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Moscow on the eve of the presidential election

By Rustem Adagmov (Drugoi)
March 1st 2012

Rustem Adagamov, writing under the name Drugoi, is Russia’s most popular political blogger. At one time a fan of President Medvedev, who appeared to embrace the Russian internet and its young, dynamic class of active users, Adagamov was brought into the Kremlin fold and given access to cover important events in Medvedev’s schedule. Here he outlines how his trust in the outgoing president vanished and sums up the mood in Russia’s capital just days ahead of the country’s presidential election.

For quite some time it seemed that with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia had a chance. I had serious hopes that he was willing to modernise the country and that he would run for a second term. I wrote a lot about him and accompanied him on a number of official visits to places like California where he met Steve Jobs and Russian IT specialists working in Silicon Valley.

Although I am older than Medvedev I started to feel on a similar wavelength to him. Unlike the street boy Putin he was born into an educated family, and as children we both read similar books and listened to similar music. He was a politician I could identify with, and had a chance to become an independent politician with vision, ideas and new horizons.

I was not the only one to have faith in his courage and determination. But on 24 September 2011 he showed that this faith was misplaced when he decided to support rather than run against Putin in the 2012 presidential election. This was probably not his free and independent decision, but demonstrated clear human weakness. Failing to run against his patron was Medvedev’s political hara-kiri.

The relationship between Putin and Medvedev is a bit like that of a father and son. Indeed, Medvedev lost his own father at an early age, and in this we are once again alike – my parents divorced when I was a child, and I grew up constantly seeking a father figure in all the men that I met. Medvedev seems to have found such a father figure in Putin.

For many years the two worked together, the older man never forgetting his friend from St Petersburg and making sure his career prospered. You can imagine Putin telling the current president in a paternal way that he had done a good job but that it was his own turn to return to Kremlin for the sake of Russia’s future success.

Medvedev’s decision to step aside like a good son has led to open derision. Opinion polls show a dramatic collapse in his popularity rating, and he is publicly despised by Twitter users. It is hard to see how he can have a political career after his decision last September, and I would be surprised if he ends up appointed prime minister.

The hopes that we had invested in Medvedev suffered an even more crushing blow in December, following the last parliamentary election. As I sat in front of my computer I kept receiving tonnes of material documenting massive electoral fraud. With each new video clip, photo and email the feeling of horror increased. Who could dare to steal our votes so shamelessly? Then President Medvedev appeared on television to declare the Duma elections to be the most honest and clean in post-Soviet Russian history.

I hate fraud and lies, and I am allergic to cheating in any form. But the situation with the election went far beyond normal, with people faithfully turning up at polling stations only to see their votes shamelessly stolen. According to our constitution, the power in Russia belongs to the entire nation and the election gives the nation the mechanism to exercise it. Fixing an election deprives the nation of its constitutional right, and as a result this has deprived our government – the legislative and executive branches – of its legitimacy. The presence of new deputies in the Duma is simply illegal. By even coming into the Duma building and performing a parliamentary job they are abusing the law. The government, according to Vladimir Simago, has rescued its power in a criminal way.

Previous Russian elections have not been much cleaner. But our situation in those elections was different. Even in 2007 and 2008, United Russia and Putin enjoyed some degree of support and confidence. This all changed with the 2008 world economic crisis. Even though the crisis was global, for us Russians it shone a light on the degree to which Putin and his government had squandered years of oil bonanza. Little was done to modernise or transform Russia while the oil prices were sky high. Take, for instance, the highway between Moscow and St Petersburg. Driving it is a disaster! Instead of paying for such mundane improvements as better roads, billions was transferred to foreign banks.

The way the crisis exposed government failures and the emergence of a new and demanding middle class has led to a critical mass of opposition. The middle class had started filling their cupboards with goods, bought new cars and experienced life in other countries. They had also worked hard for this success and started to care whether or not the government respected them and recognised their civil rights.

The call is for the government’s cynical hypocrisy and double standards to come to an end. We notice how our justice system is programmed to ignore the illegal actions of the elites, while opposition activists exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech are told they have violated the law and taken part in illegal meetings. We notice cases like that against Sergei Magnitsky. We are sick of feeling helpless.

