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Voices In The Wilderness

Reform of the social-benefits program brought hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets in 2005.
Reform of the social-benefits program brought hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets in 2005.

The protests by drivers opposed to a plan to hike duties for imported used cars that were held in 25 cities over the weekend came as something of a surprise. After all, opposition calls for demonstrations against the Kremlin's monopoly of the political system or the national media in recent years have met with almost no response in Moscow and St. Petersburg and with stony silence from the rest of the country. The 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya hardly made a ripple.

But bread-and-butter issues have greater resonance (and not just in Russia, of course). And there are indications that the number of bread-and-butter issues -- inflation, unemployment, utility-rates hikes, officers released from service because of military reform, etc. -- that Russians might become peeved about is on the rise as the economic crisis unfolds. Writing in today's "The Moscow Times," economist Yevgeny Gontmakher noted that Russia has about 700 single-employer cities that could be devastated if the main factory slows down or shuts down. He also spoke about unemployment issues in a December 11 interview with RFE/RL.

(Gontmakher wrote about the company cities in an infamous article in "Vedomosti" in November. The paper received a friendly warning from the government hinting that the article might be considered "excitement to extremism." In today's piece, Gontmakher reveals that he also received a personal call from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's office thanking him for the article, saying it was "a timely warning" and that "the government would be using the information as part of its crisis-management planning." The Russian eagle rears its heads again.)

While thinking about the automobile protests for an article I wrote yesterday, I came across a piece on by analyst Andrei Kolesnikov, who argued that the tensions behind the protests were exacerbated by the shortcomings of the Putinist political system: "The culture of feedback has been lost and the democratic institutions created especially [to allow feedback] have been profaned." The current authorities, he argues, "are unable to hear signals, either weak or strong." The government's reaction to Gontmakher's "Vedomosti" article seems to illustrate Kolesnikov's point.

When local lawmakers in Vladivostok backed the protesters' position on the automobile-import duties, some observers saw it as a rare example of Russian politicians bowing to the will of average citizens. Maybe. But Vladivostok is a profoundly corrupt city, and the industry around importing cars from Japan and South Korea is big business there. Lawmakers probably have many reasons to back the protesters. But the Kremlin is sure to recognize the danger of giving in to the demands of this small protest (about 5,000 people in Vladivostok). In a country with mounting social tensions and economic problems, with a stage-managed political system and a tongue-tied media, the last thing the authorities will want to do is send the signal that the "feedback mechanism" of mass unrest is a good way of getting a message to Moscow.

One of the feedback institutions that has been "profaned" is the practice of district representation in the national and regional legislatures. Before the current Duma, half of all deputies were elected from single-mandate districts and most regional legislatures followed this pattern. In 2006, the single-mandate districts were eliminated, and now all legislatures comprise party-list candidates. Voters vote for parties, not people; and deputies owe their loyalty to the party (which decides whether they appear on the list or not), not the people. The system also has the nice (from the Kremlin's point of view) side effect of preventing popular, charismatic politicians from developing their own constituencies and following an independent political trajectory -- like a community organizer from a heartland city becoming a local legislator, then a national lawmaker, then president of the country.

Now, the old system, of course, was corrupted and abused, which is why the Kremlin met with no resistance in dismantling it. But I remember plenty of stories of Russians -- back in the pre-cynical 1990s -- approaching their local Duma deputies (sending signals, to use Kolesnikov's term) on numerous local issues and actually getting responses. Friends of mine in St. Petersburg succeeded in getting a Duma deputy to intervene when some local bureaucrat tried to have the 100-year-old trees on a city boulevard cut down so that some relative or crony could open an ad hoc parking lot on the strip (such parking lots were virtually a license to print money back then). The deputy is probably now in Unified Russia and the local bureaucrat is fat and rich, but the trees are still there.

Duma deputies back then were often pleased to boost their reelection prospects by slapping down local bureaucrats. Sometimes they were even willing to go against their parties and many, of course, weren't affiliated with parties at all. I know the mere phrase "single-mandate district" is enough to make people roll their eyes, but it is a term I wouldn't mind reading more often. I'm heartened to see that returning direct representation in parliament is one of the first and most basic demands of the new Solidarity opposition movement.

Not satisfied with merely taking the representation out of representative democracy, the authorities are now, of course, in the process of extending terms for the president and Duma deputies. Not only will voters not be able to vote for actual people, now they will have even fewer opportunities to change their minds about which party they support. In addition, as election-systems expert Grigory Golosov (with a name like Golosov, what else could he be?) wrote on today, the authorities have in most regions established the most big-party-friendly system for allocating party-list seats in regional legislatures possible. Nine regions will hold legislative elections in March and six of them will use the so-called Imperiali divisors to make sure that Unified Russia gets even more seats than the results of the crooked elections would otherwise have given them.

Why? As Golosov says, "the Russian authorities are terrified of one thing -- uncertainty. And so they are doing everything to reduce it to a minimum -- canceling elections, extending the terms for the president and [raising the percentage of votes needed to get legislative seats], and silencing any facts that might arouse the citizenry."

"The authorities are so afraid of elections, strive so maniacally to reduce them to fiction, are trying to hold them as rarely as possible, because elections are -- as one scholar has said -- institutionalized uncertainty," Golosov writes. And fear of that uncertainty has led them to bring Russia to the brink of a much greater, wildly uninstitutionalized uncertainty.

-- 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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