December 09, 2011

Moscow Spring?

Moscow Spring?

Quite often, Russian reality is best illuminated with a joke.

A couple of journalists are quizzing a candidate:

“Why do you want to get elected?”

“Just look what is going on in the corridors of power: officials are awash in debauchery, theft, corruption!”

“So you want to fight this?”

“Get serious,” the candidate replies, “I want to join in!”

In Russia’s recent elections, the Kremlin’s puppet party, United Russia, polled 49% of the popular vote, on a turnout of 60%. This means that less than 30% of Russia’s eligible voters are in favor of the status quo. More Russians did not vote at all than voted for United Russia.

“I didn’t vote,” one old friend in Moscow told me. “It would have been senseless.” This is the same friend who, in his 20s, went to the barricades to protest the 1991 coup attempt. “I’m too old for the barricades,” he said. “At our age, I’ll just take quiet and normal.”

But his pensioner parents did vote, and they, like a lot of Russians, voted Communist. Not out of any affinity for their platform, but as a protest vote, as a way to “sober up” the party in power.

Russians are fed up with corruption, with the growing gap between rich and poor – which now yawns wider in Russia than anywhere else in Europe.

“I think Russians felt a need to shake these guys up,” my friend said. “In many ways, this was a sobering election.”

A telling analogy in a country where the favored drink is vodka straight up, no ice.

Since the last Duma election in 2007, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has lost 15 million votes. In many regions, they lost half the votes they polled just four years ago. Most of these were picked up by the Communist Party – the only party whose growth can send a signal to the Powers That Be.

And that signal is hitting home. The Kremlin is summoning governors to Moscow, vowing the dismissal of loyalists who did not deliver the votes. Yet, the buck stops at the top, and the head of United Russia’s ticket in this election was none other than President Dmitry Medvedev.

This election’s clear message was that Russians are tired of the Putin-Medvedev power-sharing tandem; it is an embarrassing symbol of a rigged political system.

Now, Putin could definitely shake things up before his March 2012 re-re-election by booting out his loyal sidekick. But that hardly seems likely. After all, loyalty is the coin of the realm in Russia’s constitutional oligarchy, and Medvedev has been a very loyal sycophant.

Meanwhile, responding to widespread proof of voter fraud, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has called for a revote. “More and more people are starting to believe that the election results are not fair," Gorbachev said. "I believe that ignoring public opinion discredits the authorities and destabilizes the situation."

This from the former head of the USSR – a regime that regularly and systematically held sham elections to rubber-stamp legislatures.

Surely Gorby was joking.

[This commentary was originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio on December 9, 2011. Listen to it here.]

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