A baby step in the right direction

There are different ways to treat Saturday’s massive protest action in Moscow called to challenge the results of the obviously rigged Dec. 4 Duma elections.  The members and supporters of the United Russia party accused the opposition in “splitting the society with the purpose of weakening the country.”  Irina Yarovay, a member of the United Russia General Council, went as far as to call the demonstration on the Bolotnaya Square a result of the “information aggression” against Russia, launched by the West in order to destabilize the country.  Although using modern terminology (“information aggression,” “psychological manipulation” and such), Yarovaya adheres to the style of the Pravda editorials covering the notorious trials of “the enemies of the people” back in 1937.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if Yarovaya, a former prosecutor, still reads them for inspiration.

Others — and I subscribe myself to this group — consider the Saturday meeting a historic event, perhaps a turning point in Russia’s painful democratic development.

The Kremlin’s initial reaction was to simply ignore the event.  They apparently concluded that by allowing the meeting on the Bolotnay Square to proceed and ordering the police not to interfere, they could close the topic and move on.

This would be a mistake. In play is not only the composition of the next Duma, an important issue of its own; at stake is a level of trust that the citizens of Russia have in their elected representatives.  This is especially relevant given that in less than 3 months, Russia will have the all-important presidential election.  Does anyone in the Kremlin believe that by March 4, the current protest mood will disappear?

From this perspective, President Dmitry Medvedev’s promise to launch an investigation into allegations of election fraud is a step in the right direction.  A few concerns still remain, though.  Sure, no one expected Medvedev to deliver a televised presidential address to the nation from the Kremlin’s Georgian Hall.  Yet, the format of a Facebook message that Medvedev chose as a venue for his announcement does strike me as a bit “casual.”  A short interview with a couple of Kremlin-friendly journalists would have been more appropriate, allowing Medvedev appear both presidential and humane.

Worse, Medvedev didn’t outline the scope, timeline and the deliverables of the investigation.  If all he has in mind is picking up a few carefully selected “irregularities” and sending them to the Magician-in-Chief, the Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov for a “legal” opinion, then Medvedev’s initiative is simply a waste of time.

But the real problem is that Medvedev has an obvious conflict of interest: the election fraud has clearly benefited United Russia, the party whose electoral list Medvedev himself led to the Dec. 4 elections.  If the investigation is associated with Medvedev’s name, few will believe that the president’s goal is to perform his job as the guarantor of the Constitution.  Instead, the perception will be that he’s trying to clean up the mess created by his subordinates.

What Medvedev could — and should! — do is to create an independent commission to investigate the election fraud.  This commission should be composed of prominent public figures, including  members of the protest movement, and individuals with  election monitoring experience.  The commission should be given exceptional authority to subpoena all election officials, beginning with Churov.  Even more importantly, Medvedev should make it clear to everyone that his objective is to get to the bottom of this issue and punish every single official — no matter how highly-ranked — found involved in the violation of  election law.

The creation of such a commission could help Medvedev preserve at least part of his legacy as a liberal member of the disappearing tandem.  And who knows, it may even lay a foundation for the future — if Medvedev will ever reincarnate himself as  presidential material.

Some would argue that simply creating a commission wouldn’t achieve much.  But it would be so fitting for Medvedev’s presidency: a series of baby steps in the right direction.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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23 Responses to A baby step in the right direction

  1. Quetzalcoatl says:

    It looked like more like a refreshing display of free assembly than the riots, chaos, and crumbling of the government that most doom prophets seem to have wanted. I think that is more important than the makeup of the Duma because people want legitimacy of the government. The people who are normal these days outnumber the nationalists, monarchists, communists, and – of course – the neo-liberal vanguard. The Russian stock markets were in a panic the other day because of the threat of this protest. Most of the protesters will be going back to their jobs on Monday.

    • Quetzalcoatl,

      I agree with your point: the protest action was more about fraud than the composition of the Duma itself. And, again, the next Duma elections are 5 years from now, but the presidential election is only 3 months. The public perceptions of two rigged votes in a row might be too much for one single country.

      There was an action planned for today in support of Putin and Medvedev, but as of now, there is no news reports about it. Too early?

