How a Petersburger Trucker Has Decided to Sue Plato

How a Petersburger Trucker Has Decided to Sue Plato
Venera Galeyeva
Fontanka.ru
October 16, 2017

After getting his first fine for non-payment of fees under the Plato road tolls system, a Petersburg trucker has challenged it in court. The case could become an important precedent. 

Как петербургский дальнобойщик решил «Платон» засудить
Truckers waiting outside a Plato office. Photo courtesy of Svetlana Kholyavchuk/Interpress

Individual entrepreneur Yuri Bubnov has two freight trucks, one of which is on the road, a MAN-produced box truck he uses to deliver consumer goods to Moscow and Vladimir. As a matter of principle, he has not registered the truck with the Plato road tolls system, has not put a transponder on the truck, and does not pay the new Plato fees. In 2015, he was one of the few people who took part in a road rally of truckers from Petersburg to Moscow. His runs take him past Plato sensors outside Tosno and in Tver, Klin, and Novgorod Region.

A sensor mounted on the Pokrov–Elektrogorsk segment of the M7 Federal Highway finally reacted to Bubnov’s truck on September 28. On October 6, the traffic police issued Bubnov a fine of 5,000 rubles for failure to pay his Plato road toll fees. Ironically, the very same day, the Russian government approved a fourfold increase in fines for non-payers. On October 14, Bubnov sent a letter to the Odintsovo City Court in Moscow Region challenging the decision to issue the fine and petitioning the court to move the venue for hearing the case to the Kalinin District Court in Petersburg, the plaintiff’s place of residence. The truck is registered in Bubnov’s wife’s name, so she will be acting as a defender in the case: “I consider the ruling in the administrative case unfounded and illegal, which I shall prove during the trial.” Yet Bubnov could pay a discounted fine of 2,500 rubles by October 26 and live peacefully.

Truckers have tried before to challenge the issuing of fines for failure to pay Plato road tolls, but for formal reason,s e.g., the paperworks was not drawn up properly, the truck’s owner was not behind the wheel during the alleged violation, and so on. Bubnov’s case if fundamentally different. He wants to challenge the law itself and is willing to give up at least a year of his life to do it.

Bubnov expounds his position.

“According to the Russian Federal Civil Code, damage must be paid be jointly by everyone everyone involved in causing damage. However much damage you caused that is how you pay,” he says.

[Bubnov has in mind the government’s original stated rationale for introducing the Plato road tolls system. Since cargo trucks, allegedly, cause more wear and tear on federal highways than other vehicles, the argument went, they should pay additional fees, based on the number of kilometers traveled, to compensate for this damage and thus provide more money for repairing major roads.—TRR]

“In addition, the damage I caused has to be proven. And, according to the Russian Federal Tax Code, payments cannot be arbitrary and should reflect the economic essence of the matter. Empty, my vehicle weighs 7,800 kilograms. The maximum weight of a loaded eighteen-wheeler is 44 tons. Obviously, we cause different amounts of wear and tear on the road. Why, then, should I pay the same amount as the driver of a loaded eighteen-wheeler?”

In May 2016, the Russian Federal Consitutional Court ruled the Plato road tolls system legal. Later, however, Constitutional Court Judge Gadis Gadzhiyev issued a dissenting opinion in which, among other things, he suggested clarifying the purpose of the fee, because, economically speaking, Plato is not compensation for damage, but a payment imposed on owners of heavy trucks for using the roads.

“As currently formulated, the Plato system is at odds with Russian federal laws,” says Bubnov. “By itself, travel on public roads is not an offense. There is a Russian federal government decree in which the maximum loads for different types of vehicle are set. The weight of my vehicle is legal.”

Bubnov also invokes an argument that truckers protesting Plato have made since 2015. If a toll is introduced for driving on a certain section of road, drivers should be provided with an alternative free detour. Otherwise, all federal highways would become toll roads for truckers.

