An Arab Lesson for the Russian Government
BUCHAREST— Given the normal electoral model in Russia — where voting is generally not as important as how the votes are counted — last weekend’s elections were not out of the ordinary. The manipulation of elections is an intrinsic part of Russian history, and it has usually bothered only a few zealous and diligent activists. It is no wonder, then, that the ongoing protests have come as a surprise to the Kremlin. What is really extraordinary is how deaf Russia’s leaders have been to history’s recent lessons. The Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions offer considerable material on how nondemocratic governments should approach elections, yet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev seem not to have studied for this test. Earlier this year, people took to the streets in several Russian cities, as in many other cities around the world, in response to economic hardships.
But the grievances of Russian protesters did not resemble those heard in London or Berlin. Instead they mirrored those in Cairo and Tunis, with people demanding civil rights and freedoms in addition to jobs and pensions. Their discontents were felt in regional elections, where Putin’s United Russia performed poorly. The Kremlin failed to respond to this show of public dissatisfaction and Putin’s plans to return to the presidency only further alienated the public. Subsequent protests have become more vocal and widespread. The cultural elite, usually an ally of those in power, put up a silent and largely unnoticed protest by refusing to promote United Russia, as is otherwise customary. Images of popular singers, ballerinas, and gymnasts — whose endorsements carry weight in this culturally-sensitive country — were largely absent from United Russia’s publicity posters. Ever since the Rose and the Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s anxieties have increased. Wary of people taking the streets in protest of electoral fraud, it overreacted to allegations and evidence of electoral fraud during the latest elections and attempted to silence observers.
Following previous elections during Putin’s tenure, such allegations were met with indifference and cold superiority. Disputes and appeals were dealt with quietly and implacably by electoral commissions and the judiciary, while domestic and international election monitors were simply dismissed. Drawing the wrong lessons from the Color Revolutions, the Kremlin decided not to decrease fraud this time around, but to hide it, with the predictable outcome that it revealed itself even more. GOLOS, the nationwide election monitoring group that was so obsessively harassed during these elections, denounced fraud on election day, and this activism was followed by thousands of protesters taking to the streets. As in several Arab countries earlier this year, protesters have used social media tools to communicate and organize. In response, the Kremlin has amassed militia forces to crack down on protesters in the main squares of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and many have already been imprisoned.
The lesson that autocratic governments such as Russia’s are tempted to take away from this year’s Arab revolts is to crush protests mercilessly, before they get out of control. But as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia demonstrate (along with East Germany, Romania, and Yugoslavia before them), success is not always guaranteed and the strategy almost inevitably eventually backfires. The correct lesson of the Arab revolts, and a much wiser choice for any government, is to be sympathetic to the underlying reasons that motivate protesters to take to the streets and address them. This means not tightening the regime’s grip on power, but relaxing it. This is not to say that spring has come to Moscow, or that the protests of the last two days will necessarily turn into a revolution. Putin thrives on crisis and he may well find ways to solve this one as well. But if he is to take away one lesson from the Arab revolutions earlier this year, it is that the last few days do not constitute a temporary eruption of anger. He did not just experience and steer his way past another ordinary election.
The protests made an irreversible fissure in the political establishment, and helped ensure that fraud and repression are no longer publicly acceptable. Presidential candidate Putin would do well to dust off Medvedev’s speeches and bring about some of the measures eloquently addressed there: more media freedoms, free and fair elections, greater independence for the judiciary, and the modernization of the economy. As things stand now, Putin has only two choices: repress opponents and dissidents, manipulate elections, and fear revolt in the days after; or start liberalizing Russia’s society and modernizing it economy, while standing (and probably winning) Russia’s first free and fair elections.
Alina Inayeh is Director of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation and the Bucharest office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.