Thursday, 19 February 2009

russian spin doc suggests grand dialogue

Rumblings of Russian dissent

Public discontent is growing in Russia but the authorities are reluctant to take note of

James Marson, Wednesday 18 February 2009 23.00 GMT

A recent outbreak of protests across Russia has led to a great deal of excitement among commentators. Vladimir Putin's centralised "power vertical" is apparently crumbling; protests are set to sweep the country and lead to his downfall.

After several years of quiet on Russia's streets, it's easy to overestimate the protests' significance. In fact, they are small, sporadic and localised, and do not, as yet, pose a real threat to the leadership. But they do reveal a fundamental weakness in the political system and a threat to its stability.

President Dmitry Medvedev recently organised a meeting with the editor of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who is one of its shareholders. In an interview afterwards, Muratov said that Medvedev wanted "to get our perspective as people who don't represent the official or, generally speaking, television's point of view". This is a fascinating insight into the limitations of the leadership's sources of information about what is happening in the country.

By throttling free media, quashing civil society, taking control of parliament and attempting to centralise power, the authorities have destroyed the feedback mechanisms that can tell them the actual state of the country and what people really think. Society and power do not communicate. Feedback is simulated by the bureaucracy and the media, both of which largely tell the authorities what they think they want to hear.

The tradition of "Potemkin villages" is still going strong. The response to anti-government protests now encompasses not only police crackdowns, but also "spontaneous" counter-protests organised by the ruling United Russia party. These have been humorously mocked at a march in St Petersburg organised under the banner of "We agree with everything".

Having killed feedback other than their own, the authorities are taking decisions with little sensitivity for how they will play out with the population. Surveys consistently reveal discontent with the authorities' handling of the crisis but, with no way of communicating their problems and dissatisfaction, Russians have no outlet other than protest.

When the authorities decided to increase taxes on car imports, there were protests in Vladivostok where local business thrives on reselling imported cars. A report by the State Duma's analytical department explained why the protests had taken place: they were part of a "premeditated plot to destabilise a whole series of Russian regions" by "certain international forces".

Such distortion not only risks stoking local discontent, but is part of a wider failure by the authorities to explain what is happening, what decisions have been taken and why. The limited attempts, for example, to account for thousands of job losses and the plummeting rouble hardly instil confidence and stability. Medvedev seems, in part, to recognise the need for clearer communication. He has started televised "fireside chats" to explain how the authorities are handling the crisis.

But communication is not one way. Since Medvedev opened his video blog to comments, hundreds of responses have been posted from across the country. People clearly have things to say and want their voices to be heard, but with no other outlet, naivete or frustration drives them to write in the undoubtedly vain hope that their comments are read.

An interesting analysis of the crisis was released last week by the Institute of Contemporary Development, a thinktank headed by Igor Yurgens, a senior adviser to Medvedev. Its advice? "A renewal of the social contract requires dialogue between the state, business and all (including 'awkward') political and social forces," and not just during the crisis, but afterwards as well. To preserve stability, the authorities need not only to start talking, but also to start listening. Medvedev, perhaps, understands this. But what is he prepared, and able, to do about it?

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