Werner Schulz is a member of the Green Group in the European Parliament.
The czar has returned. Full of pomp and pageantry, GAZ-Putin has taken his seat once again on Russia’s throne, and his seat-warmer has been demoted to prime minister, in line with a deal stuck long ago. Grim faced, he spoke his oath of office as though it were a declaration of war. While Paris peacefully celebrated the transfer of power there, in Moscow critics of the “castling” received beatings, fines and prison terms. Even as Putin spoke of constitutional rights and democracy in the Kremlin, Russian police were busy stamping out the sparks of protest against his manipulated re-election. But the protests are not going to die down. Instead they are adopting creative forms – as evidenced by the poster- and slogan-free “control stroll” through Moscow. If for no other reason than that people are unwilling give up the right to demonstrate now that they have it – putting them at odds with the aims of the Moscow administration.
The shock waves which issued from the democracy movement have penetrated further than one might conclude from any single demonstration. The pressure from the public on the system has been enormously increased. Putin is back in the Kremlin, yes, but he is no longer the president of all Russians. He cannot proceed as he has up to now. His “hand-guided democracy” can no longer hold the earth’s largest country together permanently. Almost every political system institution has lost the public’s trust. Including the office of the president.
Return of fear and apathy?
It remains to be seen whether Putin, ever a jealous guardian of his own power, will be willing to initiate policy changes and make concessions to the democratic movement if only to secure his own position. The Russian opposition members I met with a few weeks ago in Moscow are not optimistic. They worry about a thirst for revenge on Putin’s part and a return to fear and apathy. And with it, the ebbing of the mass movement. In view of the appalling events, Putin’s assurance that “we want to live and we will live in a democratic country in which everyone has the freedom and opportunity to apply their talents and labour, their energy” is pure cynicism.
Critics of the regime are living dangerously. They disappear, are murdered or are tossed into prison on specious grounds. Thus far, Putin, who has a tendency toward verbal aggression, has reacted to protest and dissent by activating stereotypes of external and internal enemies. With the arrogance of power, he has tried to ignore the problems in his customary fashion.
Small changes to propitiate the public
The gulf between the rhetoric of the regime’s announcements and the reality in the country has grown ever wider over recent years. Putin hopes to propitiate the public with small changes. The reintroduction of direct gubernatorial elections, for instance, and the long-awaited simplification of the registration process for political parties. But this sudden willingness to reform is a manifestation of the turmoil of a leader who waited too long. Civil society, now awake, does not take it seriously. Years ago, the liberal opposition might have seen these steps as evidence of political insight – but no longer.
It is unlikely that Putin, deeply offended by the mass demonstrations, will opt for a policy of understanding and accommodation from now on. Alarming evidence of this emerged in the discussions of the criminal prosecution of homosexuals and in the ruthless treatment of Pussy Riot, the female rock band which had the effrontery to publicly denounce the blurring of the lines between the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin. Instead of the release of political prisoners, three new ones were created. Attacks on journalists are on the rise again as well. It may well be that the mass arrests during the inauguration were a sort of overture to the new “Decree on the Right to Demonstrate”.
Instead of openness for dialogue and cooperation, the president-again has opted for the “iron-fist” method. His assertions about safeguarding the constitution and guaranteeing democracy and freedom amount to a blend of perjury and lip service. Even if he wanted to, Putin would probably be unable to extract himself from his system, which is based on corruption and cronyism involving the old secret service caste. These ‘siloviki’ have amassed unbelievable wealth. And no one is offering the asset protection scheme that Putin provided to the Yeltsin family in exchange for the presidency back in his day. If there is democratic change, the system will blow up in the faces of these men.
Unrealistic promises of modernisation
Just as implausible are Putin’s completely unrealistic promises concerning modernization. Russia is in the midst of a serious economic and social crisis the impacts of which are being felt by its population every day. Already depressing gaps between rich and poor are being driven ever wider by corruption and clientelism. Despite the high price of oil, Putin will not be able to honour his social responsibilities and promises over the long-term. This vast country has been rocked by a profound crisis of confidence. Systematic distrust of political parties and elections is a heavy burden and it will keep growing as promises continue to go unmet. Even state-affiliated media continually report on infringements and excessive force on the part of the police and the judicial authorities and on Russia’s “legal nihilism”.
In the absence of the spirit of democracy and freedom, economic modernization is predestined to failure. Putin is playing for time, and counting on grand pronouncements about the economic strengths that his country is soon to evince to see him through.
Policy à la Brezhnev
The balance sheet for the 63 days between the re-election and the inauguration does not provide a clear picture of future policy. The former secret-service chief was canny enough not to provoke new outrage before his swearing in. But his first acts in office suggest that he is more likely to follow a ‘prikaz’ policy à la Brezhnev than to allow democratic participation in decision making. Populist announcements that get lost in collective irresponsibility. The queues at state agencies will get shorter, they say. The public’s satisfaction with officials will increase. The price per square meter of housing should be decreased by 20% by 2019 – to whom is that demand addressed?
