- Russia's parliamentary elections have sparked a political
crisis, surprising everyone, from President Putin (excuse me, Medvedev)
down, including the demonstrators themselves, marvels Eric Walberg
- Tahrir Square continues to send out its beacon of light.
Thousands of Russian riot police were deployed in Red Square to prevent
it from being turned into another Tahrir last Saturday, when demonstrators,
without any resources except cell phones and fur-lined winter coats, pulled
off the largest uprising since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,
in 60 Russian cities, across nine time zones, with at least one repeat
performance scheduled for 24 December.
- The uprising united the usually fractious liberals, nationalists
and Communists, with slogans "Swindlers and Thieves!", "Russia
without Putin!" and "Churov Resign!" references to
United Russia (UR) and election commission chief Vladimir Churov. Russian
expats in more than 20 countries also demonstrated in a show of solidarity
outside embassies and consulates.
- To date under Putin, rallies have been forbidden or limited
to a few hundred. Unauthorised attempts bring beatings and arrests. But
most of Saturday's protests had official sanction; Moscow officials authorised
a crowd of 30,000 and did not send riot police into action when 40,000
turned up, and the follow-up rally has been authorised for 50,000.
- This new embrace of Western norms indicates that Putin
is deeply concerned about his weakened position. 42 per cent of Russians
in September said they would vote for Putin in the presidential election,
but only 31 per cent by November. And that was before the 4 December debacle.
Whether this new leniency shows yet another face for the inscrutable autocrat,
or is a nod to advisers, who warn that a harsh crackdown could threaten
the wobbly "Restart" button and even the precious 2014 Winter
Olympics in Sochi, is a good question.
- If the latter, this would be an especially cruel irony,
as the last Russian Olympics in 1980 were boycotted by the West because
of Soviet actions in Afghanistan, signalling the beginning of the end of
that version of the Russian bear. Just as the Soviet Union let itself be
seduced by Western human rights talk resulting in the Helsinki Accords
in 1975, which became a weapon in clever Western hands, so Putin et al
are forced to hold their noses (or plug their ears) faced with noisy, persistent
protests if the Sochi Olympics are to be a successful showcase for the
- Uncharacteristically ploddingly, Putin charged Western
interference: "They heard the signal and with the support of the US
State Department began active work." It was the protesters who showed
wit and resourcefulness this time: "Are we here because Hillary Clinton
texted us?" Some protesters carried badminton rackets, a reference
to Putin and Medvedev's squeaky-clean sportiness. A riot police officer
was photographed holding a white flower, a symbol of the protest, behind
- The fact is there was blatant vote rigging in some areas.
This was documented, especially in Moscow, central Russia and the North
Caucasus. The FOM (Fund for Social Opinion) exit poll, the most comprehensive
in Russia, estimated the UR vote in Moscow at 23.6 per cent, a full 23
per cent less than the official results. Similarly in the Caucasus, there
was a difference of 20.8 per cent, and in Russia as a whole a gap of 6.3
per cent between official and exit polls. FOM's regional breakdown was
mysteriously removed from the FOM site, but not before it was saved by
enough observers to verify its authenticity.
- The North Caucasus is dominated by local clans who are
part of the power structure, so vote rigging is to be expected. But fiddling
with the vote in Moscow and other large cities, where an independent-minded
middle class has the latest in communications gadgets is no longer acceptable.
People were observed voting in a "carousel", taking a bus to
vote up to 15 times at separate polling stations. One voter was told that
if he voted for Putin's party, there was a present waiting for him outside
the booth, a bottle of vodka and plastic cups inside a plastic bag. Moscow
voting stations with electronic voting machines, which are hard to mess
with, reported 30 per cent for UR vs the 46.6 per cent average. Communist
headquarters received thousands of calls from regional offices about ballot-box
stuffing and other violations. A flustered President Dmitri Medvedev finally
agreed to ordered an investigation into reports of election fraud, according
to his Facebook page.
- It appears the fraud was indeed necessary to preserve
UR's majority, but unfortunately for UR, it was more that the 1-2 per cent
that is the upper limit of acceptable fraud in close elections in, say,
the US (remember Ohio's cliffhanger vote in 2004, with a Republican controlling
the voting and a Republican company providing the notorious voting machines,
that gave George W Bush just enough extra votes to steal the election from
John Kerry?). Or the 2006 Mexican presidential election, which almost all
observers acknowledged should have gone to the socialist Obrador?
- What Russians are now living through is the neoliberal
version of democracy which Russia adopted after 1991, better described
as polyarchy, where factions of the ruling elite allow for some cosmetic
change of faces, but where elections are controlled by the corporatised
state and commented on by the corporatised media, all in league. When a
populist (or even a Kerry) tries to buck this formidable machine and his
support approaches a danger zone, the necessary stops can be pulled, allowing
an illusion of "almost" victory for the underdog but keeping
the system in tact.
