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Western media and Ukraine: global ideology versus local realities

Posted by / 23rd July 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

With past week’s tragedy still dominating headlines across the world, the differences between local and Western press in how the conflict in Ukraine is viewed are starker than ever. This is a recurring phenomenon in our globalised world, with local and global media offering completely different interpretations of the same events as long as victims can be abstracted at a global level. Now that victims of the Ukrainian conflict include Western toursists, global and local perspectives will begin to converge. In the case of Ukraine, the difference between local and global perspectives goes back to the very beginning of the open conflict. The initial phase was seen as one of a clash between the West and Russia, in which the former considered it a struggle between the defenders of freedom against those who want to resuscitate authoritarian practices of the past; a conflict between those who are fighting for democracy against those who violate international law. Local media, on the other hand, focused more on cultural and geopolitical concerns, with Ukraine divided along ethnic lines and torn between spheres of influence.

Western mass media celebrated the fall of Yanukovich’s regime as a step towards the consolidation of democracy in the country, pushing it away from Russia and towards Western society. The actual local actors behind the two camps were overlooked in the process, at least by global media. Local media did pay attention to the fact that political parties had nationalist profiles with hints of clear xenophobia, but not so much in the West press: there, the victory of democracy facing the authoritarian oppression represented by the threat of Russia was the dominant narrative. Parties such as UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self- Defense), Svodoba (Freedom), Batkisvshchyna (Freedom)  have been supported by the international community as well as by media without much regard for their actual local agendas or suspect ideologies.

The context in which these events took place matters. When the suspension of Russian as a co-official language was approved in Congress, the delay caused a direct confrontation with Russia. The fact that Russian is the most spoken language in the eastern part of Ukraine- used by half of the population, and even more so in Crimea- showed how much this was a local issue, rather than an ideological clash for freedom. Yet this was mostly ignored by Western media despite being such an important factor in triggering the crisis.

Reviewing past newspaper editorials, there is no surprise to find out that the perceived enemy of European and Western democracy was lurking large in the interpretation of the local conflict: Vladimir Putin has been raised to the status of the greatest threat to Western stability, and therefore also seen as the main agitator opposing Ukrainian freedom. This perspective has been present throughout the crisis, and since the MH17 crash is a dominant factor in any Western analysis once again. The Russian president’s actions are thoroughly analyzed whilst those of other involved parties are not. The European energy situation and its clear dependence on Russia- causing a blatant clash between words and actions on behalf of European governments- are barely discussed. Authoritarian attitudes are criticized while simultaneously a remarkable dependence on that very same antagonist is created. The analysis of the Ukraine and last week’s disaster is framed within a moralistic discourse, while behind the scenes the same practical ambiguity continues. European realpolitik supported by helpful media choosing to ignore any moral complexity about responsibility of their own leaders and societies.

At a local level, things are different. Ukrainian media extensively covered the crash, of course, but did so from a perspective of a long conflict that has caused victims throughout: Ukraine’s dilemma is one of sustained violence, not one isolated incident. And yet, the local consequences of the MH17 crash may be greater than any of the violence that has occurred before or after, as it brings Western victims into the fray. The dichotomy of Western media discourse on the one hand, and ambiguous policies on the other, is no longer sustainable now. Local and global may join the same reality now, with both types of media covering the practical situation rather indulging in ideological judgments.

It is understandable that the idea of the conflict changes depending on the source of the given information. It is also comprehensible that the information provided is influenced by national matters, depending on how the particular country could be affected. But, as the current situation shows, the intention of giving global coverage cannot be done without starting from a local perspective. In this particular case, the actions taken by Europe to expand its borders to the East, or the ones taken by the NATO in the same direction, together with some deficiencies of these institutions, must be included in the analysis. The responsibility for local suffering cannot be projected solely onto the dictatorial face of Vladimir Putin. It is shared by many, including the free European press.

 

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Notes on the Ukrainian Battlefield

Posted by / 10th March 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , , / -

The Russian military is in control of Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea. Three months ago, at the Vilnius summit, now ousted president Viktor Yanukovich decided not to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union and postponed further negotiations. We know that these two events are linked, but often fail to understand the way the situation developed into a full-fledged crisis. There are a number of lessons to be learnt as to how and why the situation unfolded the way it did. The European approach to Ukraine has been flawed from the start, and Brussels did not sufficiently realise how it would impact Ukraine in socio-political terms. As the country spiralled into chaos, European elites assumed a mediating role they could not properly handle. Ultimately, the West has entered into a great, uncertain and dangerous geopolitical confrontation with Russia that nobody wanted and that endangers future cooperation. It all stems from a fundamental lack of awareness about the main features of today’s international system. The West is living in the past and, unfortunately, this is being understood the hard way.

