Global Viewpoint

Professor Richard Tempest on the protests in Russia

Matt VanderZalm
1/2/2012  8:00 am

Richard Tempest is the director of the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, where he was acting head in 2006–07 and 2000–02. His research interests lie in the area of Russian culture, history, and politics and their intersection with disciplines such as the history of religion, cultural theory, and the semiotics of the body. He also writes on Bulgarian history and culture. Here he discusses the recent protests in Russia regarding parliamentary elections in early December and Vladimir Putin’s presumed return to the Russian presidency.

Tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest what they consider the rigging of the December 4 parliamentary elections. What evidence do they suggest exemplifies this claim?

Video evidence, much of it posted on the Internet, showing the stuffing of ballot boxes and other violations. There are also numerous eyewitness accounts which, again, are available online. Just check out YouTube. Beyond this, there is also the sense, confirmed by independently conducted opinion surveys, that the election results for the ruling party, United Russia, were implausibly high in Moscow and St. Petersburg, known opposition strongholds.

Putin is yet again running for the Russian Presidency. How do the protests possibly undermine Putin’s bid to again become President? What do you think is the likelihood that Putin is reelected? How popular is Putin in Russia?

Right now, Prime Minister Putin’s victory in the first round, that is, with more that 50% of the votes cast, looks unlikely. His party, United Russia, was unable to reach that level of support in the December 3, 2011 parliamentary election, despite widely reported violations designed to favor its electoral chances. Yet failure to win outright in round one would be a major blow to Putin’s standing in the country and, perhaps more importantly, among the governing elites, and thus another pointer to a decline in his political fortunes. On the other hand, any perception that his first-round performance was boosted by underhand or dishonest means would create more anger among opposition supporters, particularly in the big cities. Should a second round of voting be necessary, Putin would face a single opponent, possibly the communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, around whom the opposition electorate might then coalesce. However, Zyuganov, a holdover from the 1990s, is a flabby apparatchik with no charisma whose party has offered tacit support to the Putin-Medvedev governments for years. Be that as it may, a purely electoral calculus would suggest that as things stand, Putin should be able to win the presidential election, even with his diminished level of support. As for his popularity with voters, recent opinion polls indicate an approval rating in the mid-40s. Looking at the big picture, one can say that since September 2011 the prime minister has been losing — and perhaps has already lost — what the Chinese call “the mandate of heaven.”

The protests in Moscow and around Russia have been compared to those in the Middle East during the so-called “Arab Spring.” Could protests in Russia lead to the type of change presumed for Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et. al.?

In themselves, no. The government still enjoys widespread support, particularly in the provinces, and major political and financial players among the elites continue to back Putin. The Medvedev-Putin administration has extensive security resources that still function, and the institutions of government still obey it. Street demonstrations in a square in downtown Moscow, even if they bring together tens of thousands of opposition supporters, will not result in a collapse of the government. Also, Putin is not a dictator per se, but rather an essential mediator or interlocutor for the power groups that run the country in a semi-authoritarian fashion. He is a trusted intermediary among political and security clans that, were he not there, might fall out among themselves and engage in internecine warfare, as happened regularly in the 1990s. It almost happened in 2007 as well, when Putin’s second presidential term was nearing its end. Powerful players in the upper echelons of the regime were unsure who was going to take over and began maneuvering for advantage, even placing each other’s clients under arrest.

One plausible scenario is the Egyptian one, where in response to mass demonstrations the powers-that-be remove the country’s strongman from office and try to take control of the political transition. But for that to happen, the current political crisis in Russia would have to develop much further.

What is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev role in the current and future Russian government? Is there really any less of an indication that Putin has essentially circumvented the Russian Constitution by installing a puppet to bridge his presidencies, or is Putin really brazen enough to be so transparent?

Unlike Putin, who is a big-picture leader bored by the minutiae of government, Medvedev is a competent technocrat, though a clunky politician. He advocates the modernization of the economy and has a reputation as a reformer, though he does not have many concrete achievements on either front. “Brazen” is a good word to describe Putin’s actions since September 24, 2011, when the Putin/Medvedev presidential “swap” was announced. Lack of competition can blunt one’s political skills, countries and electorates change, and so Putin’s populist, bare-chested appeal suddenly looks old. His recent Botox, which made him look like an onion, didn’t help. Actually, this is an important point. In authoritarian systems the ruler’s body is the cynosure of all eyes, it embodies the regime, and by the same token (the same torso), when things go wrong, his appearance can become the focus of popular resentment. Since the parliamentary elections, Russia’s prime minister has been reacting to events, rather than setting the political agenda, which is a new experience for him. A large segment of the country has moved on, and he is scrambling to catch up. As for the constitutional issue, the presidential “swap” is technically legal, subject to endorsement by the electorate, which was always the plan. Putin made a mistake, however, in being so nonchalantly — brazenly — open about it: he took it as a given that this next iteration of the regime would be passively accepted by the country, just like the earlier ones. He was wrong.