      Best,
      Eugene

  2. zed244 says:

    Eugene, you don’t think Medvedev, as an official (especially the President), ” could and should ” not have publicly expressed his personal opinion about the validity of the elections? There were countless more diplomatic ways to say “something” – that is, the ways which would have left him room for maneuver. Now, after the official “endorsement” of the CEC results, I don’t know how he(“they:) think the fraud build up is going to be diffused – in only short 3 months.

    What I do applaud, though, is that finally someone became smart enough not to try to handle the protesters the usual way. Perhaps, this had saved them (the “handlers”) too – for now.

    Cheers

    • Alex,

      I agree: it’s not good to launch an investigation into something that you explicitly approved only couple of days before. That’s why I believe that appointing an INDEPENDENT commission would be a face-saving measure. I, the president, approved the results as presented to me by my subordinate Churov. If there is evidence that this “boyarin” is wrong, let’s investigate. Sounds fine to me:)

      The other thing is that I’m not sure that Medvedev and Putin by themselves clearly understand whats’ going on — things are too unusual to their experience. Medvedev seems to have reacted faster and announced his investigation yesterday. But this morning, already Putin’s spokesman Peskov said that yes, perhaps, there were some “irregularities.” But according to Peskov, they didn’t represent more than 0.5% of the vote and were obviously not game-changing. Still a progress…

      Cheers,
      Eugene

  3. Dear Eugene,

    I unequivocally think the protest on Saturday was a good thing. People came and said what they had to say, the rules agreed with the authorities were followed and the police handled the whole affair professionally and well and were (according to the Daily Telegraph here in London) thanked by many of the protesters for doing so. As I have said elsewhere the disaster would have been if the authorities had panicked and tried to suppress the demonstration and sent in the riot police. That would have been the certain route to enrage and radicalise people and to turn an orderly process into a crisis. If Russia is to evolve towards a stable democratic system, which by the way I am convinced it is doing, then it has to be able to accommodate demonstrations by its young people, which is what the demonstration on Saturday overwhelmingly was. Fortunately the authorities seem to understand this, which is why the demonstration went off as well as it did.

    I ought to add that it does not help matters when people from far away try to interfere and manipulate this process from afar, of which I am afraid there are some signs. I strongly doubt by the way that such an atttempt would succeed. The election outcome with its very clear swing to the left and the strong turnout of young supporters of what are by any definition left wing parties at the protest on Saturday does not suggest to me that Russian opinion is in any way attracted to the sort of agenda some people have in mind. I do not know how these protests are being reported in the US but one of the oddest (though least surprising) features both of the election coverage and of the protests here in Britain is the extent to which the clear swing to the left and in particular the strong vote for the Communists never gets mentioned at all.

    Turning to the subject of the alleged voter fraud, I agree that it should be investigated in an open and transparent way. I do not think that the Kremlin is ignoring the protests. The fact that state television fully covered the protests is surely a sign that the Kremlin is not ignoring them.

    • Dear Alexander,

      I certainly agree with you on the description of Saturday’s protests. They way they were organized shows growing maturity of the Russian opposition.

      Perhaps, I’d take an issue with a popular belief that the election results signify a Left Turn of sorts in Russia’s public mood. Please, remember, that there were two competing points of view on how to treat the Dec. 4 elections. The point of view that eventually prevailed was the one promoted by blogger Alexey Navalny who suggested not to boycott the vote (as Nemtsov did) but rather vote for ANYONE BUT UNITED RUSSIA. So I suspect that the increased vote for the opposition parties (almost uniform for all of them) reflects this approach, rather than sudden affection for the Communists.

      However, the larger point is that the demonstration brought together people of vastly different political views (and those without) joined by one overriding sentiment: enough is enough. So, if some folks in the US consider this even as a sudden rise of “pro-Western democrats” in Russia, they are wrong. Surprise!

      To say that the Kremlin is not ignoring the protests is a big understatement. The Kremlin is very concerned and, as I see it, doesn’t know what to do. That’s why this slow response.

      Best,
      Eugene

      • Dear Eugene,

        I am not sure I agree with you on the question of the voting. Russia has a pure proportional representation system and there were parties on the ballot paper that represented a pretty broad range of views. Let us take an example of a right wing voter in say Voronezh who wants to vote against United Russia vote for the Communists of for Fair Russia rather than say Yabloko?