The spark

By itself, the AA had the potential to upset regional relations, but not to the stark geopolitical heights we are witnessing at the moment. The problem became apparent when the Ukrainian political system processed all the elements surrounding the AA, including the practical step of accepting or rejecting it, in a way that amplified existing latent tensions.
Before the AA made it to the headlines, the issue was framed by Moscow in economic terms. With global multilateral channels experiencing exhaustion, the world is veering towards both the regionalization of trade and attempts to establish biregional trade blocks. The former comes in the shape of the Customs Union binding together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, itself part of a bigger integration project called the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), while the latter is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free-trade agreement being negotiated by the United States and the EU.

The TTIP, if negotiations prosper, would be a game changer in terms of trade, and European economy’s improvement in no small part depends on it. In this scheme of things, Ukraine’s role in EU’s future is secondary. Thus, the recent importance of Ukraine is only due to the European Eastern Partnership (EEP), Brussels attempt to revitalize its approach to the East. Launched in 2009, the aim of this policy is to support political change along the lines of democracy, the rule of law and market economy. However, the EEP is flawed at its core, because it is not adjusted to current realities. Its implementation relies upon a set of economic incentives, much like the EU did in the nineties, when its economic might was on the rise and its integration model run more or less smoothly. Nowadays, this is simply not the case, and the pitfalls of this policy have had an impact on what was offered to Kiev under the AA.

On the other hand, Ukraine is truly important to Moscow. Economic considerations weigh heavily in how Russia relates to its neighbour, with whom it is often said to maintain a ‘fraternal rivalry’.

Global Trade Alert, a think tank monitoring global trade, ranked the Russian economy as the most protectionist of 2013. This protectionism is partly in tune with the failure of multilateral attempts of boosting trade worldwide, but also is instrumental to the privileges of sectors of Russian oligarchy. However, now that players are shifting towards further integration along regional and biregional lines, Russia risks being marginalized. Focusing on the customs union within EurAsEc is Russia’s answer to these changes.

Naturally, Moscow is not only pursuing an economic agenda by creating and leading an Eurasian trade block. There are wider geopolitical issues at play, not the least of which is the Kremlin’s quest to maintain its political influence in its periphery and its own country under tight control. Economic regionalism competes with global dynamics, and thus prevents the usual subtle influences that might generate internal pressure towards regime change.

However, this regional development strategy is also a way for Russia to improve its industrial capabilities and prevent overdependence on exports of primary resources, mostly oil and gas. Without Ukraine, the EurAsEc would be much more Asian than European, and that would run against Russia’s desire to remain close to Europe, with whom it wishes to relate, but from a more robust economic position. The Russian economy would struggle if Ukrainian trade flows- now equally distributed between East and West- start leaning more heavily towards the EU. Ukraine is simply too important for Russia, and the correct functioning of a customs union, by definition, would demand that Ukraine did not enter a free-trade agreement with the EU.

Because of its potential effect on Russia’s development, the AA was bound to generate disputes between Brussels and Moscow. However, these by themselves would have been limited. The current crisis is a failure of the Ukrainian political system and the result of highly questionable behaviour by foreign actors, mainly European political elites and the Kremlin.

Ukraine is a politically, economically and culturally divided country. What seems best for its western regions (or, perhaps, what is positively perceived by its population), is often rejected by the more industrialized and Russia-dependent Ukrainian east, and vice versa. This was precisely one of the problems of the AA. Its free-trade agreement did not account for the complexity of economic conditions within the country because it had not been tailored to Ukrainian needs. Certainly, in a “one-size-fits-all” fashion, the free-trade provisions under the AA with Ukraine were very similar to those also planned for Moldova and Georgia. In other words, the EEP approach to the region is excessively general. A critical question is how the free flow of European goods can pose a threat to local production, but, especially, much more consideration should have been given to Ukraine’s own territorial economic imbalances and their relation with historical differences and sources of political animosity. Also, Ukraine is facing bankruptcy and in need of urgent financial aid, something the EU at the time of the Vilnius summit was not offering and that Putin was keen on giving.

