Throngs of voters and protesters are sending Russia’s leadership an unmistakable message: The country needs to stop being Vladimir Putin’s business project and become a nation.
The reaction to last weekend’s fraud-tainted parliamentary elections has been like nothing I have seen since the early 1990s. A sanctioned rally in central Moscow attracted as many as 10,000 people to protest what they see as a stolen vote. The Russian blogosphere and social networks are overflowing with eyewitness accounts of fraud at polling stations, including cases of hundreds of forged ballots stuffed into boxes. The work of independent monitors, many of them young Russians who were not interested in politics four years ago, suggests United Russia’s dismal 49 percent share of the vote should have been a still more dismal 33 percent. That compares with an official 64 percent in the 2007 elections.
Opposition parties have promised to take legal action, but that is not expected to bring any tangible results. The Kremlin’s control over the political system, which includes the court system and the electoral commission, will probably remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. What happened is a symbolic victory for all those who for the first time identified themselves with their country and tried to influence national affairs. For the first time in 20 years, voting was cool.
Where have the Russians been for so long? Well, they have been busy. Few societies have ever endured such a painful transition from a patronizing totalitarian regime to unregulated, cut-throat competition. Like a tsunami, the economic liberalization begun 20 years ago wiped out personal savings and destroyed jobs, careers and entire professions.
The economic revolution completely eclipsed the emergence of the new political entity, the Russian Federation. All political and historical soul-searching stopped. Res privata supplanted res publica. People’s values changed. Sociological studies show that levels of interpersonal trust collapsed as everyone became engrossed in personal survival. By the mid-2000s, Russians felt less connected to their country than citizens of any other nation in the world: Researchers led by Vladimir Magun of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology found that Russians’ alienation from their polity was on a level with that of the Arab population of Israel.
Individually, Russians have a lot to be proud of. The country’s athletes, artists and scientists have gained global renown. But the heroic collective spirit of Soviet times is long gone. Team victories at international competitions are increasingly rare, and Russia’s overall share of the world’s scientific citations has been dwindling. The change is not just about brain drain. It reflects a major shift from national causes to individual success as a dominating value.
The Putin regime has consistently encouraged people to give up their role in public affairs. Independent political parties have been marginalized, party-building made prohibitively costly and complicated, regional elections canceled, elected governors and most mayors replaced with appointed officials. Putin’s elite, bearing a strong resemblance to a monarch’s court, has learned to use the political system to extract personal wealth, which it deploys to consolidate power.
Outsiders, who include almost all Russians, have been kept in check by a combination of luck and policy. Rapid economic growth, fueled by high oil prices, has allowed the government to mollify the public with regular increases of pensions and wages in the large state sector. Some have characterized that live-and-let-live truce between an omnipotent elite and the majority of the population as a sort of social contract, loyalty in exchange for stability.
Whatever you call it, the deal has bought Putin a lot of time at the top of Russian politics, which he has used to stave off a transition from the state as master to the state as servant. Twenty years after its emergence as an independent state, Russia’s institutions remain incomplete. It has markets, prices and working fiscal policies, but it lacks law enforcement, division of power and independent courts.
Although that may look like an unfinished project, it can also be understood as an accomplished ideal. Call it Putin’s project. He has adapted old Soviet structures to control and redistribute assets. What outsiders call corruption, Putin sees as a system of incentives. The ruling elite does not want a rule of law, because life is good without it. You can grab property and buy a needed court decision anytime you like. You don’t need to worry about parliamentary scrutiny or pesky journalists.
The project works so well because the global financial system allows its beneficiaries -- operators of state-owned businesses, oligarchs and government officials -- to keep the spoils in other countries that have the courts and property rights Russia lacks. That is why most medium and large Russian businesses are incorporated abroad. That is why a court battle starring two of the country’s best-known businessmen, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, has been unfolding in London, not in Moscow.
The project has even done some good for Russia as a whole. It has boosted economic growth and kept the basic administrative functions working, and some of the goodies have trickled down. But it is not sustainable, and of course it is deeply unjust.
How, then, can Russia discard Putin’s project and become a nation? That is the question at stake as Russians prepare to choose their president in March. Putin wants to keep his grip on power, but many in Russia seem to have other ideas. For the first time in years, national matters have attracted people’s attention. Some members of the population have remembered that they are also citizens.
Russia’s national awakening is at a very early stage. For now, it’s only a feeling of resentment that loosely unites different groups of protesters. It will take a long time and a lot of wisdom to get the unfinished project of a lawful and prosperous Russia back on track.
(Maxim Trudolubov is editorial page editor of the newspaper Vedomosti, based in Moscow. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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