#13 - JRL 7179
May 13, 2003
Where Is Opposition?
By Boris Kagarlitsky
Everyone knows how things stand with the "party of power" in Russia. Or at least they think they know. United Russia nominated itself for the job, and it will stay on until the Kremlin decides otherwise.
How things stand with the opposition is rather less clear. Politicians ostensibly in opposition spent the first three years of Vladimir Putin's tenure vying with one another to prove their loyalty to the president. This situation has begun to change in recent months. Have politicians changed their tune with an eye to the upcoming parliamentary elections? I doubt it. It seems more likely that they sense that a more fundamental transformation is under way.
It became obvious after the first few months of the Putin era that the Putin project was sustainable only so long as oil prices remained high. Contrary to the predictions of the skeptics -- myself included -- world oil prices remained firm. This allowed the Kremlin to maintain stability and make a show of putting the country in order while doing absolutely nothing. This is the essence of the Putin model -- a promising, self-assured policy of thumb-twiddling. Bureaucrats have taken the place of politicians, and rather than tackle strategic issues, the regime engages in petty intrigues and minor reshuffles.
Unfortunately, oil prices have begun to drop since the end of the war in Iraq. Nothing catastrophic has happened yet, but the ruling elite know what state the country is really in, and they understand the precariousness of their position. And so they're getting nervous. Campaign maneuvering is just the tip of the iceberg.
Suddenly there is a demand for political opposition, but it seems that our State Duma deputies have completely forgotten what that means. They can't even make a convincing show of it. The farcical Vladimir Zhirinovsky is obviously not the man to give voice to popular discontent. The Union of Right Forces is fond of criticizing the government, but its members are even fonder of government jobs. The Putin administration's Achilles' heel is its social policy, which was dictated from start to finish by the Union of Right Forces.
The Yabloko party has maintained an image of intellectual decorum over the years. Everyone knows that the party's leaders are decent folk who refuse on principle to serve in a corrupt government, and that when they do take a government job, they quit the party. But the role of appealing moralizer, which Grigory Yavlinsky and his colleagues have adopted, rules them out as a real political alternative. Effective opposition requires drive, catchy slogans, mass appeal and the will to power.
So we're left once again with the communists, whom Anatoly Baranov once called the Ministry of Opposition. The communists' problem is the problem of any monopoly: They have no incentive to provide a quality service to the public. Unlike the liberals, I'm not sure that the appearance of viable competitors to the Communist Party would substantially improve this situation. The communists today are a natural monopoly, with no competition in sight. But something has to be done!
A ray of hope appeared during the recent gubernatorial election in the Krasnoyarsk region, in which economist Sergei Glazyev did far better than predicted. Some say he was robbed of victory. In the old Soviet tradition, Glazyev was approached by envoys from a number of Siberian regions who wanted him to run for governor back home. But Glazyev isn't really a Communist Party man, and not just because he's not a party member. He moves in different circles altogether, and that is one of the reasons for his success. But for the party to build on that success would mean radically altering its own methods and ideology. Glazyev, on the other hand, is obviously gearing up for a presidential run in 2008. For him, the parliamentary elections later this year and the presidential election in early 2004 hold no real allure.
What's more, in a country where parliament wields little real power, a serious opposition party can only approach parliamentary elections as a springboard to the presidency. The communists have yet to demonstrate a burning ambition to occupy the Kremlin.
The fate of Russia's ruling class is not decided at the polls, of course. In 1996 and 2000, voters were asked simply to ratify decisions that had been made without their participation. Yet elections, especially to the State Duma, can express the mood of society and demonstrate that changes are under way in the country that the ruling elite cannot afford to ignore. An opposition is essential, even in our less-than-democratic political climate -- an opposition that is capable of stating forcefully what the regime doesn't want to hear. Without it, the only true expression of popular discontent is a vote for "none of the above."
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.