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In Wake of Disputed Election, Russian Middle Class ‘Finding its Voice’

December 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In Russia Tuesday, Vladimir Putin faces political turmoil as vote fraud protests become more widespread. Margaret Warner discusses the country's changing political landscape with Matthew Murray of The Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance and the Brookings Institution's Fiona Hill.
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MARGARET WARNER: And joining us now are Matthew Murray, chair of the Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance, a nonprofit he helped found with a group of Russian and American businesses and NGOs. It works to promote integrity in Russian government and business entities. And Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, from 2006 to 2009, she served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.

And welcome to you both.

Fiona Hill, it wasn’t long ago that Vladimir Putin was hugely popular for raising living standards and bringing order to Russia, despite his concentration of power. What happened?

FIONA HILL, Brookings Institution: Well, I think, in many respects, it’s what we call — or some people call the seven-year itch of politics.

After a certain period, the brand, the political brand gets stale. And you see that with many long-serving leaders. Think about some of the European figures most recently, like Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, using my British perspective here, enormously popular when they came in. And towards the end of their tenure, after they had gone through two terms and we really got into that — the end of that decade, they started to lose their popularity. People got a little tired of seeing them.

So, in other words, Mr. Putin’s brand has gone stale, and he hasn’t been able to reinvigorate it.

MARGARET WARNER: And what would you add to that, Matthew Murray, I mean, about why it suddenly seems to have coalesced and erupted like this?

MATTHEW MURRAY, Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance: I think it’s become clear that the institutions that have been set up to handle social issues are not working. So, the system isn’t working. And it has to be dismantled. And new laws and institutions need to be established.

MARGARET WARNER: I know, but we have a phenomenon that is just — that is erupting on the streets.

I mean, do you agree with the analysts who say very much this deal that Putin and Medvedev struck again in flipping jobs, that that was really a spark?

MATTHEW MURRAY: Right. That was a spark to a change in the political culture.

What we’re witnessing right now is a change in the way people think about politics. Consciousness-raising is occurring on a mass scale. It’s being supported by the social media. And it’s a very interesting moment for Russian citizens.

MARGARET WARNER: Which — ironically, though, the Putin government has — totally controls the television. They hadn’t really controlled the Internet much, had they?

FIONA HILL: Yes, they have actually taken a very interesting tactic toward the Internet, because they didn’t go down the route that we have seen in China, where they have essentially intercepted and imprisoned very prominent bloggers, they have tried to block and censor websites and various Internet portals that they haven’t liked.

What they have tried to do in Russia was fill the Internet with their own content. But they couldn’t be everywhere at once. And, basically, what we have seen is Russians have become some of the most active social networkers in the world. They have their own version of Facebook to contact you.

They have innumerable postings on YouTube. It’s become a really prolific way of people exchanging information with each other. And, essentially, people were getting their own information about politics that was outside of the government purview.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about the opposition, Matthew Murray. Who are the people in the streets? Is this just a phenomenon of the kind of urban Twitterati, or do the election results suggest there’s deeper discontent?

MATTHEW MURRAY: I think it’s broader than that. I think it’s the middle class that is finding its voice and finding its identity.

And they’re saying, it’s time for us to self-organize. It’s time for us to take responsibility. We actually have a seat at the table, and let’s assert our rights and hold the government accountable.

MARGARET WARNER: And they — at least from some of their chants, they seem to feel as if Putin was treating them like imbeciles. Explain that.

MATTHEW MURRAY: The phrase that’s been repeated several times in Moscow and throughout Russia over the past week is, “We exist.” They’re making a statement that they are no longer going to be defined solely in relation to the state. They’re going to have their own independent autonomy.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Fiona Hill, how do you regard the way Putin reacted, now, the first week, a very heavy hand, police, arrests, but then Saturday letting the protests go forward?

FIONA HILL: Yes, Putin is a real student of Russian history, for one thing. And he knows that, in the past — the long past of Russia, because he’s looked back over several hundred years — whenever the government has cracked down, that has been the spark for revolt, the Russian Revolution in 1917, revolts in 1905, and during the Soviet period, similar things.

