Russia's Ruling Tandem Can't Silence Opposition: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

The critics of Russia's ruling elite refuse to go quietly into the night. Ousted last month for publicly criticizing president Dmitri Medvedev, soon to switch roles with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin keeps loudly voicing his distaste for the future prime minister's budget policies.

“I would give less money to the military and more to health services," Interfax quoted Kudrin as saying. "This is the substance of my conflict with the current president." Innocuous as the statement may seem, Medvedev doesn’t take open dissent lightly. Natalia Timakova, the president’s press secretary, termed Kudrin's criticism “incorrect and unsubstantiated.”

Putin, for his part, offered some support for Kudrin, suggesting the widely respected former finance minister shouldn't be counted out. “Despite this outburst of a rather emotional nature, Alexei Leonidovich still remains a member of our team, and we will be working with him," Putin said. "He is a useful and necessary person.”

Meanwhile, Medvedev has been working to shore up the defenses of Russia's ruling order. Explaining Russia's decision to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding Syria, he said, according to the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets: “Russia will not permit the U.N. to enact sanctions in order to overthrow various political regimes.” His purpose, according to the paper: “A certain part of the Russian opposition considers the situation in our country similar to that which preceded the ‘Arab Spring.’” Medvedev seemed to hint at this himself. “Often what is done under the flag of the opposition in reality is extremist,” he said (“extremist” being a code word for anti-Kremlin).

Extremist or not, what's left of Russia's opposition remains defiant. Veteran liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, for example, hopes to register the oppositional Party of the People’s Freedom now that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled against the Russian Ministry of Justice’s 2007 banning of its predecessor, the Republican Party, Kommersant reported.

In an op-ed for The Moscow Times, Ryzhkov called for nothing short of mass electoral rebellion at upcoming parliamentary polls, citing “a growing protest mood among voters as well as falling ratings for the ruling tandem." The political bodies that are allowed to exist, he wrote, are mere “imitation opposition parties” that “can retain their registration, hold seats in parliament and participate in elections as long as they remain loyal to the leadership and do not challenge its monopoly on power. …Today’s regime has managed to create a cynical imitation of a multiparty system and elections.”

This being the case, should citizens bother to cast votes at all? No. “It is politically and morally unacceptable to take part in legitimizing a corrupt autocracy whose ruling political and business elites will do everything in their power to remain in control and protect their assets for decades.”

Yet abstaining from voting is no solution either. “The most effective form of protest is to invalidate the ballot by, for example, drawing a huge ‘X’ across the entire page. It is best to arrive in the evening, just 30 minutes before the polls close, to make sure that nobody has fraudulently signed and voted in your name already.” Such protest voting, coupled with documentation of fraud, "will enable opposition forces to question the legitimacy of the elected Duma and call for new elections — this time with participation open to all and public control over the election process.”

Will Russians, really, en masse, cross out their ballots come polling day and manage to document fraud? Perhaps not, but in that case Ryzhkov raised the possibility of an “18-year (or longer) Brezhnev era of stagnation and degradation” -- a less desirable, but unfortunately more probable, turn of events.

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In other events, Putin reacted strongly to the surprisingly harsh prison sentence meted out by a Ukrainian court to that country's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko (aka “the Gas Queen”). The court decided that Tymoshenko exceeded her authority in resolving a dispute that left parts of Europe without supplies of Russian gas in 2008 and 2009.

“I can’t really understand why they gave her seven years,” Ria Novosti quoted Putin as saying.

Tymoshenko's fate raises the disturbing possibility that, as winter approaches, the Ukrainians might try to renegotiate contracts that allow Russian gas to flow through its territory to Europe. This, warned Putin, would be "dangerous and counterproductive.” But the writ of the prime minister, all-powerful in Russia, does not extend to the halls of power of its large, often recalcitrant, southern neighbor.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Oct/14/2011 14:48 GMT