Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Russia's White Revolution
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, February 13, 2012
All the meticulous plotting to avoid Ukraine’s Orange Revolution
resulted in -- Russia’s very own coloured one. But Russia is not Ukraine,
discovers Eric Walberg
Russia’s electoral scene has been transformed
in the past two months, without a doubt inspired by the political winds from
the Middle East and the earlier colour revolutions in Russia’s “near
abroad”. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s casual return to the presidential
scene was greeted as an effrontery by an electorate who want to move on from
Russia’s political strongman tradition, and to inject the electoral process
with ballot-box accountability.
Putin’s legendary role in rescuing
Russia from the economic abyss in the 1990s, staring down the oligarchs,
reasserting state control over Russian resource wealth, and repositioning
Russia as an independent player in Eurasia (not to mention in America’s
backyard) -- these signal accomplishments assure him a place in history
books. He and Dmitri Medvedev are considered the most popular leaders in the
past century according to a recent VTsIOM opinion poll (Leonid Brezhnev
comes next, followed by Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, with Mikhail
Gorbachev and Boris Yelstin the least popular). He will very likely pass the
50 per cent mark in presidential elections 4 March, despite all the protests
during the past two months calling for “Russia without Putin”. So why is he
back in the ring?
It appears he was caught by surprise when the
anti-Putin campaign exploded in November, fuelled by his decision to run
again and the exposure of not a little fraud in the parliamentary elections
in December. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
opposition was able to unite and stage impressive rallies, one after
another. Despite the chilling Russian winter, they keep coming -- this week
saw four gathering around Moscow, totalling 130,000.
poster children even include Putin’s minister of finance Alexei Kudrin.
Presidential hopefuls are Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov (backed for the
first time by the independent left forces), nationalist Vladimir
Zhirinovsky, A Just Russia’s Sergey Mironov and the oligarch playboy Mikhail
Prokhorov -- none of whom stand a chance of defeating Putin. This time there
are 25 televised debates which began 6 February among the contenders, who
are sparring with each other and “Putin’s representative”.
quixotic march back to the Kremlin heights a case of egomania? Or is it a
noble attempt to both cast in stone Russia as the Eurasian counterweight to
an increasingly aggressive US/NATO, and shaking up the domestic political
scene to make sure it will not slump into apathy when he himself passes the
torch? And if things go wrong, is this Russia’s very own White Revolution,
long feared by the Russian elite, and long covetted by Western intriguers?
Russian politics has always confounded Western observers, and continues
to do so. Putin is famously imperious and gets away with it. He taunted the
opposition by saying he thought the original demonstrations were part of an
anti-AIDS campaign, that the white ribbons were condoms. But he nonetheless
sanctioned the largest political opposition rallies in the past 20 years.
US democracy-promotion NGOs such as the National Endowment for
Democracy -- a key player in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution -- are active
in Russia’s opposition, but Putin is clearly gambling that Russians can see
past US efforts to manipulate them. Besides, the winners in the Duma
elections were the Communists and nationalists, with pro-Western liberals
placing a distant fourth -- hardly the results NEDers would have wanted.
He is also famously willing to tell US politicians they wear no clothes
-- the latest, last week in Siberia: “Sometimes I get the impression the US
doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals.” Russian foreign policy is now firmly
anti-NATO, both with respect to the West’s misguided missile system and its
eagerness to turn Syria into a killing fields. Rumours that a Russian
Iran-for-Syria deal with the West have proved empty. There are even hints
that Iran may still get its defensive S-300 missiles from Russia in exchange
for Russian access to the downed US drone. Iran claims to have four already
and recently announced they have developed their own domestic version.
Pro-Putin rallies are almost as large as the opposition’s, with an
official count of 140,000 attendees at the festive gathering Saturday. The
Putinistas even bill theirs as the Anti-Orange rally. “We say no to the
destruction of Russia. We say no to Orange arrogance. We say no to the
American government…let’s take out the Orange trash,” political analyst
Sergei Kurginyan exhorted at Moscow’s Poklonnaya Gora war memorial park.
Putin thanked organisers, commenting modestly, “I share their views.”
The real reason for Putin’s return is due to the failure during his
first two terms of his “sovereign democracy” to limit corruption in
post-Soviet Russia. Instead, of producing a modernising authoritarianism
along the lines of post-war South Korea, Putin’s rule deepened corruption --
the bane of late Soviet and early post-Soviet society. Instead of trading
political freedom for effective governance, he clipped Russians’ civil and
political rights without delivering on this vital promise. Neither did he
end collusion between the state and the oligarchs. That was the handle that
badboy Alexei Navalni used to catalyse the opposition around his slogan that
United Russia is the “party of swindlers and thieves”.
This was the
scene in the 2000s in Ukraine, where it was possible for the NEDers to
undermine the much weaker Ukrainian state and install the Western candidate
Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. However, instead of addressing the problems that
led to the Orange Revolution, Putin focussed on foreign threats to Russian
political stability rather than paying attention to domestic factors,
creating patriotic youth organisations such as Nashi (Ours) and the 4
November Day of Unity holiday – the latter quickly hijacked by Russia’s
But Russian fears of Western interference are hardly
naïve. Russia was sucked into the horrendous WWI by the British empire,
suffered devastating invasions in 1919 and 1941, and another half century of
the West’s Cold War against it. Further dismemberment of the Russian
Federation is indeed a Western goal, which would benefit no one but a tiny
comprador elite, Western multinationals and the Pentagon.
statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might not be such
a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of the West. His new
Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible political governance
across the continent. It may not be what the NED has in mind, but it would
be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to mention China’s beleaguered
Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards disintegration and
weakness, but towards integration and mutual security, without any need for
US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda. The union will surely eventually
include the mother of colour revolutions, Ukraine, where citizens still
yearn for open borders with Russia and closer economic integration. The days
of dreaming about the other EU’s Elysian Fields are over. The hard, cold
reality today has bleached the colour revolutions, making white the
appropriate colour for Russia’s version of political change.
course, the big problem -- corruption -- is what will make or break Putin’s
third term as president. At the Russia 2012 Investment Forum in Moscow last
week, Putin outlined plans to move Russia up to 20th spot from its current
120th in the World Bank index of investment attractiveness, by reducing
bureaucracy and the associated bribery. “These measures are not enough. I
believe that society must actively participate in the establishment of an
anti-corruption agenda,” he vowed. Reforming the legal system and expanding
the reach of democracy will be key to fighting corruption, not just via
presidential decrees, but through empowering elected officials and voters.
He confirmed this in his fourth major pre-election address this week by
promising to provide better government services by decentralizing power from
the federal level to municipalities and relying on the Internet.
far things look good. For the first time since 1995 there will be a hotly
contested transparently monitored presidential election, with the distinct
possibility of a runoff (unless the new US Ambassador Michael McFaul keeps
inviting NED darlings to Spaso House). The sort-of presidential debates,
large-scale opposition rallies and the new independent League of Voters
intending to ensure clean elections are a fine precedent, making sure that
this time and in the future there will be an opportunity for genuine debate
about Russia’s future.
Despite all attempts to forestall Russia’s
colour revolution, it has begun -- Russian-style -- with no state collapse,
but with a new articulate electorate, wise to both Kremlin politologists and
Western NGOlogists. Its final destination is impossible for anyone to
predict at this point.
Eric Walberg can be reached at