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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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