some of Yeltsin’s politicians: Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, and Boris Nemtsov, who had already served briefly as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. That December, SPS won 8.6% of the votes in the parliamentary election and Nemtsov was elected to the State Duma, where he became Deputy Speaker and leader of the SPS.

But as all this was happening Putin was replacing Yeltsin as president, and big conflicts were beginning. From the outset Nemtsov was hostile to Putin. By 2003, SPS was badly defeated in elections and Nemtsov began to blast Putin openly, accusing him of electoral fraud and of becoming a dictator. Nemtsov also supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which of course was anathema to Putin.

By 2008 Putin fought back by destroying SPS. He gave cushy administrative posts to some of its leaders and had his “Grey Cardinal” aide, Vladislav Surkov, take over the party and make it into a tool of his own. It was given a new name, Right Cause, and new leaders—mainly Putin appointees, though a few members of Yeltsin’s team remained. Naturally, Nemtsov quit and, along with the chessmaster Garry Kasparov, founded Solidarity. By then, Medvedev was already the president of Russia and Putin was prime minister, but they knew that Putin was still the man they had to reckon with.

In September 2010 Nemtsov also founded a new party, People’s Freedom Party (“Parnas”) with three other pro-business politicians who had lost power because of Putin: Mikhail Kasyanov (who had been Russia’s prime minister until Putin had sacked him in 2004), Vladimir Ryzhkov (a professor who had been speaker of the State Duma), and Vladimir Milov (who had been deputy minister of energy in Kasyanov’s government).

The battle lines were thus drawn. Right Cause (now mainly Putin’s own “spoiler” party) would be competing for votes against Parnas, the new pro-capitalist party of his political enemies. But Putin immediately scored a great victory, for Parnas’s application for registration as a political party was rejected. It couldn’t field candidates in elections.

On the other hand, Putin and his aide Surkov must have realized the importance of appearing to have a competitor in any election purporting to be democratic. For this purpose, they used Right Cause—a party that was supposedly independent from Putin’s own party, United Russia, but which nevertheless would now support all of Putin’s policies. And since Nemtsov was out, they needed a credible new leader for Right Cause. They turned to the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team and, coincidentally, of nickel and gold operations worth $13 billion.

Prokhorov became an enthusiastic and generous party leader in June 2011, spending vast sums of his own money to promote Right Cause candidates throughout Russia and appropriately distancing himself from the Putin/Medvedev tandem. But he quickly learned that it was Surkov, not he, who made decisions for Right Cause, and he quit the party. Nevertheless, that was not the end of Prokhorov’s political career. By December 2011, as protests were arising against Putin’s third presidential term, Prokhorov conveniently announced that he would also run for the presidency, competing against Putin.

Prokhorov promised to cut taxes, social welfare benefits, and the government’s regulation of corporations. He was opposed to the pro-democracy opposition forces then rallying in the streets. His role was transparently that of a “spoiler” to attract and divide up the anti-Putin votes. He was called Vladimir Surkov’s “puppet.” Then Grigory Yavlinsky’s presidential candidacy was disallowed, ostensibly because too many signatures on his nomination papers were not valid. Even Prokhorov protested that Yavlinsky’s exclusion was anti-democratic. In the end, Prokhorov won nearly 8 percent of the votes—many of them from citizens who would otherwise have voted for Yavlinsky. Of course, Putin won the election handily and proclaimed his gratitude to Prokhorov.

Thus the right wing parties were divided. There was Parnas, which was extremely active in the opposition movement, and Right Cause, which was not. But as we shall see, many people mistrust both groups.

In any case, since Putin has resumed the presidency, he has clamped down on the opposition. Parliament swiftly enacted a law imposing fines up to $30,000 for organizing an illegal demonstration and $9,000 for participating in one. All the leaders of the rallies in May and June have been summoned for questioning and their apartments have been searched. In Ksenia Sobchak’s they found $1.7 million in cash. She explained that she does not trust banks. The drama continues.