        Incidentally it doesn’t seem to that the increase in the vote between the various opposition parties was evenly distributed. Of the three parliamentary parties the Communists increased their vote by about three quarters as did Fair Russia. The rise in support for Zhirinovsky’s party was significantly less and since it has reached roughly the same level that it had in 2003 I suspect that it has hit a ceiling. Yabloko doubled its vote but from a very small base and is still polling far below what it was getting in the 1990s. I suspect the rise in its vote by the way was due in part to the extent to which it succeeded in uniting the liberal electorate and also to the fact that it was headed in this election by Yavlinsky who of all the liberal politicians of the 1990s once the one who came out of that unhappy decade with honour.

        This leads me by the way to one person who I think has an entirely bad effect on the political scene in Russia and that is Surkov. His latest idea since the election is to create a liberal party on the right and now we have Prokhorov declaring himself a candidate for the Presidency and Kudrin talking about leading such a party. Why create what already exists? Yabloko has shown in the election that it is a fully viable party and that liberal opinion supports it. In Yavlinsky it has a leader who is a loyal and responsible man. The liberal constituency is too small to accommodate lots of parties and by doing what he is doing Surkov threatens to fragment it. Artifically fabricating parties is a horrible idea, which only fosters doubt about which is a real party and which is not. If Medvedev is really interested in developing a stable political system he should sack him.

        • Dear Eugene,

          Sorry I have an eyesight problem which means I sometimes stumble when I write. My first paragraph was unclear. My point was thatsince Russia has a pure proportional representation system I cannot not see why a right wing inclined voter in Voronezh who wants to vote against United Russia needs to vote for the Communists or for Fair Russia when he can vote for Yabloko.

          • Dear Alexander,

            Let me respond to both of your comments here.

            I’m afraid I’d have to disagree with your description of Yabloko. Sure, it can be called “democratic” and even “liberal” for as long as it supports liberalization of the political system in Russia. But calling it “right wing” is an overstretch. It’s a center-left, perhaps, the only bona fide social-democratic party in Russia. Are you aware of the fact that Yabloko still refuses to recognize the results of the privatization of the 90s — calling them a “robbery” — and demands their revision in some or other form? This spat over privatization was the major reason why Yabloko refused to merge with the only real “right wing” party in modern Russian history: the Union of Right Forces (SPS).

            So, I see no reason for a right wing inclined voter in Voronezh — or anywhere else — to vote for Yabloko: it’s not their party.

            And then, there is a practical aspect. If I’m to faithfully follow the “Navalny approach” — i.e. vote for ANYONE BUT UNITED RUSSIA — why would I waste my vote on Yabloko who had no chances to get into Duma? Obviously, I’d vote for the KPRF and JR. That’s why the two got the additional vote, IMO.

            I certainly agree with you on Surkov. But I’d go even further and dismantle the whole Department of Domestic Politics in the presidential administration. It’s not the Kremlin’s business to decide what the political parties — in essence, unions of private citizens — should or should not do.

            Yes, Prokhorov might be a serious development. As for Kudrin, I have my doubts about him, and his yesterday’s interview with Vedomosti left enough questions unanswered.

            Best,
            Eugene

            • Dear Eugene,

              I should say that I totally accept your account of Yabloko. Yavlinsky always struck me as an honourable and very decent man and I well remember the brave stand he took in opposition throughout the 1990s. In my opinion Yabloko’s success in this election reflects the respect many hold him in. I should say that I am also not blind to his limitations. I still have memories of him turning up during the crisis elections of 1993 to speak to the coalminers in I think Vorkuta to deliver to them a well reasoned and elegant academic lecture explaining why capitalism was to be preferred to socialism because it was less exploitative!

              My point however was slightly different. It was that anyone wanting to vote against United Russia in this election had a fairly wide range of parties to vote for. There were seven parties on the ballot paper, which whilst they might not cover the full range of political views (in what country do they do?) at least offers a choice. Given this choice why should someone who holds liberal views in Voronezh vote for parties that call themselves Communist or Socialist when he or she can vote for parties that are well to the right of those left wing parties? Surely such a voter who wants to register a protest vote would instead rather vote for Yabloko or even Right Cause, which are parties that represent or which purport to represent views much closer to his or her own?

