White is the colour of political protest in Russia: it stands for clean elections and clean government. Vladimir Putin’s ex-KGB regime might in theory be able to provide the first of these, organising a more or less fair contest in the presidential election on March 4. But the second is impossible: theft and deceit are not just problems in the Russian political system — they are the system.
Russian political life has awoken from a 12-year coma. After the upheavals of the 1990s, stability and rising living standards mattered far more than the openness of political procedures or the contestability of official decisions. Now that has changed. Politics, once dismissed with a weary shrug, is the hottest topic in Moscow and other big cities. The internet is humming with parodies, many savagely funny, of Putin and his cronies. One of the best is a Borat-style hymn of praise to the Russian leader by a Tajik crooner, so pitch-perfect in its rendering of the style of official pro-Putin propaganda that many found it hard to work out if it was indeed a spoof, or just a particularly grotesque example of the real thing.
A more brutal take was from some beefy paratrooper veterans, growling: “You’re just like me, a man not a god. I’m just like you, a man not a sod.” That too became an instant hit on YouTube. When the band appeared on stage at the latest big opposition demonstration on February 4, the crowd already knew the words. The song’s success highlights two important trends. One is the interaction between the internet and political protest. That is quite new in Russia, where in previous years people went online to play games, visit dating sites, and follow celebrity gossip. Now cyberspace has become the greenhouse for opposition political culture. The other point, no less sinister for the regime, is that the habits of mockery have spread to parts of society that used to be rock-solid supporters of the regime, such as veterans of elite military units.
The unselfconscious use of the “white” label by the protesters is in itself a big shift too, and encapsulates the long march to normality in Russian politics in the past 20 years. When I first went to the Soviet Union, the “whites” were an exotic and subversive breed — monarchists and Orthodox nationalists, who had been wiped from the political landscape under one-party Communist rule. They competed with the “reds” (Soviet nostalgists who hoped to put the old system back together) and the “browns” (Russian ethnic chauvinists, with a strong neo-Nazi streak).
The “whites” were a weak force in the Soviet Union and even weaker in the democratic Russia that arose from its ruins. I met the self-proclaimed Union of Aristocrats — a weird and shabby lot, fiercely determined to assert their breeding and birthright. I met some “whites” from abroad too, also weird, but most unshabby, who had returned from Paris, New Jersey, California and Melbourne to curse the regime in its death throes. The “whites” of those days were rather sceptical of democracy, and the distaste was mutual. If you wanted Russia to become a liberal law-governed state, rooted in Western values, then nationalism, autocracy and Orthodoxy — the triptych values of the “white” ideal — did not seem a great deal better than dialectical materialism and proletarian internationalism.
Amid the collapse of Communism, the old “whites” lost out. Politicians such as Boris Yeltsin liked some of the trappings of imperial Russia, such as the double-headed eagle and a quasi-establishment role for the Russian Orthodox Church. History books treated the white generals of the civil war era more fairly. People were fascinated by the Tsarist reformers, such as Piotr Stolypin and Sergei de Witte. But the politicians of the 1990s wanted a functioning capitalist economy, not a reversion to the failed system that had preceded the Communist one. Monarchist and nationalist parties stayed on the margins of politics. The dead Romanovs were reburied decently, but nobody took seriously any attempt to restore the live ones to power.
In retrospect, the big failure of those years was to neglect the “white” cause that now inspires the demonstrators: the rule of law. Replacing debased and demolished Soviet institutions was hard; so was finding people with the attitudes and experience needed to make a law-governed society work. The institutions that did grow up had nothing to do with legality and everything to do with power. Business and bureaucratic interests fused, initially with the tycoons — the oligarchs — gaining the upper hand; and after 1999, with Mr Putin in charge, their replacement, the siloviki or men of power.
The two most important characteristics of Russian politics in the past 20 years have been pretence and colossal self-enrichment. The pretence is of democracy. Russia has elections where the results are known in advance, just as it has criminal trials where the verdict is decided in advance, and television news where the running order depends not on the events of the day but the worldview that officials want displayed. Yet the truth is that Russia’s state agencies and political procedures are a mirror image of what one might expect. The police exist not to prevent crime, but to perpetrate it. Politicians do not serve voters; they boss them about. Officials do not protect the public interest; they prey on it.
