Special Reports




The victory of Vladimir Putin in the presidential elections of March 4th was an entirely predictable episode in the Russian Federation's voyage into the 21st century. Widespread allegations of electoral fraud, pressure within state organizations to vote for ruling party United Russia, dubbed the "party of crooks and thieves" by its detractors, and the unfair distribution of media space to Russia's ‘supreme leader’ have all muddied the purity of the mandate which he claims to have. In his 12 years of power, the President turned Prime Minister turned President has overseen, with the help of a group of select "siloviki" (former members of the security services), a strong centralization of powers into the form of arch-authoritarianism known as ‘the power vertical’. The KGB, where Putin began his career, has morphed into the FSB, a security force that oversees extrajudicial practices of all manner, and has largely inherited the fearsome reputation of its predecessors. Moves such as installing ostensible reformer Dmitry Medvedev as his interim President, quashing all manner of grassroots political activism and stymieing the political opposition, have all bred a climate of extreme intolerance and monocracy.

In the 2000-2008 period Putin's establishment of sovereign democracy was lubricated by buoyant oil prices, and if political freedoms were circumscribed, rising living standards softened the blow for many. During this period, particularly after 2006, though the political opposition was a vocal force, including among them internationally recognized figures such as former chess master Garry Kasparov, who oversees the ‘Other Russia’ coalition, its ambit was relatively limited. This changed abruptly following the results of the December 5th parliamentary elections, which were riddled with allegations of fraud, when suddenly a newly widened middle class protest movement, took to the streets with rallies through December, January, February and March. The December 6th rally in Moscow attracted up to 50,000 people, and that held on December 27th 80,000: numbers unseen since the collapse of Communism. A new sense of optimism, of political reawakening, seemed to infuse the chilly air of Russia's capital, whilst the country's other major cities saw parallel rallies, in St Petersburg, Vladivostok, Kaliningrad and in the smaller centres of Niznhy Novgorod, Perm and Arkhangelsk, to name but a few. Protesters, among them a seemingly re-galvanized middle class were united with the 'white ribbon' a symbol of a peaceful protest for honest elections. The most recent protest, however, which took place on March 5, the day after Putin's triumph in the presidential elections was declared, (a fact one financial analyst described as "as predictable as the sun coming up") had a different tone. Whilst people appeared in droves on the streets – around 20,000 people in Moscow - it was characterized by a hardened sense of exasperation and despair. (The protest ended with the arrest of more than 250 people.)

Moscow is needless to say, the epicenter of any political tremors in the Russian Federation, and is taken by many (perhaps erroneously), as the barometer for political sentiment in the nation a whole. Therefore it was with great interest that I spent two weeks of February observing the pre-presidential climate in one of Russia's lesser known cities: Astrakhan. This city, the capital of Astrakhan Oblast, serves as the Federation's conduit to the Caspian Sea and its riches. Its canals, at this time of the year entirely frozen, have earned it the epithet the Venice of Russia. Witnessing the pre-election period from this town of 500,000 people, proved a fascinating counterpoint to the frenetic activities of the major conurbations. It also serves perhaps as an insight into how regional centres, thousands of miles from the Kremlin, perceive their political fate. On February 4, a large opposition rally took place in Moscow, which attracted around 50,000 people (though statistics vary wildly depending on which sources you use - anything from 38,000 to 160,000). In St Petersburg, 25,000-30,000 people marched. Whilst the twin polestars of Russia's economic and intellectual life teamed with activists from all walks of life, Astrakhan's offering was distinctly mute. Around 80 people walked the icy path from Pushkin Square to Marine Park, outnumbered almost twofold by policemen, for a 40-minute rally which featured speeches calling for a re-run of the December 4 parliamentary elections. Local press were in attendance, but some of their number curiously absent. The reasons for the lack of dynamism in Astrakhan's opposition scene are deep-rooted and manifold. On the day, however, activists blamed the temperatures of -20 for the paltry turnout.

What was interesting to note the day after, when examining the live blog of one local photographer, was that another political event, held at the same time, had drawn the attention of local people and the press. As the opposition froze amid the snow lined trees of Marine Park, several hundred more had gathered in the indoor Spartak sport complex for an event in celebration of Vladimir Putin. This typifies the strategy that the Kremlin has employed in recent months to undermine the opposition movement. Prior to the swell of discontent in December, it was extremely difficult to hold an opposition rally. The Kremlin has a battery of ways of repressing anti-Kremlin activity, from confiscating the literature of organizations, banning them from assembling and using brute force to disperse any rallies (events of this kind are simply too numerous to list). In Moscow for example, City Hall consistently refuses to give licenses to gatherings of people marching for any cause that is remotely critical of the government. When rallies are held regardless, they are invariably broken up by police and result in arrests.

