Archive for December 31st, 2010


Year in review: Politics in Russia is more alive than dead

A little review of Russian politics in 2010… Happy new year and see you soon!

Politics in Russia gained a new lease on life in 2010. It has been a long time coming, and the process is far from complete, but we can pinpoint the date when this political revival departed the realm of the possible and became a fact: January 22, during the State Council meeting on the development of Russia’s political system.

While the name may be boring and official, the meeting was neither.

A venue for debate

The State Council is a consultative and largely decorative body created to satisfy the ambition of governors who no longer sit on the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. The council’s meetings never garnered much interest before the meeting on January 22.

It was an extended meeting to which the leaders of all registered parties were invited. Everyone was given a chance to speak their mind. And what’s more, it was broadcast live by the Vesti 24 television channel.

The ensuing spectacle reminded viewers of the live broadcasts of sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika or State Duma meetings in the turbulent 1990s, when parliament was a place for real debate.

The tone at the State Council meeting was set by President Dmitry Medvedev, who said: “Politics must become wiser, more flexible and more modern, but instead we often see a different approach, with primitive and, I would even say, mindless administrative methods employed to govern increasingly complex social processes.”

Inspired by the president’s words, party leaders attacked the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Just Russia party, Russia’s chief communist Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the parties that are not represented in parliament all ruthlessly criticized United Russia for the excessive use of administrative resources in the regional and municipal elections in October 2009. Medvedev described those elections as “not sterile,” meaning that many violations occurred.

It was the first time in years that United Russia faced such a fierce and public attack. State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov did his best to defend his party, which is as it should be in a democratic state where all sides are given a chance to speak.

That meeting showed that politics in Russia is becoming wiser, more flexible, more modern and, most importantly, more alive.

No political decisions were taken at the January 22 meeting, yet the opinions aired there ultimately led to quite a few actions that ensured that all parties would be satisfied with municipal and regional elections in 2010.

An on-air resignation

Politics heated up in late summer and early fall, when the fate of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov was decided. The city’s long-time custodian decided to try his hand at political gamesmanship. He attempted to pit President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin against each other to deflect criticism over his handling of the situation this summer when wildfires shrouded Moscow in smoke. The president dismissed him, citing a loss of confidence.

We know now that Luzhkov did not lose Medvedev’s confidence overnight. The problem had been festering for years. During the extended meeting of the State Council in January, the president openly criticized the municipal government in Moscow.

He said: “Can the two parties in the Moscow legislature reflect the multitude of political preferences among Muscovites? Honestly, I doubt it. Moscow is a large and complex city with a diverse and active population, yet there are only two parties in its legislature.”

The president acknowledged that “this is the result of Muscovites’ unwillingness to participate in local elections,” adding, however, that “low turnout is itself a political problem.”

Nine months later, Medvedev resolved the problem. He did not do it quietly. Often a high-ranking official who loses the president’s confidence is given a low-profile post that is little more than a sinecure, or appointed the ambassador to a minor country, or pensioned off with a medal “for services to the Homeland.” Luzhkov was booted off the political stage in full view of the public.

Administrative culture

The political revival is not confined to the corridors of power. A new feedback system between the authorities and the people was established last year, and the foundations of a “modern administrative culture” began to take hold in Russia, as Medvedev said during one of his online conferences with the public.

There are two ways a government can respond to public discontent with its actions.

The first way is decidedly patriarchal. Public criticism is seen as inappropriate pressure, and the government chooses not to respond at all so as not to lose face. The feeling among high-ranking officials is that taking emergency measures in response is beneath them.

The other way is democratic. Medvedev referenced the dispute over the project to build a highway through the Khimki Forest near Moscow as an example of this form of governance. He said during a meeting with Russian rock musicians on October 12: “Regardless of the solutions that are found, there is a lesson we should take away from this. Whenever there is a high-profile issue that is particularly worrisome to the public, the government should discuss it rather than turn a blind eye to public opinion and say the decision is final.”

The president seems to be suggesting that public opinion should be taken into account when important decisions are being made.

Government officials in Russia have been following this principle in the last few months.

Examples include the case of Yegor Bychkov, the president of the Nizhny Tagil-based City Without Drugs Foundation, who was accused of using force to make drug addicts enter rehab, the Khimki Forest dispute (a compromise solution has apparently been found), the decision to relocate Gazprom’s planned Okhta Tower skyscraper outside downtown St. Petersburg, and the brutal attack on the journalist Oleg Kashin.

President Medvedev personally responded to each of these controversies and, acting within the limits of his office, issued instructions to investigate them carefully and take appropriate measures in response.

This does not mean that the public is always right, or that the government is always wrong. But in the case of high-profile problems that are of concern to a large number of people, the government must explain their decisions and never ignore public opinion. This will help soften the public reaction, prevent conflicts and foster a constructive dialogue. Without debate and the exchange of opinions, politics dies and civil society becomes petrified.

The ice age in Russian politics appears to have come to an end in 2010. Political life may not have thawed out completely, but it definitely has a pulse.