The Legitimate Grievances of the Russian Opposition

From a long feature entitled “Failure of Democracy” in tomorrow’s Guardian Weekly about the purge of Sergei Gulyaev and Yabloko from the St. Petersburg ballot. At the end of the article, Gulyaev puts forth what is undeniably a reasonable and legitimate grievance: “We don’t want a revolution. We merely want free political debate in the media and the guarantee of participation in the elections.”

The ruling follows numerous changes by the Kremlin to the electoral system. Putin has abolished elections for provincial governors – he now appoints them. He also imposed Moscow’s control over local budgets. Under the latest rules of the game, political parties must have 50,000 members and be represented in half of Russia’s provinces.

The old mixed constituency and list system has been replaced by a list-only system, making it impossible for popular independent local candidates to stand again as MPs. The hurdle for parties to win seats in the duma has gone up from 5% to 7% of the overall national vote. With fewer Russians voting, the minimum 25% turnout rule has disappeared. Moreover the Kremlin has invented a social democrat-style “opposition” party called A Just Russia, which competes for votes against Putin’s ruling United Russia party. But both parties patriotically support the president, while maintaining the illusion of democratic rivalry. A Just Russia also takes away votes from the communists and nationalists. Kremlin political theorists describe this form of politics as “managed democracy”.

The effect of these changes will be to kill off the country’s few genuinely independent political actors, critics suggest. Even before anyone has gone to the polls, the shape of the next duma is widely known. It will be made up of four parties: United Russia, A Just Russia, the ultra-nationalists and the communists.

“Either you are part of the game or part of the pseudo-opposition, where you co-operate with the Kremlin guys and never touch Putin – or you can’t participate in politics,” Ryzhkov said. His assessment of Putin’s Russia is bleak: “Almost all the results of perestroika and democratisation have been killed.”

Nobody believes that St Petersburg, the scene of uprisings in 1905 and 1917, is on the brink of another one. “We don’t want a revolution,” Gulyaev says. “We merely want free political debate in the media and the guarantee of participation in the elections. These are fundamental things.”