The colossal self-enrichment began when Russia was still poor, with the looting of natural resource industries. Even in the most ramshackle economy, you can make money digging things out of the ground. But the looting machine that has grown up since the 1990s is far more sophisticated. It involves companies that play complex games on international energy markets, shovelling tens of billions of dollars into obscure offshore companies whose ultimate ownership is unclear. It also involves the collection of huge bureaucratic “rents” — payments extracted from the system by corrupt officials who abuse their position.
One such fraud was uncovered by a lawyer called Sergei Magnitsky, working for the Anglo-American financier Bill Browder. He was arrested on a trumped-up charge, and died in agony in prison from an untreated medical complaint. Browder has set up a formidable team to avenge Magnitsky’s death by exposing the regime’s looting and wrongdoing. His rough estimate is that the top 1,000 people in Russia have stolen a trillion dollars (£600 billion) in the past ten years. Much of that has been laundered in London, New York, Frankfurt and Zurich, with hefty kickbacks for the Western bankers involved. That is one reason why the Putin regime has received such a soft ride from the outside world. Another is tough libel laws, which make it an expensive and risky business to report the specifics of Russia’s business shenanigans.
Simple greed is only part of the story. Ideology plays a role too. The spooks’ priesthood of the siloviki is not a coherent political movement, but they do share some deeply-held ideas about the Russian state and its destiny. They do not mourn Communism (as insiders in the old system, they know that the one-party state and the planned economy simply did not work). But they do mourn Soviet power: Putin notoriously called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century. They venerate the old KGB and its achievements. It is rather as if a bunch of ex-Gestapo types were running modern Germany, believing Nazism was flawed but that the Third Reich was glorious.
Putin’s great good fortune was that a soaring oil price masked the contradictions that the new “whites” are now highlighting. Was Russia really a democracy? Or was it a state in which the rulers rigged elections? Yeltsin started the rigging in the mid-1990s; Putin merely continued it. Few minded. Rising living standards blunted the edge of dissatisfaction. Moreover, the opposition politicians seemed a ragtag lot: with no alternative to Putin in sight, protest was hardly a rewarding pursuit.
Another big contradiction was about economics: was Russia a free-market economy, or a dirigiste one where the route to prosperity came via political influence? Russia’s new business class were too busy making money to worry much about the way the system worked. The arrest in 2003 and imprisonment after a show trial of the country’s richest man, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was a one-off: he had meddled in politics, ignored warnings and got his comeuppance. For lesser business folk the corrupt and predatory bureaucracy was a nuisance, raising costs and distorting decision-making. But it was a manageable risk.
That perception has changed hugely in recent years. Russian-style “corporate raids” in which corrupt officials seize companies and loot them have become a pressing menace for honest businesses. Russian entrepreneurs first sent their children abroad to study. Then they sent their spouses there for safety, and increasingly have moved their assets too. Russian elections give people little chance to vote meaningfully with their ballot papers. But capital flight and emigration show that they are voting with their wallets and their feet.
A third buried contradiction has been about history. Is Russia a post-Communist country, a modified revival of the pre-1917 state, or one still in the grip of Bolshevik nostalgia? Putin restored the Soviet-era national anthem, and Lenin remains embalmed in his macabre mausoleum on Red Square. But inside the Kremlin the ex-KGB elite drank toasts with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. And a chapel opened inside the nearby Lubyanka — headquarters of the KGB’s successor organisation, the FSB. That contradiction is the farthest from resolution. Protestors in Moscow include those who regard the Soviet past with revulsion, nostalgia or apathy. But the distinctive black, yellow and white flags of the ultra-nationalists are there in force too. The people carrying them are closer to the “old whites” of the early 1990s. They may not wish to restore the Romanovs, but they have messianic ideas about Russia’s national destiny and little time for the interests of its neighbours. The argument between these camps is yet to come.
The revulsion against the Putin regime is now palpable. The principal cause is the overpowering stench of corruption, all the more noticeable because so little has been achieved during a decade when Russia’s leaders had almost unlimited financial and political resources. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise the country has been squandered. Russia still has dreadful roads, clapped-out railways, a grossly inadequate power grid, abominable healthcare and failing public institutions of every kind.
Russians have known this for years. Opinion polls have long shown dissatisfaction with every public service, from education to the criminal justice system. But the dissatisfaction was tempered with personal support for Putin, whose opinion ratings rarely fell below 70 per cent. Now that has changed, and events that would have once aroused only a shrug prompt a collective snarl of outrage. The big trigger for discontent has been election-rigging. The elections in December to the Russian parliament’s lower house, the Duma, were almost comically unfair. Not only were opposition parties hugely disadvantaged by skewed rules and arbitrary decision-making, as well as media coverage that grotesquely favoured Putin’s United Russia party, but the vote itself was a sham. Millions of phoney ballot papers were cast on one side; millions of votes for opposition parties simply discarded or ignored.
