Notes from Russia

April 27, 2007 Topic: Civil SocietyDemocracySociety Region: RussiaEurasia

Notes from Russia

The way Russia covered and absorbed the April 14 protests and Boris Yeltsin's death is indicative of Russia’s current political climate.

Framing my recent research trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg were two major political events: I arrived in Moscow on the day of opposition protests (April 14) and left Russia on the day after the death of former-President Boris Yeltsin. The way Russia covered and absorbed these events is indicative of Russia's current political climate.

The protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg were small in scale and had limited impact inside Russia. However, two points are important: first, the government was broadly seen as having overreacted even to these limited protests; and second, domestically, the protests were mostly portrayed as instigated and financed by foreign powers, primarily the United States. Casual anti-American rhetoric is common on Russian television; suspicion of Western motives and actions appears to run deep. Even though most Russians do not see the protests as consequential (if they know about them at all), the government continues to expend considerable effort to contain and squash them. It is generally recognized within Russia, however, that the leaders of the democratic opposition offer neither strong charismatic leadership nor a clear or detailed program of action and policy, and thus do not represent a plausible political alternative to the Putin Administration's political and economic vision. Moreover, the Putin Administration continues to be extremely popular, with Putin's job approval rating hovering around 80 percent, and with broad support from the population and the elite.

On April 14, although there was a very significant military and police presence in some central Moscow areas, most notably around Pushkinskaya Square, there was no sign of protests by mid-afternoon and of most security forces by mid-evening. Coverage on largely-state-controlled or state-loyal television has been limited and frequently caustic; it also implied that there were strong connections between the liberal protesters and some "forces over there." Even though some of the protests were by the members of the democratic opposition, there were also demonstrations by various nationalist and other opposition groups not allied with the Kasparov/Kasyanov camp. The city of Moscow continued to function relatively smoothly. In several conversations with members of Moscow's new business elite-up-and-coming young executives at key Western and Russian firms-it turned out that they had no idea any kind of protest was taking place at all; some of them learned about it by getting stuck in unexpected traffic jams, a fixture of life in the Russian capital. When learning about it, they were dismissive. These and other conversations demonstrated that a wide variety of Muscovites did not know, and certainly did not care, about a few thousand protesters, even if they did not see the need for massive police presence in the streets.

Most of Russia, including its business and professional classes, prefer for the moment to ignore politics and focus on the economy-survival for the poor, making money for the middle and upper classes.

In a counterpoint to the protests, the death of Boris Yeltsin on April 23 stirred much positive rhetoric; however, it also failed to ignite passions or lead to much reminiscence, let alone re-evaluation, of the recent past. Yeltsin's was the first death of a Russian national leader since the passing of CPSU Secretary-General Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, which brought to power Mikhail Gorbachev. It is also the first death of a post-Soviet Russian president. As such, it was in many ways precedent-setting.

Coverage on Russian TV was not extensive; on Monday night, it took awhile for the main channels to prepare tributes, which were running late (the main one being on Rossiya channel). Even though many policies of President Vladimir Putin have been motivated by the desire to reverse the legacy of the Yeltsin years, the coverage of Yeltsin and his tenure in office was positive, with many contentious areas (such as emergence of oligarchs or military action in Chechnya) largely avoided. Obituaries and rhetoric stressed in particular Yeltsin's role in the destruction of the Soviet Union (portrayed as moribund), the avoidance of real risks of hunger and civil war in the early 1990s, and the reelection campaign of 1996, which denied Communists the presidency. Consideration of Yeltsin's role brought to TV screens the reformers in the early 1990s, frequently vilified in today's daily political discourse, but on this occasion praised through association with Yeltsin for building a market, introducing private property and making Russia "free and democratic." As such, the death of Yeltsin linked the Putin administration with that of his predecessor's in explicit and generally positive terms, an important recognition for Yeltsin and a significant legacy-building step for Putin prior to his departure from office.

It is a symbolic coincidence that the great Mstislav Rostropovich died during the same week as Yeltsin. They are two faces of elite rebellion against the Soviet Union-a reformist apparatchik and a dissident artist. Both were beneficiaries of a system they realized, at different times, to be corrupt and unworkable, and escaped in their own ways. Both were deeply populist figures-and both were skillful operators of political and social systems in which they found themselves. Their actions in August 1991 are among the most powerful gestures of that turbulent and revolutionary-Yeltsin on a tank, Rostropovich playing his cello next to the White House.

Rather than looking at the past, however, those who still think and talk about politics in Russia are intently mulling the coming elections. Regarding December 2007, there remains little mystery: the next Duma is still likely to have four major parties represented: United Russia, which will dominate the body, together with A Just Russia, the Communist Party of Russia (KPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR). There is a small chance that the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) will be able to make it into the next Duma. For it to do so, the Kremlin has to decide not to obstruct it; that decision has not yet been made. Under ideal circumstances, SPS could get about 10-12 percent of the vote, according to SPS party officials. Its fate, however, has not yet been decided, and it is more likely that SPS will not be in the next Duma, thus depriving this body of a strongly reformist block of deputies.

A Just Russia, the party of Senate Speaker Sergei Mironov, is generally seen in Moscow as having created a real alternative to the party of power, United Russia, in the regions, even if it has less traction nationally. In the regions, however, it provides a relatively legitimate and safe platform for those members of the elite who do not agree with the leaders of the regions to voice their positions. Nationally, it will be difficult for it to achieve the same status, but it is here to stay. A major reason for the creation of A Just Russia was to limit the sprawl and the triumphalism of internal culture of United Russia. These goals have largely been achieved.

As for presidential succession, scenarios are many, but Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov continue to be the two frontrunners, with Ivanov recently gaining ground and popularity. Despite much noise about Putin's third term, we still expect him to step down. The many scenarios infinitely reconsidered reflect the fact that very few people can claim to know what Putin is thinking-and the president himself most likely has not made his decision. The succession is likely to unfold relatively smoothly, however. A new power arrangement will emerge, with some growing pains, in around 2009; at least until then, and possibly after, Putin and the rules of the game he imposed will continue to be at the core of Russia's political power.

Denis Maslov is a Europe/Eurasia analyst at the Eurasia Group.