A new perestroika?

January 28, 2012

OPTIMISTS IN Russia believe that the ruling party’s poor showing in last year’s parliamentary elections and the mass anti-government protests that have followed augur a political transformation. “The era of managed democracy is over,” liberal presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov proclaimed to Reuters. “We now have all the pieces in place to move very fast to being a real democratic country.” Wrote commentator Stanislav Belkovsky in the magazine Sobesednik: “The country has entered the active phase of a perestroika-2.”

The only problem is that this news seems not to have reached Vladi­mir Putin, the man who has managed the Russian political system for the past dozen years. Mr. Putin, who is up for a six-year-term as president in an election March 4, is behaving as if nothing in Russia has changed. Apart from publishing a bland article in a state newspaper, he has done little to promote his candidacy; his aides say that he doesn’t have time to campaign or participate in debates.

Mr. Putin’s bureaucrats and police, meanwhile, are following the same script of past elections. On Tuesday they said that opposition candidate Gregor Yavlinsky had failed to gather the necessary 2 million signatures to appear on the ballot, even though his party received more than that many votes in the December election. The independent election-monitoring organization Golos, which was harassed before that vote, was suddenly informed that it must move out of its offices in the first week of March.

Meanwhile Russian newspapers are focusing on what they see as the only item of suspense in the election: whether Mr. Putin will be declared the victor in the first round, which would require him to receive more than 50 percent of the vote, or will accept a runoff against his biggest challenger. Only there isn’t much suspense: The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that the Kremlin had sent out instructions to the regions that the election “must be held in a single round.” This despite the fact that even official polls show Mr. Putin with barely more than 50 percent support, following a parliamentary election in which massive ballot-box stuffing failed to push the ruling party above 50 percent.

Some Russian analysts are warning that if Mr. Putin persists in this autocracy-as-usual approach he could provoke an even bigger uprising by Russians, who have already gathered for the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But to judge from the official media, if the president perceives a threat, he attributes it to the newly arrived U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul. Mr. McFaul has been pilloried for attending a meeting with opposition activists; it is suggested, darkly, that he has been sent to Russia to foment a revolution.

That’s not true, of course; Mr. Putin should know the risk-averse Obama administration better than that. If Russians rise up, it won’t be because they were inspired by Mr. McFaul, or President Obama; it will be because their own leader refused to hear them.

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