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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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