The internet has stepped into an area where previously we had no reliable source of information that was free of censorship. Suddenly the operators of our mobile networks, besides providing technical infrastructure, have become responsible for the development of Russian civil society.
What worries me most is that Putin doesn’t really want to change anything, and seems to be shut away in an ivory tower. Television shows him travelling around the country and meeting all kinds of people, whereas he clearly does not know much about life in the real Russia. His judgement is poor when based on such scanty knowledge. His officials obviously pass on plenty of reports, but they cannot be telling him much about the popular reaction to recent events. This must be why he is so offensive about mass protests, calling them names and comparing their white ribbons – the emblem of the protest movement – to condoms.

Online help

One remarkable change over the last year has been the rapid spread of mobile internet connections. People are now able to go to meetings with smartphones and tablets able to film proceedings and upload everything to the internet. Even the Moscow underground recently promised to develop fast wi-fi internet coverage. The internet has stepped into an area where previously we had no reliable source of information that was free of censorship. Suddenly the operators of our mobile networks, besides providing technical infrastructure, have become responsible for the development of Russian civil society.

The authorities have also latched onto the internet for PR purposes. There is always money available for those willing to help the government with their online efforts. Some can be corrupted, and there are always rumours of blogger accepting payments from the Kremlin or Nashi. Some have made a lot of money out of it, but most of what has been produced has been stupid and brainless, demonstrating that they neither understand the web nor how to win the support of users. Most honest people have given this kind of thing a very wide berth.

For quite some time we have heard rumours about the new law regulating the internet, apparently involving both the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Security Service. But can the government really subject the Russian internet to strict censorship? I doubt it. I have discussed this with experts who say the Chinese model cannot be repeated in Russia as we have too many small, independent providers.

A lack of leaders

Putin has challenged opposition forces by asking who could be the government’s interlocutor in negotiations. This is not unjustified. Over the last twelve years the Kremlin has done its best to destroy all opposition, intriguing and manipulating to bring about internal conflicts within and amongst the opposition groupings. Political leaders have been marginalized and the those that play a technical organizing role (including TV journalist Leonid Parfyonov, journalist and editor Sergei Parkhomenko, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and writer Boris Akunin) are activists rather than leaders. We do not have a Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela who could sit opposite Putin at the negotiating table.

We will get new leaders in the future, but that is still some way off. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky is finally released from prison he will play an important role in our new reality, although I wish he were one of our leaders now. The new president should pardon Khodorkovsky immediately after taking office, and if Putin does not do this it will only speed up his fall.

I have also been impressed by Alexei Navalny’s potential, and think he may have a big future in front of him. If, as the Kremlin maintains, Navalny is a project of the US State Department, I can only congratulate the Americans for doing such a good job! Navalny’s opponents and critics are already trying to dig dirt to use against him, and some claim he was involved in an illegal timber business in Perm. Others have produced short anti-Navalny films that have been uploaded onto YouTube. But when pro-Kremlin hackers infiltrated his email inbox, they found nothing. This says much about him.

Those in the Kremlin and the Duma are afraid of change. They do not understand the new generation that has grown up in post-Soviet Russia. Their primitive logic tells them that all critics must logically either represent foreign interests or be an agent of the Orange Revolution. This is why they are so afraid of Navalny.

There are, however, some more intelligent people in our power elite, who also wonder about how Russia’s future will be. They discuss different scenarios and understand that Putin’s return to the Kremlin does not automatically mean that things will continue as they were before. In Russia’s key political city, Moscow, there is growing discontent, with Muscovites feeling upset and angry at the Kremlin. Few members of the security services are ready to go down fighting for the regime, as the Soviet Interior Minister, Boris Pugo, did, when he shot himself after the collapse of the 1991 coup.

Russia’s current situation does not make me despair but rather to deep concern regarding our future. The protest movement will maintain its momentum at least until summer, and the presidential election will only serve to give it fresh impetus. When Putin’s victory is declared after the first round, most people will think the election was forged. Even more people will come on to the streets. A possible second round of voting will mean the Kremlin will not hesitate to use all kinds of dubious methods to guarantee victory for its candidate.

This forthcoming presidential election will be far more important than the parliamentary one: Russia is ruled by a new Tsar rather than by the toothless parliament. The Duma’s role is purely technical, passing laws as dictated from above. Fixing Putin’s presidential victory will be even harder for the people to accept than a stolen parliamentary election.

The danger for Russia if there is no significant change is all too clear. I want my country to integrate with Europe, and yet I see it moving further in the opposite direction, towards an Asian political and social model that I think will be highly detrimental. I also see Russia propping up dictators in the Middle East, once more driving a great wedge between our values, as perceived abroad, and those of the west. For me, our values should be similar to those of our European neighbours, and the sooner we take a decisive step in this political direction, the better.

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