Putin’s ukase calling for a rise in Russian life expectancy from 68 to 74 years is of a similar quality. Implementing that edict would involve the transformation of the country from the ground up: modernization of the health system, reduction of alcohol consumption and improvement of working, nutritional and living conditions.
Consolidation and structuring take time
Change in Russia will come only very slowly. Historically, the shift from reluctance, to ideas for changes and, finally, to action has always taken a long time. The world is still astonished at the enormous patience of the Russians and at the power unleashed when that patience suddenly runs out. There is not, as yet, a fully formed opposition capable of standing against Putin. Consolidation and structuring take time. But the first steps have been taken. Awareness and confidence, particularly among the younger generation in the major cities, have risen. The Internet can hold its own against the state-controlled media. And the opposition has already scored its first successes in local elections.
Local democracy and autonomy that avoid the central paternalism and control from Moscow. Putin and Medvedev probably did not fully grasp the extent to which the early slogan of Medvedev’s interlude as “assistant president”, “Freedom is better than non-freedom”, would undermine the foundation of their autocratic rule. The missing reforms and the high-handed job-swap of the two Petersburg lawyers have strengthened the political opposition to a degree that it would not have managed on its own.
No clear lines in foreign policy
In contrast to the determination and toughness displayed in the domestic arena, clear lines in Russia’s foreign policy have yet to emerge. The fact that Putin sent his predecessor to represent him at the G8 summit, the first important foreign policy event of his third term, indicates just how tense the present situation in Moscow’s power circles is. Ostensibly, Russia’s president gave the USA and NATO the brush off in order to deal with domestic political affairs.
This is not what a fresh start looks like. The augurs are already talking about Putin’s “little ice age”, harking back to the Cold War. Putin warily relented in the “Syria question”, so as not to lose Russia’s last bastion in the Arab region and face the risk that a new global power centre might take shape outside of the UN Security Council and without Russia. It remains to be seen however, whether Russia will respond to the planned missile defence shield with a new round of the arms race and follow up on the threat to turn Kaliningrad into a fortress with medium range missiles.
Putin has been pushing ahead with his Eurasian Union project in order to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical role and its “zone of influence” and put itself back on an even footing with the west. The present customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan is scheduled to be transformed into the Eurasian Union in 2015. Still missing from the latter is the Ukraine, which represents a element key to a balanced and stable structure. Both our Eastern neighbour and Kirgistan feel massive, continual pressure to join Putin’s new little Soviet Union.
What can the EU do?
But what can the EU do? The hoped-for modernization agreement never really got off the ground. The signed Energy Charter was revoked unilaterally by Russia. Under negotiation for years, new partnership and cooperation agreement has made only laborious progress. Extensive commonalities in economic interests do exist, but there are also enormous differences when it comes to basic democratic values.
Putin is attempting to continue his strategy of bilateral relations with the EU by bringing his “Eurasian Union”, still in the development stage and dominated by Russia, to the table as a negotiating partner. The EU cannot and must not let itself be taken down this road. But member countries, like Germany, which boast of a special relationship with Russia, should favour consultation with the EU over a special treatment from Russia.
“Change through trade” appeals to Germany’s private-sector Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations and it has delivered fat profits, but even a magnifying glass cannot reveal any political impacts from it, let alone improvements. In addition to honest and critical dialogue, an appropriate distance is called for. Above all, the smarmy “change through ingratiation” has to stop. With Gerhard Schröder and Henning Voscherau, we have two former leading SPD politicians who, having him the democratic seal of approval, have hired themselves out in GAZ-Putin’s realm and, as if that were not enough, now serve as attentive claqueurs at the court of the new czar. This undermines positive developments and has damaged the image of German held by the Russian opposition.
A new Ostpolitik is urgently needed, one that addresses the difficult developments of the post-Soviet states and takes into account experiences within the “Eastern Neighbourhood”. It is true that many European politicians would prefer “business as usual”, as would Putin and Medvedev. Nonetheless, our support is due primarily to civil society initiatives and the newly establishing liberal parties.
Strategic partner only on the basis of shared basic values
The EU would like to acquire Russia as a strategic partner. A relationship of that kind would only be viable, though, if it were based on shared basic values. Greater market access and investment opportunities for Moscow in Europe? Yes, with pleasure. But not until we have in place a binding agreement that does not ignore democracy and human rights. That cannot happen without the establishment of the rule of law and the promotion of an active civil society.
Russia’s key request to the EU is for the elimination of visa requirements. The freedom to travel to the EU should be coupled, however, with a guarantee of the rights of free assembly and freedom of expression within Russia. This alone will provide the shoes we need to walk the path into the future. It is important that the EU upholds its values consistently and jettisons naive hopes for a new, reformed president. President Putin is no newcomer in office. He has no need of cheers of encouragement or even considerate support. His people do though.