Nothing matches the interests of Russia’s ruling elite as much as narrowing the contours of the public sphere. Over the past 20 years, the authorities have consciously sought to remove as many social and political issues as possible from open and broad discussion. As a result, “public politics” has become a weak point for the elite themselves, and forcing them to go public - an effective tool of self-defence for society.
We can see this at work in the current attempts to close a maternity hospital in the Moscow suburb of Zyuzino (disclaimer: where I’m a local councillor). Here, as campaigners try to draw Russia’s elites out into public politics, the most likely path of democratisation for Russia’s political regime emerge.
Reforms love silence
In November 2018, a city court ordered Zyuzino’s Maternity Hospital No.10 in southwest Moscow to close for 90 days, after examining the results of an inspection by Russia’s Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare. Instead of solving the problems highlighted by the inspection, the hospital administration began removing equipment from the building and firing employees. It became clear that there was a secret agreement to close down the clinic, and the inspection was just a means of conducting this “raid”.
A video in support of saving Maternity Hospital No.10. Shtab Zyuzino.
The reaction by local residents and the hospital’s employees grew into a decisive protest. Over three months, activists in Zyuzino gathered more than 5,000 signatures in support of saving the hospital, and the employees organised their own trade union. A visit by public officials to the clinic turned into a real nightmare for them. These technocrats in expensive suits, who are used to subordination and negotiations behind closed doors, found themselves pressed against the wall, facing inconvenient questions about why their department was allowing the closure to go ahead — and how they were going to fix the situation.
Until the very last moment, the authorities had pretended that the coming closure only concerned the hospital administration, and the problem was finding new jobs for doctors and medical personnel. When it became clear that the issue was out in public, that thousands of city residents were aware and worried, the department stated that it was possible to repair the hospital for future use. The Moscow authorities’ plans to quietly optimise another healthcare institution failed when they couldn’t stand up to public scrutiny.
Public officials, it seems, are trying to use public healthcare institution as their own property: behind the closed doors of the Moscow administration, unknown individuals decide whether the city needs this clinic or not. No one was going to explain the situation to the public, let alone take their advice.
But the situation was turned upside down as soon as activists managed to make the issue one of public judgment. Participants in the campaign used publications in the media, petitions, pickets and mass visits to the local department of health — all the means of mobilising public opinion. They don’t believe the official diagnosis, doubt their motives and insist that all decisions about the future fate of the hospital are discussed openly, and with public participation.
The more authoritarian a ruling elite group is, the weaker they are when it comes to public politics
The authorities are most comfortable when a problem is perceived as purely technical, when it is limited to preparing various documents and expert conclusions. This way, officials are free to decide what happens. Attempts to interpret the actions of protesters as “unconstructive” or designed to whip up the crowds — these are their ways of defending themselves against interventions in their secret deals. In response, a campaign by the mayor’s office focuses on the idea that protesters in Zyuzino aren’t “ready for dialogue”, and that if the problem is to be examined properly, it should be left to competent people.
In reality, transferring this problem into the public realm is the best way of drawing out the situation’s true circumstances: campaigners openly call for all details to be discussed, catching officials out when they leave details out or glide over them.
Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia's National Guard, challenges Alexey Navalny to a duel after the latter publishes corruption allegations.
The past year has seen a record number of “public debates” in Russia. But whether it is oligarch Alisher Usmanov calling out anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny or the head of Russia’s National Guard challenging him to a duel, it’s clear that when those in power go public, they look far from convincing. And the more open their position, the clearer it is to the public that it contradicts society’s interests.
The road to democratisation
But still, why can’t we debate what’s best for society by exchanging arguments over, say, a round table discussion? How inevitable really is public confrontation in the form of protest? One idea is that what we’re dealing with here is a certain immaturity embedded in our social institutions, which aren’t capable of observing everyone’s interests.
In fact, behind the need to disrupt the easy lifestyles of the elite by bringing them into the public eye, there lies a fundamental disbalance between the managers and the managed in Russia. Those who have the power to make decisions are not in the same position as everyone else. Even if they have received power via free and fair elections, they still have the right to issue orders.
The more authoritarian a ruling elite group is, the weaker they are when it comes to public politics. Vladimir Yakunin, former head of the Russian Railways company, reportedly did not hold out under the pressure of investigations into his income. Public discussion over the ties (and luxurious joint holiday) between Vice Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko and oligarch Oleg Deripaska forced the latter to defend himself against the court of public opinion. The YouTube videos by Alisher Usmanov and Viktor Zolotov demonstrate the (poor) prospects of Putin’s elite in an open political battle — the role of public politician does not come to them easily at all.
This is why the fundamental ideology of the Putin regime is depoliticisation: people have to be convinced that they don’t have the right to participate in decisions on social and political issues. But while the public sphere can be suppressed for a long time, it can’t be suppressed forever. The more often society manages to bring the ruling elite into open political battle, where anyone can ask difficult questions, the better the prospects for democratisation look in Russia.