Is Russia's Political “Black Hole” About to Reach Tipping Point?

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

In December 2011 Russian voters will elect a new parliament, and then in March 2012 a new (or perhaps, not-so-new) president. The Russian blogosphere is the most significant arena of public discourse about the elections.

Bloggers have actively discussed the inauguration of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as the leader of the Pravoe Delo party (considered by many as a pro-Kremlin liberal party spoiler), as well as Putin's engagement in the People's Front, (a new political movement actually copying the ruling party).

But is the Russian Internet (RuNet) able to play any significant role within Russian elections? Marina Litvinovich suggests it is still far from this point. Recent political developments, however, provide a new angle on this issue.

The crisis of liberal representation

Leader of Russia's Pravoe Delo party, Mikhail Prokhorov, also owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Image by Flickr user NBANets (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Leader of Russia's Pravoe Delo party, Mikhail Prokhorov, also owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Image by Flickr user NBANets (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

On June 22, 2011, the Russian Ministry of Justice refused to register PARNAS, the People's Freedom Party (an independent liberal party led by prominent opposition leaders with over 46,000 members) on the grounds of formal procedural violations.

According to [ru] election expert Alexander Lyubarev, the story is yet more proof that the law which regulates founding new parties has just two points: (1) No party can be registered without approval from the Kremlin, and (2) any party can be closed if the Kremlin wishes it.

Leonid Volkov, a member of Ekaterinburg Duma and regional leader of PARNAS, wrote [ru] that the Kremlin was too scared to allow any non-systemic opposition.

The story of PARNAS’ denied registration has revealed a deep degree of frustration within the Russian online community regarding the Russian political system, due to its lack of representation for people with liberal attitudes. Blogger Aldevot wrote [ru]:

Остаемся с Партией жуликов и воров Путина, Народным фронтом под командованием того же Путина, Народным ополчением Зюганова и его сталинской партией, набившей оскомину ЛДПР да  невразумительно-сомнительным “Правым делом”. Какая тоска… И этот убогий “цветник” нам будут теперь выдавать за конкурентноспособные САМОСТОЯТЕЛЬНЫЕ партии..

We remain with Putin's ‘Party of crooks and thieves’ [a popular meme for ‘United Russia’], People's Front also led by Putin, Zyuganov's People's militia and his Stalinist party [Communist party of Russia], the Liberal Democratic Party that set our teeth on edge, and an unclear “Pravoe Delo” [party]. What a bore… And this poor “flower-garden” will now be sold to us as a set of competitive INDEPENDENT parties…

Kmartynov, however, claimed [ru] that even PARNAS’ registration would not solve the problem of representation. There are millions of those who share liberal values but there are just hundreds that believe in the current assortment of liberal leaders, the blogger wrote.

Still, most bloggers consider the case as a problem of the Russian political system. As Ilya Yashin concluded [ru] in his blog: “That means that in December we will have again elections without an option to elect.”

As a result, some people, such as Andrey Govorov, have decided [ru] to ignore the elections. Popular blogger Anton Nossik stated [ru] that he will vote for Mikhail Prokhorov and Pravoe Delo. Since nothing can be changed in 160 days before the elections, Prokhorov is the most liberal option available.

Oleg Kozyrev, on the other hand, said [ru] that since “all the official ways to express the opinion of majority are totally blocked, the only way of change is the mass peaceful citizen protest”.

Leonid Volkov has summed up [ru] the effects of the Ministry of Justice's decision:

Выталкивание такого количества политически активных людей за пределы политического поля – это “раскачивание лодки” по высшему разряду. В целом по стране речь идет про десятки тысяч людей, которые поверили в то что, может быть, есть шанс переменить направление развитие страны мирным путем, есть какое-то окошко возможностей для политики, компромиссов, поиска решений. […] В каком формате продолжать деятельность в условия отсутствия формальной регистрации – предстоит обдумать и решить. Ясно, что это будет целиком и полностью деятельность в параллельном пространстве; этого государства – не существует, оно уже распалось. Через некоторое время его придется переучреждать полностью заново, к этому и надо сейчас готовиться.

The extrusion of so many active people out of the political field – this is “rocking the boat” [a popular meme introduced by pro-government publicists, meaning increasing instability] in the most significant way. Generally, we are talking about thousands of people who had started to believe that it was possible to change the direction of the country's development in a peaceful way, that there was a small window of opportunity for poliitics, compromisses, a search for solutions. […] We shoud think and decide, in what way we should continue our activities without having official registration. But it's clear that it will be an activity in a totally parallel dimension; this state doesn't exist anymore, it is already disintegrated. After some time it will have to re-establish itself from the beginning, and we should start preparation for it right now.
Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Center for Strategic Research, talking in Barnaul. Photo by Gregory Asmolov.

Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Center for Strategic Research, talking in Barnaul. Photo by Gregory Asmolov.

“The Internet Party

The current feelings of bloggers have been reflected by research that was presented recently by Mikhail Dmitriev, a leading Russian analysts and head of the Center for Strategic Research.

In a recent presentation made in Barnaul, Dmitriev argued that economic development is causing rapid growth of the Russian middle class. These people do not have any representation in the current political sphere, and therefore do not see the current Russian political elite as legitimate.

Dmitriev has suggested that such a group, an “irremovable political detonator,” will not only grow but would gradually become increasingly active and radical. “Russian society outgrew the current political system,” concluded the expert, since the system has no time, capacity, or the will to adapt to a new electoral reality. Therefore the political vacuum and the gap between the current political system and the people's expectations, that Dmitriev calls “the political black hole” will grow.

