Yesterday, once again, Vladimir Putin was “elected” President of Russia. Citizens could choose from among Putin, the current premier, and a group of weak opposition candidates, including well known faces such as Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky who always run but never win, along with newer faces such as Mikhail Prokhorov or Putin’s old friend Sergei Mironov, who in addition to their doubtful independence from the Kremlin, did not offer much of a campaign or new political ideas. And while the voting took place, and Putin and his supporters started celebrating right away, social media like Facebook and Twitter bubbled over with photos and accounts of election fraud. The critical social response is every bit as important as the election results.
A couple of days before the election, thousands of independent ballot observers waited in long lines to receive their training and instructions. The observers – unpaid volunteers – had arrived from Moscow, from other cities and from the countryside. Russian newspaper editor Dmitri Surnin wrote that the atmosphere among the waiting crowds resembled the mood during a citizens’ mobilization on the eve of war. “And your political preferences don’t matter, if you’re a leftist, or right, green, liberal, monarchist or communist – when the Fatherland is in danger, everybody needs to stand together.”
The war to which Surnin refers is one between the people who want to play it by the rules and those who want to falsify the elections and obstruct Russia’s democratic course. He cynically observes that the first group will be convinced of their moral victory, with the law and the truth on their side, but the second group will steal the real triumph, with the courts, the police, and Vladimir Putin on theirs.
Indeed, Putin won. Now let’s talk about the moral victors. A number of originally internet-based groups managed to organize a citizens’ army of more than 80,000 volunteers, who enlisted to visit polling stations to be on the lookout for election fraud. As reporter Anna Nemtsova remarked, “They are bound to turn up convincing evidence of fraud, made more vivid by cell phone-camera footage that could bear on the post-election politics, including the size of protests.”
As I have written earlier, the leaders of Russia’s managed democracy have not shown any interest in letting citizens participate in a meaningful way. The strong executive branch together with the weak judicial and legislative branches deny Russians the possibility of acting in an open civil society with easily accessible institutions, where they can exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities, as is the tradition in US and European societies. However, this presumes that a democratic system operates with one, integrated political space. In Russia, by focusing on the federal level and the power struggles in the Kremlin, it is easy to overlook regional and local developments. And, as I am learning, the analysis of non-traditional forms of political deliberation, such as discussions that take place on the Internet on online forums and blogs, reveal significant democratic developments.
The existence of a real opposition, in addition to the loyal opposition parties and presidential candidates who are manufactured by and in cahoots with the current rulers, has been noted. Especially the massive demonstrations in Moscow, and some 60 other Russian cities against the election fraud during last December’s parliamentary elections, have forced observers to take account of an increasingly visible citizens’ movement. But overall, their initiatives have been judged to be powerless and their mostly suburban (upper) middle class members to be isolated.
I question this judgment of their powerlessness and isolation. Long before the biggest protests in 20 years, there have been signs of democratic practices. Both offline and online, citizens have been involved in political and social issues, and have achieved results. The political activities ranged from street protests, to local referenda, to the posting of privately produced, critical videos on YouTube. This also included many postings of recordings of earlier and ongoing election fraud. It is this kind of political energy that has gone largely unnoticed, but laid the groundwork for the recent large-scale political protests. The new social relationships that have been formed with the aid of new technologies indicate new ways of citizen participation in a transforming democracy. Also activities such as posting political comments and sharing news stories, indicate involvement with the political and attest to new social habits and routines with political consequences. In the long term, this broad public engagement will be consequential on the central political stage.
Although communication between government and citizens is limited, very recently, the activities in virtual space in the form of political deliberations in online media outlets, and online manifests have proven to be meaningful. Those people who discussed their ideas about political, economic, social and cultural issues were the same ones who attended the massive demonstrations. The volunteer observers who initially met online, came face to face with each other in countless polling stations, showing community democracy in action. Their actions show their interest in a peaceful process towards a more equal and robust form of democracy.
The pressing issue, then, is not about Russian authoritarian political culture, but whether society’s democratic values will become institutionalized into the political system. I think in the long run this is likely. The authoritarian system has not quashed the citizens’ developing democratic values. It has not been able to suppress the free exchange of democratic ideas, and it has not prevented democratic practices. Yes, many Russians have voted for Putin out of fear that a vote against him can lead to a return to the uncertainties of the 1990s. And many voted for him, because there wasn’t a real alternative. But as journalist Surnin wrote, “The uncommon numbers of people volunteering as election observers was the most surprising and happy phenomenon in today’s political life.” And on the first day after the elections, Russia is seeing again massive protests against the election fraud. To be continued.