              There is by the way an article in today’s Financial Times by John Lloyd (I am afraid I am not good with links and it’s also behind a pay wall), which in my opinion falls into what I think is the same trap. It mentions that the Communists recently won the student union elections at Moscow State University (Yabloko came second and United Russia apparently a distant third) and then embarks on what seemed to me a somewhat tortuous explanation of why the students did not really mean to vote for whom they had voted for.

              Lastly I would say that from what I have heard Navalny was not so much calling on people to vote for anyone except United Russia (a call which as I have said in view of Russia’s electoral system seems to me to make little sense) but rather to spoil their ballots in protest against the whole election process.

              • Dear Eugene,

                Apologies again but I had not managed to read your point fully again because of my eyesight problem. You have as I see fully addressed my point but in a way that if you will forgive me for saying so seems to me rather to beg the question. Firstly if a liberal voter is deterred from voting for Yabloko or for Right Cause because there is no prospect of those parties getting into the parliament it does not speak well for the level of support of these parties, which surely can only mean that there is not much support at any rate at the present time for what they represent. Also why would a voter intent on registering a protest vote be making such calculations at all? Surely such a voter is less concerned with the make up of the Duma (about which he or she is probably pretty cynical anyway) than in reducing United Russia’s share of the vote, which he or she can achieve by voting for any one of the oppositon parties?

                On Surkov and on the Department of Domestic Politics we completely agree.

                • Dear Alexandre,

                  One more brief point: in the past, Russian ballots had an “Against all” option — very popular, by the way — which was eliminated in 2006. There was even a joke that the party “Against All” was the second largest party in Russia after UR.

                  After elimination of this option, the protest vote was going nowhere, because people voting “against” were said to have stop going to the elections at all. I think that the election results we’re discussing could be interpreted to mean that a large number of these people showed up on Dec. 4 and voted “against” again. Against UR. How precisely this vote was distributed, is, perhaps, a secondary question.

                  Best,
                  Eugene

              • Dear Alexander,

                To your last point, read this excellent July 31 post at “A Good Treaty:”

                http://www.agoodtreaty.com/2011/07/31/a-house-divided/

                It describes not only Navalny’s position, but some other options proposed in the past.

                Best,
                Eugene

  4. Dear Eugene,

    I have just read on Itar Tass that the allegations of voter fraud are to be investigated by something called the Special Investigative Committee, which is headed by someone called Bastrykhin. Have you any idea what and who that is?

    PS: I am not convinced that the elections in Moscow were “obviously rigged” though I realise that many people think otherwise. I have already discussed this at length in so many places that you will forgive me if (today!) I pass up the opportunity to do so again. However whether there has been fraud or not the important thing is for the allegations to be investigated openly and properly.

  5. Giuseppe Flavio says:

    @Alexander and Eugene
    Re. Surkov supposed idea of engineering another liberal party, I read this on RIA Novosti
    Asked by a popular radio host Sergei Minayev about what the Russian political system lacks, the first deputy head of the Russian presidential administration replied: “A popular liberal party. Or, rather, a party of disgruntled urban communities.”
    To me it looks like he simply answered a question, not that he is going to create anything. Had he answered that the political system doesn’t lack anything, then you could have said “Surkov will stop the creation of any new party”, had he answered “a modern communist party” then you could have said “Surkov wants to create another communist party” and so on. Even if he had refused to answer, something sinister could had been said about his machinations. In other words, I think that Surkov’s importance and ill-intentions are overblown and that he is the easy scapegoat of every liberal (in the Russian sense) failure. And there is no shortage of such failures. Moreover, if he really wanted to create a new liberal party in order to further fracture the already fractured and quarrelsome liberal area, all he needs to do is to keep silent and get PARNASS registered.

    • Giuseppe,

      Thank you for your comment. Surkov reminds me of a man who killed his dog and then complained that he had no one to go hunting with…

      But, as I heard, some folks in Russia, including those in UR, now blame Surkov for what he’d done to the Right Cause/Prokhorov — depriving, as a result, UR of a potential ally at the right flank of the Duma.

