There are a few things which have always bothered me about the people who are most readily associated with “the opposition” in Russia. The first being that while they are long on complaints, they are extremely short on answers. They scream about the corruption and thievery of the ruling party, but this is largely just preaching to the choir. Everyone in Russia knows that corruption is an issue; they know that massive amounts of the nation’s wealth are skimmed off into private hands. People like Navalny are only providing details about things which ordinary people would suspect anyway.
Now the knee-jerk reaction to this complaint might be to state that the solution is simple- punish the thieves. But is that not the exact thing that Putin’s regime tried to do? One can argue quite confidently that Putin merely replaced old thieves with new ones, but that doesn’t exonerate the old ones. This is why the opposition’s support for Khodorkovsky was always so infuriating to me. I get the argument that ten years for tax evasion in a country where people have served less time for attempted murder is a bit stiff, but pretending that Khodorkovsky is some kind of hero-dissident is simply ignoring, or rewriting history. Whatever you want to say about Putin, you cannot avoid the fact that he is largely a product of the 1990’s and the people who shaped that decade. He was picked by Berezovsky, who recommended him to Yeltsin. He built a career and an image off of counterposing himself to the “wild 90’s.” Until opposition figures start admitting this and stop rallying around figures like Khodorkovsky, they’re never going to have much popular support.
The other side of the coin, as it relates to solutions, is most oppositionists’ utter lack of concern for socio-economic issues. What is the Russian opposition movement, really? Is it social democratic? Conservative? You can’t really say. Some figures are outspoken liberals, while others like Navalny cavort with radical nationalists. I’m inclined to say that in spite of liberal or leftist hangers-on, the movement is largely conservative, just because of the political climate in Russia which says that you can believe or support whatever you want so long as you’re right-wing. It’s not uncommon at all to hear racist outbursts from supposedly liberal Russian oppositionists, yet another example of how many movements in Russia are basically like Chinese-knockoff copies of Western ideas. Like a pirate copy of Super Mario Hedgehog Turbo Game, in Russia you’ll find some activist who staunchly supports gay rights while simultaneously being a strong advocate for eugenics. Things that just don’t belong together are fused.
The last thing that bothers me a lot, though I’m starting to understand it better, is that oppositionists have almost always spoke about “democracy” in the United States or Europe as though it is their greatest aspiration. This tends to confuse many of us from the West, and may explain why some people who are dissenters in their own country are turned off by the Russian opposition and therefore embrace the Kremlin regime. Using myself as an example, the idea that America is a democracy is laughable. Even by the standards of what we might call bourgeois democracy it’s pretty primitive when you compare it to other developed nations, especially if they have things like proportional representation. Hell, even when America invades and conquers a nation they don’t dare try to set up a system analogous to our two-party farce. Could you imagine what the Iraqi insurgency would have been like had the Bush administration told them that they must set up a system of government with an electoral college and certain electoral rules so as to ensure that only two parties would control the government? The new Iraqi leaders would probably say something like, “Hmmm…Sounds interesting. Let me just grab something I left in my car.” Then they would drive home and start building IEDs. Every last one of them. And they’d be justified.
One thing I’ve learned though, which tempers my rage toward oppositionists on this point, is that this realization that our “democratic” systems in the West aren’t really democratic is a bit of a luxury. To me, a Russian strongly desiring something like the American or British electoral system, not giving any thought to the other policies of that government or who the parties would be, always seemed ludicrous. Now after much reflection I can say that while I still oppose such tunnel vision, I at least understand it.
When you are given extremely limited choices, as in the American system, and your participation in the system seems minimal, you can come to the realization that the system is not truly democratic. I have never voted, in fact, simply because neither party comes anywhere close to representing me. When speaking about America and its system we should question these things, specifically the idea that it adequately represents a population of over 300 million people. But that’s when speaking of the United States.
In the case of Russia, you don’t even have that almost meaningless choice every four years. If you complain about it, you’re accused of being paid by the US State Department, among other things. From this point of view, the American system must look amazing. For one thing Russia has had three presidents in over twenty years. In that time we had Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. We as Americans who know better can talk about the similarities and differences of these presidents, but to Russians this can look like a radical variety. If you’re American you really need to step outside your world for a moment and consider how this could appear from a non-American perspective. Bush sr. would be this really old guy who gets replaced with an alleged playboy who plays the saxophone, then this asshole cowboy, and finally a black dude with an African name! Compare that to Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev(for only four years), and more Putin, and America’s system would look absolutely bonkers.
We Americans also take it for granted that there is no opposition within our government. Yes, a lot of that debt ceiling nonsense is basically a form of kabuki theatre, but once again step outside your American point of view and into a Russian one. I remember all the jokes they were making on radio about the federal government shutdown last year, for example. Whereas the Duma, even with its “opposition” parties, pretty much passes whatever laws come its way, here you had the minority party in the US Congress standing so firm on the stupidest of principles until the federal government actually shut down and nearly defaulted. Russian joking aside, that could not have failed to impress many ordinary Russians.
A lot of times those of us who dissent from the policies or views of our own system get offended or annoyed to hear Russians talking about how wonderful our systems are. However, we need to step outside of our own experience and realize why they look at our system that way. This shouldn’t be looked at as an excuse for those self-styled “democrats” and “liberals” in Russia who refuse to consider class or social issues when talking about their ideal political system for the country, but we could at least have some kind of mutual understanding in discussions.
Also supporters of the regime ought to take note of this too, if they can even conceive that people’s dissent might be motivated by something other than the US State Department. The regimes propagandists always insist that any change in government will lead to a neo-liberal regime which will favor foreign corporations. Looking at the opposition figures today, I cannot say with certainty that they wouldn’t create such a state of affairs, if only because they don’t spend much time talking about those all-important issues. But if Russia doesn’t have a truly “democratic” system by contemporary standards, those oppositionists will never develop coherent economic and social theories.
Right now they are so enraged with the country’s current state that all they care about is being anti-government. They are blinded to what might have to come after that government. It’s unlikely that any of these groups or parties are going to sit down and hammer out coherent, comprehensive economic policies and programs while they are aware that they have no chance of having any influence in the government under the current electoral system. If Russia had that kind of political system, parties would be forced to put their cards on the table.