The demand for clean elections — a rerun of the parliamentary election and a fair presidential contest — are at the heart of the new “white” cause. The tens of thousands of protesters who have filled the parks and squares of Moscow in recent weeks are of all political views and none. They include Communists, liberals, nationalists and even some who would vote for Putin. What unites them is a demand to be taken seriously, for their votes to count.
The protests have holed the Putin regime below the waterline. The great edifice created during the past 12 years is not going to capsize soon. But the system, and particularly the image of the “First Person” (as Putin is colloquially known), has been fatally weakened.
The central feature of the collapse is that Putin himself has come to look ridiculous. In the first years of his reign, the public was hungry for a public figure who looked vigorous and decisive. Retouched photographs of Putin’s manly torso, displayed on the judo mat (his favourite sport), fishing or swimming, and his terse, punchy speaking style (enlivened with occasional bursts of gangster slang) were a refreshing contrast to the shambolic style of Boris Yeltsin — even, or especially, if they made foreigners shudder. Russians no longer found Yeltsin’s drunken, unpunctual, grandfatherly style endearing. They wanted someone who mixed pizzazz with sober decision-making.
This public hunger for a quasi-monarch masked Putin’s shortcomings. He funked some big crises, such as the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2001 and the botched rescue that followed. His reliance on ex-KGB pals (and their colossal enrichment) escaped censure too. After all, many Russians said, these were people who knew how to get things done. (Plenty of Westerners, especially in Germany, still echo that sentiment.) It also helped that oil and gas prices boomed. Had Yeltsin’s governments enjoyed that windfall, Russians might remember his rule more kindly.
Putin’s other big asset was a divided and irrelevant opposition. He has kept it that way. The biggest party, the Communists, is still led by Gennady Zyuganov, who has been losing elections since the mid-1990s. Potentially more serious challengers, such as the charismatic chess champion Garry Kasparov, have been hamstrung by constant harassment when they want to campaign, and portrayed in the media as foreign-backed dilettantes. Several of the parties, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democrats (clownishly extreme nationalists who dependably vote for the Kremlin line), exist solely to siphon off support from any real political force that might try to occupy the same niche.
The unique constellation of popular sentiment and economic circumstance that made all this possible is now changing — irreversibly. It is not just that the stunts that once impressed Russians now jar and irritate them. A recent example was a Black Sea diving trip where Putin “happened” to discover two antique amphorae on the sea-bed. A shame-faced archaeologist later admitted that the trophies had been carefully placed there for PR reasons. Though Putin is still the least unpopular politician in Russia, he can no longer appear before a crowd at a big sporting or cultural event without being booed. This became humiliatingly clear at a martial arts contest in Moscow last November, where Putin took the microphone to congratulate the winner and received a public roasting, with boos and catcalls that even the pliant official media struggled to disguise.
Secondly, the ghosts of the 1990s no longer spook the voters. For years, the idea of a weak Russia being looted by spivs and their foreign accomplices resonated powerfully with voters. They had seen their meagre savings vanish in the inflationary frenzy of the Soviet collapse. Their pathetic wages and pensions were paid late. Privatisation gave them worthless vouchers, while enriching a narrow class of tycoons. That experience discredited the whole idea of democracy (and the state propaganda machine under Putin ensured that the connection remained in many voters’ minds). It also did not help that many senior opposition figures, such as the otherwise impressive Boris Nemtsov, or the former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, were inextricably linked in voters’ minds with the scams and sleaze of the 1990s.
But that has changed. Now, stagnation, not instability, riles the voters. It seems intolerable that the tired, visionless Putin and his jowly grey cronies will run Russia for at least another 12 years. The constitution, changed while he has been taking a turn as prime minister and his sidekick Dmitry Medvedev keeps the presidential seat warm for him, allows him two more terms, now extended from four to six years. A generation of Russians will have grown up under Putin’s exclusive tutelage. In Russia’s thriving consumer society, people have got used to choice and excellence in their private lives; now they want it in public life too.
