A Perilous Tale of 2 Lions and Lots of Jackals

The Times of London ran an article last week quoting computer programmer Sergei Shpilkin as saying more than one-third of the votes cast for Dmitry Medvedev during the presidential election may have been falsified. This prompted a flurry of commentary on Ekho Moskvy radio and Internet forums. What is interesting is that Nezavisimaya Gazeta ran a full-page article quoting the same source back on April 1, but in contrast to the story published much later in London, the piece generated no public reaction.

In post-Soviet countries it doesn't matter if the elections were falsified for them to be deemed legitimate. After all, couldn't you argue that the referendum on Dec. 1, 1991, regarding Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union was rigged, as was the Russian constitutional referendum in December 1993? In both cases, there were no public protests at all.

In this context, it would be fitting to apply the analogy of "the lion and the jackals" developed by sociologist Georgy Derlugyan. In countries where authority and wealth are controlled by a single person, the lion hands out choice morsels to his subjects (the jackals) as he pleases. The jackals are completely dependent on the lion's good graces. The jackals compete among themselves for limited resources, hampering their ability to unite in protest against the lion.

This system becomes destabilized, however, when the lion is weakened or declares his intention to step down. The jackals get anxious, start fighting among themselves and advance their own candidate to succeed the lion and to ensure their continued prosperity.

This is the primary factor fueling color revolutions. It is essential that disenfranchised jackals retain some kind of official position, like a faction in the parliament, to give them a legal chance to mobilize protests. And it helps when the people are not content with the overall state of affairs in the country.

How does this relate to Russia? We have a significant number of agitated jackals. One group is the oligarchs, who gained their fortunes during the era of Boris Yeltsin, but have since fallen from the new lion's grace; some of them now sit in Russian prisons, while others emigrated. There are also jackals among the Yeltsin-era oligarchs who have learned how to toe the line but who feel humiliated because of their subordinated position. Another group of jackals contains the beneficiaries of wealth redistribution under Putin who realize how tenuous their positions are. Finally, there are the jackals who dream of snatching some juicy tidbit for themselves under the new Kremlin leadership.

There is a lot of discontent among the public, the nature of which has changed during Putin's presidency. Many independent and politically savvy citizens were deeply offended by the farcical elections for the State Duma in December and the presidential election in March. And these are the very people who are ready to protest -- not because things have gotten worse for them personally, but out of principle.

The missing link between the "unhappy rich" and the dissatisfied masses is a center (or centers) of power that would consolidate these two groups. That vacuum is being filled before our eyes by Medvedev and Putin, our two "national leaders." If serious schism emerges between these two centers of power ruling the country, the jackals might gravitate toward one or the other in hopes of having a lion of their own.

Medvedev's nature, however, is similar to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's. Both are relatively harmless unless pushed into a corner. It is possible that the balancing act between the two centers of executive power could result in something roughly equivalent to democracy. That is, unless the young lion attracts jackals that have the feverish gaze of fanatics, like that of Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili, or the pale cheeks of hysterics like Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko.

Alexei Pankin is editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.