Can Russia escape from oppression?

In light of constitutional changes to silence dissent, looks at what alternatives, if any, the Russian people can call upon to improve democracy

Photo credit: SOMIZ

Photo credit: SOMIZ

Since his re-election, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has made unconstitutional moves to silence dissent and tighten restrictions on freedom of expression. Police raids of protestors’ homes the day before last week’s protest, by police armed with assault rifles, suggests a shift towards further suppression of expression, as Putin begins his new six-year term in office.

An opposition rally last week drew tens of thousands of Russian citizens to the streets. Protestors were opposing new laws designed to curb protests and increase fines for violations of public order at street demonstrations.

Protestors exercising their fundamental right to speak could face fines as high as around £6,000 for taking part in a protest and as much as £20,000 for organising one.

The legitimacy of a government derives from the consent of the governed. In Russia, consent was equated with a lack of presidential candidates, a delimiting political spectrum and a lack of genuine Presidential contention, but were there viable alternatives?

The strongest adversaries to the President elect were the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the popular nationalist Liberal Democratic Party leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zyuganov has a disturbing history of antisemitism whilst Zhirinovsky has endorsed the deportation of the Chinese from the Far East of Russia, and has explicitly expressed his condemnation for all Turks and Caucasians.

The two opponents are hardly suitable alternatives for either Russia or the international community to embrace. Despite the allegations of electoral misconduct, it is unsurprising that the Russian people were forced in the elections to place their faith in a flawed but orderly system of government.

After this year’s election, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and Golos, a Russian civilian organisation established in 2000 to protect Russia’s electoral rights, reported around 5,000 election fraud complaints nationwide and four election monitors were reportedly beaten by police.

Allegations of corruption included voters casting their ballots outside the designated polling stations and workers pressured into voting by their bosses at state-run corporations.

Voters were allegedly driven to polling stations where they were not registered to vote or involved in “carousel voting”, which meant voters were casting ballots at multiple stations. The use of over two million absentee ballots and ballot stuffing was also criticised.

Should we in the west care? Intervene even? The feasibility of such a move is low. Despite the Cold War, Russia remains a permanent fixture in the United Nations Security Council and has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The elections were undeniably skewed, but it is unlikely Putin would have received less than 50 per cent of the vote. The main causes for concern are the lack of an alternative, the abuse of the government’s resources to secure an inevitable electoral result and the absence of any real concessions, despite December’s democratic demands.

At this stage the political landscape is stunted. Press censorship is worryingly prevalent and the majority of the population’s primary concerns centre around their own economic interest, rather than wider political rights. The attraction of daily normalcy that comes with political stability should not be overlooked.

According to the Levada Center, 62 per cent of December’s protesters had at least one university degree, while a quarter were younger than 25, and more than half were under 40. It is Russia’s urban and educated youth who hold the power to shake the political establishment and demand real alternatives in the coming years.

The west, without the option of endorsing a viable alternative, can only wait for the new Russian generation to bring about change. These new laws are a salient signal of the inevitably difficult and lengthy struggle to come.

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