Providence, RI – There is still a day left before the Russian presidential election, but no one has any doubt – the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency is inevitable, like the rising of the sun for some, or its setting for others.
In the current political spread there are simply no alternatives. This is not because Russia has fallen into decline, but simply because the Kremlin democracy is set up so that it seems as if there are people to choose from, but in reality there is no choice. But what is good for Medvedev and Putin, is not necessarily good for Russia, even if, and I want to believe this, they both truly want what is best for the country. One of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s aphorisms inevitably comes to mind. In what was to become an algorithm for the actions of Russia’s leaders in the years to come, Chernomyrdin famously declared, “We wanted to do better, but it came out as always.” And so the country must spend the next six years with President Vladimir Putin.
Better than nothing
But what of the much-talked-about, yet completely amorphous protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue? To many, especially those beyond Russia’s borders, they seem to show the decline of Putinism. Rather, these people want to believe in this decline, regardless of the opposition’s real lack of not only a leader, but also of any sort of devised platform. Of course the slogan “Russia Without Putin” sounds straight forward, but to actually live without leadership is not simply hard, it is impossible. You need something, or else you will be left with nothing.
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From Bolotnaya Square there are calls to raze to the ground Putin’s world of force. And then what…? In the 20th century, Russia twice fell into similar traps – first after the 1917 revolution and then during the counterrevolution in 1991. But it seems that this lesson has been lost.
What will happen after the change is most important – you must have something to live with. And as always, everything comes down to a responsible leader, or more accurately, the lack thereof. The country is filled to the brim with big talkers, but there is no real leader. You cannot take those who have been in government already – Boris Nemtsov or Mikhail Kasyanov – to be such leaders. The former demonstrated during his time as deputy prime minister a complete inability to handle this power, and the latter, on the other end of the spectrum, showed great competence in using this power exclusively for his own personal benefit. I do not know about you, but I have not forgotten what happened in August of 1998, when Kasyanov was deputy finance minister, and the International Monetary Fund urgently allocated 3.5 billion dollars for the rescue of Russian Democracy. Where is the money, Mikhail? Nor can I refer to the National Bolshevik Party’s Eduard Limonov as a true leader, nor Dmitry Bykov or Boris Akunin – both of whom I completely respect, but who are masters of words and not acts. And thus, you are left with a choice without a choice.
A short memory
However, the protests sweeping the nation have played their own helpful role. They have awoken the authorities and forced them to take off their rose-tinted glasses and shake off the lethargy in which they embrace their own prosperity.
It has been half a year since the momentous announcement that “here we (that is, Putin and Medvedev) have plotted in the back room together and decided whom you will elect to be your next president”.
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In fact, this is the way it happened, but everything should not be talked about so openly. The nation took offence, or at least its most active part in the capital did. The insult was compounded with the natural tiredness from 12 years of unchanging government, from the same exact faces on the television screens, the same exhausted gestures and energetic slogans, the partially fulfilled and completely unfulfilled promises. Everything is now happening like at a play that has run its course and become boring, where the audience begins to leave the theatre, at first hesitantly, one at a time from the back rows, and then in a wave. And in such situations it is pointless to bring up past sold out performances, just as it is pointless for a government losing its popularity to remind everyone of its past achievements.
Over the past 12 years, everyone has partially forgotten what happened in the country before Putin came to power. People quickly got used to the positive changes, and the negative – the ubiquitous bribe taking and the bureaucratic hold-ups, which the Putin administration could not or did not want to put up a fight against, is now displaying itself in all its ugliness. The situation is far from unique. No government in any country has ever managed to straight away resolve all its problems. In real democracies this brings about a changing of the guard, the rise of the opposition to power. In Russia, however, the unresolved ills of the past regime are left to be cured by that same regime. To what extent it will succeed, or whether it will succeed at all, only time will tell.
