I have worked in and out of Russia now for more than ten years and am quite used to being surprised at what I see and hear there. “Big country – big mistakes” one of my friends said to me once. How true. However now I am really surprised. Since about November 2011, they have had politics again.
It seems to me that there have been no politics in Russia for a long time – certainly none under the Soviets, a bit under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and even in the early days of Putin. But over the last few years Russia has degenerated into a moribund kleptocracy. And from the glimmer of post-Soviet hope that is so sad. People deserve better and since November they have been demanding it Demanding it big time too. I have been amazed to see people I have known for years and with whom I have never discussed politics, marching, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and wearing white ribbons. All in aid, less of getting Putin out, but more of becoming what in simple terms might be called a normal country with normal respect for human beings. In short we are seeing a shift from the collective to the individual – people now want to matter more than the system. This change in the relationship that Russians have with their state is a major development.
But why now ?
My sense is that the answer is money. In three ways. First of all, Putin’s years have put money into the pockets of what might be called the middle classes in the big cities of Russia. I would argue that they are not middle class in the western sense, but that is another story. With that money, these people have travelled and that travel has shown them how things could or should be in Russia. They have seen the freedoms, the respect, the sense of decency with which people can treat each other. And no ‘the west’ is not perfect but all things are relative. They have also seen the infrastructure and this brings me to my second money point. The high price of oil in recent years should have made Russia a rich country. Petro- roubles have flooded into the state’s coffers but the country still has appalling roads, dreadful hospitals and a virtually non existent welfare state. And what of the petro-roubles? Numbered Swiss bank accounts opened by bent state officials might be a good place to look, which brings me to money point three, corruption. Russia is an absurdly corrupt country and as far as I can see it is getting worse and worse. People have simply had enough. So have I. As a shareholder in a Russian business, I was badly ripped off by a landlord from whom I rented an office. One of his officials pocketed the rent and then evicted us for non- payment. Only by bribing the security guard (yes, I know) with vodka was I able to get our IT kit out of the building. The landlord was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obviously.
So what is going to happen come the presidential election? Well clearly Mr P is going to win, although I suspect only just. The main reason is TINA. Tina ? Yes There Is No Alternative. The opposition in Russia seem to hate each other more than they hate VVP and despite public displays of unity, my sense is they will never work together. The dramatis personae include the communists (pensioners only), the nationalists whose leader today said Alla Pugacheva (Russian pop goddess) was a whore – she was the one who when she was in Eurovision Terry Wogan thought was a man, a couple of Kremlin stooges/ independents and Boris Nemtsov who seems capable and likeable except there would be ‘errors in his nomination paperwork’ even if he had stood. So TINA it is.
But I think recent events have shown VVP is ultimately a liability, so like Margaret Hilda Thatcher and Julius Caesar, I think he needs to watch out for his own team. Et tu brute etc etc. The marches and the social media pressure will be even more important after the election than now. it is not obvious who might take over, but the siloviki need someone who will save them and can show Russia and the world that the Kremlin is democratic after all. I have now read one article and spoken to one source who both say that the hero required is currently in prison but is in talks as I write. Stand up Mr Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Who knows eh? Another surprise awaits us and nobody deserves a good surprise more than the Russians.