The ‘New Decembrists’ face off against Putin

Putin’s popularity is declining, and mass protests are erupting after poorly-rigged elections, the author says.

Russian police detain a participant during an opposition protest in central Moscow December 5, 2011. Several thousand people protested in central Moscow on Monday against what they said was a fraudulent parliamentary election, shouting "Revolution!" and calling for an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin''s rule. REUTERS
Several hundred Russians were arrested in mass protests after elections believed to be riddled with irregularities [AFP]

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – In mid-November, the Russian site noted that political brands have a life cycle of five stages – “rise”, “peak”, “stabilisation”, “fall”, and “political death”. As brands, Russia’s political tandem, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and the ruling party United Russia, are no less immune to this cycle. Their popularity peaked in 2008-2009, was stable throughout 2010, and began to fall rapidly in the second half of 2011. In this sense Russia’s ruling elite are little different than, say, a pop song or a breakfast cereal. The more you consume them, the more disgusting they become, until their mere mention evokes the dry heaves.

As returns from Sunday’s polls show, more and more of the Russian electorate are getting nauseous with the political establishment, and Putin in particular. Technically, Sunday’s elections were about determining the Russian Duma (parliament) for the next five years. But, in reality, they were a popularity vote for Putin: the man, the politician, and the system he created. And if there is any doubt that “Putinism” is on a downward swing, just take a look at Sunday’s polls compared to the last election in 2007. In 2007, United Russia received 64.3 per cent of the vote, giving it a supermajority of 315 seats. On Sunday, United Russia got 49.5 per cent and is slated to get 238 seats. That’s a drop of 14 per cent and a loss of 77 seats. One should also note that United Russia got walloped in regional parliaments. In three regions, Krasnoyarsk, Primorye, and Sverdlovsk, the Party of Power didn’t even break 38 per cent. Considering that this is the first election since 2003 that United Russia’s power shrank, this election is a turning point.

Tragedy becomes farce, doubled

Putin and his team knew this was possible. But looking over the past several months, it is quite astounding that the political elite actually made things worse. For months they’ve been scrambling to inject life into United Russia. Putin first turned to populism by creating the All-Russia Popular Front to unite United Russia with a broad coalition of social groups. Many civic organisations joined, but the Front remained virtually unknown to most Russians and did nothing to stave off the party’s slide in public opinion. 

United Russia then channelled the United States’ political system by holding primaries for places of the electoral party lists. Again, most Russians never heard of the primaries, and most of the “candidates” who made it on the list were part of the old guard.

Finally, the Right Cause experiment went belly-up – or, more aptly put, was detonated at the last second by the Kremlin’s spin-master and Grey Cardinal Vladislav Surkov. Headed by the young and savvy oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, Right Cause was to draw in the urban, educated and liberal vote. In the end, Prokhorov proved unreliable and the project was ingloriously and untimely jettisoned. With parliamentary elections only a few months away, Putin’s, Medvedev’s and United Russia’s popularity continued to shrink, and the Kremlin appeared to be out of effective ideas to manage Russia’s democracy.

By late September, something had to be done. The Russian elite, particularly the so-called “Putin Party”, were getting nervous that President Dmitry Medvedev wasn’t strong enough to maintain legitimacy. After all, the Russian government feared that another recession was on the horizon, and that as a result of it, they would have to cut social spending. A new, old face was needed with enough stature to reassure both the elite and the people. Putin, by desire or design, was that man.

Or so they thought.

The announcement that Putin was returning to the presidency turned out to be a big mistake. Ultimately, the elite outside the Kremlin were lukewarm to the idea. Putin’s ally and insider, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, openly revolted. Russia’s middle class felt downright betrayed. Reviving the specter of the 1990s to justify Putin’s return fell flat. Slogans of stability and order also fell on deaf ears, as life in Russia had become increasingly unstable since 2008. With corruption still rampant and more Russians feeling that the gap between them and the government was getting wider, the opposition’s slogan that United Russia was the “Party of Thieves and Swindlers” seemed more and more apt. Addressing these issues by having Putin return bare-chested on a horse was akin to telling the public that they were too simple-minded to choose their leaders. For many, particularly Russia’s educated classes, Putin 2.0 evoked more images of stagnation than renewal.

Putin ‘castles’

Marx famously ridiculed Louis Bonaparte as a facsimile of his famous uncle. Bonaparte’s attempt at repeating history turned tragedy into farce, as the radical thinker put it. The tandem’s “castling”, as the move is called in Russia, doubled the farce. It confirmed what many already believed: Medvedev was the boy-king keeping the throne warm. Putin’s restoration turned the last four years, not to mention Medvedev himself, into a joke.

The real farce, however, was in late November when Putin accepted the nomination for president. In a spectacle rivalling the Republican and Democratic Parties, chants of “Pu-tin! Pu-tin! Pu-tin!” echoed in Luzhniki Stadium. Putin went as far as to lead the crowd of 11,000 sycophants in a chant of “When I say ‘Russia’, you say ‘Hoorah!'” As political commentator Gleb Pavlovsky told Julia Ioffe, while the “chest-thumping” was fine before 2008, “today, it looks anachronistic”.

What was equally antiquated was Putin’s bragging about how he and United Russia saved the country from the Time of Troubles of the 1990s – and his claims that spectres of the enemy within and without seek to undermine Russian sovereignty. He warned “representatives of some foreign countries” (i.e., the West) from wasting their money on “so-called grant recipients” – meaning NGOs and opposition parties – and went so far as to compare the latter to Judas. The validity of these statements aren’t important (there are Western governments who fund Russian NGOs, many of which are critical of the Kremlin). Instead, playing the history and the enemy card revealed how out of touch Putin is.

