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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Authoritarianism and Its Discontents

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The drubbing taken by the Communist Party, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko in December's State Duma elections obviously resulted from the Kremlin's decision to bring all the power of the state to bear in its battle with disobedient political parties. But there was a second, less obvious but fundamental cause: a sea change in the mood of the Russian electorate.

Polls conducted both before and after the election revealed that voters had grown tired of big talk and bigger upheavals, and that they were prepared to partially sacrifice the right to choose their leaders to whomever held out the promise of stability. United Russia's one-point campaign platform -- we stand with our young, energetic president, who knows everything and will do everything for you -- tapped directly into this sentiment.

This mood explains the general satisfaction with the way the election was run and with the result. A post-election poll conducted by VTsIOM-A showed that 38 percent of voters who cast their ballot for United Russia did so because the party had Putin's endorsement; another 20 percent chose United Russia simply because it was the front-runner. The desire among voters to free themselves of responsibility for the political situation in the country and to pass the buck to somebody else is underlined by response to another question: When asked how they would have voted if the election result had been known beforehand, 46 percent said they would have voted for United Russia -- nine percent more than actually backed the party on Dec. 7.

At the same time, a VTsIOM-A poll showed that freedom of speech and of the press, the freedom to travel abroad, free enterprise, rapprochement with the West and even the right to strike enjoyed no less (and sometimes more) support among United Russia voters than among the "liberals" who voted for Yabloko and or SPS. Of the major achievements of the last decade, only multi-party elections failed to arouse the sympathy of United Russia supporters. This suggests that the people will go along with the restriction of their rights and freedoms only to a point: If the regime curtails freedoms that people enjoy in their everyday lives, a backlash could ensue.

Russians' political ideals haven't changed much in essence since the Stalin era, when they were analyzed as part of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System, based on interviews with immigrants from the Soviet Union. American researchers then concluded that Soviet citizens did not value state control as an end in itself. They rather saw it as the only way to promote both public and private interests. Russians did not share the American tendency to see state interference as negative in all cases. They wanted to live in "a paternalistic state with extremely wide powers which it would vigorously exercise to control the nation's destiny, but which yet served the interests of the citizen benignly, which respected his personal dignity and left him with ... a feeling of freedom from arbitrary interference and punishment."

Current polls reveal a similar attitude toward the state, meaning that the so-called liberal reforms of the last 10 years were carried out against the wishes of most Russians, who wanted nothing more than to curtail the excesses of Soviet socialism. They certainly didn't support Yegor Gaidar's vision of a "minimal" state, which cast ordinary people to the whims of fate. Sooner or later a leader had to come along who opted to ride the wave of popular sentiment. Recent polls only confirm the prescience of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others before him who maintained that Russia could not move directly from Communism to democracy. The people, no longer accustomed to independence, would not accept rapid change. After a decade of crazy experiments and the loss of huge swathes of territory, authoritarianism has got the upper hand once again.

This does not, of course, mean that we have to sit back and take it. It is one thing to propose authoritarian rule as a phase in the transition from totalitarianism to democracy intended to reduce the sacrifices made by the majority. Restoring authoritarian rule after all the sacrifices have been made is another thing entirely. In this situation, it would be far better to build on the positive achievements of transition while correcting the excesses of "liberal" anarchy in the 1990s.

The parliamentary election revealed the full extent of the opposition's failure to realize that things had changed and to present the electorate with new ideas. None of the "opposition" parties, including the Communists, reached out to voters at the grassroots level. They gave us politics as usual, seemingly unaware that an authoritarian regime was on the rise in Russia and that voters were fed up with empty rhetoric. Opposition leaders, through their refusal to offer real opposition, looked more like advisers to the regime than its critics. The Kremlin has made it clear that it doesn't need their advice.

However, it is not enough simply to be in opposition, you also have to fight for voters' support. Russian opposition leaders have rallied popular support for the ideal of freedom only by uniting it with a call for social justice. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of thousands turned out for demonstrations, fueled by widespread anger at the privileges enjoyed by the Communist bureaucracy. The leaders of the democratic movement won support for Westernizing reforms and democratization by explaining that they were necessary to bring down the old system. As the current authoritarian and bureaucratic regime consolidates its control of the country, acting in the interests of corrupt officials and their friends in big business, the demand for social justice will only grow.

The challenge for all who oppose this regime is to harness the rising tide of discontent and to direct its power toward freedom, democracy and cooperation with the outside world.

Independent trade unions could prove invaluable allies in this cause, though it's no secret that current labor laws are not followed in the private sector and that anyone who tries to form a union shop is summarily fired and subjected to persecution. Consumers' rights groups, especially in the housing sector, could play an important role, along with the environmental movement and organizations protecting the rights of small and medium-sized businesses.

Opposition parties should consider providing free legal consultations for the general public. The point is that people will support the opposition when it provides them with practical assistance, not abstract arguments about freedom and democracy.

Popular support for a broad movement opposed to authoritarianism and corruption -- call it social-democratic if you like -- is growing. The Communist Party could tap into this support if, like its European counterparts, the party moves to the right, rejecting Stalinism and racism. Yabloko might have a chance if it moves to the left, closer to average Russians. Someone will step in to fill the void; if the opposition does not seize the day, an organization like Rodina will move in and establish a 21st-century "zubatovshchina," the police-state trade unionism practiced by the tsarist government. Setting this new course will require the sort of systematic, grassroots work that most traditional party leaders simply are not prepared to undertake.

In the end, the emerging authoritarian regime will fall. When people are forbidden to vent their discontent, they take to the streets. It's hard to say when this will happen, in five years or 10. But recent history has shown that authoritarian regimes bent on economic development inevitably collapse. Russia differs little from the other CIS countries in terms of its political life, and most of those countries are run by authoritarian regimes (some have already managed to collapse more than once). Change occurs more slowly in Russia, but the end will be the same. Only three questions remain to be answered: How do we survive the next 10 years? What form will the regime's collapse take -- the "velvet" version of a Georgia or the bloodier version of a Serbia or Romania? And will this collapse will give rise to democratization or a new round of authoritarianism?

Alexander Lukin, an independent political analyst, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. This is the second in a series of two articles by him. The first appeared on Jan. 21.