Ceritalah By Karim Raslan
Slick but cynical power-exchange with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev outraged millions of ordinary Russians who vented their anger whenever former strongman Vladimir Putin appeared.
BECAUSE my work is now so South-East Asia-centric, I rarely follow the news from Europe closely.
Still, I think we can learn valuable lessons from the recent developments in Russia.
On Dec 4, Russians went to the polls to elect a new State Duma – their lower house of Parliament.
Although he was not running in the election, the vote was seen as a test of the popularity of strongman Vladimir Putin, who is seeking to regain the presidency of the Russian Federation after three years as Prime Minister, replacing his former trusted aide Dmitry Medvedev.
Most observers expected the United Russia Party to secure a thumping majority.
Putin’s party had, after all, engineered Russia’s remarkable economic turnaround after the fall of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic tenure.
The brusque St Petersburg veteran was the party’s “killer app” – popular and ruthless: an embodiment of Russian machismo.
However, Putin’s return to the centre-stage wasn’t quite so well-received: the slick but cynical power-exchange with Medvedev outraged millions of ordinary Russians.
As a result, Putin’s standing in the opinion polls plummeted. At the same time, public sentiment turned ugly.
Denied access to the mainstream media, ordinary Russians vented their anger whenever Putin appeared.
On one occasion, he was booed at a mixed martial arts match – an incident captured on YouTube and viewed by millions.
Moreover, Putin’s United Russia fared even worse as voters realised that they would be enduring yet another term of massive, institutionalised corruption and abuse of power by high-handed party apparatchiks.
In the end, Putin received a stinging rebuke as his party ended up winning just 49.3% of the vote – leaving it with about 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma compared to its previous 315.
To make matters worse, allegations of electoral fraud – also immortalised on YouTube – have led to demonstrations in Moscow.
More are in the offing, leading some to wonder whether the world will witness yet another “spring”.
Putin reacted in his tough-guy way, sending police out on a crackdown and insisting that he will still run for president in March next year.
Nevertheless, United Russia’s electoral drubbing cannot help but damage his image as a popular, performance-driven autocrat.
What can we learn from Putin’s (excuse my pun) Russian reversal?
First, it again shows the power of the alternative media.
Putin’s control of Russia’s newspapers and televisions may be absolute, but this stranglehold can do nothing to prevent Russians from turning to blogs and social networks to express their disenchantment.
As with the Arab Spring, Facebook, YouTube and Russia’s own VKontakte have emerged as powerful tools to mobilise the masses against autocrats.
Which brings me to my next point: style cannot trump substance, especially when it comes to reform.
Putin’s obsession with spin is legendary – witness the proliferation of photos of him doing manly things like hunting, horseback riding or scuba-diving.
The United Russia party’s website is, likewise, flashy with links to its Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Read through the speeches of Putin or his sidekick Medvedev and you will often find them extolling democracy and moderation.
Still, these carefully-crafted images cannot conceal the fact that poverty and corruption run deep in Russia despite its economic successes.
While oligarchs close to the Kremlin enjoy the high life, the number of people living under the official poverty line increased from 20.6 million in the first quarter of last year to 22.9 million this year.
Also, the abuse of civil liberties under Putin’s watch is just as brutal as anything that occurred under the Tsars or the Communist Party.
Erstwhile allies, long-time dissidents and critical journalists were silenced, jailed and, in some cases, even died under highly suspicious circumstances.
Worst of all is Putin’s stubborn desire to cling to power.
Had he stepped down gracefully in 2008 having served two terms as president, he would have been hailed as the man who revived Russia despite the rough methods he used.
As it is, he now risks being just the latest of a long line of leaders who overstayed their welcome and were toppled.
One can detect painful shades of toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Putin’s blaming of Hillary Clinton for supposedly inciting the protests.
So it’s simply not enough these days for politicians to possess the formal, outward trappings of democracy or social engagement (like Facebook or Twitter pages) if they do nothing to increase the public space and empower their people.
More importantly, they need to realise that they fool no one when they speak of the need for reform but do nothing to change the status quo.
Indeed, such disingenuousness will come back to haunt leaders.
What I find remarkable about the Russian demonstrations against electoral fraud is that most of the protestors were middle-class: urban, young and well-to-do Muscovites who theoretically should have benefitted most from Putin’s management.
They ought to have been, and indeed were, his political base.
However, after years of being lied to, frustrated or simply ignored, Russia’s bourgeoisie (now 20% of the population after the oil boom) are now emerging as the force that could bring Putin down.