While many of our downtown areas were quiet and peaceful on Christmas Day, one major world city was anything but. Not since the days of the collapse of the Soviet Union have we seen massive protests in Russia and yesterday, Moscow experienced such a gathering.
Twenty years have past since the transformation from the USSR to Russia began. Today, there is a generation of people who never knew the Communist system and the corruption that took place behind the scenes.
With the exception of Khrushchev, leadership changed only when the current leader contracted a cold for about 2-3 months and eventually died. Stalin died in 1953 and for almost 40 years afterward, the leadership became a political oligarchy led by aging Communist leaders. With one party rule, political jockeying within the oligarchy would begin at the first sign a leader wasn’t doing well. Once the alliances were formed and the successor was named, the Soviet Empire was forced to accept the results.
The Soviet system was deeply entrenched at all levels of government, it was a huge multi-level bureaucracy that simply could not meet the needs of average citizens. To have any clout at all, one had to be a party member. Everyone else was forced to fend for themselves. Shortages of most anything were accepted as the norm, and thus the need for a huge black market operation was necessary for people to get the things they needed to maintain their lives.
KGB agents were everywhere, local party leaders had the authority to round up people deemed as trouble makers. But the black marketeers were allowed to do business on the sly, if they paid their bribes to the local officials. Once the Soviet Union dissolved and the transition to a free market economy was openly encouraged, the only ones with any knowledge of how free enterprise worked were the former black market operators.
Things were shaky at first and as the initial stages were not overly efficient, some even wished a return to the old system. But with a new found ability to elect leadership, many were thrilled with prospects of western style democracy and a free market economy.
The first real president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, endured some significant crises (both political and economic) to get the new Russia moving in the right direction. But for reasons not ever really understood by this writer, Yeltsin elevated Vladimir Putin to one of three First Deputy Prime Ministers and then, Acting Prime Minister. At the same moment in time, Yeltsin for some odd reason found it necessary to publicly state that he would like Putin to be his successor. This verbal anointing was all that was needed to persuade the electorate. The rest is history.
Putin’s rule has been marked by the worst kind of corruption, with little true change from those her served in his KGB days. His rule as President has not ended with him moving to the role of Prime Minister. If anything, it has strengthened. The current President, Dmitry Medvedev, was hand-picked and fronted out as Putin’s endorsed candidate. Elections were likely rigged to ensure this would happen and the United Russia Party would remain in control.
Now, we hear that Putin wants his old job back and Medvedev is not the least bit resistant to this change of heart. This indicates to many Russians that Medvedev has been nothing more than a Putin puppet from the beginning. People are growing weary of Putin and those who remember the older days may not be too willing to endorse the dictatorship, Putin is seeking. This may be especially true of the younger generations who have been led to believe that their votes count.
Enter the elections and the tampering claims from earlier this month and we see that the people are restless. How restless they stay will depend on how much the Russian government decides to tolerate. Those who are old enough to remember the Chinese crackdown on Tienanmen Square protesters back in 1989, know all too well what can happen when brutal military force is used on popular uprisings. Whether the new Russia will want to use this kind of brutal military force remains to be seen.
As the American people look at their system of government and complain about Washington’s corruption, smart people can see that it pales in comparison to nations like Russia. Even so, this is not to say that this kind of thing cannot happen here. Vote rigging and ballot tampering does happen. The unfolding scandal in South Bend, Indiana, tells us that there are forces that will break laws to ensure someone is on a ballot. The Black Panther case in Philadelphia from 2008 tells us that intimidation can and will be used, especially when they know there will be no accountability from a Justice Department that benefits from such acts.
How Russia handles this issue may give the world a glimpse into how future democracies are managed, when there is a predetermined result planned by those in power. How easily and orderly power is transferred in the U.S. has always been admired and respected in other countries where it doesn’t always happen so often. This is especially true when you see an attempted power shift in such a young democracy like Russia, which has always been made to accept the decisions that have supposedly made for the citizenry’s own good.