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The Tipping Point


The loyal opposition walks out of the Duma on October 14.

The loyal opposition walks out of the Duma on October 14.

The only surprising thing about the recent regional elections in Russia was the extent of the manipulation and falsification. Everyone knew United Russia would win enough to control everything, but no one expected they would leave so few crumbs even for the loyal “opposition,” including A Just Russia, the Communist Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The theft was so egregious that those three factions walked out of the State Duma today and vowed not to return until they are granted a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev (of course, this isn’t a problem for the Duma, which can continue working just fine because United Russia’s faction is so massive). They still hope that the “Good Tsar” will make everything right, although Medvedev has already stated that the vote gave United Russia the “moral and legal right” to govern.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin’s take on the recent events was published on grani.ru and deserves citation at length:

I have always thought it was important to understand where the line of permissibility lies – how far can one go and how far is too far? Say, you can falsify elections by 20 percent, but not by 80 percent. In Chechnya, you can falsify 100percent, while in Moscow they tried to shift 25 percent and it produced this scandal. It is obvious that the Duma is completely controlled, that everyone in there got there by a Kremlin decision. It is clear that they are ready to wash the authorities’ feet and drink the water. But suddenly, at some tipping point, the drink gets a little too thick, and they begin to get nauseated. The most interesting thing is to catch that moment.

It would seem the authorities thought they could do what they wanted without limit. But in order to do things “without limit,” you have to resort to shooting. Every person has some minimum of self-respect and if there is not the direct threat of death or imprisonment, he will refuse to be taken for an idiot. In this situation, the authorities demanded that they be complete idiots because it is obvious to everyone that the elections were falsified. You don’t even need to prove it – it is obvious to anyone whose eyes are open. And so the day of anger has arrived, the moment of refusal. It had to come because if we develop this model further, the next step is to start building labor camps. Since deputies don’t face that threat, they still have some sense of dignity. This is good. This is a sign the mechanism has stopped, that we still have some living people.

If Medvedev intends to run for a second term, he must either remove [Central Election Commission head Vladimir] Churov, as Putin’s man, and put in his own man, or he must restore honest elections with some risk that he might lose. In any case, he must do something with the election commissions.

I think we are gradually approaching a political crisis and that there is nothing good in this. It could end up with shooting. The mechanism called elections is a political conflict that is regulated by law. Yes, there might be violations, some sort of falsifications, and if they don’t go past certain limits, the elite groups are willing to swallow them. But if they go beyond some limit, it becomes clear that the mechanism isn’t working and intra-elite competition moves outside the scope of regulation by law. And questions are decided either by summoning dangerous people in the middle of the night and shooting them, as happened under Stalin, or by returning and expanding the institute of honest elections. The problem comes when those who are afraid to lose power attempt to maintain it by violence. If that does not happen, then gradually under public pressure it will become necessary to put a respectable person (or respectable people) on the Central Election Commission and begin everything over again. That is democracy. And it doesn’t appear because we really want it to, but because powerful elite groups have no other way of peacefully reaching compromises.

Another interesting point is that the outrage is limited to the political elites. Average Russians seem, once again, to be indifferent to what has happened. Russia does not seem even close to experiencing anything like what we saw in Iran during the summer.

This offers Medvedev a golden opportunity to turn this potential crisis into a grand coup for himself, precisely by taking on the Good Tsar role that the outraged loyal oppositionists in the Duma are offering him. Churov is a political hack who is easily replaced. Even the return of his predecessor, Aleksandr Veshnyakov -- who engineered United Russia’s rise to power nationally and oversaw the managed 2004 reelection of Vladimir Putin, but who was not viewed as strong-handed enough to ensure the post-Putin transition – would be seen as a “victory for democracy” under the current circumstances.

Most likely, the lackeys in the Duma “opposition” that Oreshkin depicts so vividly would be satisfied with that gesture alone. They would be willing to “move forward” and would sweep last weekend’s travesty under the rug.

But Medvedev shouldn’t let them be so docile! He could easily go further and cast the blame – rightly – on the regional leaders who turned the elections into a farce. It has long been rumored that the Kremlin wants to get rid of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov – now it has a “democratic” reason for doing so. People wouldn’t even notice that he replaced Luzhkov with some other pliable figure or that he gave Luzhkov some other government post (ambassador to South Ossetia?). And they’d certainly wouldn’t get around to insisting on restoring gubernatorial elections or making the systemic reforms that Oreshkin calls for.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said the real task of the genuine opposition in Russia is “to shape public opinion about what is happening.” He says that change will come only when the Kremlin sees that a tipping point has been reached for a wider range of the population than just the elites that Oreshkin talks about. If this happens, he says, “the authorities will see that society is changing and it will understand that people might come out into the streets if expectations are formed that there will be normal elections in 2011 or 2012 and if those expectations are dashed.”

Only this kind of pressure can push the authorities – even the “liberal” Medvedev – to embark on real democratization. But it seems like a quixotic hope. RFE/RL’s Russian Service recently produced a video report about the return of a praising reference to Stalin to an inscription in the Kurskaya metro station in Moscow. At the two minute mark of the video, one typical Muscovite sums up the tide that Kasyanov and others are swimming against.

“Why not,” a middle-aged woman in an orange shirt says. “If they think it is necessary, why not? I’m for it.”

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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