Thursday, 8 December 2011

Will there be a Soviet Spring?

Tensions are high in Russia as former soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has added his voice to the growing list of individuals calling for Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin to scrap the results of Russia's recent parliamentary elections and start the ballot process from scratch.

Despite widespread allegations of vote rigging and ballot-box stuffing, Putin's United Russia party saw their share of the vote in the Duma (the Russian representative assembly) drop below 50% of the total vote for the first time since Putin came to power twelve years ago. Gorbachev, the Nobel laureate who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, called the elections 'dishonest' and urged the Kremlin to change its authoritarian stance towards pro-democracy protestors.

The new Russian constitution allows a candidate to stand for two six-year terms, meaning that if Putin is re-elected in next year's presidential election, he could retain the power in Russia until 2024. However, those who are pressing for political and economic reform in Russia will realise that the single biggest obstacle to achieving those goals is Putin himself. Questions are rightly beginning to be asked about increasing corruption, politically-motivated arrests and the murders of Putin's opponents.

Following Boris Yeltsin's disastrous free-market reforms in the early nineties, many Russians adopted a stoically fatalist attitude towards politics. Up to now, most Russians had accepted an informal social contract whereby they allowed the state to restrict their personal freedoms to a degree in return for political stability and rising living standards. Now that those living standards are stagnating in the aftermath of the global political crisis and Russia's younger generation are able to compare their lives to those in the rest of Europe because of easy access to travel and Wi-fi (ironically, a consequence of one of the regime's genuine successes), discontent is spilling out onto the streets of Russia's largest cities.

Quality of life is not the only thing waning in the former superpower. Russia's indomitable figurehead is no longer the immensely powerful man that he once was. A million people have seen YouTube videos of Putin being booed at a judo competition in his constituency heartlands. Imprisoned anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny has poked fun at Putin's hardman image and his posts have made him one of the most popular political commentators in Russia.

The state has transported 5,000 police and interior ministry troops into Moscow in response to a Facebook campaign that has attracted a pledge from over 40,000 people to attend demonstrations this weekend in Triumfalnaya Square and Revolution Square in the shadow of the Kremlin. Amnesty International are monitoring the situation and warning that a bloodbath could result if security services are determined to put down the demonstrations at any cost.

As whispers persist about the potential of a Soviet Spring political uprising, both Putin and the pro-democracy campaigners will be holding their breath in the days to come.

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