Bubnov already has several legal victories under his belt. He has always served as his own defense counsel, and recently he has voluntarily defended his colleagues from different regions in court. On September 20, 2017, he won the so-called tachograph case, in which a trucker had been accused of violating work safety laws. A similar case is now being tried in Altai Territory.

If Bubnov’s appeal, as appended to his complaint against the Plato road tolls system fine, is rejected, first he will have to go to Odintsovo City Court, then to the Moscow Regional Court to appeal the ruling, and then to the Presidium of the Moscow Regional Court and, finally, to the Russian Federal Supreme Court and the Presidium of the Supreme Court. Bubnov plans to go to the bitter end with the final decision. According to his calculations, the whole process may take at least a year. If his petition is granted, the first three sets of hearings will be held in Petersburg. Bubnov plans on going the entire distance himself, without a lawyer.

“Essentially, Yuri Bubnov’s claims are correct,” says Irina Metel, executive director of the Northwest Carriers and Forwarders Union. “In practice, however, any case requires the assistance of a very competent laywer.”

“We are ready to support Yuri Bubnov in court,” says Maria Pazukhina, head of the OPR (Association of Russian Carriers) regional branch in Murmansk. “We have challenged fines before, but only on formal grounds, for example, due to incomplete lists of evidence or instances where agencies not empowered to do so tried to punish carriers. Yuri’s case is fundamentally different. In my view, the current authorities are unlikely to rule that Plato should be abolished. The OPR has been trying to detect the system’s faults in order to reveal its corruption and inefficiency. But so far we have not launched legal proceedings like this.”

“I’d been waiting for this fine for a year and a half, and I finally got it,” Bubnov told Fontanka.ru. “It’s good it came now, while the sensors have not been turned on everywhere. If the system were up and running normally, it would be harder to challenge the fine. The chances of a ruling in my favor are few, but what if suddenly the case is assigned to a judge who is about to retire and has nothing to lose, and he makes a ruling in accordance with the laws?”

FYI
According to Dmitry Pronchatov, assistant director of the Federal Road Agency, since the Plato road tolls system was launched, carriers have paid over 33.3 billion rubles [approx. 494 million rubles] into the road maintenance and construction fund. Over 900,000 vehicles have been registered in the system. The monies have been used to finance the construction of seven bridges and repairs on twenty-four emergency pipelines, as well as over a thousand kilometers of roads in forty cities and regions. Owners of twelve-ton trucks must pay 1.9 rubles for each kilometer of travel on federal highways.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

Court Extends Yuri Dmitriev’s Arrest

dmitrievyuri-semnasem
Russian political prisoner Yuri Dmitriev

Court Extends Yuri Dmitriev’s Arrest to Late January
Chernika
October 12, 2017

Yuri Dmitriev, head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, will remain in police custody until next year. Judge Marina Nosova made this ruling on October 11 as part of the criminal case against the famous historian and researcher of the Stalinist Terror, who has been charged with producing pornography featuring his foster daughter. The prosecution had petitioned the court to extend Dmitriev’s arrest for three months. The defense, however, plans to appeal Judge Nosova’s ruling in the Karelia Supreme Court.

Judge Nosova also rejected an appeal made by Dmitriev’s defense counsel to disqualify  the forensic experts who have been evaluating the photographs of Dmitriev’s foster daughter, which are the main evidence in the criminal case. As Chernika reported earlier, the previous findings, reached by analysts from the Center for Sociocultural Expertise, who concluded the snapshots were pornographic, were smashed to smithereens by Dr. Lev Shcheglov, president of the National Institute of Sexology, who drew the attention of both the court and the public to the fact that the forensic experts in the Dmitriev case were not professionals, but an art historian, a maths teacher, and a pediatrician. Consequently, the court ordered a new forensic examination from the so-called Federal Department of Independent Forensic Expertise, based in Petersburg. It has transpired, however, that this “department” is an ordinary firm, founded with the minimal amount of charter capital.

Moreover, Novaya Gazeta v Sankt-Peterburge has claimed the pompously named firm is registered in a flat on Srednayaya Podyacheskaya Street in Petersburg. The firm was recommended to the court by Petrozavodsk prosecutor Yelena Askerova.

