Does “The road to the Kremlin run through Yaroslavl”?

The Power Vertical podcast from RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore is always a feast for my Russia-wonkery, but I found the latest, ‘The Rebellion in the Regions,’ to be especially stimulating. In the first segment, Brian and his regular interlocutor Kirill Kobrin considered the implications of recent developments through the prism of the recent (and encouraging) victory of independent candidate Yevgeny Urlashov in the Yaroslavl mayoral election. Here are a couple of the thoughts their interesting discussion sparked:

1. “The road to the Kremlin runs through Yaroslavl.” This phrase from Vladimir Milov’s blog (18 March 2012 entry) neatly encapsulates a key point. Urlashov won not just because he was opposed to the Putinite/United Russia regime, but because he concentrated not on some grand ‘Russia without Putin’ narrative — as the metropolitan activists did in the run-up to the presidential elections — but instead practical concerns to which people could respond and relate. My feeling is that for any anti-Kremlin movement to prosper, it will have not necessarily to ignore the big picture but instead to demonstrate an empathy and sympathy with the concerns of the majority of society. Their best chance of finding a road to the Kremlin will be successfully making connections between the micro and the macro, demonstrating that it is the corruption of the elite that drives up the prices in their local stores and inhibits inward investment and keeps the educational system hobbled, etc.

2. Popular Fronts are not panaceas. Kirill Kobrin is, he admits, not an optimist. He raised the specter of corporatist-style neo-fascism, of regimes like Mussolini’s Italy, Peron’s Argentina and Salazar’s Portugal, as a post-Unified Russia Putinism allows numerous smaller parties to form and then assimilates them into a Popular Front that represents the latest incarnation of the ‘Party of Power.’ This is certainly possible; I am sure that is at least part of the calculation behind the decision to liberalize the party registration rules: “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” after all, is also a way of allowing them to compete in the garden for space, light and water.

However, I do think that Gorbachev’s experience with democratization does provide a cautionary counter-argument. He liberalized the political process hoping to create a liberal counterweight to the Party, allowing him to the the pivotal central figure who could play the two ends against each other. In fact, he radicalized and localized politics, and the new leaders who arose really had little on which they could base their appeal, authority and legitimacy beyond being more anti-Party than the next. What could Gorby offer them, and what deals could they afford to accept? Nothing and none, respectively.

Co-opting one, two or even three parties, some high-profile figures and the like, is easy. Coming up with a strategy successfully to assimilate what might be a myriad small, even local parties as well as independent politicians is a much more complex task, especially in an age of networked social media that can empower even minute groups of activists. Of course, the Kremlin has its (dwindling) “administrative resources” and can spend money cozying up to particular interests with a new road here and a special tax dispensation there. But it cannot afford to buy off every town, city and interest group in Russia — and this new generation of political leaders will know that their constituencies will reward them for practical results.

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