Scuttlebutt from the Skeptics

The story I have told so far would not seem very controversial in the mainstream Russian press, but when some of my Moscow friends read my account, they said that I have been snookered. Here is the “real” story as they see it:

First, they warn me not to believe there’s any significant difference between Putin and Medvedev. Yes, Medvedev’s ideals are more democratic than Putin’s, but his loyalty to Putin takes precedence over all his other values. In fact, even the notions of siloviki and civiliki have been concocted to delude us. Not all siloviki are from the police, KGB, Investigation Committee, or military, and those who do belong to these groups fight among themselves. Moreover, there are hardly any liberals in Medvedev’s cabinet, for they all belong to Putin. The genuine struggle is not between Putin and his siloviki versus Medvedev and his liberals, but rather between the old Yeltsin oligarchs and the newer Putin oligarchs.

But where did the fake story come from? From the old Yeltsin supporters!

As his health and sobriety diminished, Yeltsin gradually turned his affairs over to Boris Berezovsky, who chose Putin to inherit the presidency, on the assumption that he was a compliant puppet who would let the Yeltsin gang, such as Chubais, make all fateful decisions. What a mistake! Putin immediately took charge, forcing Berezovsky into exile in Britain and jailing Khodorkovsky. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), which represented the Yeltsin “family” interests, was captured and converted into Right Cause, which Putin could use. The old Yeltsin oligarchs funded such politicians as Nemtsov, Kasyanov, Ryzhkov, and Milov, who lost control. However, they did not give up without one more attempt to oust Putin and restore the Yeltsin “family.”

They cherished the hope that Medvedev might be ambitious enough to break with Putin and try to keep the presidency for himself. If they proposed this to him, he apparently did not exactly say no, for the rest of their plan involved creating an image of him in the world press as a nice, democratic, modernizing guy, as distinct from the thuggish Putin. Accordingly, his ministers were portrayed as democratic liberals.

There was a plan to bring Nemtsov back in as head of Right Cause, which would support Medvedev’s candidacy. Unfortunately, Nemtsov opened his mouth and said things that made that impossible. And Medvedev eventually made it plain that he would never betray Putin, so the Yeltsin team’s ploy failed.

Even now, however, they have not given up hope for the future. Their new party, Parnas, was not registered for the last election, so now they will work through the pro-democracy movement and such organizations as Solidarity. But in June Parnas merged with another right-wing party, adopted its name—the Republican Party of Russia—and is going to be registered. There is a chance that they will win future elections.

The Price of mistrust

The fight between the rightist parties is not about their differing policies (which don’t actually differ much) but about gaining control of Russia’s riches. Thus some skeptics (including some of my friends) refuse to vote for either party. Since the Yeltsin-era politicians are also leading the pro-democracy movement, those same friends also refuse to participate in its rallies. They don’t trust the leaders.

Is this cynical analysis correct? I don’t know. Sometimes there is a realistic basis for mistrust—but when it is chronic, it is toxic to the human spirit. Because trust is so important, I resist an analysis that portrays reformers as no better than the regime they are opposing. Surely there must be some honest politicians in a society of Russia’s size!

Trust is required if people are to work together toward any constructive goal. Sometimes we all must surmount our doubts so as to make positive contributions. Yet international surveys show that Russians are the least trusting society on earth. Here’s their dilemma: If I trust, maybe I’m gullible—but if I distrust, surely I’m stuck. Unfortunately, given a choice, they usually opt to distrust, though they can see the consequences themselves.

But I can report with pleasure that Russians seem to be changing! The young, educated people whom I met in the Occupy Abai camp are idealistic and cooperative. They trust each other, and they will not give up until they make their society actually deserving of trust. On a good day, 100,000 of them turn out in the streets, wearing white ribbons, and showing their commitment to a new kind of Russia, a democratic society. Good luck to them!

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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