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Democratic deficit powers street protests
Russia faces a summer of discontent as rival youth movements and disaffected voters respond on the streets to President Vladimir Putin's increasingly autocratic rule and uncertainty about the country's democratic future.
Simon Tisdall
The Guardian 27.04.2005

Russia faces a summer of discontent as rival youth movements and disaffected voters respond on the streets to President Vladimir Putin's increasingly autocratic rule and uncertainty about the country's democratic future.

Youth groups called Walking Without Putin and It's Time!, inspired by Ukraine's orange revolutionaries, are lining up against the Kremlin-backed Nashi and the anti-western, punk counter-culturalists of the National Bolshevik party.

Activists on both sides say conventional politics is failing and the potential for trouble as Russia's marching season approaches has not been lost on Mr Putin.

The state would deal harshly with "unlawful methods of struggle", he warned in a speech on Monday.

The street-level agitation reflects deeper discontent at the concentration of power among an inner coterie of Putin advisers known as the siloviki - the powerful ones - and the emasculation of Russia's opposition parties.

Mr Putin's decision to appoint rather than elect provincial governors has led to violent demonstrations by disenfranchised voters in Bashkortostan in the Urals and in the Caspian and Caucasus areas.

His plans to create "super regions" more easily controlled from Moscow and bar smaller parties and individuals from parliamentary elections are portrayed as further assaults on democracy. Mr Putin says the changes will make government more efficient and facilitate a stable party system.

Increased state control of key industries and the electronic media, systemic disregard for human rights, and manipulation of the judiciary are all aspects of the perceived new authoritarianism of the post-Yeltsin era.

"The Kremlin's influence on the judiciary is becoming absolute," the Foreign Policy Centre analysts Jennifer Moll and Richard Gowan said in a report last month.

They noted numerous accusations of "telephone justice" in which judges received official instructions prior to delivering verdicts.

But the most serious popular challenge to Mr Putin is rooted in economic injustice, as illustrated by mass protests over benefit cuts. For many Russians Mr Putin's repeated promises of better times have come to nothing - hence his lowered poll ratings.

The sense that Russia is entering a period of renewed instability has been encouraged by dramatic statements by public figures, pro-democracy upheavals on Russia's borders, and mounting western criticism.

The former president Mikhail Gorbachev said government policies could provoke a "merciless revolt".

Andrei Illarionov, a now demoted Kremlin adviser, warned of "catastrophic consequences" if the destruction of civic institutions continued. "If there are no normal, traditional legal methods of solving crises then nothing short of revolution is left," he said.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister sacked by Mr Putin, hopes to unite the liberal opposition behind a possible presidential bid in 2008. A similar rallying process is evident on the nationalist right.

Adding to the clamour, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said last week that "the centralisation of state power in the presidency ... is clearly worrying".

But in true tsarist strongman fashion Mr Putin has responded by promising ever tougher, top-down governance. His chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, set a menacing tone in a magazine interview this month.

"If we do not consolidate the elite, Russia may disappear as a unified state. And then everybody will be in trouble, including our immediate and distant neighbours," he said.

Even if he wanted to take a more inclusive, democratic way forward, Mr Putin is handicapped by the power structure which has sustained him until now, Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution suggested.

"Putin's vertical of power (vertikal vlasti) is not a conventional pyramid with a broad base of support," she said in a recent study. "It is a narrow column extending down from the Kremlin.

"Unlike the Soviet period, Putin does not have a party structure or a system of collective leadership to rely on ... since coming to power in 2000 he has improvised with an informal system drawing on colleagues from his service in the KGB and St Petersburg."

In short, Mr Putin risks isolation at the head of an unresponsive, statist apparatus dominated by a clique of unelected "political" oligarchs.

The Yukos affair and other blunders have raised questions about the extent of his personal decision-making power.

A recent pamphlet by Andrei Kunov and other Russian academics concludes that this situation is both dangerous and inherently unstable.

"Like the old Soviet Union that was not able to adjust to new challenges, such a system has only two courses to run," they said.

"Either it is doomed to collapse or it is destined to consolidate its authoritarian character."

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