According to Alexey Levinson, a senior expert with the Levada Center, unlike in the past, there is higher probabiliy that people will not tolerate mass falsifications in elections. During the election campaign and following the elections the degree of illegitimacy will significantly increase, engaging a wide audience and reaching a tipping point.

As a consequence, Dmitriev suggested that one of the most probable scenarios is that the political crisis will happen after election. The only solution is the creation a new type of party, what he calls an “Internet type.” These parties will focus on big city audiences, they will not require well-developed regional organizational structures and, most importantly, these parties will have to ”work through the Internet in online regime, with fast update of content.”

Can such Internet parties fill Russia's political “black hole”? Especially, when Russian legislation has impracticable requirements for political parties.

Vicktor Korb, a blogger and a political activist from Omsk, argues [ru] that the political future rather belongs to civic movements and self-organized structures than to traditional political organizations:

Никакая партия не может выдержать современных требований прозрачности гражданских связей, свободного движения гражданских инициатив. Точнее, могут, конечно, быть организации, удовлетворяющие этим требованиям и называющиеся партиями, но по сути это не партии, а движения или сетевые ассоциации.

No party can sustain modern requirements of the transparency of civil relations, and a free movement of citizens’ initiatives. To be precise, of course, there can be organizations that would meet these requirements and would call themselves parties, but in fact these wouldn't be parties, but movements or network associations.

According to Korb, the old type of political system has survived so far because many political activists are still focused on traditional electoral schemes and continue to engage people that are primarily interested in “making politics,” but not achieving results.

Korb suggests that the decision of PARNAS to make an effort to participate in the classical political system was a soft type of collaborationism, that “distracted significant resources from much more effective forms of confronting the regime.” From this perspective, the refusal to register the party can be perceived as a positive development since it will lead to the boost in the civic non-party participation, while those who are interested in making politics due to their own political interests will stay in the traditional party structure.

The Internet and the new political system

Traditional system unable to establish network-based relations. Protest against Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov in Moscow. Photo by Andrey Chernyavskiy, copyright Demotix (21/09/2010).

The traditional Russian political system is unable to establish network-based relations. Protest against Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov in Moscow. Photo by Andrey Chernyavskiy, copyright Demotix (21/09/2010).

The role of the Internet goes way beyond just creating a critical discourse. In 2010 the RuNet was the scene of increasing civic activity not affiliated with any political force and without any ideology (as was reflected in “RuNet Echo” articles, e.g. here).

At the same time, according to the “Mapping the Russian Blogosphere” report by the Berkman Center, the public discourse in Russian blogs tend to be more oppositional.

The inability of the current party-based system to represent interests of wide social groups prompts the situation wherein they turn to the Internet in search of alternatives. Actually, the nature of the current party based political system in Russia is an imitation of a real parliament-based system.

The possible emergence of the new type of political system is a response to increasing exposure to this imitation, and attempts to fill the vacuum that exists behind it. The new system would include new types of online institutions and a new type of elites.

The two options – the traditional political system and the emerging network-based one – can co-exist within the same country, but this co-existence can not survive for long. At some point the traditional system will not be able to ignore the growing power of the new system, whilst the new system would not want to tolerate the lack of accountability of the ‘old one.’

The “black hole” described by Dmitriev might reach a tipping point when this dual existence of the two isolated worlds can no longer be sustained. This point can be reached after the election, but also after any other type of crisis, for example, a natural disaster, etc.

At this point of confrontation, the old political system will have two choices: To go through a rapid process of adaptation towards a new reality, or to restrict the power of the new political system through radical online regulation and further repression. The first scenario requires from the political system a high degree of flexibility and the capacity to adapt – both features are quite doubtful. The old system can suggest (and is already suggesting) various types of collaboration modes that can mitigate the fragmentation and isolation, but these measures would not be enough to avoid increasing dissatisfaction due to lack of representation.

The second scenario might have unpredictable concequences, but as we have witnessed in the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, attempts to restrict the Internet will just increase the political power of the network society.

At the same time some experts, such as Vladimir Gelman, claim [ru] that the network-based political system is also another type of imitation that prevent the engagement of potentially active people in real politics.

The dynamics of networked revolutions

"For the Sahara Time!" Russian regions protest against changing the timezone. Photo by Misha Denisov, copyright Demotix (11/12/2010).

"For the Samara Time!" Russian regions protest against changing the timezone. Photo by Misha Denisov, copyright Demotix (11/12/2010).

The analysis of the Russian case, makes it possible to suggest general tenets for the role of networks in future politics.

Firstly, the less the government is accountable and relevant, the more the network society is powerful.

Secondly, the stronger the degree of isolation between the traditional political system and the network-based one, the more probable their confrontation.

Thirdly, confrontation will lead to crisis when the government has the choice either to adapt and collaborate with the new political system or restrict it.

The soft scenario of gradual political change of a traditional system is certainly more peaceful. But it also includes a danger of collaboration without significant political change that would just postpone the crisis, while making it inevitable and even stronger. The hard scenario of confrontation can be violent and lead to various types of revolutions or increase in authoritarian nature of the government as an effort to control, restrict, and diminish the alternative network-based political system.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

Thumbnail image shows march for freedom of expression, Moscow, Russia. Image by Chernavskiy Alexander, copyright Demotix (31/08/2010).

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