Since dents were noticed in United Russia's popularity (which began with Putin being booed at a boxing match on November 27, and gained strength after the December elections) the Kremlin changed tack slightly. Certain opposition rallies in Moscow were permitted, but were simultaneously countered with pro-Putin rallies. These gatherings were bolstered by the ranks of youth organization Nashi, sometimes referred to eerily, if aptly, as “the Putin Youth", a national organization which brings young people together under the umbrella of United Russia, cementing their allegiance to the Kremlin via a number of social events. Equally instrumental in new grassroots pro-Putin activism has been the All Russia People's Front, created in May of last year, to spearhead popular campaigns and serve as a sort of taskforce for mounting public displays of Putin loyalism, despite ostensibly gathering members from non-United Russia affiliated sources. On February 4th, the day when as many as 120,000 Russians gathered in Moscow, to protest against the government, the state press reported that a similar number has turned out for the pro-Putin event. Whilst we know that the state information services are adept at manipulating statistics, closer examinations of several pro-Putin rallies have also revealed a host of tricks designed to swell the groups of attendees. Potential participants have been offered a number of incentives for coming to the pro-Putin rallies: ranging from a day off from their job to the simple carrot of a cash handout. Others are bussed in en masse from their places of work without explanation and then deposited in central squares, among them migrant workers in particular. A local scholar I spoke to, told me she had seen advertisements in newspapers offering payment for a trip to Moscow, for this very purpose. What is interesting is that in the case of the Astrakhan rally, there was no evidence to suggest that the hundreds of people present at the Spartak sports complex were anything other than genuine Putin loyalists, though a large buffet of hot food and drinks, plus a performance from local celebrity Maria Markovska will have doubtless sweetened the pill of political adherence. This brings us to one of the key ways in which Putin has used economic advantage to render the population in certain regions inert, if not actively supportive of him and his policies. Many people I spoke to in Astrakhan said apathy was a word often used to describe the political climate in this town. As reporter Masha Gessen, the author of a new book on Putin, “ The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” pointed out in an interview with the New York Times, "Most people are susceptible to comfort, and when comfort is bestowed upon you in the form of money and food and life generally getting better, that goes a long way to not making you critical".

As mentioned before, Putin's early presidency heralded an era of increased living standards thanks to Russia's unparalleled natural resources. The city of Astrakhan takes us straight to the heart of Russia's energy boom and Putin's petro-dependent economic model. The city is the urban pivot to the Caspian Sea, which represents a vast source of untapped oil and gas. The Astrakhan oil field is the fifth largest in the world. In the Caspian Sea lies 16 billion tons of oil and 10 trillion cubic meters of gas, ready for exploitation by oil giant Lukoil, and state monopoly Gazprom respectively, the crown and sceptre of Russian predominance in the Caspian energy industry. The latter employs 13,000 people in Astrakhan and its logo is festooned across the town in varying forms, from flags on street lights (for which the company has paid) to the large buses, used for ferrying its workers to the plant, which also bear its insignia. Gazprom has made considerable efforts to appear, at least, as a socially responsible organization. The company has paid for the renovation of the waterfront of the river Volga, and for the embellishment of Lenin Park, which lies next to the city's much prized Kremlin, described by Peter the Great as the finest he had even seen. Even those who have few illusions about the corporation's cynical marketing strategies and its social responsibility claims, find it hard to dispute the economic advantages that these companies offer. Ivan, a 26-year old gas engineer I spoke to, who takes all political pronouncements with a hearty pinch of salt, spent two years waiting to get a job in the Gazprom plant, which he eventually did via family connections (apparently the only way of attaining one of these coveted positions). Despite acknowledging wholehearted frustration at the incompetence of many of his co-workers (a by-product of systematic nepotism), and decrying the health risks that working in this unregulated and dangerous sector entail, he is relatively content with his position. The reason the post is so prized? Quite simply the pay: wages in oil and gas reach around $1430 a month, or three times the city average.

Ivan's position on Russian politics, cynical but simultaneously apathetic- reflected the views of many people I spoke to. Even for the most vocal detractors of the Putin regime one aspect of the new opposition movement remained extremely troubling to them. Who was the leader and where were the clear policies? At the opposition rally of February 4 several factions were present: inter alia around 30 people from the Just Russia party, then a smaller group from the Communist Party. It was interesting to note that 95% of the attendees belonged to what is known as the ‘controlled opposition’. There was one Strategy 31 protestor (the movement for freedom of assembly which marks the last day of each month with a rally in honour of this right) and one lone individual who did not appear affiliated to any party in particular. Otherwise, those present belonged to groups with parliamentary representation. In this respect, the opposition rally in Astrakhan was an effective microcosm of the system of "managed democracy" created over the past twelve years. One of the most effective ways in which Putin has managed to consolidate power is by creating, with the help in particular of former top political strategist Vladislav Surkov, a potemkin version of parliamentary democracy. In this system, the opposition parties, the Communists, A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, all of whose leaders ran in the presidential elections, ostensibly provide an alternative for those disenchanted with Putin's regime. In reality, they do nothing to undermine the hegemony of United Russia, Putin's own party, which has at its disposal a bag of election tricks which include carousel voting, ballot stuffing, refusing to register other candidates or give them media space, designed to ensure that no matter what the actual results are, United Russia will gain a majority.

