All the meticulous plotting to avoid Ukraine’s Orange Revolution
resulted in -- Russia’s very own coloured one. But Russia is not
Ukraine, discovers Eric Walberg
Russia’s electoral scene has been transformed in the past two months,
without a doubt inspired by the political winds from the Middle East and
the earlier colour revolutions in Russia’s “near abroad”. Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin’s casual return to the presidential scene was
greeted as an effrontery by an electorate who want to move on from
Russia’s political strongman tradition, and to inject the electoral
process with ballot-box accountability.
Putin’s legendary role in rescuing Russia from the economic abyss in the
1990s, staring down the oligarchs, reasserting state control over
Russian resource wealth, and repositioning Russia as an independent
player in Eurasia (not to mention in America’s backyard) -- these signal
accomplishments assure him a place in history books. He and Dmitri
Medvedev are considered the most popular leaders in the past century
according to a recent VTsIOM opinion poll (Leonid Brezhnev comes next,
followed by Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, with Mikhail Gorbachev and
Boris Yelstin the least popular). He will very likely pass the 50 per
cent mark in presidential elections 4 March, despite all the protests
during the past two months calling for “Russia without Putin”. So why is
he back in the ring?
It appears he was caught by surprise when the anti-Putin campaign
exploded in November, fuelled by his decision to run again and the
exposure of not a little fraud in the parliamentary elections in
December. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
opposition was able to unite and stage impressive rallies, one after
another. Despite the chilling Russian winter, they keep coming -- this
week saw four gathering around Moscow, totalling 130,000.
The opposition poster children even include Putin’s minister of finance
Alexei Kudrin. Presidential hopefuls are Communist leader Gennadi
Zyuganov (backed for the first time by the independent left forces),
nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, A Just Russia’s Sergey Mironov and the
oligarch playboy Mikhail Prokhorov -- none of whom stand a chance of
defeating Putin. This time there are 25 televised debates which began 6
February among the contenders, who are sparring with each other and
Is this quixotic march back to the Kremlin heights a case of egomania?
Or is it a noble attempt to both cast in stone Russia as the Eurasian
counterweight to an increasingly aggressive US/NATO, and shaking up the
domestic political scene to make sure it will not slump into apathy when
he himself passes the torch? And if things go wrong, is this Russia’s
very own White Revolution, long feared by the Russian elite, and long
coveted by Western intriguers?
Russian politics has always confounded Western observers, and continues
to do so. Putin is famously imperious and gets away with it. He taunted
the opposition by saying he thought the original demonstrations were
part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that the white ribbons were condoms. But
he nonetheless sanctioned the largest political opposition rallies in
the past 20 years.
US democracy-promotion NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy
-- a key player in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution -- are active in
Russia’s opposition, but Putin is clearly gambling that Russians can see
past US efforts to manipulate them. Besides, the winners in the Duma
elections were the Communists and nationalists, with pro-Western
liberals placing a distant fourth -- hardly the results NEDers would
He is also famously willing to tell US politicians they wear no clothes
-- the latest, last week in Siberia: “Sometimes I get the impression the
US doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals.” Russian foreign policy is
now firmly anti-NATO, both with respect to the West’s misguided missile
system and its eagerness to turn Syria into a killing fields. Rumours
that a Russian Iran-for-Syria deal with the West have proved empty.
There are even hints that Iran may still get its defensive S-300
missiles from Russia in exchange for Russian access to the downed US
drone. Iran claims to have four already and recently announced they have
developed their own domestic version.
Pro-Putin rallies are almost as large as the opposition’s, with an
official count of 140,000 attendees at the festive gathering Saturday.
The Putinistas even bill theirs as the Anti-Orange rally. “We say no to
the destruction of Russia. We say no to Orange arrogance. We say no to
the American government…let’s take out the Orange trash,” political
analyst Sergei Kurginyan exhorted at Moscow’s Poklonnaya Gora war
memorial park. Putin thanked organisers, commenting modestly, “I share
The real reason for Putin’s return is due to the failure during his
first two terms of his “sovereign democracy” to limit corruption in
post-Soviet Russia. Instead, of producing a modernising authoritarianism
along the lines of post-war South Korea, Putin’s rule deepened
corruption -- the bane of late Soviet and early post-Soviet society.
Instead of trading political freedom for effective governance, he
clipped Russians’ civil and political rights without delivering on this
vital promise. Neither did he end collusion between the state and the
oligarchs. That was the handle that badboy Alexei Navalni used to
catalyse the opposition around his slogan that United Russia is the
“party of swindlers and thieves”.
This was the scene in the 2000s in Ukraine, where it was possible for
the NEDers to undermine the much weaker Ukrainian state and install the
Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. However, instead of
addressing the problems that led to the Orange Revolution, Putin
focussed on foreign threats to Russian political stability rather than
paying attention to domestic factors, creating patriotic youth
organisations such as Nashi (Ours) and the 4 November Day of Unity
holiday – the latter quickly hijacked by Russia’s nationalists.
But Russian fears of Western interference are hardly naïve. Russia was
sucked into the horrendous WWI by the British empire, suffered
devastating invasions in 1919 and 1941, and another half century of the
West’s Cold War against it. Further dismemberment of the Russian
Federation is indeed a Western goal, which would benefit no one but a
tiny comprador elite, Western multinationals and the Pentagon.
Putin’s statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might
not be such a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of
the West. His new Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible
political governance across the continent. It may not be what the NED
has in mind, but it would be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to
mention China’s beleaguered Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards
disintegration and weakness, but towards integration and mutual
security, without any need for US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda.
The union will surely eventually include the mother of colour
revolutions, Ukraine, where citizens still yearn for open borders with
Russia and closer economic integration. The days of dreaming about the
other EU’s Elysian Fields are over. The hard, cold reality today has
bleached the colour revolutions, making white the appropriate colour for
Russia’s version of political change.
Of course, the big problem -- corruption -- is what will make or break
Putin’s third term as president. At the Russia 2012 Investment Forum in
Moscow last week, Putin outlined plans to move Russia up to 20th spot
from its current 120th in the World Bank index of investment
attractiveness, by reducing bureaucracy and the associated bribery.
“These measures are not enough. I believe that society must actively
participate in the establishment of an anti-corruption agenda,” he
vowed. Reforming the legal system and expanding the reach of democracy
will be key to fighting corruption, not just via presidential decrees,
but through empowering elected officials and voters. He confirmed this
in his fourth major pre-election address this week by promising to
provide better government services by decentralizing power from the
federal level to municipalities and relying on the Internet.
So far things look good. For the first time since 1995 there will be a
hotly contested transparently monitored presidential election, with the
distinct possibility of a runoff (unless the new US Ambassador Michael
McFaul keeps inviting NED darlings to Spaso House). The sort-of
presidential debates, large-scale opposition rallies and the new
independent League of Voters intending to ensure clean elections are a
fine precedent, making sure that this time and in the future there will
be an opportunity for genuine debate about Russia’s future.
Despite all attempts to forestall Russia’s colour revolution, it has
begun -- Russian-style -- with no state collapse, but with a new
articulate electorate, wise to both Kremlin politologists and Western
NGOlogists. Its final destination is impossible for anyone to predict at