Russia's post-election protests: a "no" to nihilism

Is the country finally starting to believe in something?

They used to gather in the good times, too - but they were far fewer in number, disunited, and easily dispersed.

Riot policemen, bussed in from the provinces, smirked about Saturday overtime payments as they waited to take their shields and shove the "ones who don't agree" off the streets. It did not usually take long. In those days of the boom which reached its height between 2006 and 2008, there did not seem to be many people who did not agree. At least, they were few who could be bothered to come onto the streets to say so.

For most people agreed that Vladimir Putin was good news. The chaos and instability of the immediate post-Soviet period were gone. There was food in the shops. There were mobile phones in pockets, and package holidays to Phuket and Sharm-el-Shekih.

The "democrats" - young protégés of Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin - were gone from the political scene: more good news. After all, what had they done except assist in bringing the country to its knees, while creating Russia's special brand of bandit capitalism?

That's why the events since Russia's parliamentary elections on December 4th are significant: more people are starting to disagree. And that makes Mr Putin's planned return to the Presidency in March next year more interesting. If you talk to senior Russian officials in private, as I frequently did during my most recent posting to Moscow, as BBC correspondent from 2006-2009, they quickly drop their public pretence that the country has free elections.

One commentator with close ties to the Kremlin explained to me during Russia's last election cycle, from 2007-2008, that there was no choice but to control the voting. "Otherwise," he warned, "we would have a parliament full of Communists and Fascists."

Instead, the opposition alleges, there is a parliament full of "swindlers and thieves". It is less full of them than it was a month ago, because the party so described, United Russia - a vehicle largely invented to support Mr Putin in whatever he should see fit to do - saw its share of the vote dramatically reduced. This seems especially remarkable if the poll was rigged.

The phrase "swindlers and thieves" was popularized by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and politician, who is currently serving a 15 day jail sentence for his part in demonstrations demanding the elections be re-run. I saw Mr Navalny speak at Chatham House when he visited London in September. I asked him then if he was worried for his safety. He replied that his new fame made him harder to threaten; and wondered if Russia's political establishment would consider him more dangerous in jail. They seem to have taken that risk.

Mr Putin still has a good deal of support. Frustration - rather than common cause - unites those who oppose him. This is not a simple case of a young generation demanding change. As Maxim Trudolyubov pointed out in last week's International Herald Tribune, the judge who sent Mr Navalny down was 26 years old. These are not pro-western demonstrations. The flags flapping in the snow-bearing winter winds reveal Communists and Russian nationalists among the ranks of the new dissenters - people who reproach the west for its supposed ideological inspiration of the excesses of Russia's loathed oligarchs.

In the twenty years of its existence, modern Russia has been plagued by nihilism - a fact frequently acknowledged even by President Dmitry Medvedev. The big ideas of history - faith, tsar, and fatherland; Marx, Engels, Lenin - all went, and were not replaced. Cynicism and despair filled the vacuum, allowing the growth of the corruption which has made Russia what it is today.

The most significant element to the protests is their expression of belief in a principle: fair elections. If that continues, the perhaps, two decades after it cast aside communism, Russia may finally start to believe in something. If that happens, this really could come to be seen as a seminal moment.

James Rodgers is Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at London Metropolitan University. He first worked as a journalist in Russia in 1991, and has covered all the main news stories of the post-Soviet era, most recently as BBC Moscow correspondent from 2006-2009. His book, "Reporting Conflict", is due to be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan

 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue