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Friday, January 23, 2015

Finding Russia's Koštunica

Slobodan Milošević, Serbia's nationalist president who presided over the fall of Yugoslavia and the hellish Balkan Wars of the 1990s, was ousted by a coalition of political parties in Serbia and with the help of the grassroots, nonpartisan protest group Otpor! (Resistance!) in October of 2000.


Left: The symbol of Serbian protest organization Otpor.
Center: Otpor supporters after the Yugoslav presidential election with banners claiming "Gotov Je!" ("It's over!" or "He's (Milosevic) finished!")
Right: Vojislav Ko

His successor was the head of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, Vojislav Koštunica. Today, Serbia has continued and progressed as a democratic state, seemingly on its way to joining the European Union

Serbia's revolution was gradual, popular, and done peacefully through the power of the ballot box.

To the east, in one of Serbia's traditional allies and its "big brother", the Russian opposition is weak, fractured, and distrusted today. It's hard to believe today that not long ago (2011-2012) Russia saw considerable protests against the Putin government.

Between 2008 and 2012, Russia was ruled by President Dimitri Medvedev, who appointed his predecessor Vladimir Putin to the post of Prime Minister. Medvedev was Putin's hand-picked successor and rode Putin's high level of popularity to an easy victory in the 2008 presidential election.

Trouble started to brew in December 2011 when parliamentary election results came in. United Russia, Putin's political party, lost a considerable amount of seats but retained its majority in the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament. The elections were considered fraudulent by both international and domestic observers, and Russians took to the streets in protest.

The protests, though considerably large and widespread throughout Russia, failed to capitalize on Putin's weakened party. Putin secured an easy victory in the 2012 presidential election.

Since then, protests in Russia have been mostly small, infrequent, and broken up by OMON. President Putin's approval rating skyrocketed when Russia annexed Crimea and has stayed high since, despite mounting economic problems.

Russia is in crisis, though, and the partiotic flourish that came with the annexation of Crimea has been replaced with uncertainty over the faltering economy.

Is Russia due for an electoral revolution in the future? And is there a Russian Koštunica waiting in the wings?

The short answer is not now. Putin's popularity among the Russian people is much too strong and the opposition too weak and fractured to remove Putin from office.

But could it happen in the near future? Could Russia have its own "Otpor!" movement? 

Of course it could, but it'd be an uphill battle for the Russian opposition. It depends very heavily on where Putin takes Russia in the next three years of his third term as president.

Vladimir Putin is up for re-election in April of 2018, with legislative elections coming in 2016. In Serbia, the legislative elections happened after the presidential election. Since Koštunica was elected before the National Assembly, his party's popularity benefited from presidential support.

This presents a challenge. The State Duma of the Russian Federation has a total of 450 seats. 238 belong to Putin's United Russia, 92 to the Communist Party, 64 to A Just Russia, and 56 to the political party formerly known as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The four parties that are not Putin's are not quite a real opposition to Putin as in your typical American or European democracy. It's not uncommon for the other parties to vote with United Russia unanimously.

In theory, the Russian opposition could target MPs that belong to these parties in the 2016 election. Since they are not United Russia, their MPs could be easier to campaign against.

The problem here, though, is that the Russian opposition doesn't have the resources or the influence to run multiple campaigns against the Duma establishment. When popular opposition figure Aleksei Navalny tried to run for Mayor of Moscow, it proved unsuccessful.

An alternative and more gradual way to target the Duma elections could be to to mobilize a watchdog campaign to bring corruption and irregularities to the forefront. Russians moved to speak out against their government the last time they perceived corruption in their legislative elections, and if economic problems continue to mount in Russia as a result of sanctions and capital flight,

Any organization, campaign, or initiative whose aim is to expose Putin's corruption and authoritarian rule will have to be able to deal with crackdowns from the government. It will have to be able to decentralize and make its presence felt in cities all over Russia, rather than just in Moscow or St. Petersburg. This may not shift the power in Russia overnight but it could shift the political conversation in Russia with the 2018 election approaching.

The Russian opposition is also lacking a leader. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia found Kostunica, who was able to gain credibility among liberals and nationalists (similar to the 2011-2012 protests and the unexpected coalition that developed between nationalists and liberals there, as seen with the rise of Aleksei Navalny). DOS was also a big-tent party that brought together many types of people under one banner, which helped trust grow.

Is Navalny Russia's Kostunica? Probably not. Navalny is constantly being hounded by the Kremlin and brought up on trumped up charges which most recently landed his brother Oleg in prison. Unless he was able to prove his innocence and grow his presence on television (the primary source of political media in Russia) he could have potential, but his history and brushes with the Russian authorities could be a substantial liability.

Vojislav Kostunica also scored some support with Serbia's ethnic minorities of Croats, Bosniaks, and Kosovar Albanians which, next to Milosevic, resonated with them. Russia has large ethnic minorities all over the country, and while they have considerable autonomy to run their own affairs outside the Kremlin's control, (hence the name Russian Federation-and the distinction between Russki (ethnic Russian) and Rossiski (citizen of Russia) ) Ethnic minorities could be an untapped goldmine of support for an opposition force if they're appealed to properly, and they are all over Russia.

It's also important to note that Vojislav Kostunica was not Europe's or America's ideal politician (though he was certainly a better alternative to Milosevic in the eyes of the west). He was critical of both the United States and Europe during his campaign, and this was helpful to his campaign-Milosevic was not able to paint him as a traitorous or unpatriotic politician, and Kostunica was actually able to pilfer some support from Milosevic's base of Serbian nationalists. Distrust of the United States exists in Russia just as it did (does) in Serbia, and some criticism of the US and EU would lend credibility to the opposition within Russia.

In Serbia, Otpor used the recent conflicts to mobilize discontent with the Milosevic government-Russian opposition figures can do the same.

Russia can be democratic without a Saakashvili or a Poroshenko at the helm of the Kremlin. A Kostunica, however, could be the stepping stone to long-term democracy.  

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