On top of all that, the money has run out. Russia’s economy remains precariously balanced on a narrow base of natural resource industries that are shamefully obsolescent. The cold snap in Europe highlighted the inability of Russia’s gas industry to supply its customers reliably. The corrupt political and bureaucratic machine that Putin has created grows like a cancer, monstrously parasitical on the rest of the economy. Each year the burden grows, as more and more snouts cram into the trough. The resulting system is dependent not just on a high oil price, but a rising one. Its survival is an arithmetical impossibility.
The regime’s response to the protests has been revealingly weak. Gimmicks and disconnected rhetorical flourishes paint a picture of confusion. Putin contemptuously dismissed the protesters, claiming to believe that the white ribbons were condoms, and the cause was safe sex. His aides portray them as spoiled Muscovites, out of touch with the real Russia. Others invoke the spectre of Western interference, claiming that opposition leaders are in the pay of the State Department or MI6.
The harshest term of derision is the “orange plague” — a reference to the revolution in Ukraine in 2004-05, also sparked by vote-rigging, which toppled the bureaucratic and corrupt regime of Leonid Kuchma. Propagandists highlight both the Western involvement in those events (many of the leading activists had ties to American-financed democracy-promotion programmes) and to the disappointing aftermath (the “orange” politicians, having eventually won the elections, proved just as corrupt and incompetent as their predecessors). That cuts little ice now. The West in its current woebegone state hardly seems capable of intrusive manipulation of Russian politics. And hacked emails from pro-Putin public figures now available on the internet reveal a degree of cynicism and dirty tricks that further erode the regime’s authority and dignity.
Putin loyalists have also summoned up big but unconvincing counter-demonstrations, of factory workers and government employees who readily admit that they are paid to attend. Putin has made concessions too — restoring elections for governors in Russia’s provinces, and cracking down on one of the most unpopular bureaucratic privileges, the abuse of police-style sirens and blue lights. He has conceded that he may have to face a run-off election, rather than winning the presidency outright (a big sign of weakness). The only really serious change has been to allow opposition figures on television: but that has dangers of its own. It is harder to demonise them or dismiss them as marginal when they have been allowed into the sanctuary of the regime’s propaganda temple.
As so often in the past, the regime is offering a simulacrum of reform, rather than the real thing. The difference this time is that the public minds about being misled.
None of that is enough to paint Russia white. The demonstrators have removed Putin’s political legitimacy. But they are too few in number, and too Moscow-based, to remove him before the March 4 election. No candidate offers a real challenge and protests are not yet a battering ram that could open the system and permit a truly free election. The great gulf in Russian politics has always been between the intelligentsia and the narod — the people. The growth of a real middle class is beginning to bridge that gap. But that is the work of decades.
The real question is what happens after the election. In theory, Putin could relaunch himself. Optimists remember bouts of real reforms in the past. It was Putin who pushed through the flat tax (of 13 per cent) in 2001, which has been a huge success. In the same year Russia introduced full private ownership of land, breaking a great collectivist taboo that even predated the Bolshevik revolution. Putin has also nudged Russia towards full membership of the World Trade Organisation.
But a convincing relaunch seems unlikely. Putin’s roots are so deep within the corrupt system he has created that he cannot change it without toppling his own position. The biggest threat would be a free media. It would necessarily ask questions on two devastatingly sensitive topics. Where did the money go? And who authorised the murders of investigative journalists? The web of corruption leads to the very top of the political system. Perhaps even more alarming would be questions about the mysterious apartment-block bombings of late 1999, in which 293 Russians died. The authorities blamed shadowy terrorist groups. But the investigation was perfunctory and the huge beneficiary of the public panic that ensued was the then new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who promptly succeeded the stricken Yeltsin as president. One of the bombings, in the provincial town of Ryazan, was botched — and the culprits turned out to be officers of the secret police, the FSB. Every Russian journalist or politician who has tried to investigate these crimes has ended up in jail, in exile, or dead.
More likely is that Putin’s colleagues try to throw him overboard, once the election is safely out of the way. Their own ranks look pretty talentless. Some believe that a bargain is looming with the country’s best-known political prisoner, the former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has spent nearly a decade behind bars on bogus fraud charges. In late January he issued a public appeal — not backing the protesters, but urging them to talk to Putin to reshape Russian politics. Khodorkovsky, and perhaps only he, could guarantee a safe exit for the current regime, while at the same time leading Russia to the destiny it deserves: a free, lawful society, at peace with its citizens and its neighbours. That may seem wild fantasy. But so do most things in Russia, until they happen.