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


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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.