It was what brought Gorbachev down was in fact — as we will recall looking back 20 years, was the heavy-handed approach to protests in Vilnius in modern-day Lithuania. So, Putin knows that there’s a real danger of things getting out of hand if they come down too heavy-handed.

I think what he also does from his KGB training is he has been a student for years of analyzing how people think. So they’re probably engaged right now in going back and looking at focus groups and polls. He’s declared there is going to be a big call-in session where he’s going to take questions from the populace.

They’re going to study very carefully what people’s grievances are and then figure out how to react. So, I think what they’re doing now is reassessing and trying to pick up on this mood that Matthew has talked about to figure out what they need to do to try to address this.

MARGARET WARNER: And I know you have been back for a little bit, not long, what, a month, but what is the — the sort of unformed opposition doing right now? If Putin is sitting in the Kremlin with his people trying to analyze the body politic, what are they doing?

MATTHEW MURRAY: Well, first of all, they came up with a list of demands. They’re finding action items that they can use to focus their frustration and their anger and get better organized.

MARGARET WARNER: So, give me two.

MATTHEW MURRAY: Well, they have demanded that the election results be revoked.

MARGARET WARNER: Exactly.

MATTHEW MURRAY: And they also demanded that there be new legal institutions in place that can monitor elections in the future.

So, they’re taking steps — I mean, this is the key. The key is whether, after the demonstrations have subsided a bit, and after they have been able to make an assessment, will they do the painstaking work that’s necessary to make Russian laws and institutions work? Will they reform their own system?

I would argue that they have plenty of tools available to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you make of this billionaire, Prokhorov, getting in the race? One, is he a credible opponent for Putin? And, two, does it suggest to you that the oligarchs or maybe the broader business class may — may turn against him?

FIONA HILL: Well, I will be honest. I’m very cynical about this.

I think, just as Matthew has described about the opposition, there’s a whole range of demands here, there is a very large segment of the business class that would like to see their interests represented. They’d like to have more say over really the institutional arrangements for their business. They want to have rule of law. They would like to see a lot more implementation of the institutional arrangements that have been promised.

They would like to be able to invest in the way that they see fit. They don’t like to have the heavy hand of the state or the predation that is coming from the lack of enforcement of laws.

But Prokhorov is hardly an example of the average businessperson in Russia. He’s a phenomenally rich man. He has benefited from this system. He doesn’t really speak to most of the people who have been out on the streets of Moscow. He’s a celebrity candidate.

And, basically, I think that this is not a real contender, a real challenger for Putin. In fact, what I would assess is that we’re likely to see a whole host of similar kinds of candidates get into the race, and we might end up with a very crowded field as a result.

MARGARET WARNER: In which case, that would benefit Putin.

FIONA HILL: It would greatly benefit him.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where do you see things going from here?

MATTHEW MURRAY: Well, I think, first of all, that the system has to be changed. It’s a systemic problem.

And so, when it comes to the next steps, civil society has to sit down and decide whether they’re going to build independent courts. How are they going to insist that law enforcement officials do their jobs? Putin has described his system as the power vertical. It’s now time to establish horizontal accountability, to hold government in check and hold business in check, and give civil society an equal seat at the table.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly for you both, starting with you, Matthew Murray, do you think that Putin is capable of leading this reform? Is he adept and nimble enough to actually try to get ahead of this parade?

MATTHEW MURRAY: I think his — I think Putinism is probably over, but Putin will survive in some form.

FIONA HILL: I think he is certainly capable, he thinks, of really creating a reform from the top.

What the difficulty will be will — whether some of the sentiments that Matthew has described, these grassroot demands, be filtered up and whether he will address them. And that’s the big question, because his instincts are not to respond to protests from the streets. He thinks he has a plan of how to change Russia. And he’s not going to be necessarily listening to some of these voices that are demanding a different kind of change.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Fiona Hill and Matthew Murray, thank you.

MATTHEW MURRAY: Thank you.

FIONA HILL: Thank you.