A year ago, in August 2011, Leon Aron, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and one of the most astute foreign observers of all things Russian, published a piece in Foreign Affairs entitled “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong.” It was written to coincide with the 20th anniversary of what should have properly been (but alas, never became) modern Russia’s most celebrated historical event – the failed anti-Mikhail Gorbachev coup that led to the collapse of the Communist Party rule, the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the establishment (at least, on paper) of a parliamentary democracy in Russia.
In his insightful article Aron opined that the Soviet Union crashed not so much because of low oil prices, economic inefficiency and the war in Afghanistan (true as all these reasons were), but because it became morally bankrupt in the eyes of its citizens. He recounted his conversations during an extensive trip through Russia prior to the anniversary. He came to the conclusion that the mood in the country was ripe for change and that the demand for renewal was not dictated by socio-economic circumstances, but was rather a result of a moral revival that was going on in the Russian society and that the Russian authorities failed to grasp. Comparing 2011 to 1991, Leon Aron, who is also the author of the best English-language biography of Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin so far, concluded: “Today's Russia appears once again to be inching toward another perestroika moment.”
It was a sharp and unorthodox observation at a time when most people believed that no protest movement in Russia was in sight for the next ten years or so. I remember reading the piece and mentally applauding the author for his understanding that transformative moments in Russia always came seemingly out of the blue. In a society like the Russian one, devoid of properly functioning political and civic institutions, saturated with mistrust and evasion, there are few ways of discovering what people really think and, more importantly, how they will act on their thoughts.
Leon Aron turned out to be 100 percent right. It took the Russians less than four months after the publication of his piece to take to the streets in mass protest over election fraud, but in fact, more broadly, against the atmosphere of lies, conformism and corruption that engulfed the country in the past decade.
But as the 21st anniversary of the failed coup approaches, the idealism of winter and spring seems to have faded, and the pro-democracy movement looks weakened and directionless.
I’d say this is true only to an extent. Although it is true that opposition activities are the preserve of a few thousand people in Moscow and St. Petersburg (as was always the case), the last eight months have shown to the opposition, both leadership and rank-and-file, that the reservoir of negative attitude to the current political regime and the demand for cleaner, more efficient, more consensual politics oriented toward society is there to tap. The feeling of moral superiority over the Kremlin did not go away. Moreover, I dare to predict it was strengthened by the clumsy actions of the authorities in May to July, with new restrictive laws and high-profile court cases. The Kremlin’s decision not to admit that at least part of the protesters’ demands made sense just serves as proof of its weakness in the eyes of society, and only made the big city burgers angrier and more determined not to let their dignity be trampled upon. So, come autumn and protest activities will resume.
This, however, does not mean that there are no problems for and inside the protest movement. What it needs is to translate moral indignation into concrete political action that will bring practical results. Vladimir Milov, the leader of the Democratic Choice Party, wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Vedomosti daily that he is “tired of flash mobs” and wants to talk about the reform of Gazprom, utilities and other specific things rather than take part in endless rallies. His opponents (and he has quite a few among Russia’s democrats) point to the fact that no real politics and no reforms are possible in Russia unless the political system has changed. And this, they claim, can only be achieved by continuing to put pressure on the Kremlin from below and continuing street actions.
The truth lies somewhere in between. What the opposition needs is a resounding electoral success; something tangible to prove that from rallies to results is not such a long distance to travel. The upcoming mayoral election in Khimki, a satellite town bordering Moscow and the site of a ferocious battle between environmentalists and developers who are building a highway through the local forest, could provide the first such opportunity. Now the opposition doesn’t seem to be ready for the challenge. The Kremlin is certain to put its still formidable administrative machine in overdrive mode, so the struggle will not be easy. Another, although a more far off chance, is the Moscow Duma (i.e., city assembly election) in autumn 2014, followed by the vote for the mayor of Moscow in 2015. There is still time for the opposition to prepare and mount a serious challenge to Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party then. This should not be too difficult in a city where Putin failed to gain even a nationwide average of votes during the March presidential election.
Combining civic pride and dignity with hands-on practical politics is a difficult task anywhere, not to mention Russia. But it needs to be achieved in order for the change that Leon Aron so insightfully detected to take hold.
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.