Yesterday, Moscovites filled the squares of their capital by the tens of thousands to protest the return of Vladimir Putin to the office of the federation’s president, and Dmitry Medvedev’s appointment as Prime Minister, in what has become a typical, blatant show of disrespect for democracy and its procedures in the post-Soviet system and its former satellites. After two decades of this disrespect, the Russian public is saying enough is enough in a voice that is heard globally.
The response has been typical – arrests of opposition leaders, ransacking of the homes of key figures and the confiscation of literature and money. Russia’s leadership is not necessarily demonstrating any overt commitment to democratic reform, but the problems are well known: vertical and horizontal corruption, an ineffective judiciary bought in the 1990s to make possible the legal creation of appointed ‘businessmen’ through purposefully written loophole laws, and a political umbrella that created a symbiosis state between former agents and communists, organized crime and the appointed money holders. This is, in sum, what the average Russian is protesting against – there is no space for him in this system, political or otherwise. From there we might extrapolate the explanation for why eastern European countries are about as happy as the people of war-torn Afghanistan.
The fronts will look different after Putin and Medvedev, but the systemic actors are not likely to change in the next decade or two. However, the system has to become less overtly corrupt and somewhat more accountable. The first main issue is that the millennial generation must be allowed more access to the machinery of state. Medvedev may have been the first major figure not tied to the Soviet system, but he was firmly checked by Putin and his system of supporters; the result is that he is fully engaged in his now superior’s game of musical political chairs. The second issue is holding at least some of the lesser individuals and groups responsible for making the transition as painful as possible for the average Russian, with consequences that are nothing less than tragic – demographic catastrophe and economic hardship being the prevalent ones. There is no way the biggest fish will be touched, but such a move would nonetheless improve the legitimacy of the regime in power. The final measure would be to raise the wages of public sector employees to curtail corruption at the lowest levels, followed by better pay, on average, for the citizenry – this would be a catalyst for creating some political space for people.
To talk of a Russian Spring is not serious – we are talking about an empire with long-term goals and a nation that is practical to a fault, but which also has expectations of those pulling the strings in the Kremlin. These reforms have to happen if Russia is considering an European future for itself and desires greater regime legitimacy, but they are not essential, and neither are the protests, to the systemic trends governing the country. People don’t want to upset the system – they only want space within it to live respectable lives and for the people who can make it happen to listen. Putin is not that person, because he is a product of another time.