- Of course, the corruption charge is not just about stuffing
boxes or bribing voters. It is about the entire post-Soviet economic and
political structure, the result of massive economic theft of state resources
and widespread official corruption, resulting in personal dynasties where
the 22-year-old niece of the governor of Krasnodar owns a major stake in
a massive pipe factory, poultry plant and other businesses, and the 18-year-old
daughter of the governor of Sverdlovsk owns a plywood mill and a dozen
other local businesses. "How does all this wonderful entrepeneurial
talent appear only in the children of United Russia members?" asks
rising opposition star Alexei Navalny.
- What about claims of Western interference? Of course.
Opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov's World Movement for Democracy (WMD)
is a veritable franchise of the National Endowment of Democracy's WMD.
Opposition stars recently attended the NED-funded seminar "Elections
in Russia: Polling and Perspectives" along with sundry Soros groupies
and USAIDers. Navalny is a co-founder of the NED-funded DA! (Democratic
Alternative) activist movement, as stated in his Yale World Fellows bio.
- But it is far worse in, for example, Egypt, where US
aid has gone and continues to go to both sides -- Mubarak/ the army and
democracy activists -- just in case. But even here, US interference can
backfire. It is no secret that Egyptian revolutionaries were trained and
inspired by Colour Revolutionaries from Serbia and American pacifist legend
Gene Sharp. That in itself is not a sin, nor are all recipients traitors.
Western media/ election-savvy young people mustering all the latest technology
and strategies and precipitated the toppling of their dictators. Who can
possibly deny this was a good thing? And now disaffected Russians and even
Americans themselves are taking inspiration from their Arab fellow-dispossessed.
- Besides, the Russian state has full access to all the
gadgets and pamphlets and is quite good at hacking computers and devising
counter-strategies, and if all else fails, beating up and arresting (and
possibly worse) gadflies who dare to defy authority. All's fair in love
- But at the same time, whether or not Hillary's twitters
inspired the Russian unrest, it is clearly in America's interest is to
keep Russia weak, and encouraging political unrest is the perfect vehicle.
Russia's defiance on Western plans to invade Syria and Iran infuriates
Washington. Washington gambles that "democracy" will bring its
flunkeys to power in the Kremlin, just as it hopes that pro-US Arab liberals
can be put into power with a little scheming. Very risky politics, but
this is clearly what's going on, and NED is doing its part, as it did throughout
eastern Europe in the 1990s. Putin has a point.
- Protest organisers met on Sunday, trying to pull together
some sort of leadership council. It is most unlikely, even if a few recounts
are allowed, that UR will lose its majority, but the momentum of the demonstrations
will make the presidential campaign in February very heated. Putin will
now face at least four serious candidates: charismatic billionaire Mikhail
Prokhorov, the perennial Communist Gennady Zyuganov, Sergei Mironov of
the Just Russia Party, and rising star Navalny.
- Those elections will be much harder to falsify with box-stuffing
and vodka payoffs, and Putin will most certainly face a runoff. Again,
it is unlikely that he will lose to the corrupt playboy oligarch, the dour
Communist, the ex-Putin groupie who ran as token opposition to Mr UR in
2004, or the 35-year-old black sheep of the Yabloko Party, who was kicked
out for racist threats. But he will have a rough ride.
- The up side of this electoral tempest is that Russian
politics has come back to life. Russians are taking electoral politics
seriously, and new parties are in the works as the UR begins to unravel.
The new middle class that Putin's decade of one-man rule produced is on
the march, much like in Pinochet's Chile, where a new middle class also
rose up against the strongman to demand their political rights. If Putin
is a true statesman, he will see the writing on the wall, seize the opportunity
to entrench honest elections, and retire early, leaving a legacy as important
as his role in saving Russia from the predatory neoliberals a decade ago.
- Egypt's uprising, too, started not with the starving
peasants (though they soon joined in). The result, which is still in process,
despite much turmoil and many setbacks, is probably the freest election
in modern history anywhere, as the corporatised Egyptian state, with its
control of the media and elections, was pushed aside. This allowed what
was, until a few short months ago, the illegal opposition -- the Muslim
Brotherhood and the Salafis -- to gain a constitutional majority virtually
overnight, much like in Russia in 1917.
- Russians, too, want to know that their dysfunctional
state apparatus can be successfully challenged, so that real elections
can take place. And how long will it be before Americans see the light
and push their dysfunctional state apparatus aside and enjoy the "democracy"
that the NED and Soros croon so beautifully about?
- Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/
You can reach him at http://ericwalberg.com/ His Postmodern Imperialism:
Geopolitics and the Great Games is available at http://claritypress.com/Walberg.html