Despite Putin, change is underway in Russia

Demonstrations can no longer be broken up with a few whacks.

The grimness of Grozny that day was only slightly softened by mild air of the early Caucasus spring. The centre of Chechnya's main city was a wasteland of fractured masonry. High-rise buildings, where they still stood, were scarred with blackened circles where shells had hit. Here and there, though, there were signs for polling stations.

It was the 26th of March 2000, and I was reporting on the election which would put Vladimir Putin in Kremlin's top job for the first time. Mr Putin had gathered great political capital from his promise to take a tough line with the separatist fighters then waging war on Moscow's control of the North Caucasus.

His first presidency was forged in this atmosphere of confrontation, and his entire political career has had this theme running through it. His campaign - such as it was - for this latest victory - also saw him warning against those who, he said, were seeking to interfere in Russia's affairs.

Political discourses of post-Soviet Russia have often been dominated by the sense that everything is a zero-sum game. In my time as a correspondent based in Moscow for the BBC, I heard the complaint from business people and diplomats alike: everything was a battle. No issue, it seemed, could be resolved in a way that would permit different points of view to co-exist.

Mr Putin has presided over that system. His first election victory was a response to the chaos which followed the collapse of communism. He seems to have understood better than most - including many of his critics outside the country - what would go down well with an electorate worn out by western-backed, wrongheaded, and unjust economic reforms.

He seems to have understood less well that things have changed since then. The generation who saw their humiliated parents struggling to put food on the table in the 1990s are no longer satisfied with the latest digital devices and the prospect of package holidays in the sun; nor are their parents. As Masha Gessen argued in the Observer, this is an opposition which includes a wide variety of voices.

That diversity may undermine unity. And their single demand after the parliamentary elections in December, that the vote be re-run, was ignored - with, as Sunday's result showed, little or no short-term consequence for Mr Putin.

Change is underway, though. On the day of the election, I exchanged messages with a friend of mine, Alexandra Eritsyan, a publisher from Moscow - and one of those who did not vote for Mr Putin. "I don't want a revolution, I don't have this irrational desire to see existing people in power go to jail," she said."I want peace, freedom and booming economy; where people can work and build careers and businesses. It can't happen at once but over time it can and I hope it will...I think lately something has shifted, a lot of people realized they want to be respected and that is great."

The extreme hardship of the 1990s has put many in Russia off the idea of radical, rapid, change. That does not mean that it is impossible, just less likely. At the launch last week of a new report published by Chatham House Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West one of the authors, Lilia Shevtsova, told the story of a police officer offering an opinion on opposition demonstrators. "If there are two thousand, we will whack them. If twenty thousand, we will watch them. If two hundred thousand, we will join them."

Russia is entering a new phase of its post-Soviet life. The days when demonstrations were small enough to be broken up with a few whacks have passed. The numbers have grown - but not yet to the stage where the officer and his colleagues might be willing to switch sides. Now it's time to watch what happens.

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 in June by Palgrave Macmillan.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.