Don’t cry for me, Mother Russia

Recently I was at the Guardian’s Open Weekend at King’s Place in London: a fabulously stimulating event consisting of talks, music, poetry and reader engagement on the future of the newspaper in the digital age.

This blog entry is about the state of Russia following the recent elections which returned Putin to the presidency for potentially another 12 years. It’s based on a session chaired by David Hearst (Guardian foreign leader writer) and involving Masha Karp (freelance journalist), Sir Andrew Wood (former British Ambassador to the Russian Federation) and Luke Harding (former Moscow correspondent of the Guardian).

The origin of the unrest was not the Duma elections in October 2011, but Putin’s announcement on 23 September that he was seeking election to the presidency. This meant that he could potentially be in power for a further 12 years, as he had change the constitution to increase presidential terms from four to six years.

No other challengers were allowed to register and any opposition candidates were hand-picked by Putin.

It is clear now that there was large-scale fraud, including the use of phantom polling stations. This was particularly the case in Nizhny Novgorod and St Petersburg: both cities which would have returned less than 50% support for Putin. In Nizhny Novgorod 16 of these phantom polling stations were in place in non-existent factories and even a cemetery. This managed to boost the vote for Putin up to 86%.

Chechnya polled a 99% vote in support of Putin. Incredible in view of the fact that it was Putin who started the 2nd Chechen war.

The post-election period has been characterised by crackdowns on the opposition. Aleksey Kozlov, a Moscow businessman accused of fraud in 2008 after falling out with a very influential business partner has been re-arrested and sentenced to five years in a penal colony. His case has been something of a touchstone for an independent judicial system after the original charges against him were dismissed by the Russian Supreme Court. Thanks to his wife, Olga Romanova, a journalist, his fight for justice became well-known and in her own right she has become one of the leading opposition figures.

Members of the feminist punk rock collective group, Pussy Riot, were arrested after an unsanctioned five-minute performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, during which they called for the Mother of God to chase Putin out. Three of the band, mothers of young children, are being held until the end of April and are being threatened with seven years in prison.

A propaganda film shown by official TV claimed the protests were carried out for money by a foreign power, the implication being that it was the USA.

As a result of the protests, fear of the government amongst the people has started to go away. It has also once and for all exploded the myth, prevalent in the west, that the Russians love Putin. People no longer accept that the government is legitimate and there is concern about the fact that the west is happy to deal with Putin on his terms.

But who exactly are the opposition I wanted to know? Masha Karp characterised them as a mixed group of liberals, communists and people who just want change. There is a growing clamour for change from young people who want a better future for Russia.

Sir Andrew Wood felt that the elections had not decided anything, but had opened up new opportunities and dangers.On the surface, things don’t look too bad. Putin has a complacent Duma ready to rubber stamp legislation. He has “won” a majority vote. He’s in office for the next six years and the economy is going quite well. But there is no doubt that he has been weakened by recent events. Suddenly he has become an accountable politician in a system that is incapable of holding him to account.

The opposition reflects a widespread demand for accountability, predictability and the rule of law. None of which Putin is capable of delivering. He was taken by surprise by the opposition reaction to the elections and you can tell when he is rattled by the fact that he starts using coarse language.

The fact is that Russia has changed more than he realised or imagined. If the system were opened up to enquiry and investigation, then it would be very difficult to answer a lot of the issues that would come up, eg what happened at Beslan, the Nord Ost theatre siege, the Kursk disaster, and many other issues. It would expose many of his team and his cronies who do not rule through the rule of law.

It is more likely that there will be a re-shuffle of his team with the liberal elements being weakened and the military and security services elements (the siloviki) being strengthened. Also there is unlikely to be any modernisation of the Russian economy which would result in the mass closure of uneconomic factories and wholesale unemployment.

The current economic model just about works but has no long-term prospects. Any changes are therefore likely to be cosmetic rather than fundamental. GDP will slow down and the price of oil will make it difficult to balance the budget. There is the real possibility of increasing urban discontent swelled by working people which would make Russia more difficult to govern.

There are no longer any institutions that could make changes. Putin and his team are victims of a system they have created, at the heart which lies corruption. They have to cling to power, as the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. It’s interesting to note in this regard that after the fall of Libya, Putin was quite appalled by the way that Gaddafi met his end.

It has been estimated that Putin is one of the richest men on the planet with assets of more than $43bn and the ruling regime are known to be off-shoring assets, in London amongst other places. Luke Harding suggested that the sight of botox-treated Putin shedding a tear at the post-election rally is evidence that he is increasingly unhinged.

Russia is globally therefore at risk of instability and perhaps looking for a foreign adventure to try to unite the country. It still suffers from an imperial syndrome and outlook. It has never gone through a process of ‘de-Sovietisation’ and is still like a Soviet state but without the underpinning ideology. This is particularly evident in the way it treats its citizens.

But as Sir Andrew eloquently put it , “Russia deserves far better. It is our moral, intellectual and political duty to empathise with Russia as it is. Our relationship is with a whole strata of ideas and structures beyond the merely political level. Don’t judge Russia purely at the intergovernmental level. Russia has always been badly governed and now it is shockingly badly governed!”

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