A Kremlin-friendly political scientist Dmitry Orlov recently argued that “Russia had cured herself from the protest virus.” Had Orlov taken part in a literary competition, he could have won a prize in the category of wishful thinking.
The “protest virus” isn’t going anywhere; it has already become part of Russia’s social DNA. It’s the symptoms of the “infection” that are evolving: from the acute form of street protests to the chronic expression of public discontent in local elections and social media. Besides, it is spreading, moving from Moscow to the regions. There is little doubt that the episodes of the “protest fervor” that took place in Tolyatti, Yaroslavl and Astrakhan will be regularly reproduced all across the country.
So far, the regime has shown certain clumsiness in adjusting to the new reality. The first reaction was a sincere surprise at the very existence of the protest movement; that rapidly morphed into attempts to denigrate and insult the protesters. Then the authorities decided to “match” the protest actions with a showcase of massive public support of their own. Finally, having realized that a stronger medicine was needed, the Kremlin decided to re-adjust the tools it utilized in the past to control the political process. A new law on political party registration has been hastily adopted; a law on direct election of regional governors is next.
At the moment, the regime’s biggest headache is the situation in Astrakhan, where the “spravoross” Oleg Shein went on hunger strike after refusing to accept the results of the mayoral election, which he allegedly lost. Used to deal with people predominantly occupied with their material well-being, the Kremlin appears to be completely at loss over what to do with a fellow seemingly ready to become a modern day Jesus Christ. It might have already dawned upon the Kremlin that should something bad happen to Shein, this is likely to coincide with, or to be perilously close to, the date of Putin’s inauguration.
The Shein controversy suggests that Russia lacks mechanisms of crisis management in the public sphere. The country’s all-powerful executive treats any concession to the citizens as a sign of weakness. The representative organs – the Duma and the regional parliaments – are representative in the name only, with the perennial falsification of election results at all levels only exacerbating the situation. The judicial system, while making progress in resolving disputes between private parties, becomes utterly impotent when it comes to protecting legal rights of the citizens – or even politicians like Shein — against the powers-that-be. Even the Church that in many countries regularly assumes crisis management functions is considered by many Russians as yet another branch of government.
A Crisis Management Agency of sorts – that Russia seems to sorely need — could be formed based on the Public Chamber, a bizarre institution whose raison-d’être was unclear at the time of its creation in 2005 and has remained such ever since. Many Russians are unlikely to even know that the Public Chamber exists, and the majority of those who do would have trouble to explain what the Public Chamber’s role is. On the other hand, due to its low profile, the Public Chamber doesn’t carry the negative baggage associated with other state institutions.
The core of the agency could be formed by members of the Public Chamber, with a number of affiliated members – chosen, perhaps, by a popular on-line vote — added to it. Additional individuals could be incorporated ad hoc if requested by interested parties. The rules of the engagement would have to be established, but it seems obvious that should two parties ask the agency to intervene, they must promise to accept the agency’s recommendations.
Of course, no single solution is available to solve multiple problems facing the country. But the worst the Kremlin can do is to listen to political virologists claiming that the problems don’t ever exist.