_____________________________________________________

  • Yuri Dmitriev, head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, was jailed late last year. He has pleaded not guilty, calling the case against him a “set-up.” 
  • According to Dmitriev’s defense attorney Viktor Anufriev, the photographs found on the historian’s computer, which are essentially the main evidence against him, are not pornographic, but a record of the child’s health.  Anufriev also claims that shortly before Dmitriev’s arrest someone broke into his flat and turned on his computer. Subsequently, an anonymous complaint against Dmitriev was filed with the prosecutor’s office, and Dmitriev was detained soon thereafter. 
  • Many famous politicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, and musicians have voiced their support for Dmitriev, including Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Vladimir Voinovich, Dmitry Bykov, Andrei Zvyagintsev, Venyamin Smekhov, and Boris Grebenshchikov.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of 7X7/Barents Observer.

Read my previous posts on the Dmitriev case:

Russia’s Bright Future (Putin 4.0)

Member of HRC Describes Putin’s New Term: Everything under the Sun Will Be Banned
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
October 10, 2017

Pavel Chikov argues Russia will become isolated internationally, and federalism and regional economies will be jettisoned.

Pavel Chikov, member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, has forecast what politics in Russia will be like if Vladimir Putin is re-elected to another term. According to Chikov, the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly, and more and more areas of public life will be off limits.

1a1bb3f8a345889fc79a754c4ae35c6dPavel Chikov. Photo courtesy of Facebook/MK

Foreign mass media will be the first to be banned. This has been borne out, says the human rights activist, by the threat to shutter Radio Svoboda, which the media outlet received from the Justice Ministry last Monday.

Following the media, “the political arena will be mopped up: the current persecution of Alexei Navalny’s employees and Open Russia’s employees is a harbinger of this.”

In Chikov’s opinion, the country will also be stripped of religious freedom, as witnessed by “the huge criminal cases against and expulsion from the country” of members of various non-traditional religious movements, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been declared “extremist” banned in the Russian Federation, to supporters of non-mainstream Buddhist and Muslim groups.

These measures, writes the human rights activist on his Telegram channel, will be paralleled by Russia’s renunciation of its international commitments. It will exit the Council of Europe and end its cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. (Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, said yesterday this was a probable scenario.) Russian’s relations with many European countries, from the Baltic states to Germany, will deteriorate, and their embassies will be closed. Restrictions will be placed on Russian nationals traveling outside the country, and the practice of stripping refugees and asylum seekers of their Russian citizenship and confiscating their property will be broadened.

Meanwhile, Russia will succeed in isolating its segment of the Internet and instituting a Chinese-style firewall to censor content.

Finally, Chikov writes, the country’s economy and domestic politics will deteriorate. The regions will lose the last remnants of their autonomy (Chikhov cites Vladimir Vasilyev’s  recent appointment as acting head of Dagestan, although the United Russia MP has no experience in the republic), and the assets the regions have left will be placed under the control of Putin’s inner circle.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Vasily Zharkov for the heads-up

Alexei Navalny and Two Million Catalonians

Catalonia independence_thumb[1]
Two million Catalonians

Russian anti-corruption crusader and opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to 20 days in the slammer for “repeated appeals to take part in unauthorized rallies.

That “repeated appeals” business sounds like a particularly pernicious crime.

What is the difference between messing with Navalny this way constantly and beating Catalonians over the head?

I don’t see any.

Or, actually, I do.

At the end of the day, after the Madrid government’s fine performance in Catalonia yesterday, with the whole world watching, the Catalonians might get what a lot of them seem to want: independence.

But they will get it, if they do, because millions of them have united and fought for it.

Alexei Navalny, on the other hand, has to pretend to be “two million Catalonians” all on his lonesome.

“Russia will be free” someday, but at the moment only Navalny and a handful of his countrymen want to act in a concerted, deliberate way to end the Putinist tyranny.

