For the first time since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, his administration has lost the political initiative in the country.
But the wave of protests came spontaneously and caught not only the Kremlin by surprise, but the leftist and national-patriotic opposition as well, and even the Communists, who claim to be leading the demonstrations. As for the rightist or "liberal-democratic" opposition, it seems to prefer to ignore events. As the "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" website (http://www.ej.ru) reported on 14 February, the rightists believe the pensioners and other benefits-reform protesters are "not their electorate." The liberals prefer to wait "until the Russian middle class, left with no other choice by the current government, comes out into the streets," the website opined.
Many analysts doubt whether the left or right opposition would really be able to lead the protests, even if they continued to spread.
Many analysts doubt whether the left or right opposition would really be able to lead the protests, even if they continued to spread. As the Swiss daily "Tages Anzeiger" put it on 14 February, "The social protests in Russia are not a basis for an antiauthoritarian revolution, as they were in Ukraine and Georgia, because the opportunity for a 'birch revolution' was lost in the 1990s." Analysts trace the roots of this political inertia to the crises of both the right ("liberal") and left ("national-patriotic") flanks of the Russian political spectrum.
One such analyst is Ruslan Linkov, the leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the Democratic Russia party. Democratic Russia, which was created at the peak of the antitotalitarian wave of 1989-90, is one of the oldest liberal associations in Russia. Until she was assassinated on 20 November 1998, Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, one of the staunchest critics of Russia's totalitarian past, headed Democratic Russia. Linkov was Starovoitova's closest aide at the time of her murder, and he was severely injured himself during the attack. He became one of the party's leaders after his recovery.
Linkov wrote an analysis of the political situation for RosBalt on 3 February in which he argued that the post-Soviet elite is in a state of permanent crisis and that neither the left nor the right wings can present an effective challenge to the Kremlin's current course. He begins with the liberal opposition, positing that its current shortcomings can be explained by looking at its origins in the Soviet-era intelligentsia, particularly in the fact that its democratic freedoms came not as a direct result of its own long struggle and sacrifices, but as a by-product of the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Soviet intelligentsia had "very fragmentary and incidental knowledge of democracy, but nonetheless it considered its experience both crucial and comprehensive," Linkov wrote. Having entered mainstream politics and having been transformed into a new political elite, the "democrats" brought with them a deficit of positive thinking, a crippling inability to cooperate constructively, and lack of proactive plans for the development of democratic institutions, Linkov argued.
Russia's democratic political elite, Linkov wrote, was formed as a strata of political demagogues, not real politicians. Its ambitions -- including its political ambitions -- keep growing, but its political professionalism remains arrested. Its activity in the Duma over the last decade shows not only a poor knowledge of the legislation of advanced democracies, but even an unfamiliarity with the Russian laws that they themselves approved, Linkov claimed.
Linkov singles out the leadership of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) for particular criticism. During the government offensive against the media empire of former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii in 1998-2000, the SPS sided with the Kremlin, which argued that the matter was merely a "business dispute" rather than an all-out assault on the independent media. Boris Nemtsov, who was then the head of the SPS Duma faction, said his party's first priority was preserving "the right of private property, and only then, all other freedoms," Linkov wrote. The SPS ignored activists who argued that Nazi Germany had private property, although it lacked many other rights, Linkov noted.
Moreover, although the SPS said a lot about "emancipating business from the state," it failed in practice to provide relief for the business community from excessive taxes and an arbitrary bureaucracy. These failures, Linkov wrote, contributed to the "institutionalization of corruption" in Russia. The rightists, he notes, initiated and pushed through the bankruptcy legislation that, together with tax legislation, is the main lever being used in the case against oil giant Yukos. The democratic elite failed to create a foundation for the democratic development of Russia when it had the chance, Linkov wrote. It failed to create a sufficient legislative basis for a stable democracy.
Linkov also recalled that the idea of political-party reform was born within the SPS, including the idea of raising the barrier for entry into the Duma from 5 percent of the popular vote to 7 percent. The "elitists" within the SPS hoped by this to eliminate their smaller competitors on the liberal flank, but the Kremlin is now successfully using this tool against the SPS and Yabloko, who are now protesting against it.
In addition, Linkov wrote, although until as recently as the last year or so the liberals had key posts in the government, the Duma, and the presidential administration, they made no serious efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Chechnya. They did not resist the expansion of the so-called siloviki -- members of the state-security community -- into public institutions of power. The liberals even helped Putin build up the "vertical of power," which was then used to crush the horizontal network of civil society, Linkov argued. He noted that the SPS and Yabloko supported the Kremlin-inspired installation of Valentina Matvienko as governor of St. Petersburg. In this context, their protests now against the elimination of the direct election of regional executive-branch heads seem pretty meaningless, Linkov wrote.
Finally, Linkov said most of the democratic elite ignored human rights as a legitimate arena of political activity, and it is no coincidence that Soviet-era political prisoners and activists such as Sergei Kovalev have preferred to keep their distance.
In conclusion, Linkov argued that the democratic elite has practically died, although it continues to resist its final demise. This resistance, he wrote, is barring the way into politics for a younger and genuinely democratic generation. Moreover, the democratic elite is playing into the hands of the "national-patriotic opposition," which never tires of contrasting the personal wealth of the democrats with the widespread poverty throughout Russia. As a result, the very notion of democracy has become debased.
Turning his attention to the leftist opposition, Linkov argued that it is guided by two conflicting ideological aims -- "Russia for the Russians" and "Russia as an empire." According to polls, about 60 percent of Russians support statements such as, "The Russian nation is one of the world's great nations," and, "Russian Orthodoxy is the greatest Christian confession." About 200 public organizations openly use slogans such as these, Linkov wrote, even though they contradict the idea of imperialist expansion. "Throughout Russian history, patriots have called both for the defense of Russia's borders and for their 'expansion,' while also accusing those peoples who have been colonized against their will of causing harm to the Russians," Linkov wrote.
In addition to defending the greatness of Russia, these patriots also fight against Russia's "numerous" enemies, including the United States, people from the Caucasus, "Judeo-Masons," and many others. The patriots are convinced that the West has taken up arms against Russia and against them personally, Linkov wrote.
The authorities have co-opted many slogans of the national-patriots "because they provide the bureaucracy with a cover of unaccountability" and they allow the Kremlin to push Russia "along its unique historical path" without taking into consideration the democratic norms accepted throughout the developed world, Linkov argued.
At the same time, neither patriotic and statist beliefs nor communist convictions prevent these elites (including the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church) from buying upscale Western gadgetry, luxury cars, and other goods. Patriotism does not prevent many of them from stealing state funds, accepting bribes, or living in extravagant, Western-style mansions. "Our best 'patriots' today are corrupt politicians and officials, the siloviki who are making money through their links with criminals and from the criminals themselves," Linkov charged. These are the same people who keep calling on ordinary Russians to be patient and endure and "to keep believing in Russia's unique path," Linkov wrote.
The bottom line of Linkov's analysis is that only the emergence of fresh political forces can halt the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the current regime in Russia.