Revolutions are no use to anyone in Russia. They bring back bad memories of the Soviet revolution myth, which has long ago been consigned to the dustbin of history.But the existing political institutions are so inadequate that political action is ready to overflow. Any awkward movement could tip the delicate balance.
Russians just want the good life
Russians have an extremely negative attitude to both the word ‘revolution’ (redolent of Soviet slogans), and to its potential occurrence (unrest, poverty). Russian citizens has had enough of extremes. They want to live in a consumer society, confident in themselves and their economic future. They want a good education for their children, good health centres and hospitals, personal safety, decent roads and a general respect for the rule of law. That is the conclusion reached by the economist Mikhail Dmitriev in his recent major study on public attitudes to government. Money is more important for Russians than for many Europeans. The latest European Social Survey shows Russia in top place out of 26 countries in the importance its population places on money and wealth.
'Russian citizens have had enough of extremes. They want to live in a consumer society, confident in themselves and their economic future.'
Younger Russians also value a high salary much more than their western peers (85% of those polled), and consider money the most important element of a good life (‘European Youth in a Global Context’, The Foundation for Political Innovation, demoscope.ru). Russians won’t work for peanuts: only 22%, fewer than in any other country, are prepared to ‘do my work conscientiously, whatever the salary’.
Too much control creates a powder keg
The Kremlin, naturally, is also opposed to revolution. Since 2003 (the year of Georgia’s Rose Revolution) and to this day Putin's main concern has been to avoid revolution. This is why government money and spin doctors have had such a significant input in elections throughout the former USSR, attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to prevent the election of undesirable candidates. It is also why almost all the significant changes in the rules of the game in Russia itself – up to and including the new draconian amendments to the law on demonstrations and rallies – are also designed to avert revolution.
But despite all their efforts, it is the country’s current rulers that have created the conditions for revolution. By rewriting Russia’s electoral legislation (the last few years have seen amendments to 55 laws relating to electoral processes), the Kremlin’s political managers have made elections controllable. Businesses have been intimidated by expropriation, their owners prevented from financing undesirable political activity. The development of a civil society has been strangled by restrictions on the not-for-profit sector. The entire thrust of Putin’s policies has been to eliminate everything natural and unpredictable.
The result has been that all genuine, not imitation, political activity has been excluded from the political arena. The Kremlin’s apparatchiks spent years working out how to restrict the opposition’s legal room to manoeuvre, and they succeeded: they destroyed the conditions necessary for the development of a political mainstream. And by doing so, they created a powder keg.
There is no centre in Russian politics
Observers of European politics often talk about the need to preserve the political centre in many of the region’s countries. Political extremism is becoming stronger in quite a few national parliaments, just as in the first half of the 20th century (cf. Aristides Hatzis’s article ‘The Hammer, Sickle and Swastika ’ in the Financial Times of 18th June).
But if in Europe it’s a question of preserving the centre, in Russia it needs to be created. We have nothing to return to. What we have now is not just the beginning of political radicalisation. Politics in Russia is radical by definition.
The Kremlin’s apparatchiks spent years working out how to restrict the opposition’s legal room to manoeuvre, and they succeeded: they destroyed the conditions necessary for the development of a political mainstream. And by doing so, they created a powder keg
The ruling group operates within the ruling parties, through governmental structures and managed elections. The opposition operates on the streets, on the internet and through the independent media. There are no legal means for the different factions to discover who has the greater public support: no free elections. That is why street rallies are the only means available for moving the political process forward. And they are of course extremely volatile and capable of turning into uncontrollable conflict at any moment.
If we accept the premise that the Kremlin’s main concern is stability, then it is the Kremlin that should be trying to create a political centre. It could have allowed the growth of a socialist party, on the one hand, and a conservative party, on the other. But it has not. So Russia’s ruling elite has only its interior troops to turn to, to secure its continuing place in the sun.
The Fear Factor
This is why revolution is absolutely essential in today’s Russia. The paradox is that its initiators are not the country’s citizens, but its rulers. The regime is radical because it has prevented the appearance of a political centre. Recently its radicalism has become conclusive: the political rules of the game have been toughened even further. A law has just been passed which restricts people’s right to take part in the only form of political activity available to them – rallies and demonstrations. The new law has introduced fines of up to 300,000 roubles (an average annual income) for taking part in unauthorized protests. Since law enforcement is chronically compromised by arbitrary rule, it is the police and the investigators who are going to decide who is or isn’t breaking the law.
This ultimate curtailment of legal outlets for political dialogue seems to imply only one thing. The Kremlin is determined not to avoid confrontation, but on the contrary to keep fuelling it. The Kremlin needs to keep alive the fear of a violent uprising. This is why the police and the investigators enjoy a licence to prosecute the «enemies» of the regime in an arbitrary fashion. It's an emergency after all. The regime's ability to crush an uprising is what the ruling group needs to restore the fading trust of its country's citizens. An emergency can be profitable too: one can bend rules, ostensibly for reasons of security, and create «strategic» companies that enjoy special privileges. The fear of a revolution, the balancing on the brink, is thus the key factor behind the regime's survival.
'The Kremlin needs to keep alive the fear of a violent uprising. This is why the police and the investigators enjoy a licence to prosecute the «enemies» of the regime in an arbitrary fashion.'
In other words, Russia is divided not between radical and moderate parties, which in any case don’t exist, but between those who would like to occupy the centre (the majority) and those who need a constant state of emergency. You only have to watch the news: enormous contracts being given to the president’s cronies. That’s how an emergency can be turned into dollars and euros.
The vast majority of Russians are in agreement about one thing – the need for a peaceful political process with free elections and a formalised procedure for the handover of power. And there is a very small group of people who are also in agreement about one thing – that rules are unnecessary, because in a country whose government is based on the rule of law they will be out of power.