Everyone else is—to tell you the truth, I don’t know what they are.

What they definitely are not (at least, so far) is “two million Catalonians.”

So, my reaction to the savage behavior of the Spanish police yesterday would definitely not be to gloat and suggest the police in so-called democratic countries are worse.

Actually, the police in Russia are much worse.

When push comes to shove, they wouldn’t hesitate to outdo their Spanish colleagues. And in any case there is a whole army of police, investigators, and prosecutors in Russia who could only be termed “political” police, because they spend all or most of their working days pursuing, interrogating, framing, trying, and imprisoning various “extremists.”

Tell me this hasn’t had a totally chilling effect on grassroots politics in Russia. It has. Why else would I, more or less a nobody, personally know so many Russians who have fled the country in fear of arrest and persecution or because they had simply been prevented by government agencies like the Justice Ministry, Center “E”, the FSB, and the Investigative Committee from doing the social justice or political activism they had been doing in their own native land for years?

But Russians are people like everybody else, and people sometimes are way too inclined to let their country’s powers that be off the hook, when they should be fighting them in the streets like “two million Catalonians.” TRR

Thanks to Erik Syring for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Life on the Left

 

The 1600th: Futurama

This is my 1600th entry since I started translating and writing articles about modern Russian politics, society, economics, art and culture, history, social movements, grassroots endeavors, and everyday life on this website nearly ten years ago.

My first post, dated October 23, 2007, was a translation of an excerpt from Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein’s fantastic 2005 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Provocative and surprising as ever, Mr. Pepperstein argued that

[o]nly the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism. They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the job of editing another website, Chtodelat News, where I volunteered for nearly five years, publishing 740 posts and slowly figuring out what I wanted to say with this hybrid of translation,  editorializing, and media collage, and how I could say it.

After the long stint at Chtodelat News, I revived the Russian Reader, trying to make it as pluralistic, polyphonic and, occasionally, as paradoxical as I could, while also fulfilling the brief I have tried to keep to the fore from the very beginning: covering stories about Russia which no other Anglophone media would bother with (although they thus miss tiny but vital chunks of the big picture) and giving my readers access to Russian voices they would not otherwise hear.

I had meant to celebrate my 1500th post on this beat, but that make-believe anniversary came and went without my noticing it. It was all for the best, however, since now nearly ten years have passed since I set out on this unpredictable journey.

Like the very first post on this blog, my 1600th post is a glimpse into Russia’s possible futures, as imagined by Grey Dolphin (aka Vladimir Gel’man), his fellow scribbler Grim Reminder (yours truly), Russian rappers GROT, and my friends at the Moscow Times. TRR

__________________

Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It?
Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017

Grey Dolphin

The discussions about Russia’s prospects, currently underway among the conscious segment of Russian society, despite their public nature, in many respects resemble similar debates about the Soviet Union’s destiny, held in the kitchens of members of the intelligentsia and among politicized émigrés during the so-called stagnation. Relatively speaking, it was a debate between two parties. One party, the moderate optimists, grounded their expectations on hoped the country’s leadership would change course for one reason or another (or would itself change), and there would be a chance to change the Soviet Union for the better. (There were different opinions about what “better” meant and how to achieve it.) The other party, which included both moderate and radical pessimists, argued it was no longer possible or fundamentally impossible to improve the Soviet Union, and changes should be directed towards its total elimination. Time seemed to be on the side of the optimists, whose chances at success appeared realistic at perestroika’s outset, but in fact it was working inexorably on behalf of the pessimists. By the time the optimists seemingly got their chance, opportunities to improve the Soviet Union had largely been frittered away. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and we do not know what turn events could have taken had perestroika been launched ten or fifteen years earlier. Those ten or fifteen years, however, passed only in conversations around kitchen tables, while the country’s leaders strove to prevent any change whatsoever. When the changes kicked off, the energies of both parties—the supporters of improving the Soviet Union, and the supporters of destroying the Soviet Union—had not exactly been exhaused in vain, but they had not been used very effectively.

