MOSCOW BLOG: Birth of Russian politics

By bne IntelliNews February 18, 2009

bne -

Denis Bilunov's political timing is excellent. On February 13, he called the inaugural meeting of Solidarity, a new would-be opposition group in Russia, which stands a better chance than any of its predecessors in challenging the Kremlin's hold on power.

Bilunov has been a leading light in the emaciated opposition movement. He is a co-founder of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) group that has been struggling to get a toehold for years. He is also a close associate of political leader and former world chess champion Gary Kasparov, who has the attention of the international press, if not the Russian voters.

"The Political Council today definitively approved the executive bodies, so now I am officially the executive director of the movement," said Bilunov, until then its acting executive director.

Solidarity is just the latest attempt to muster popular support in what has been so far essentially an intellectual opposition to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hold on power. The fissiparous liberal parties have been riven by infighting and unable to win any support from the general public. Will new movement be any different? Bilunov said 25 Solidarity regional committees have been established and more are planned. "It is important to make Solidarity a large-scale federal-level movement by the end of the first half of the year," Bilunov said in remarks to Interfax.

Opportunity knocks

Even if Solidarity suffers from the same problems as its predecessors, the current crisis has given the opposition its best chance in years to making a dent in the national political consciousness. The crisis has brought forward a defining moment for Russia in its journey from Soviet empire to democratic country, a fact thrown into stark relief in January when workers took to the street in what were only the second real popular protests of Vladimir Putin's reign.

The tanking economy could be the catalyst that will radicalise the people and make them political, arguably for the first time since they defended the White House in 1991. Vladivostok saw the biggest anti-government rally amongst a series that took place across the country at the start of February. More than 2,500 people marched against the state's decision to increase tariffs on imported cars, which is a key source of income for many in the far eastern seaport city.

Despite the protests, the vast majority of Russians still have faith in their leaders. According to a poll conducted by the All-Russia Pubic Opinion Research Center on February 7-8, President Dmitry Medvedev's approval rating was down only 10 percentage points from September to 70%, while Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's approval rating stood at 74%, down from 80% in December.

Most of the blame for the mess has fallen not on the leaders, but the government they head; the percentage of Russians who think the country is going in the right direction has fallen from 54% to 43%. Still, these rates are sky high compared with politicians' approval ratings in the industrialised countries. The numbers show, yet again, that Russians have complete trust in Putin and are happy to let him get on with it in any way he sees fit.

People in the West have a real problem understanding Putin's enormous popularity. One bureau chief of a well known British paper said to me recently: "I can't believe those numbers, they must be fixed." Critics point to the state's control of the media and the suppression of the opposition as authoritarian - both big negatives on the Kremlin's pro-democracy scorecard - but are so used to the tight races at home with big debates over small policy differences, the 80%-plus approval Putin has enjoyed for almost a decade seems unthinkable.

The reason is that Putin has delivered on his promise of political stability (after the chaos of the Yeltsin/Communist Duma clashes in the 1990s) and economic prosperity (against the hyperinflation of the 1990s) with spectacular success since taking office.

But the PM is not sitting on his laurels. The Kremlin remains terrified of criticism and the one time it caused popular outrage in 2006, when the government tried to make pensioners pay for their bus passes, it backed off double speed as soon as the babushki hit the streets.

In the West, we equate democracy with debate. In Russia, there is little debate, as it is blindingly obvious what the government needs to do: fix an economy that was run down by decades of mismanagement. This lack of debate is due to the fact that while the economy was growing at an average of 6.5% a year since 2001, the many serious problems of bad government, corruption and inadequate services were masked.

During the presidential elections at the start of last year, bne argued that it would be years before these interests started to diverge. Dissent would form in a rising middle class trying to run small and medium-sized enterprises in a gradually slowing economy that was reaching maturity, so bad government was eating into their profits.

When the economy slammed into a brick wall in September, growth disappeared overnight. Bad government is slapping people in the face and it is this sort of event that radicalises people in the way the Ukrainians were radicalised by Leonid Kuchma's incompetence and murders in Ukraine in 2004.

The lasting effect of this crisis could be not the change going on in the business elite, but the fact that the government will have to start listening to what the people want - and what they want is no longer the same as what the Kremlin is dishing up. The government's flaws are have been unmasked and it is being forced to act to protect the average Russian from the worst of the storm. With 1.75m people already on the dole and 2.2m likely to be unemployed by the end of the year, it will fail. Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the Russians he met during his travel across the country following his return from exile "sheep," but these same people won't be as easily led now.

The Kremlin now faces a defining choice that will set the stage for the development of the country for decades to come. Currently, Putin is spending heavily to support the people with extra benefits and wage hikes. But if the money runs out or the increases are inflated away (as seems increasingly likely), then the Kremlin will have to either give way to popular demand or crack down.

At this point, the more likely outcome is some easing of control rather than a crackdown. The Kremlin's control of the media gives it a buffer to calm a discontent people. More importantly, there is still no viable opposition leader or party to crystallise the growing discontent, so the Kremlin has some time to choose. But all these events are coming together to create a volatile situation that could be seized by a charismatic opportunist. At this point, most Russians are still hoping this man is Putin himself.

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MOSCOW BLOG: Birth of Russian politics

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