Last but not least, Yanukovich is obviously a factor to be considered. Seen by many as a corrupt politician and the ultimate responsible for the government’s mismanagement of the country, Yanukovich had his own concerns about the AA. While it should not be disregarded that the agreement might have meant a dubious benefit for the Ukrainian economy and that this might have been a factor in Yanukovich’s decision, it is certain that he did not fancy its political conditionality: allowing imprisoned political rival Yulia Timoshenko to receive medical treatment abroad and undertaking political and judicial reforms. Thus, facing an agreement that was not so shiny on economic grounds and that threatened his political position, Yanukovich chose the less costly partner, Putin’s Russia. Looking beyond Ukraine, this seems to be the sign of times for the EU: Europe has lost much of its attractiveness and economic might, so it should come as no surprise that it loses ground to competitors that, like Russia, are less ‘virtuous’ but happier to use their wealth for geopolitical objectives.

The rest of the story is well known and takes us to the beginning of the crisis: the anti-government protests at Kiev’s Maidan square, the so-called ‘Euromaidan’.

The crisis: Phase I

What started as a dispute over policy quickly turned into demands for Yanukovich’s resignation, which created a dangerous political conflict that dragged in regional players with interests at stake. While Russia was working more in the shadows, European political elites were visible, rather outspoken and certainly supportive of the street protests, with EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton and other European officials visiting Euromaidan. Brussels ruled out the possibility of three-party talks to try to reformulate the AA to account for Yanukovich’s and Putin’s concerns; the Kremlin, on its part, had repeatedly stated that the customs union was not compatible with a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which is true. Because of this, the situation has been increasingly portrayed as a ‘civilizational choice’ for Ukraine and a zero-sum game for the rest.

Up until the tragic face-off on 18th and 20th February, there were timid and failed attempts to bridge gaps and stabilize the situation. For example, on 28th January prime minister Nikolay Azarov resigned, and later government posts were offered to opposition leaders, who rejected them. It is also worth noting that on 17th February, a day before the bloody events of that week, an amnesty for all those imprisoned during protests was granted and it was being discussed some meaningful political changes, like a return to 2004 constitution, which would have meant a reduction of presidential powers. At the beginning, this seemed to defuse tensions – several public buildings were abandoned. However, on 18th February clashes erupted in front of the Ukrainian parliament after opposition leaders accused rivals of not being committed to reforms, and eventually the police moved in for a total crackdown on Maidan.

The political climate in Ukraine grew so bitter over time that the spiral of tension and violence stemmed fundamentally from internal political polarization. Nevertheless, external players did not promote stability. Any efforts of international mediation cannot prosper if the mediator is also a stakeholder. This is particularly true if the mediator- the EU in this case- has been very vocal in expressing its alignments.

An analogy from the Cold War might illustrate that conflict resolution is at odds with the intervention of external stakeholders. In the civil conflict that devastated Central America during the eighties, there was no room for dialogue until the US retired its support for Nicaragua’s ‘contras’, which ultimately led to the disentanglement of the conflict from East-West competitive dynamics. It was precisely then when an external actor unrelated to the conflict could mediate to ease the peace. That mediator was the European Community. Bearing this in mind, the question is who can mediate in a European crisis where the EU is part of the problem. The answer is simply that there is not an actor with a profile high enough to take on this task.

In the absence of such a heavy-weight state, the only solution would be a multilateral organization, which brings to mind the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). Unfortunately the problem is that this organization, almost since its inception, has been rendered irrelevant.

OSCE, established in 1995 as the institutionalization of the spirit of 1975 Helsinki’s Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, was former French president François Mitterrand and Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev bet to create a genuinely European, neutral and multilateral space for security cooperation in the “greater Europe” area, which includes Russia. However, although OSCE might have suitably filled the gap of security governance in Europe and, judging from current events, it hinted at a considerable sense of forward thinking, the times were that OSCE could not gain enough traction. In a true ‘end-of-history’ fashion, in much of Western Europe and in the US there was the feeling that the international power struggles of the past had gone for good, so Western organizations were all Europe needed to be a peaceful region. Accordingly, NATO added to its military nature a political profile in 1994 with its ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme (PfP). PfP’s objective was to manage the profound transformations in the East and the potential risk of regional stability through a network of NATO-centered political and military contacts with the ex socialist states. Thus, NATO displaced other embryonic regional mechanisms for security cooperation, dealing a blow to OSCE’s aspirations, which since then has had its considerable structure mainly devoted to electoral monitoring, overlapping with the Council of Europe.

