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Very Little Hope and Very Little Change

Russia progresses from kleptocracy to tandemocracy.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Around the same time, another news story drew further attention to the dismal state of Russia’s police force. A major on the Krasnodar police force, Alexei Dymovsky, posted two video statements online, one addressed to fellow officers and one to Prime Minister Putin. Dymovsky spoke of rampant corruption, tiny salaries that leave officers little choice but to take bribes, and high-ranking officers getting away with crimes. Shortly after the clips were posted, he was fired from his job and later taken to court for slandering his superiors, a case he lost in March.

Dymovsky’s one-man rebellion, at first publicized only by the opposition press but later picked up by the mainstream media, was seen by some Russian commentators as a sign that political discontent was spreading beyond the intelligentsia. Further hopes were inspired by a protest rally in Kaliningrad that drew 10,000 people in January—a remarkable number for recent years. 

Yet by and large, grass-roots opposition remains impotent, aimless, and scattered. Despite a few local outbreaks of protest—such as demonstrations in a Moscow neighborhood intended to block the demolition of privately owned houses for a commercial development project sponsored by the notoriously corrupt city government—a general apathy still prevails. The national “Day of Anger” called by opposition groups for March 20 was not a complete bust, with an estimated 20,000 or so turning out nationwide, but only in Kaliningrad and Vladivostok did attendance at any individual rally top 1,000. It should be noted that both cities are atypical: Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) is a geographically separate, Western-oriented enclave between Poland and Lithuania, while Vladivostok is a Pacific port city with strong ties to Japan and a local economy that thrives on imports of foreign used cars.

Electoral politics remains even less promising. The evidence of fraud in citywide elections in Moscow last October, where the ruling United Russia party won 32 out of 35 city council seats, was strong enough to prompt a parliamentary walkout even by the tame opposition parties in the Duma—yet elicited hardly a peep of public reaction. In local elections in March, United Russia’s share of the vote in the eight regions where people went to the polls dropped by 6 to 25 percentage points from its share in the 2007 parliamentary elections. Still, the ruling party won most of the races by a comfortable margin, and its most significant loss—in the mayor’s race in Irkutsk—was to a Communist.

With no hope for change from either elections or grass-roots opposition, some Russian liberals have continued to stake their hopes on Medvedev—hopes that the Russian president has occasionally fed. Last November, he caused a stir by releasing an article entitled “Russia, Forward!” which some optimists saw as the start of a decisive break with Putin. The essay, which argued for urgent “modernization” in Russia, appeared on the official presidential website and in several leading newspapers including Izvestia. It was not only a brief for comprehensive reform but, in effect, a scathing indictment of Putin-era policies and the Putinite status quo. Medvedev identified the problems facing Russia as “an inefficient economy, a semi-Soviet social sphere, a weak democracy, negative demographic tendencies, and instability in the Caucasus.” He was particularly critical of continued reliance on oil and gas exports as the principal foundation of the “Putin boom.”

Yet the talk remained just that. Putin’s power as prime minister remained unshaken. Medvedev’s call for a national conversation on modernization that would include critics of the government quickly turned to farce when, a few days later, the Russian president discussed the responses and proposals he had received and singled out the contribution of one Maksim Kalashnikov, an eccentric blogger who identifies himself as both a Stalinist and a Hitler admirer and who, coincidentally (and surreally), has conducted seminars at conventions of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group.

The balance of power between Putin and Medvedev thus remains a subject of constant speculation. In March, when Medvedev’s public call for Russia’s top sports officials to resign in the wake of the Russian team’s dispiriting performance in the Vancouver Winter Olympics went unheeded by Minister of Sports Vitaly Mutko—reportedly a Putin man—this was widely viewed as a sign of Medvedev’s powerlessness. Yet later that month, after the Moscow subway explosions, many saw a political significance in Medvedev’s higher visibility and harsh statements on eradicating the perpetrators.

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