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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.