The registered opposition parties perform the inestimable role of offering the international audience a vision of political pluralism, and they ensure that those with grievances have a channel through which to voice their complaints about society. As long at the system is controlled by the Kremlin, of course, this channel is really a cul de sac. The genuine opposition parties, such as the Other Russia, or the National Bolshevik Party, many of whose members were seen at the Moscow opposition rallies, are refused registration by the authorities. Even one of the brightest stars of the opposition movement, Alexei Navalny, who coined the term "the party of crooks and thieves" and whose fierce anti-corruption blog, RosPil.info attracted international attention, has failed, some would say, to unite the opposition movement. One staunch Kremlin critic I spoke with, a young anaesthetist named Mikhail, complained of Navalny's flirtation with the nationalist movement, a move which has earned him a wider following in Russia, but provoked suspicions among liberals. Mikhail, who voices extreme indignation at political repression in Russia, sees little hopes for an alternative to the Putin regime. He, like so many other disenchanted young professionals, hopes to emigrate.

My conversation with Mikhail also revealed the pressure exerted upon people to vote for United Russia. He stated quite openly that his seniors at the Federal CardioVascular Surgery Centre, had advised him that it would be ‘’wise’ for his career if he gave Putin his vote come March 4. Bribery, in varying forms, is quite simply an unavoidable part of the political nexus in Russia. It is equally immutable in economic and social life. All aspects of existence provide potential opportunities for officials to accept money, which is one of the reasons why it was found in a poll in 2011 that more young Russians aspire to become bureaucrats than enter any other profession. Corruption is rampant in the education and medical sectors. In Astrakhan's medical university, 90% of students come from Dagestan, because, they are apparently "willing to pay the most". A young man tells me that his friend has spent five years in medical school and still does not know how to take blood. Access to medical care follows the same lamentable pattern, treatment is inadequate, with doctors trained in antiquated methods in somewhat neglected facilities, and though medical care is supposedly free, patients must pay if they wish to gain better treatment. Whilst showpiece hospitals are built, such as the one in which Boris works, with funds from the coffers of Gazprom, these facilities rarely correspond to the needs of citizens.

This in itself reflects how Putin's model of using oil riches to temper society's discontent seems increasingly unsustainable. As long as petrodollars flow, the country can avoid the kind of economic reforms that would renovate the flabby, corruption-soaked institutions which sustain its export economy, in favour of a more efficient innovation-based economy. In the past four years, the matter of economic reforms has been largely the concern of reform-friendly President Medvedev, who espoused a variety of improvements to the business climate, notable tackling graft, and created Skolkovo, an innovation centre designed to resemble Silicon Valley. When it became clear that Medvedev was little more than a glorified seat warmer, the rhetoric of economic reform seemed entirely implausible. This feeling was redoubled with the departure of Alexei Kudrin, the fiscal hawk who was Russia's Minister of Finance from 2000 until his resignation on September 26, 2011. The reason for his departure was an apparent rift with Medvedev over military spending to which Kudrin objected on the basis that it was incompatible with Russia's budget deficit. Though many viewed Kudrin's departure as the result of political infighting over the post of Prime Minister in the next Putin government, the rift also prompted a wave of panic as to the future of Russia's economy - without Kudrin, who is widely credited with steering Russia through the financial crisis and overseeing highly effective management of the budget, the possibility of financial instability seemed much more real. Many observers have argued, for a considerable amount of time, that it is necessary for Russia to move away from an economic model predicated on high oil prices. Kudrin, ever the parsimonious, was among them.

As witnessed in Astrakhan, Putin has cemented his authority thanks largely to the bounty of this energy-based economy. Should anything happen to jeopardise this (the advent of shale gas in Europe and the US, the Nabucco pipeline which seeks to reduce European dependence on Russia, or indeed financial factors, such as unforeseeable repercussions of the eurozone crisis) it is entirely possible that the cogs of his political machine could rust. Kudrin, who has appeared at almost all of the Moscow opposition rallies since his departure from government, has perhaps anticipated the political problems that could result from any economic slack. If the brain drain, or exodus of Russia's brightest professionals continues, the likelihood of changing this model remains even more remote. The oil which fuelled Putin's rise, may also signal his downfall.