Two years after the December 2011 State Duma election and the start of an unprecedented wave of street protests, the dust is beginning to settle on the new political reality. Although the protests have subsided, the past two years have seen a number of key reforms as the Putin administration attempts to reset domestic politics. But, by the end of 2013, how much change has there been and are there signs that either the opposition or the authorities have managed to consolidate their positions? This seminar considers these questions and broader themes of continuity and change over the past 24 months, as well as the outlook for the future.
The event marks the launch of the FIIA Briefing Paper ”Putin’s reactive reforms: unfavourable conditions are forcing the Kremlin to change the rules of the game” by Dr Sean Roberts.
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Summary of the seminar
The seminar Russian Politics and Society: Two years after the protests was opened by Dr Arkady Moshes (Programme Director, the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia Research Programme, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs), who stressed the importance of the topic and noted that the timing for this particular seminar was good: it has been almost two years since the protests in Russia started. Dr Moshes also presented the speakers and their topics: Dr Sean Roberts (Researcher, the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia Research Programme, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs) who analysed the actions of the Russian government, and Dr Samuel Greene (Director of King’s Russia Institute, King’s College) who spoke about the protest movements in Russia. The event marked the launch of the FIIA Briefing Paper ”Putin’s reactive reforms: unfavourable conditions are forcing the Kremlin to change the rules of the game” by Dr Roberts.
Dr Roberts started his presentation by asking whether Putin’s reforms have solved the protest problem that emerged following the December 2011 State Duma election. Circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that political reform may have had some bearing on the decreasing protest atmosphere in the country over the past two years. Dr Roberts argued that electoral politics were at the heart of the protests, but that political reforms aimed at the electoral system during the past 20 months only solve part of the problem, as they create new opportunities for opposition forces, but also new problems.
From the end of 2011 until the end of 2012 Russia experienced an unprecedented wave of protests. Societal change may be a partial explanation – but it cannot be evaluated with public opinion poll data because of reliability issues. However, in concrete terms, we know that the protesters took to the streets with a number of specific demands, including freedom for political prisoners, the annulment of the election results, the resignation of Central Election Commission head, Vladimir Churov, more opportunities for opposition parties and fresh democratic elections.
In terms of the regime’s response to the protests, three general lines can be seen: tactical, cultural and institutional. In terms of the institutional response, which includes the political reforms detailed in the briefing paper, Dr Roberts identified a number of criteria to evaluate their effectiveness, including quantity vs. quality of participation; electoral monopoly vs. power monopoly and reforms made vs. reforms missed. In answer to the question of whether Putin’s reform fixed the problem, Dr Roberts said that they serve to increase levels of participation in an essentially dysfunctional electoral system. They also decrease levels of predictability for the Kremlin by increasing the number of actors in electoral and legislative politics. Before the next election (State Duma election 2016 and Presidential election 2018) unintended consequences will be a big factor with so much institutional change.
Dr Samuel Greene analysed the protest movements in Russia and explained why these protests occurred.
In Russia, citizens are modernising but the state is not, meaning that citizens are in some ways ahead of the state. In short, the street protests of 2011/12 were initiated by modern citizens in order to change society.
According to Dr Greene, Russia has failed to coordinate communities, as in order to generate coalitions compromises are needed, but compromising in Russia is difficult because of differences between people. The Putin regime has successfully exploited issues such as sexuality, gay marriage, adoption issues and the state-Church juncture to highlight differences between people. As a result, one of the few issues that are capable of uniting large sections of the population is nationalism – nationalism is also a language that all politicians in Russia must be able to speak. In conclusion, it can be said that as long as Putin remains in power the opposition will continue to grow. It is also important to underline the fact that not all people who are against Putin’s regime are visible on the streets as of yet.
At the end of the seminar the floor was opened for questions and comments.