Despite all the political and economic differences between the early 1970s and the late 2010s, the current conjuncture in Russia is not so remote from what it was then in the Soviet Union. Moderate optimists have proposed seemingly reasonable projects for improvements to the authorities and the public, but they themselves do not believe they can be realized “in this lifetime.” The moderate pessimists, if they had believed earlier in the possibility of improvement, have lost faith, while the radical pessimists never believed in improvements as a matter of principle. The optimists are waiting to see whether they will get the chance to improve at least something (and if so, when), while the pessimists are ready at a moment’s notice to exclaim, “Lord, let it burn!” For better or worse, however, so far there are no obvious “arsonists” in the vicinity who could and would want to demolish the current Russian political and economic order nor have any appeared on the distant horizon. Once again, as during the stagnation, time inexorably works on behalf of the pessimists. Sooner or later, yet another former optimist or, on the contrary, a person not involved in these debates will say something like, “Today’s Russia cannot be improved. It can only be destroyed.” (Essentially, this was what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end of perestroika. Of course, there were a different set of causes and other mechanisms in play then. What I have in mind is the rationale of transformation itself.) If and when the number of people supporting the verdict “destroy” reaches a critical mass, then the first of the questions posed in my post’s title will irreversibly be answered in the affirmative, occluding the second question altogether. The more news about events in Russia transpires every day, the more inevitable this outcome seems.

Translated by the Russian Reader

___________________________

GROT, “Fire”
If God wants to punish a man, He strips him of his reason.
I often think the whole country has been punished.
As in a fantasy story, I can see a light glowing over people’s heads.
This is not a sign of holiness.
It is a sign of moral decay,
Decay of beliefs, principles, and ideas.
The nostrils are already used to the rotting smell,
And there are cadaver spots on the faces of children and adults.
Self-destruction at the mental level,
The nation jumps into the abyss with a cry of “Keep off me!”
We will soon go extinct like the mammoths.
Young mothers with Jaguars and Parliaments.
People will have coming to them the trouble they stir up
Everyone will be punished according to their whims.

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

An ancient serpent lashes the sky with a crimson tongue,
Its breath ripples over the television networks.
Through TV screens it animates the golem and generates ghosts.
In the skulls of those who ate their souls
And vomited them out indifferently with counterfeit vodka
In the snow in winter or summer in the dust.
Two abused dudes filmed it on a mobile.
Look online, search for the tags “degenerates,” “masturbate,”
“Suck,” “come,” “sex with babies.”
I’m waiting for the last fire, but you better run.
Nothing can be fixed here now. Lord, let it burn!

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

Source: rap-text.ru

Translated by the Russian Reader

___________________________

Russia could ban Facebook next year if it fails to comply with a 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian citizens’ personal data on local servers, the state media censor said on Tuesday.

The U.S. social network would follow in the footsteps of LinkedIn, the social platform for professionals that was banned in Russia last year after a September 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian users’ personal data on localized servers.

The head of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned that “there are no exceptions” to compliance with the data storage law seen by some observers as unenforceable.

“We will either ensure that the law is implemented, or the company will cease to work in Russia,” Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.

He said the watchdog is aware of Facebook’s popularity, with an estimated 14.4 million monthly and 6 million daily users in Russia as of last year.

“On the other hand, we understand that this is not a unique service. There are other social networks.”

Twitter, Zharov said, has agreed to transfer by mid-2018 its Russian users’ data to Russian servers.

“We have no plans to investigate Facebook in that regard until the end of 2017,” he added. “We will think about it in 2018. Maybe we will investigate.”

[…]

________________________

 

Grim Reminder

There are no technical or legal justifications for banning Facebook in 2018, only political considerations. The principal political consideration would be the need to find ways of “celebrating” Putin’s auto-reinstallation as president for “another six-year term” (i.e., for life).

As a tyrant who brooks no opposition to his illegimate rule, Putin would have to celebrate his hollow victory by instituting a series of crackdowns against his foes, as he did after formally returning to the presidency in 2012.

