“If you have a vision, cross yourself” – so goes the popular Russian proverb. This may be true for the mundane reality of daily life but not in politics. There “the vision thing” is a mark of true leadership.
I have had quite a significant response to the Kommersant FM radio column I broadcast in the wake of last Sunday’s round of regional elections in Russia. In it I said that
neither the Kremlin nor the opposition has an inspiring vision for the future of the nation, hence an increasing indifference that elections in Russia produce. Those who support Vladimir Putin’s government accused me of disregarding what they perceive as successes of the Putin era, of which stability is the number one achievement. Those who root for the opposition point to gross irregularities that characterize Russian elections at all levels, dominance of the state media, especially TV, and the prevalence of the so-called administrative resource: a uniquely all encompassing Russian term that sums up the ability of local and federal authorities to rig the vote by pressuring state employees, businesses and even students to cast it the “right” way.
Both groups of critics are right and wrong at the same time.
Russia’s ruling class is mostly concerned with perpetuating itself in power and wealth indefinitely. It thinks it found the magic formula to achieve this. Appealing to “stability” as the ultimate and most valuable asset supplemented by handouts to the poor and to civil servants come election time did the trick until recently.
Putin over the years repeatedly evoked the spectre of the 1990s to contrast the hardship and instability of Russia’s first post-communist years with the relative affluence and stability of the nearly 13 years that he has been in or around the Kremlin. But as the new generation, which never knew what life in the USSR was and which remembers the 1990s only vaguely came into adult life, memories of that no doubt turbulent and complex time disappear in the mists of time.
Putin and his United Russia party have to face more and more questions about their own activities rather than about who did what when Boris Yeltsin was president. It doesn’t seem they have anything new to offer the Russian people. No one wants instability but this does not mean the Russians do not want to look to the future and explore new goals.
This is where the opposition could chime in. It is right to demand free and fare elections but it does not take into account that elections are means to an end, which, in turn, transform national life. There is no shortage of “do good” manifestos but they are either too radical (like that of the Left Front, with, for example, nationalization of the banking system) or too vague and uninspiring as is with the majority of Russian democratic and liberal parties.
Both the authorities and the opposition do not possess the ability to create rousing yet realistic topics that could inspire Russians. And while the Kremlin at least has the money to continue blocking discontent with periodic handouts, the opposition cannot allow itself the luxury of telling the citizenry: “Let us have free elections and only then you’ll decide yourselves on the future of the country” because most people would then be facing the choice between the not so good but familiar today, and a hazy and unpredictable tomorrow. In a society still traumatized by nearly a century of civic passivity and subjugation, the decision of the majority will always be made in favor of the former rather than the latter.
To challenge the Kremlin’s hold on power, the Russian opposition will have to come up with ideas and people that could inspire and also sound realistic and practical. This, I am the first to admit, is a difficult task. But unless it is dealt with, there is little hope of major change.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.