      I too tend not to overblow Surkov’s importance, especially his importance as the supposed ideologue of the regime. However, his damage to the Russian political life is real and extensive. I can’t care less about PARNAS and other “liberals,” but he interferes in the affairs of every single political party.

      Do you remember that a year ago, Surkov predicted that UR would lose its constitutional majority this December? What a shiny crystal ball the guy has! I strongly suspect — although obviously can’t present any evidence in support — that the precise numbers for the percentage of the vote and the future composition of the Duma were proposed by Surkov. Churov was simply charged with “executing” the plan.

      Best,
      Eugene

      • Alex says:

        Enjoyable reading about Surkov (I did not know about his ethnicity..)
        http://parfenov-l.livejournal.com/40617.html

        • I like his work for Khodorkovsky…Surkov is someone who here in the US would be called “well-rounded person.”

          Alex, again, my apology for the stalled comment. Will try to avoid in the future…

          Cheers,
          Eugene

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        Thanks for your answer,
        Do you remember that a year ago…
        I didn’t remember it from a year ago, I read about it recently on one of A Good Treaty post. IMHO, you are once again exaggerating Surkov’s importance and evil deeds. He just made a prediction that wasn’t so strange or unexpected to begin with. Besides, already a year ago, along with that prediction he said that Russia lacks a viable political party, see here (note: it looks like a machine translation).

  6. Dear Eugene,

    Thank you first of all for correcting me on the subject of Navalny. Having said this i still feel that it does not address the fundamental question of why a voter with liberal views who wants to punish United Russia should vote Communist or SR when he has more conservative parties such as Yabloko and even Right Cause to choose from. It seems to me that where elections show a clear and very strong (in fact extremely strong) swing to the left, which is also mirrored in local and even student union elections and which finds reflection in opinion polls, then there is no reason to doubt its existence. Perhaps I should make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that the Russian electorate is in the grip of some sort of neo Bolshevik zeal. Rather it is that Russia is maturing as a society after a lengthy period of crisis and that we should see both the election result and the subsequent protests as symptoms of this and of the fact that the political scene is both alive and starting to settle down. As always I appear to take a more optimistic view than you.

    Dear Giuseppe,

    On the subject of Surkov, I view him not as the kind of sinister Mazarin figure that both he and many others appear to think but rather as a kind of political Dr. Frankenstein whose experiments end up blowing up in his face but who in the process causes real damage to the whole political process. He seems to have expended a huge amount of time and energy this year trying to create a right wing liberal party in the form of Right Cause only to see the whole venture end in total failure. Now he is trying all over again. I suspect that to the extent that he is successful all he will do is fragment a liberal constituency, which the elections suggest is quite small but which is healthily starting to coalesce around Yabloko, a party that he opposes because he has had no part in creating it. and which from his perspective is probably too left wing. In the meantime his activities foster an unhealthy atmosphere of cynicism and suspicion. Unlike Eugene I do not believe that Surkov was responsible for United Russia’s loss of its constitutional majority. To the extent that Surkov has “a crystal ball” I must share it because I anticipated the same result myself. The effect of Surkov’s activities is however that moderate and level headed people like Eugene have reason to think otherwise. How is that good for Russia?

    • Giuseppe Flavio says:

      Dear Alexander,
      I agree with you about the left swing of the Russian electorate. The main reason is the success of Fair Russia that surpassed the LDPR, which used a right-wing rethoric this time. Also, Fair Russia is seen as the closest party to the Kremlin, besides UR, so the “anything but UR” would have hardly worked in their favour.
      My problem with Surkov, or better with his image as a political Dr. Frankenstein, is that while everyone seems to be certain that he actually is such an evil manipulator, I’ve not seen any evidence, or even a serious hint. Prokhorov blamed him for being kicked out of Right Cause, but what I’ve read about this troubled affair is different. Prokhorov behaved as the owner of Right Cause rather then the leader, Berlusconi-style, but unlike Berlusconi he wasn’t the owner and was kicked out.
      I’ve read few things by him, and mostly were machine translations from Russian. To me he looks like an average political analyst. Anyway, if there is some serious suggestion that he is actually so damaging to the politics of Russia, I’d gladly consider it and eventually change my mind.

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