One of these crackdowns could involve banning Facebook in Russia, as is strongly suggested by the article, quoted above.

But that would be the least of everyone’s worries once Putin essentially crowned himself tsar as a gift to himself for his stunningly bad performance as the country’s leader for eighteen years.

Since his entire reign has orbited not around solving the country’s problems, but imbricating himself and his clique of “former” KGB officers into every corporate and institutional nook and cranny in Russia (and beyond) while stealing everything he can get his hands on and rewarding his satraps with the booty “for a job well done,” he has not had much time to solve any real problems.

Hence the constant need to designate enemies and cripple, vanquish, jail, disappear or murder them, be they Facebook, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Boris Nemtsov.

Anyone who doesn’t explicitly support Putin—and by definition only members of his clique really support him, in the sense that members of a mafia clan are loyal to their boss—is de facto opposed to him.

This might be especially true during this upcoming election, because, I would imagine, the majority of Russia voters are, at very least, quite weary of Putin and his oppositionless electoral “victories” by now and would be inclined to stay home on election day, even if they are not willing to march in the streets. (That might require too much effort.)

But a low turnout would still be a slap in the face to a man whose whole shtick the last eighteen years or so has been his alleged “wild” popularity, a shtick supported by the mainstream Russian press, corrupt Russian pollsters, foreign media covering Russia, and “Russia experts,” most of whom have no other gauge for measuring or probing “Russian public opinion,” so they rely on rigged, astronomically high popularity ratings.

If something around ten percent of voters in the two capitals and the non-ethnic regions showed up on polling day, the myth of Putin’s popularity would be dealt a near-fatal blow.

Putin would take his humiliation out on his treacherous non-constituency by unleashing a panoply of crackdowns, adopting a whole new raft of repressive laws at lightning speed (as happened in the wake of his 2012 re-election), and, perhaps, arresting a prominent figure from the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, sending him down for hard time. Or worse.

Author photos courtesy of cetacea.ru and the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Putin’s Heartlands Are in Your Heads

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A snapshot of Putin’s real heartlands. Zagorodny Prospect, central Petersburg, September 10, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

During Russia’s oil-fueled boom, Rashid Tamayev saw steady pay raises at his auto factory job, helping keep his family in relative comfort—and making him a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But since a plunge in oil prices three years ago, Tamayev has lost faith in the president. Last spring he and dozens of others at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant lodged an appeal with the Kremlin when they were fired after pointing out safety problems. They got no answer. “Putin has forgotten about ordinary people,” Tamayev says as he watches workers from the factory leave after their shifts. “We used to live well.”
Henry Meyer, “There’s Trouble Brewing in Putin’s Heartland,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 13, 2017

I don’t know who concocted the myth of Putin’s base of support among the working class in Russia’s heartlands, but it’s a convenient way of not reporting facts staring you right in the face but that you chose not to think over.

The myth is based on the big-city/intellectual worker prejudice that the working class, i.e., people who, allegedly, work with their hands, not their heads, especially members of the working class who live in little towns and the smaller cities (as described in the article, cited above) are congenitally less intelligent and more easily gulled than their big-city slicker cousins.

But where do you have to go in Russia to find the people, whole classes and stratas, who have benefited the most, materially and otherwise, from the eighteen years of Putin’s rule? (It’s eighteeen years, not seventeen, as Bloomberg Businessweek mistakenly writes in the article.) Moscow and Petersburg. That is where you shall find Putin’s real base of support and his real heartland.

Because the unfortunate worker described in Henry Meyer’s article made a slightly better living during the years the oil price was high was not due to anything clever Putin and his successive governments did. Whether the unfortunate worker and his comrades nominally voted for Putin and United Russia or not during those years does not matter a whit, because the fix has been in at the voting stations and outside them all these eighteen years. If you do not believe me, look at what has happened to real opposition candidates who have managed to slip through the Kremlin’s obstacle course and win the occasional election.

