Recent opposition rallies against the election results in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the south Russian city of Astrakhan demonstrated the omissions of the Russian domestic policy. Russian citizens are no longer satisfied with the economic growth of the last twelve years. The rallies draw attention to the failure of the ruling elite to take into consideration the opinion of society. The government – society dialogue has not been established. This essay seeks to discuss the attempts to bridge the Russian leadership with its citizens.
2000 – 2012: Main Achievements
When Vladimir Putin inherited the Russian Federation from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, it was a troubled state undermined by the 1998 economic crisis and failure of the ruble, failed democratic reforms, bargaining with the regions and the Chechen War. Thus, GDP per capita in 2000 constituted $1,775, and rose from $2,101 in 2001 to $11,700 in 2008. Although Western experts explain this as being a result of high oil prices, one cannot neglect the achievement of Putin’s government in modernizing and stabilizing the economy. Unemployment decreased from 10.6% in 2000 to 6.3% in 2008. Foreign direct investment increased from $2.71 billion in 2000 to $75 billion in 2008. Putin stabilized the economy, strengthened power vertically, and in this way prevented Russia from experiencing a federal collapse.
Needless to say, these achievements improved the living conditions of the Russian citizens. Thus, the number of internet users in Russia increased from 20 per 1,000 citizens in 2000 to 450 per 1,000 in 2010, and tourist travel abroad rose from 4.1 million in 2000 to 9.1 million in 2010. These positive changes can be seen in the growing popular support of the president. The surveys of VCIOM and the Levada Center showed the presidential approval in Russia rising from 32% in 2000 to 86% in 2008, and personal rating of Putin growing from 3.5 to 7.5 (on 10-point scale).
Nevertheless, more recent surveys of the Levada Center demonstrate the fall of the ratings of the Russian president and prime minister. Putin’s approval rating dropped from 57 in January 2010 to 37 in March 2012. As for Medvedev, a survey shows the decrease in the approval of his policies from 52 to 23 in the same time period (both indices are based on a 100-point scale). These numbers can be illustrated by the protests in the big cities of the Russian Federation. Society inevitably draws attention to the lack of democratic achievements, and the importance of society for politics.
To Prevent the Collapse
It would be a mistake to think that the Russian leadership had no idea about public dissatisfaction. It has always been aware of the dynamics of the public support as well as the main gaps in the policies. I would like to think that the Russian government was busy with the stabilizing economy, fight with terrorism, overcoming an economic crisis and the protection of Russian-speakers in the near abroad. This is the reason why it did not manage to establish dialogue with society. The mass protests against the election results were stimuli for the power holders to move closer to their citizens. Here I would like to quote a favorite expression of a Kremlin official that “in Russia, democracy is gradually rising from its knees.” Is that true?
The Russian president and prime minister clearly understood the necessity for the dialogue. It is reflected in the article of Vladimir Putin “Democracy and the Quality of Government” published in Kommersant in early February
I believe that democracy includes both the fundamental right of the people to choose a government and also the possibility to continuously influence it and its process of decision-making. Hence, democracy needs mechanisms of regular and direct action and efficient channels for dialogue, public control, communication and feedback.
This article appeared in the series of papers produced by Russian Prime Minister Putin in recent months. The works are devoted to different issues: economic policies, democratization, social policies, ethnic issues, etc. Moreover, in mid-March 2012, a document called STRATEGY – 2020 was released. It is a 900-page program for the development of the Russian state until 2020. It covers a broad range of issues, such as economic development, investment, stimulation of business, reforms in the pension system, education, healthcare, foreign policy and many others. 21 expert groups worked on this strategy under the patronage of the Russian president and government. All these articles and STRATEGY suggest the awareness of the Kremlin about the main social issues and its reaction to them.
Recently, Medvedev declared the creation of a public channel in Russia in 2013. The Russian president has maintained that the new station “will be the freest television channel in Russia.” However, it is the Russian government who will create the autonomous non-commercial organization, which will act as the channel’s founder, board of editors and broadcaster. The organization’s chief, who will also be the channel’s editor-in-chef, will be appointed by the president. Moreover, Medvedev said that the public broadcaster will be financed in its early stages with a government loan. To sum up, it seems to me that the importance of this channel is overestimated. Since the censorship will be conducted by the governmental appointee and the loan will be provided from the state budget, the channel may satisfy no one.
Another “hobby” of the Russian government is social networks. Russian leaders pay particular attention to the communication with the electorate online. Internet democracy is given particular attention in the mentioned article of Putin. Thus, the prime minister stands for the development of the legislature through the internet, such as the submission of drafts. However, in my opinion, this can hardly influence policy-making in the Russian Federation: The regulation of content in Russian internet space is very high.