Europe does not have a genuinely multilateral institution for security cooperation, and this lack of governance mechanisms has implications. A hypothetically robust OSCE might have had a positive impact on the Ukrainian crisis, provided, of course, it would have been allowed to intervene by local parts. While ex prime minister Azarov said his government would not reject OSCE’s assistance in normalizing the situation, opposition’s Arseniy Yatseniuk, now prime minister, stated the following on 1st February at the Munich Security Conference:

“We believe that at this point we should try to solve the problem in Ukraine via our direct contacts – contacts between Ukraine and our western partners. There are, of course, options such as the OSCE mission and the UN, but those are options that should be used if the situation is completely hopeless. [There should be] bilateral [attempts to settle the crisis], namely with the involvement of our European and American partners.”

Last call

On 21st February a deal between the government and opposition was signed after days of bloodshed. The deal was brokered by the foreign affairs ministers of Germany, France and Poland –the EU, as such, lost protagonism as the violence escalated. The text called for the withdrawal by protesters from public spaces, the formation of an unity government by all the signatories, the restoration of 2004 constitution, political reforms to reduce presidential powers, an investigation into acts of violence and, importantly, presidential elections to be conducted not later than December 2014 (they were scheduled for February 2015).

The agreement, whose terms were favorable to the opposition, signaled the moment for compromise. There was hope for progressive normalization through institutionalized politics and, ultimately, elections. However, the agreement did not last a day. For reasons still unknown, on 22nd February Yanukovich disappeared from Kiev, leaving the governmental district completely unguarded. Days later, at a press conference in Russia, he would say that he did it because he feared for his safety under the threats of “hooligans”. After protesters took control of the presidential administration buildings without resistance, the parliament set presidential elections even earlier, on 25th of May, and voted to oust Yanukovich. With the votes of the opposition and of a number of members or parliament from Yanukovich’s party (probably seeking their political survival) the president was removed from power. With this, the opposition leaders satisfied the demands of protesters, still camped at Euromaidan, who had booed them the day before after they announced an agreement with the president had been reached.

Yanukovich’s removal was a breaking point. Regardless of the quality of democracy in Ukraine, Yanukovich was a democratically elected president with whom an agreement for early elections had been reached. After he vanished from Kiev, the opposition could have acted with more restraint simply giving more time to the situation to become clear, but they chose not to. Western governments, on their part, quickly declared their support for the interim government formed by opposition figures, sanctioning their uncompromising behaviour.

Without time for proper normalization through elections, the inevitable result of this was political disintegration. If democratic politics are devoid of a minimum level of compromise, the situations boils down to a pure political struggle, which, in Ukraine, is built along geographical and ethnic lines. Because democracy was not given time to create a source of legitimacy for any political outcome, the warring parties have come to a point where they simply do not recognize each other. Parts of the Ukrainian population with closer ties with Russia felt threatened. This anxiety was reinforced by the interim government’s decision to ban Russian as an official language, a manoeuver that is as symbolic as harmful and that spurred concerns by the same European officials that, now taken aback by the hectic pace of developments, had brokered the agreement.

This turn of events, of course, infuriated Putin.

The crisis: Phase II

Crimean secessionism is steadily advancing its objectives and, thanks to Russia’s military occupation preventing Kiev from reining in, they might just achieve it. There are many reasons why the Kremlin is so determined to bring about this outcome, and include securing the strategic post of Sevastopol by creating a protectorate over Crimea, gaining additional leverage over Kiev’s new government, sending a message to the West and playing the nationalist card at home. Russian intervention will no doubt affect Kiev’s new government, adding a new factor of political instability to an already troubled situation. Ukraine is facing bankruptcy. Although Western support came along promises of financial assistance, emerging figures are not even close to the amount of money Kiev says it needs. It should also be pointed out that the EU’s decision to financially support Ukraine is a reversal of the position held at the Vilnius summit and before, so its likely motivation is the consolidation of European political gains stemming from Euromaidan.

Kiev does not recognize Crimea’s self-declared referendum to reincorporate to the Russian Federation, scheduled for 16th March, deeming it “illegal” according to Ukrainian constitution. The West, of course, also parallels this criticism. However, before legality it comes, inevitably, the issue of legitimacy or, more precisely, whether the conflicting parties regard each other as legitimate. As we have seen, Kiev’s and Crimean’s authorities simply do not recognize each other. Similarly, the Russian intervention in Crimea is clearly against international law, but this is not a legal problem, but one of politics or, in other words, of a fight of wills. It is in that realm where analysis is urgently needed.

