Russia’s inconvenient opposition

By Mike Tudoreanu


Last weekend, presidential elections took place in Russia. Vladimir Putin, the leader of the ruling United Russia Party and the man who has been running the show in Russia for the past 12 years, won 64 percent of the vote according to official results.

But many observers, both inside and outside Russia, argue that the elections were neither free nor fair, that the media was overwhelmingly pro-Putin, that some people were bribed or even forced to vote for the United Russia candidate and that there was widespread voting fraud.

This in itself is nothing new. Putin, like his mentor Boris Yeltsin, has been winning questionable elections for years. Yeltsin even sent tanks against the Russian parliament at one point in the 1990s, because they opposed his radical free-market reforms.

What is surprising is the way the opposition to Putin is presented by the Western media. For one thing, most news reports simply refer to them as “the opposition,” rarely giving the names of political parties and almost never saying what they stand for.

When individual members of “the opposition” are mentioned, it is nearly always bloggers, liberal intellectuals, wealthy businessmen or some other members of Russia’s pro-market, pro-Western, newly-rich circles. These people are presented as if they are the leaders of the opposition to Putin, but the truth is that they constitute a tiny, irrelevant minority. Presenting them as the main opposition is like presenting the Green Party of the United States as the main opposition to Obama.

Most of the Western media seems to be going to extreme lengths to avoid talking about the real opposition to Putin – those groups that actually got millions of votes in the election instead of a few hits on their blogs. One CNN commentator, Andrew Keen, goes so far as to lament that the Russian opposition is “mostly limited to Moscow [and] politically naive,” and he seems to suggest that they need to set up political parties as if they don’t have any yet. He does this despite the fact that the picture at the head of his article shows protesters carrying the banners of the largest opposition party in Russia, which he does not mention even once.

That party is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which has been Russia’s largest opposition group for almost 20 years and has consistently come in either first or second place in every national election since 1995 (but they’ve never been allowed to govern, of course).

In the presidential elections last weekend, the CPRF candidate came second. If Putin stole the elections from anyone, he stole them from the communists. This is the key fact that the Western media seems desperate to avoid mentioning: The main purpose of all that fraud, intimidation, bribery and authoritarianism in Russia is to prevent the communists from winning elections.

To present the political situation in Russia as a conflict between the iron-fisted Putin and idealistic young liberals is to distort the facts beyond all recognition. Putin does indeed rule with an iron fist, but he rules as a pro-business conservative who defends the privileges of the super-wealthy elite and who has implemented the kinds of right-wing economic policies that American Republicans could only dream of.

For example, taxes in Russia are far lower than in the United States, with the income tax having a single flat rate of 13 percent (by comparison, the wealthiest people in the U.S. pay a marginal income tax rate of 35 percent). The opposition to Putin, although it does contain a small number of liberals, is largely made up of communists and other anti-capitalists who oppose market-based economics because of what it has brought to Russia over the past 20 years: deepening poverty, unemployment, the collapse of health care and education, plummeting life expectancy and living standards and the rise of organized crime. This is a very widespread opinion. According to a poll conducted by the Yuriy Levada Analytical Centre in 2009, 60 percent of Russians regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union (and 16 percent would like to see it restored just as it was before). Such views are also widely held in other countries of the former USSR. According to another 2009 poll – this one conducted by the Pew Research Center – a majority of Ukrainians oppose capitalism and regret the shift to a market economy.

These facts are not widely reported by our media in the West. Perhaps it’s because they do not want to admit that capitalism has failed in the former USSR and made the Soviet system look good in comparison. In the words of Rupert Hayes, a former Moscow correspondent for the BBC, “What you realize when you live in Russia is that so many of our assumptions are wrong. While we were celebrating Russia’s release from Bolshevik tyranny, most Russians were being plunged into poverty, unemployment and misery as unbridled capitalism was let loose upon an unprepared populace.”

Or perhaps our media’s attitude towards this issue isn’t really about Russia or the ex-USSR in particular, but about the Western liberal worldview in general. Almost every time they report a major political conflict anywhere in the world, our news channels have to portray the “good guys” as pro-market, pro-Western liberals – even when they are not.

Just like CNN doesn’t like to admit that the largest organization calling for free and fair elections in Russia is the Communist Party, Jon Stewart (yes, even Jon Stewart) interviewed Egyptian protest leader Gigi Ibrahim and introduced her as an “Egyptian political activist.” Actually, she’s also a Marxist and a member of the “Revolutionary Socialism” political party. And did you know that one of the most militant groups opposing the current Iranian government is the Worker-Communist Party of Iran? No? My point exactly. If you’re fighting against a widely hated oppressive regime, but you’re not a liberal, the Western media will either portray you as a liberal or pretend you don’t exist.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]