In late 2011, ex-finance minister Alexey Kudrin declared the creation of the Civil Initiative Committee that is to be a non-party organization which will collaborate with the different parties and civil organizations. The organization, which will be an advisory body on political and economic issues under President-elect Vladimir Putin, will be a counterpart to outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev’s Open Government project. Medvedev put forward the idea to create the so-called Big, or Open, Government, in his state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly last year, and then confirmed it at the United Russia Congress. He believes that the future cabinet, to be formed after the inauguration of the new Russian president in May, should take into account the views of all social groups and have continuous feedback from society. These projects and institutions can be seen as an attempt of the government to establish a link with society. Although it is too early to evaluate the significance of these steps, one can see the progress of the Russian government from the perspective of the ordinary people.
In early April 2012, a new law on the registration of the political parties came into force in the Russian Federation. The law reduces the membership requirement for registering a party to 500 people from the previous 40,000. It also abolishes the requirement for parties to collect voter signatures in order to take part in elections. Around 140 parties applied for registration to the Ministry of Justice in April. Together with the 2011 amendment to the electoral law, which decreased the threshold from 7% to 5%, this may become a good provision to increase political participation, though starting from 2016.
Is It Really Rising?
The hunger strike of the opposition candidate for Astrakhan’s major post Shein is over. It has been more than forty days since the candidate that lost the race began staying in front of the city court building. Despite the support of his action by five-thousand people led by famous Russian activists and artists, and the meeting of Shein with the head of the Russian election committee, the latter did not recognize the election fraud as having been significant. The results were not abrogated.
The law on the measures against the organizers and participants of the mass actions is still valid and has even been amended. The deputies of United Russia proposed to send arrested people to the streets of the cities in order to resurface the urban landscape. The punk group Pussy Riots is under arrest due to their performance on the roof of a church. The desecration of the church by the punks undoubtedly deserves a punishment. However, the importance of this action is that the young people seeking to draw the attention of the authorities to the social problems chose this manner.
In this regard, one can hardly say that the Kremlin is concerned about the opinion of the Russian citizens. To a limited extent, Russian authorities pretend they care about it, however, when it comes to the real steps, one can see the neglect.
Prospects for Future
The 2000 – 2008 years of Putin’s presidency were quite successful. Economic stability determined the public support of the president. However, the 2008 economic crisis, war in Georgia, and the election fraud undermined the popular support. The importance of the people for the state policies shifted. Although, despite the opinion of some Western experts that these protests cannot subvert the power of Putin simply because there is no alternative, Putin has to take them into consideration. The stability of the Russian state is very young. Therefore, after the completing the tasks of the economic and political stabilization of the Russian state, it is important to proceed with establishing dialogue with society. This is particularly important for the Russian economy, which according to the recent article of Putin, will be based on wider private sector. Moreover, it is crucial for foreign investments.
Although the Western experts seem to exaggerate the share and influence of the middle class in Russia, as well as the consciousness of the Russian citizens, it is noteworthy that the activity of the population is growing. Another important point is that the Russian president and government are aware of the main tensions in Russian society and react to them. The initial steps to solve the existing problems can be seen.
To conclude, the third presidential term of Putin should be devoted to the bridging of Russian authority and society. This can be a pragmatic step toward stabilizing the economy and improving the image of the country in the international arena. Moreover, it is an important step in the democratization of Russia.
1. Data of the World Bank
2. Data of the World Bank
3. “Call Back Yesterday,” The Economist, March 3, 2012
4. Data of VCIOM and Levada Center
5. Data of Levada Center, available from http://www.levada.ru/
6. Putin, Vladimir “Democracy and the Quality of Government,” available from the web-site of the Russian prime minister http://premier.gov.ru/eng/events/news/18006/
7. Official web site of the Russian prime minister http://premier.gov.ru/eng/
8. STRATEGY-2020; official web-site http://strategy2020.rian.ru/
9. “Russia’s Public TV to be Launched Next Year,” RIA Novosti, April 17, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/russia/20120417/172876301.html
10. “Public Television in Russia May End Up Satisfying No One,” RIA Novosti, April 18, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20120418/172900848.html
11. “Web Users to 'Make Russia Better' - Medvedev,” RIA Novosti, April 18, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/russia/20120418/172892261.html
12. Putin, Vladimir “Democracy and the Quality of Government,” available from the web site of the Russian prime minister http://premier.gov.ru/eng/events/news/18006/
13. “Kudrin Sets Up Civil Initiatives Fund as Putin Think-Tank,” RIA Novosti, April 5, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/society/20120405/172631234.html
14. “Medvedev to meet Open Government experts,” Strategic Culture Foundation, April 17, 2012, http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2012/04/17/medvedev-to-meet-open-government-experts.html
15. “Over 140 Russian Political Parties Apply for Registration,” RIA Novosti, April 18, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/society/20120419/172923775.html
16. “Opposition Activist Ends 40-Day Hunger Strike,” RIA Novosti, April 24, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/society/20120424/173010844.html
17. “Pussy Riot to Remain Behind Bars”, RIA Novosti, April 19, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/trend/pussy_riot_2012/