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Advent of ‘spring’ in the post-Soviet space

The so-called ‘tandem’ – a uniquely Russian political idiom – between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin power calculus has all along given confusing signals as to whether it is for absolutely real or was a mere show so that the old show continues or a profound tactical ploy to confuse the gullible West. Medvedev just took a significant step this week hinting the ‘tandem’ may have outlived its utility when he announced that he intended to lead a new political party “sooner or later”. How ‘soon’ is ‘soon’ he didn’t say, or whether it will be ahead of the presidential election coming March at all. Speculation is rife as another Russian billionaire has floated another political party in Russia – Mikhail Prokhorov who also, interestingly owns, the New Jersey Nets basketball team. (Russian lords are buying up properties in the West at bargain prices,)

Why Medvedev needs another party when Russia already has a ‘ruling party’ will remain a puzzle. But then, Putin leads the ruling party, United Russia. On that, Medvedev has an intriguing comment this week that unlike the Whigs and Tories in Britain that go on and on for centuries, Russian political parties have short shelf life. He seemed to refer to the falling popularity of United Russia. Medvedev’s logic is simple – a president is an experienced politician and deserves to lead a political party. Obviously, United Russia has no space for two leaders at the number one slot, either. Last month, Putin called on United Russia to form a All-Russia People’s Front [ARPF] to broaden the party’s political base by bringing on ‘non-party people’ – NGOs, youth organisations, trade unions, business associations, etc.

But Medvedev conspicuously refused to warm up to the ARPF idea. He seems to feel increasingly  claustrophobic. He took a snipe at Putin’s ARPF saying political competition is vital for a healthy democracy and ‘stability’ and it shouldn’t be that United Party’s victory at the forthcoming parliamentary election in December becomes a “foregone conclusion” (which it is as things stand). Neither Medvedev nor Putin has denied the intention to contest the presidential election. Putin is on record graciously – and confidently – offering that both he and Medvedev can contest as candidates, but Medvedev somehow feels that would be “counterproductive”.

Any friendly outside observer will say that in a long-term perspective, it is good for the Russian political scene if it is no longer stagnant and party politics takes roots. Let them be corrupt or be bankrupt of ideas or be parochial in their outlook and priorities or built around dynasties – as we have in India – but party politics is still a good thing to have for a democratic system to grow with the times. But the danger in the specific Russian context lies in the degree of volatility that may creep in as 2011 advances toward March 2012.

The well-known Russian historian Andrey Zubov said recently he is certain that an ‘Arab-Spring’ will soon sweep over the post-Soviet space. He saw Central Asia and the Caucasus-Caspian as quite ripe for revolution. But, interestingly, he added that Russia too is vulnerable, since the Russian system is not fundamentally different although it is more relaxed and may seem ‘europeanised’. Zubov threw in a provocative thought. According to him, the prospect of upheaval in the post-Soviet space is the highest in countries that are the most developed. He mentioned Kazakhstan, with which India of course has close and rapidly expanding ties.

Zubov said upheaval like in the Middle East is preferable to Islamism as the locomotive of regime change. A kind of ‘westernised mentality’ among the youth and professionals and middle class elites, growing exposure to the West, wider Internet use (that initially substitutes for organised opposition), Russian language as linca franca – these ‘driving forces’ of a revolution, according to him, are already available in the post-Soviet space. Plus, indeed, the near-certainty that once the process of change appears to gain traction, the western powers will intervene to ensure they are taken to the logical conclusion. Maybe, Medvedev has a role cut out for him as the post-Soviet space begins marching inexorably toward the Euro-Atlantic community holding iPads?

At any rate, he may not easily get a slot for leading a credible political party. On Wednesday, Russian authorities turned down the application for a new political party – Party of People’s Freedom [PPF] – mooted by a galaxy of ‘liberal’ politicians — the redoubtable Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Milov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Mikhail Kasyanov. When asked about it, Medvedev blandly said he saw no political motive behind the decision by the Russian Justice Ministry. PPF was hoping to put up a joint candidate for the presidential election. Maybe the Medvedev-Putin ‘tandem’ is for real?

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