Have you ever heard of Galina Shirshina, a young woman from the liberal Yabloko party who, in 2013, was elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, a city of approximately 260,000 people in northwest Russia, by popular vote? Do you know how long she lasted in office? Do you know how she got booted out of office in 2015 and who was behind her dismissal?

What do you do with the half-baked base/heartland argument in cases like this? And this is just one instance. I could give dozens of other examples off the top of my head, and even more if I did a little research.

Opinion polls, the beloved crutch of so-called Russia experts and reporters who write about Russian politics, are also unreliable, for many of the same reasons. One of those reasons is that respondents want to give pollsters the right answer, meaning, the answer they think the regime wants them to give, because they identify pollsters (correctly!) with a schizophrenic, brutal regime that alternately faux-coddles them and then whacks them over the head in different ways, alternately claims it has improved their living standards and then engages in so much mega-corruption that any sustainable, broad-based improvement of the country’s quality of life will always be impossible as long as the regime is in power. Poll respondents thus do not identify pollsters with unbiased academic research, with “sociology,” or some such nonsense, and do not tell them what they really think. In turn, the pollsters want to ask only questions that produce right answers, not find out what people really think.

Besides, all these eighteen years, the instability generator has been turned up to eleven, despite the regime’s loud claims urbi et orbi it has been establishing stability the likes of which the world has never seen.

A side effect of this turbulent instability has been that sometimes people actually do not know what they think or think things that are blatantly contradictory. Hence, there probably really are some number of Russians who have reapplied the old good tsar/bad boyars myth to the supposed confrontation between the well-meaning Putin and his hapless or hopelessly corrupt underlings. This myth has been reinforced by endless dressing-downs at cabinet meetings, pointedly rebroadcast on all the main evening news programs, and the occasional arrest and prosecution of a high government official for bribery or something of the sort.

Incidentally, the other thing that struck me about this article is how much time Bloomberg has been spending lately mansplaining Russia to its readers in a terribly charitable way recently, especially via the often dubiously argued op-ed columns of Leonid Bershidsky, supposedly a Russian dissident journalist in exile somewhere in Europe. I have no explanation for this overly friendly approach to a regime that has done nothing to deserve it.

In any case, Putin has no base in the nonexistent Russian heartlands. He does, however, have a considerable base in his hometown of Petersburg and the capital, Moscow. In Russia’s two largest cities, huge numbers of officials, big businessmen, and certain strata of the intelligentsia have benefited considerably from Putin’s rule, and have in turn supported it with their loyalty, although their support may be souring a bit as the regime has turned more oppressive with each passing month since Putin’s 2012 re-election.

(I write “oppressive” rather than “conservative,” which is another term that has no place in debates about the different sham ideologies Putinism has apparently embraced or flirted with over the years. These ideologies, from neoliberalism to Eurasianism to conservatism to Russian Orthodoxy, are only mummers, meant to alternately distract the public and observers from what has been really going on, and, when they are not distracted, to intimidate them into shutting up, often by creating the false impression that they are what the masses, the heartlands, the working classes or ordinary people really want, even though the latter are all fictions fashioned from whole cloth or, when they are not, the actual working masses and regular joes really do not want anything of the sort.)

Finally, there is very little evidence that trouble is brewing in Putin’s nonexistent non-heartland or anywhere else in Russia, if only because the numbers of flagrant trouble-brewers are clearly much smaller compared to the much larger numbers of Russians who, at best, are undecided as to whether they want to save their country or let Putin install himself as tsar next year and, I fear, plunge the country into a self-destructive nightmare from which it will never recover.

Putin is going to have to turn the instability generator up to twelve or even thirteen, because he will somehow have to justify his presence on the throne for what will surely be the rest of his life. This means another wave of more crackdowns on renegade individuals (that is, individuals made to look like renegades or “extremists”) and more wholesale legislative assaults on civic and personal liberties.

Tyrants usually do not justify their endless, stultifying reigns by abdicating the throne and re-instituting grassroots social democracy. They only do that if they are pushed, but right now almost no one in Russia is pushing. TRR