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Sean Guillory, Getting Russia Wrong

Almost two years ago, right after the most recent elections to the Russian Duma, Russia blogger Sean Guillory penned a tract for Aljazeera about the state of politics in Putin’s Russia.  It’s interesting to review what (little) he got right and what he (mostly) got wrong.

Guillory wrote: “The remaining question was how the public, which so far had been apathetic and acquiescent, would respond when given the opportunity to speak through the ballot box. It’s often said that electoral politics in Russia is dead. If so, then Sunday’s elections was a defibrillator to the political heart of the polity.”

Wrong. In fact, five million fewer Russians went to the polls in 2011 than had done so four years earlier.  Russians showed themselves to be much less interested in electoral politics in 2011 compared to 2007. It’s simply incredible that Guillory could ignore the voter turnout data, apparently because it didn’t fit his narrative.

Guillory wrote: “United Russia lost its predicted supermajority, barely holding on to a simple one. Medvedev was on the horn trying to get the Communists, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats – anyone – to agree to a coalition government.  ”

Wrong.

It’s totally ridiculous to speak about a “supermajority” in the Russian Duma. It doesn’t have a filibuster like the U.S. Senate has, and therefore it has no need of a supermajority.  All it needs to rubber-stamp Putin’s policies in perfectly acceptable fashion is a bare majority.  Though polling less than a majority, United Russia got 52.88% of the seats in the new Duma, a comfortable simple majority with no need of a coalition.   When he was reelected in 2012, Barack Obama only got 51.01% of the popular vote.

Sure, United Russia would like to have as large a presence in the Duma as possible, because it looks good. But amazingly, Guillory simply ignored the fact that the country was just emerging from the worst economic crisis in a decade, a 7.5% constriction of the economy in 2009.  In many countries, the party of power would be ousted following such a debacle, but United Russia held the reins rather impressively.

But yes, by all means, let’s talk about the Communists and Zhirinovsky’s crypto-fascists in the Liberal Democratic Party.  51 of the 77 seats lost by United Russia went to these two parties, which represent an even more draconian notion of Russia than United Russia does, one that sees Putin as too liberal.  Defibrillator to the political heart?  More like a glass of poison.  Apparently Guillory, a Marxist (he quotes Marx effusively in the tract), finds the prospect of the Communists returning to power in Russia exciting. If so, he’s no friend of Russia.

Guillory wrote: “More and more of the Russian electorate are getting nauseous with the political establishment, and Putin in particular. The announcement that Putin was returning to the presidency turned out to be a big mistake.”  Guillory quoted a Russian editorial:  “One thing is clear: The country will not be the same as before. It simply cannot be.”

Wrong.  Putin ran for a third term as president a few months later and won in another landslide. True, four million fewer Russians voted for Putin in 2012 despite two million more going to the polls than in 2004, but Putin still raked in over 63% of the votes with no rival getting as much as one-third of his total.  Again, given the economic crisis, this performance was truly breathtaking. Three of Putin’s four million lost votes, incidentally, went to the Communist Party.

Russia is, in other words, exactly the same.

To his credit, Guillory correctly predicted that Alexei Navalny would make common cause with Russia’s nationalist movement.  However, he then jumped the rails by stating: “Such a pact would be a potent political force.”  This “potent political force” was unable to muster as much as 10% of Moscow’s voters in Navalny’s recent bid for mayor of the city even though the election was by all accounts the fairest in Russian history. Navalny has no real political power anywhere, and this leader of the “potent political force,” is now headed to prison for five years or more.  Soon after Guillory wrote, Navalny had announced he’d force a rerun of the Duma election. It didn’t happen. Then he said he’d force Putin into a runoff. Again, not so much.  To be fair, maybe Guillory’s copy read “impotent” and a careless editor mis-set the type.

Guillory writes: “Protesters, however, are not going away; instead, they are organising via Facebook a return to the streets on December 10.”

Guillory’s prediction was correct, but very short-sighted.  Significant and unprecedented street demonstrations did follow, but then quickly faded as Putin coasted to victory.  It was a flash in the pan, in no way indicative of a changed country. And Guillory should have known better.  Navalny’s reliance on the Internet was a critical error, given that a clear majority of Russians don’t even have e-mail addresses much less regularly use the Internet.  Navalny’s strategy left the vast majority of Russians sitting on the sidelines and his focus on Moscow created a vastly overstated image of the opposition strength.

Guillory wrote that the protest movement

symbolised the widening vertical divide between the Putin government and the young, educated urbanites created by 10 years of Putinist prosperity. These young people are being dubbed the “New Decembrists” (after the failed noble revolt against the coronation of Nicholas I in December 1825). Like the Decembrists of old, the new Decembrists are a generation of young, educated youths disaffected by the social and political atmosphere. Armed with their iPhones, blogs, and Twitter accounts, the “New Decembrists” are increasingly willing to speak out, and if Monday and Tuesday are any indication, to take action as well.

Really?  So what we have to look forward to is a hundred more years of rule by Putin and his ilk, to be followed by a hundred or so more of something even worse, as a century of misrule by the Tsar and then a century of Soviet atrocities followed the Decembrists?  Was Guillory trying to be funny?

Guillory’s tract is just one of many foolish diatribes which breathlessly declared that change was afoot in Russia following the last Duma elections.  In fact, no such thing was the case.  As we correctly argued, nothing at all was really changing in Russia because the Russian population was the same as it always was, and it generally supported Putin in his neo-Soviet crackdown.  This inaccurate analysis misled the world and helped it to drop its guard on Putin, allowing him to further consolidate his malignant regime.

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