However, even now it is clear that the regime has heard the signal from Bolotnaya Square and is trying to react in an unfamiliarly civilised manner. In place of a police crackdown on the opposition, they have been given an opportunity to express themselves, though at the same time there are many more pro-government meetings and rallies being organised. On that note, these reflect the real alignment of Russian society that, though it has grown tired of Putin, it trusts in him all the same, hoping, in the Russian way, that father tsar will work things out in the end. I would say that this attitude is not unfounded. In Russia, and elsewhere as well, reforms are thought up and enacted by the regime in power. And now the regime is trying to act: election laws are changing, registering a political party is getting easier, they intend to take the country off the well-worn rails of Yegor Gaidar and Boris Yeltsin’s marauding market economy, which parasitised achievements of the past, and turn its sights on production. I dare to hope that this is long-term policy.
Of course, there is an enormous void between intentions and results, and there is a reason why it is said that a road paved with good intentions does not lead where you wanted to end up.
‘Vote or lose!’
And this brings up a few questions which remain to be answered. How are political freedom and pluralism to be realised under the conditions of the absolutely dominant executive power that is the Kremlin and its administration? One should not forget that the Kremlin is staffed by real people, and that the future of Russia depends on their good or bad will. And in the case of a real, non-cosmetic change of power, these people would be required to break with everything they have become accustomed to. And this does not simply mean that they must break with their privileges, which is distressing in and of itself, but they must also have the will to hand the reins to the newcomers, who, in the opinion of the current administrators, do not have a clue how to lead and can only run the country into the ground. In real democracies, regime change happens regardless of, and even against, the wishes of the inhabitants of the White House in Washington or the brick building at Number 10 Downing Street in London. That is how it was done in these places from the beginning, and everyone became accustomed to this order of things long ago.
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In Russia, the exiting regime for some reason considers itself not only responsible for its successors, but it also believes it has the right to determine whether they are worthy of coming to power or not. The task of handing over control of the government proved too tough for both the communist Bolsheviks, who dissolved the disagreeable Russian Constituent Assembly in January 1918, and for the anti-communist Bolsheviks who did the same with the “bad” Russian Parliament in October 1993. Mikhail Gorbachev alone decided to follow through with his transition, and many have not forgotten what came of that.
The situation is also far from simple with the transition of the economy from one based off of extracted oil and gas to one involving real production, based on domestic scientific inventions. You can commission Viktor Vekselberg to build a science city in Skolkovo or Antatoly Chubais to head the development of modern nanotechnology, but the issue is not a matter of whether or not they are capable of completing the assignment that has been thrust upon them. Is it not much more important to understand whether or not anyone in Russia actually needs these innovations?
From history we know that the first steam engine in Russia was invented, independent of the West, by Ivan Polzunov; but it did not take. However, the steam engine of the Scotsman, James Watt, caught on – and all because he lived in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialists at that time suffered with pumping water from coal shafts using hand pumps. Watt’s invention could not have come at a better time; with its help, productivity rose sharply. And as such, Watt’s steam engine came into existence and Polzunov was forgotten.
In 1833 Efim and Miron Cherepanov proposed to build a steam locomotive in the Urals and even constructed 3.5 kilometres of railroad track. But their invention remained a toy which drew no one’s interest. Yet, when George Stephenson proposed to the owners of British mines and metallurgical furnaces to take the coal from the mineshafts by rail on a steam locomotive instead of on horse-drawn carts, a new technological era was born.
Something similar is happening now. Not too long ago, the Russian president was asked where he intends to use the potential expensive developments of Skolkovo. He hesitated for a minute, and then ingenuously answered: “We’ll sell them to the Japanese”. That is, we will spend our money on research, and the technology will take root abroad, where they will reap the benefit, and the taxes it generates will pay into foreign coffers. As they say, no comment necessary.
Here I will stop. It is one thing to criticise and another to be the one taking action. It is a very good thing that the current Russian regime (and therefore the future regime as well) has begun to think and is now trying to do something. This inspires hope. As far as results are concerned, they, along with Putin himself, will fittingly need to be judged by those who live to 2018.
But for now, let me recall the old, but absolutely timely call of the Soviets – “All to the voting booth!” and of Yeltsin – “Vote or lose!”
Sergei Khrushchev is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the son of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin.
Translated from Russian by Eli Keene.