The December protests in Russia against parliamentary election results have marked a momentous change to the current Russian political situation. The protests have revealed the looming necessity for authorities to respond in a timely manner, and to acknowledge the new scenario. Widespread public discontent with existing policies is shaping a new, uncomfortable reality for the Russian political leadership – a reality that it has reluctantly been forced into deal with.
So far, the first steps have been small but important. First, not only were the December rallies sanctioned, they also received unusual exposure by state media. Soon after, President Medvedev announced sweeping political reforms including direct election of local governors, as opposed to an appointment by the Kremlin, as well as proposing a simplified registration for political parties and independent presidential candidates. These are significant changes that no one was seriously talking about just few months ago, as they seemed impossible in the country’s political climate.
New developments affected the Kremlin’s inside political circle, including the resignation of the chairman of United Russia, Boris Gryzlov, and the departure of Vladimir Surkov, former chief of staff and the ‘grey cardinal’ of Russia’s domestic policies. Political reshuffling aimed to address public discontent with the way the past election was handled, yet Putin made it clear that a rerun is out of the question. Instead, he attempted to restore the communication and dialogue with voters via a televised call-in show just a few days after the first December rally, and a presidential campaign website that is presumably open to public suggestions and criticism.
Although these changes are valid and testify to Putin’s understanding that old–fashioned tactics no longer work, his latest attempts to address public discontent have not been successful either: they have not gained public approval, let alone confidence. Are the reforms not good enough? Or are they too late? Both. Solutions offered by the political leadership are nowhere near the necessary structural changes, but are rather just short-term concessions that are long-overdue. They are therefore unable to win the public’s trust.
While Putin acknowledges that ‘everyone develops and everyone should meet the demands of today and tomorrow,’ it is time for his own understanding of people’s demands to expand and go beyond ‘stable utility prices and easier utility expenses formulas’ – those were demands and calls from last year’s protests. People have moved on to new, important subjects such as fair elections and the protection of their rights. As long as authorities remain separated from this new reality, their attempts in gaining confidence and approval from the voters will have little effect.
For comparison’s sake, Mikhail Prokhorov – a new presidential candidate – focuses his presidential campaign on up-to date and pressing issues. For instance, he promises early parliamentary elections, decreasing the number of state officials, and reinforcing oversight of their efficiency, and indirectly touches upon the unsubstantiated imprisonments of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev – a matter that has long been taboo in high level political discussion.
Ironically, according to recent polls, Russia’s Prime Minister Putin still remains the most popular politician in Russia. Should the Russian populace find a change necessary, he might reconsider his ‘concession’ tactics and move to either more demanding issues or a heavy-handed approach, using security forces to quell demonstrations, or possibly, embellishing on a growing outside threat from the West.