On the eve of the Duma elections, a few things were clear: Medvedev was a puppet. United Russia was shown to really be politically vapid. And a potential 12 more years of Putin was all the political elite could muster to reassure an increasingly disaffected public.

The remaining question was how the public, which so far had been apathetic and acquiescent, would respond when given the opportunity to speak through the ballot box.

Political resuscitation

It’s often said that electoral politics in Russia is dead. If so, then Sunday’s elections was a defibrillator to the political heart of the polity. Sure, the elections were corrupted by the usual “irregularities” and machinations that accompany the Russian polls (one guesstimate puts the rigging at no more than 5 per cent. Others, including myself, guess it’s closer to 10-15 per cent). Liberal Russian news sites were battered by DDoS (denial of service) attacks, which mysteriously stopped when the polls closed. The independent monitoring group Golos was hounded for its Western ties. But if vote rigging was widespread, then United Russia are incompetent as cheaters, too, since they still fell short of 50 per cent.

The official counts are impressive enough. The first exit polls sent shock waves of hope and despair, as United Russia garnered 45.83 per cent, but increased one per cent with every hour of counting, stabilising by morning. Nevertheless, United Russia lost its predicted supermajority, barely holding on to a simple one. At a joint press conference, Medvedev and Putin tried to put a positive spin on things, though Putin was visibly shaken. The rattle of the tandem reverberated as soon-to-be-prime-minister-unless-Putin-dumps-him Medvedev was on the horn trying to get the Communists, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats – anyone – to agree to a coalition government. The desperation was comical, since the electoral opposition is a paper tiger, and some report that United Russia cut a deal with them exchanging political loyalty for increased representation a week prior.

Putin and Co. are slowly coming to terms with their new reality. The question is how they will maintain unquestioned power and save face at the same time. Putin is promising to shake up the government’s staff, while his press secretary Dmitrii Peskov is trying to convince everyone that Putin isn’t directly connected to United Russia. True, Putin isn’t a member of the party, but everyone with a brain knows that he’s not only intimately connected to the Party of Power, he is United Russia. Getting United Russia’s stink off his Armani suit isn’t going to happen.

The New Decembrists

The actual extent of voter fraud is rather insignificant. What is important is Russians’ subjective belief that the vote was stolen and its resulting psychological effect. Unlike in past elections, Russian citizens, particularly tech-savvy youth, spread the outrage through grainy YouTube videos, eyewitness accounts, confrontation, and on-the-spot reporting. These videos and the countless personal testimonies generalised fragmented incidents to construct a powerful narrative that materialised into the defiant, young crowd of 6,000-10,000 at the Chistye Prudy park on Monday night with another, albeit smaller gathering, on Tuesday.

The protest on Monday and Tuesday night undoubtedly revitalised a wilting liberal opposition. It gave them an issue to unite around, and more importantly it brought new participants to their cause, as many protesters had never been to an opposition protest before.

It is doubtful, however, that these two conflagrations will produce a “Russian Winter”, and there are major questions whether the liberal opposition will be able to transform that energy into a real movement. And though Monday’s protest was estimated to be the largest since the 1990s, its real power, like the perception of widespread electoral theft, was symbolic.

First, it symbolised the widening vertical divide between the Putin government and the young, educated urbanites created by 10 years of Putinist prosperity. These young people are being dubbed the “New Decembrists” (after the failed noble revolt against the coronation of Nicholas I in December 1825). Like the Decembrists of old, the new Decembrists are a generation of young, educated youths disaffected by the social and political atmosphere. Armed with their iPhones, blogs, and Twitter accounts, the “New Decembrists” are increasingly willing to speak out, and if Monday and Tuesday are any indication, to take action as well.

Second, on Tuesday night when pro-Putin youth from Nashi, Molodaya Gvardiia, and Rossiya Molodaya faced off against anti-Putin protesters, it became evident that there is a growing horizontal division within the younger generation. As noted on Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical podcast, many pro-Putin youth are less educated and hail from the provinces. Both are bases of Putin’s support.

The X-factor in all of this is the nationalists. They are mostly comprised of young people too, and are a political force on the street, but were curiously mute on Tuesday. Their traditional support for Putin is waning as their objection to the Kremlin’s continued financial support for the Caucasus moves to the centre of their rage. The fact that the North Caucasus delivered 99 per cent of its votes for United Russia will only feed nationalist ire. It will be interesting to see what they will do on December 11 to commemorate the anniversary of their Manezh riot. The real danger for the Kremlin, however, is a union between the New Decembrists and the nationalists. Such a pact would be a potent political force. But who could do it? That person seems to be emerging in the blogger and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.

Events are moving fast. Putin and Co. are shaken and stirred. More populism might be Putin’s trump card since the majority of Russians care more about living standards than democracy. Protesters, however, are not going away; instead, they are organising via Facebook a return to the streets on December 10. As of now, 81 cities are planning actions. While it’s tempting to declare that a Russian Winter is underway, it’s important to emphasise that Sunday’s elections are not about today, next week, or even three months from now. They are about what the next five to six years will look like. Whatever happens, as an editorial on put it, “One thing is clear: The country will not be the same as before. It simply cannot be.”

Sean Guillory is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He blogs about Russia at Sean’s Russia Blog and can be followed on Twitter @seansrussiablog.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.