RUSSIA VOTES: A Front for progress or an affront to progress?

By bne IntelliNews September 6, 2011

Nicholas Watson in Prague -

It's election time again in Russia and, according to much of the western press, the Kremlin is up to its old tricks of locking up protestors, stifling opposition and co-opting any credible alternative figures. But one of those figures that outsiders cite as an example of the latter, Deputy Speaker of the Duma Alexander Babakov, claims the new movement he has joined is not a Kremlin stooge, but a group of like-minded progressives determined to see the reform process in Russia speeded up.

The All-Russia People's Front is an informal alliance of trade unions, women's groups, social groups and other semi-political organisations that was created in May by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to give them broader representation in the next legislature. However, critics say that by allowing the People's Front at the next parliamentary elections in December to take up a fourth of the seats on the United Russia list, the main pro-Kremlin party in the Duma, it is merely a ploy by Putin to draw off votes from the growing number of Russians who see United Russia as "the party of crooks and thieves" and who are in danger of voting for opposition parties. Another example of Russia's "managed democracy" in action.

Not so, says Babakov, who deserted the ruling party's main rival, A Just Russia, which he had helped set up, to join the People's Front. In an interview with bne, Babakov insists he decided to leave A Just Russia because like other opposition parties it was spiralling into radicalism, trying to turn back the clock on what has been achieved in Russia over the past two decades, and his relationship with the head of the party, Sergei Mironov, had grown very difficult. "We look very differently at the programme of reform and the way it has continued," Babakov says. "The radical opposition just deny everything that is currently in place - the Russia of 2011 is not the Russia of 1991, and to deny this progress is wrong," he says. "I belong to the constructive opposition - while I understand and agree with many government policies, I have my own defined point of view on ways to implement the reforms. If I criticise, I always offer an alternative."

This, of course, is the very definition of "managed democracy." The alternatives that Babakov talks about are real, viable and could become policy, but the point is that these ideas are coming from a party that is lodged firmly under the Kremlin roof. So while this system offers the variety of ideas that a true democracy would engender, the debate remains very much within a fence the Kremlin has built around the process.

Innovation, renovation and modernisation

The People's Front is not a legal entity, Babakov says (something a local Russian journalist discovered when he tried to join up and found he couldn't), but a movement that brings together progressive thinkers regardless of their political persuasion, and definitely does not mean he has joined United Russia. "I see the People's Front as a sort of incubator for political thought for the social democrat type that I am."

Mironov - a vocal critic of the People's Front, claiming it's merely "an attempt to camouflage United Russia... with people loyal to the ruling establishment" - is certainly not what you'd call progressive, pushing as he does for the setting up of special agricultural exchanges for state purchases of agricultural goods and for more state intervention in regulating prices of basic food stuff. Babakov, on the other hand, may resemble a rather mild-mannered regional bank manager squinting in the glare of unwanted publicity, but he has amassed a fortune from business interests ranging from banking, to energy to hotels, which some critics claim rather undermines his "social democrat" credentials. Even so, his reformist zeal and belief that Russia can, and will, become a more open and pluralistic democracy seem genuine and, to his mind, inevitable, which would certainly put him at odds with Mironov's A Just Russia.

For Babakov, that he now finds himself on ideologically on the same side of the fence as the Kremlin is not really much of a surprise given there is little appetite among the population at large for a radical opposition and the Kremlin's push for "innovation, renovation and modernisation" is simply what most Russians want these days (though the arrests on August 31 of more democracy activists as they tried to hold a sit-in in central Moscow after they unfurled anti-Kremlin banners suggests the right to peacefully protest is also high on people's lists).

It's this fact that leads Babakov to argue the Kremlin could move even faster with reforms, something he believes most of the government also wants to see. "I agree that there is a need to make these [reform] processes to go a lot faster, but that's what the government is also saying. One of the ways to do this is to invest in the real economy, not just sell oil and gas, as this way you provide guarantees of social development," he says. "The people are ready for reforms and the People's Front is ready to be part of this, but whoever is elected needs to pursue faster movement in reforms."

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