The discussion about law might be more fruitful from a political perspective. As it can be easily seen, in a situation like this international law is nothing more than a discursive weapon of little practical use. Law does not work as a deterrent against big players because its enforcement is highly problematic. For obvious reasons we cannot expect the Security Council to do anything, and those who might take measures against Russia are having second thoughts about it –humiliating themselves given their previous stance. It seems the use of force is out of discussion, economic measures to punish Russia are extremely inconvenient for the likes of Germany, France or the United Kingdom, and the freeze of personal financial assets and travel bans are, at best, cosmetic and face-saving actions; the boycott to Russian membership of the G8 is also a symbolic measure. The EU, that went to Ukraine in a quite bombastic fashion is now showing fractures; in the US, both the White House and much of Congress are reinforcing the recently assumed view that the European periphery is an European business – Obama calling for OSCE involvement speaks volumes about this.

When great powers are not willing, international law is a limited catalyst of cooperation and conflict resolution. However, law is not the only tool to facilitate that. As it has been explained here, there is a need for better governance mechanisms. And again, the OSCE pops into the picture, but if it could not do anything before when the situation was less complex, what can be expected from it now?

Whether the West likes it or not, the concept of ‘sphere of influence’ has returned not only to political discourse, but also to analysis. It was about time. Post-Cold War triumphalism blinded the West to the fact that the nineties and the beginning of the past decade were a historic abnormality: never before there was a sole global superpower running unchallenged, and today we are witnessing a return to the normalcy of the past. Accordingly, Europeans and others have to develop institutions adjusted to this reality. The need for it is acute: NATO’s decision to suspend military-political cooperation with Russia, which was part of the PfP’s philisophy, shows that the cooperation avenues of the immediate post-Cold War tend to break under pressure, turning into fields to stage retaliatory measures –which, in this case, complicates NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, that now would not be conducted through Russia, but hostile Pakistani soil.

By asking Kiev to show restraint and by signaling that it has no appetite for intervention, perhaps the West is starting to show some evolved awareness about its own role. One can only hope the interim government grasps the message and refrain from acting militarily against Crimea, since without NATO support that would be suicidal. Ukrainian new leadership should remember what happened to Saakashvili’s Georgia in 2008. Too bad this sensible behaviour on the part of the West comes now, and not much earlier, when it was time to invest in meaningful and sustainable mechanisms for regional cooperation to accommodate a resurgent Russia.

 

You might also want to read:

BBC’s Ukrainian Crisis Timeline
Carl Bildt, “Ukraine Has Postponed and Opportunity to Prosper”, Financial Times
Oleg Popadiuk, “Ukraine In Between the Unions: the Customs Union and the EU”, Russian International Affairs Council
Alexey Fenenko, “Russia’s Near Abroad, still Too Far Away”, Russia Direct
Pavel Koshkin, “Ukraine: Battlefield between Russia and the West?”, Russia Direct

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Elections in Russia: Putin vs. the Opposition

Posted by / 8th February 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

“I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia” – with these words and a tear running down his face, Vladimir Putin celebrated his victory on the 4th of March presidential election before a crowd of his supporters on Manezh Square, Moscow. Backed by over 63% of the votes, he has returned to the Kremlin, despite electoral rigging allegations. However, regaining the presidency may have been an ugly affair. Certainly, if this election has been one of the most anticipated in last decade Russian politics it is because Putin’s aspirations have been increasingly seen as illegitimate. He is challenged by an important sector of Russian society who wants political reform and an end to corruption, something they consider is not achievable under Putin’s rule. Indeed, Putin has won, but this does not mean his right to govern goes undisputed. It is therefore time not only to explain the results of this election, but to consider up to what degree the democratic movement has suffered a real setback. Is it the end of the hopes for political change, or a new beginning for the struggle against Putin’s so-called “power vertical”?

