The Winds Of Slow Change

world | Apr 19, 2012 | By RFE/RL 

Everything is changing and nothing is changing.
 
Gubernatorial elections are set to return to Russia after an eight-year hiatus. But the pending legislation preserving them is riddled with provisions allowing the Kremlin and regional elites to maintain a vice-like grip on the process and keep unwanted candidates on the sidelines.
 
The registration of political parties has also been eased. But the law passed by the State Duma and signed by President Dmitry Medvedev -- which allows parties with just 500 members to compete in elections -- is widely seen as a vehicle for the Kremlin to flood the zone with fake "clone" opposition parties to confuse and divide the electorate.  
 
Public television is coming to Russia. But its editor in chief will be appointed by the president.
 
Critics have pointed out that the political reforms were initiated in the white-hot atmosphere following the disputed parliamentary elections on December 4, when tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protestors took to the streets.
 
But now, with Vladimir Putin safely returning to the Kremlin and street protests fading, the authorities are backtracking.
 
Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin made this point in remarks to the daily "Novye Izvestia:"
 
Street protests in December and March stipulated a certain respect for the powers-that-be. It was hope for a deal or something: here we are protesting and the authorities ought to respond to it. And yet, the authorities never did. It finally occurred to people that the authorities are not interested at all, that the authorities do not care. Society was as good as told the following: we do not heed you, you may protest all you want with white ribbons or whatever; you might be standing there with condoms for all we care. You may call hunger-strikes and die of malnutrition. It's a free country...This is approximately the message society is getting.
 
But as the " Novye Izvestia" article, written by journalist Vera Moslakova, goes on to point out, the fact that street protests have faded doesn't necessarily mean that civil society has gone back to sleep -- it's just switching to different tactics.
 
Local elections, like those the opposition just won in Tolyatti and Yaroslavl, are one part of that change, Moslakova wrote. Oleg Shein's hunger strike in Astrakhan -- and the support and media attention it generated -- is another:
 
Three or four years ago it would never occur to anyone that a mayoral election somewhere in Russia's regions could attract the whole country's attention. Sochi's 2009 mayoral election, in which Boris Nemtsov was running, was of interest only to Solidarity activists. But now, more than 1,000 (!) observers from Moscow alone went to Yaroslavl to observe the election there (most of them absolutely uninterested in politics only six months ago). Nearly 3,000 Astrakhan residents protested last Saturday [April 14], participating in street actions in support of former mayoral candidate Oleg Shein.
 
Civic volunteerism is also on the rise. "Society is learning to live despite the powers-that-be. Independent vote-counting structures are being set up - The Voter League, Citizen Observer, St. Petersburg Voter, Russian Elections," Moslakova wrote. "Other socially aware Russians have established alternative firefighting teams and alternative mechanisms to assist the sick."
 
Ilya Ponomarev from the center-left A Just Russia party called the shift to the regions and to grassroots politics "the main trend" today, adding that the key players are "people who say that it is time to abandon words in favor of conclusions and abandon conclusions in favor of actions."
 
Speaking to "The Wall Street Journal," State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, also of A Just Russia, suggested that the ruling elite's sense of security is unfounded.
 
"The fear has passed and they think the situation is under control," he said. "But they're wrong. The wave of protest will just take different forms."
 
Which brings us back to the reforms-with-an-asterisk noted at the beginning out this post. These seem to be part of the Kremlin strategy of "managed chaos" I blogged about earlier this week -- efforts to create the illusion of democratic reform and greater pluralism that in fact strengthen the Kremlin's hand.
 
But the thing about such initiatives is that they often have unintended consequences.

Witness Ponomarev, Gudkov, and Shein's political party, A Just Russia. Established in 2006 as a pro-Kremlin project it was supposed to be a housebroken center-left party that would siphon votes from the Communists, do the Kremlin's bidding, and not make any trouble.
 
It has clearly gone off the reservation.

Likewise, in the current political environment, it is not difficult to imagine the Kremlin losing a degree of control over the electoral process under the emerging system -- despite the elite's best efforts to manage it.
 
Everything may not be changing, and yet something certainly is. But the change will come slowly.
 
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Russian opposition , political reform , gubernatorial elections , public television