This election has been a mixture of old and new elements. With what we are used to see in Russian politics, we can be sure Putin did not want to risk a run-off. In pursuit of this objective, cheating seemed acceptable, even despite the mass protests that, since December, demanded a fair election among other things. After all, Putin did not make his ally Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Election Commission –an institution which supposedly should be a neutral referee-, step down despite calls for his resignation; he was certainly an important asset to secure Putin’s reelection. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, there was fraud, but not as widespread as in last year’s parliamentary election. The decrease in voting irregularities was partly because of those expensive cameras installed at the polling stations around the country- Churov’s laughable ideal of transparency- but also the vast surge of volunteer local monitors. This was particularly true in Moscow. However, what really concerns external monitors and Russian opposition is what it is considered the endemic problem of Russian politics: the lack of competition. This is caused not only by the Kremlin’s political engineering or partisan misuse of state resources (like TV), but also by the “official” opposition parties’ and candidates’ ineffectiveness. They even display open servility to Putin at times. Just one example: when Sergey Mironov, leader of the social democratic party a Just Russia, ran against Putin in 2004, he publicly endorsed him.

Now, we could be tempted to launch a debate about whether Putin’s victory is only due to electoral rigging or not. Doing this, however, would be a futile effort, and almost politically irrelevant in the current situation. Of course, it is possible to find alternative figures to electoral results like those offered by the Russian association Golos, which considers Putin just got a 50% of the vote. But it as easy to find other analysis that diminishes the reliability of such estimations. It is better to rely on polls ahead of the election, which unanimously showed a clear advantage favouring Putin. With this we can be almost certainly sure that Putin still has a lot of support and that those protesters we have seen during these three months are just a sector of the electorate. Perhaps a relevant and large one, but one which amounts to no more than a minority after all.

As Brian Whitmore states, there are at least “two Russias”. One still votes for Putin because of motives ranging from nationalism to fear of change and return to the economic chaos of the nineties. The other, which is better represented by the urban middle class and the university youth, is sick of political and administrative corruption and lack of good prospects, something they link to Putin. The fact that in Moscow Putin got less than a half of this vote proves this point.

Putin’s campaign, which has been more intense than his past ones, was a reflection of this social divide. It was designed both to cater the nationalists with anti-American rhetoric, and to reassure those who want stability by promising a new wave of social spending, less taxes and higher pensions and salaries for the military. Certainly, the campaign’s framework was built on the spectre of Yeltsin’s times. It is uncertain if Putin will be able to capitalize on this forever. In 2000, when Putin first took office, he could portray himself as a saviour because it was difficult for the situation to get any worse. Nowadays, on the other hand, more and more people accept him not because of his promises or projects, but because the absence of a serious alternative. Putin is certainly much weaker than before.

If Putin fails to provide what he has promised during his campaign the perception of him being disposable will increase. Moreover, it is likely that by now there are some fractures within the ruling elite. They might be starting to be afraid of a possible uncontrolled collapse of the system. An example of this is 11-years finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired in September 2011 over his disagreement on Putin-Medvedev job swap. He had been calling for reform, both economic and politic, for a long time. There are other “liberal technocrats” like him around Putin. For this inner circle, the current situation looks like a crossroads leading either to survival or to political disgrace. Putin knows this. In this respect, who he chooses and maintains as Prime Minister, be it Medvedev or not, will be an important decision. Therefore, the protest movement should strive to seize the moment, take advantage of the division, and keep pressure on the system for its liberalization.

The vast number of volunteer monitors registered for this election is a good sign of how actively involved the opposition is becoming. This is not enough, however. Despite Putin’s victory, it is necessary for them not to lose the momentum gained since December. In fact, the real meaning of this victory depends on the future manoeuvres of the democratic movement; if they cease in their bid for change, the game is over, but if they continue they might reach their goals.

Judging by how Moscow’s security has been strengthened, it is arguable that Putin will try to silence the opposition or, at least, threaten to do so. This could lead to radicalization by some activists, many of whom were considering actions along the lines of Occupy movements. Resorting to aggressive methods or even violence is not desirable. Rather, the advance of reform aspirations need an institutional structure. Put simply, together with protesting on the streets, the opposition needs to create parties, real grassroots parties. Just asking for fair elections is not enough in a country where opposition parties are useless, almost comatose. Now the strength of the movement has been put to the test. The main question is whether they can overcome its wariness against organized politics and create alternatives to the tandem Putin-United Russia.

From a stable political platform, the opposition could mobilize better the base of society. Also, it would help send a signal to the official opposition parties and to those within the elite who, like Kudrin, see a collective benefit in opening the political system or even launching their own political adventure. However, if the Kremlin respects its promises of simplifying the rules to create parties and register candidates, will we see someone like Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption crusader who has become the visible head of the movement, daring to create a party? So far, this is impossible to know. Only time will tell if the democratic movement is able to rise to the occasion.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail