Spring Will Come to Russia

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin on Monday for a third term as president of Russia represents the culmination of the Kremlin’s “managed democracy,” under which the political process remains arbitrary but the outcome is pre-determined.

But this time Putin faces a different domestic political climate. Even he cannot prevent the arrival of a Russian Spring if reform is permanently stifled. The West must also be ready and willing to play its part in pressing for change.

The day after the March 4 presidential election, officials in European capitals and in Washington busied themselves drafting congratulations for Putin, while tens of thousands of people stood in Pushkin Square in Moscow demanding their rights.

I was there as Russian people called for new, free and fair elections and the registration of political parties currently outlawed by the regime. I was there as Russian people called for justice in the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the late Sergei Magnitsky and Anna Politkovskaya. I was there when Russian people were bused in and generously rewarded for attending the political farce of a pro-Putin election rally.

In the aftermath of the biggest demonstrations in the history of modern Russia, outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev committed himself to political reforms, revision of electoral laws, greater political freedoms and direct elections of regional governors.

What could have been a legacy of the Medvedev presidency turned out to be futile. Putin has ruled out the possibility of holding new free and fair elections; limits have been placed on gubernatorial elections, and electoral bloc building has been banned. What was sold as a package of political reforms was in fact a further tightening of the screws on political opposition.

The Kremlin retains considerable leeway in deciding which parties to disqualify. The changes to the existing party system benefit only United Russia, the ruling party, at a time when its base is shrinking rapidly.

The country Putin will preside over this time is different from the one he handed over to Medvedev in 2008, or from the one he tried to persuade to vote for United Russia in parliamentary elections last December.

Promises of modernization and a rule of law were empty gestures as the already crumbling political system, corrupted to its core, continued to falter. A stagnant economy, an uncertain business climate, degraded infrastructure and social sector, an unrealistic and inflationary budget and a pension system funded largely by exorbitant oil prices do not constitute a solid basis to advance the country in a sustainable way.

Moreover there is now a revived civil society, a vibrant Russian middle class, educated Muscovites and a political opposition from left to right that refuses to remain passive.

So what should we expect as the country looks back to the future? Can a leopard change its spots?

Transformation in Russia is both necessary and inevitable, and it is as much in the interest of the West as of Russia itself. There are no alternatives to serious reforms of the political system and judiciary, separation of business and government, rationalization of the federal model, drastic reduction of bureaucracy, a genuine fight against corruption, and replacement of the old Soviet social security system. Russia needs a complete reboot of the system. But the changes need to come from within, and they will only be credible if they are legitimate in the eyes of the Russian people.

What can be done to push Russia in the right direction? So far our policy of polite appeasement has not worked. Russia needs access and respectability in the outside world more than the outside world needs Russian gas or raw materials. If we genuinely believe, as I do, in a democratic future for Russia, the European Union and the United States should pursue a united approach and use their leverage on Russia to push for reforms, free and fair elections and real political competition.

First, there should be no more summits that discuss modernization without discussing democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Second, the adoption of similar laws on both sides of the Atlantic to block visas and freeze the assets of those Russian officials, and their immediate families, involved or complicit in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who died in jail after alleging widespread tax fraud by officials, would have a sobering effect.

Third, reviving the Helsinki process for democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Russia could be an effective tool to promote change. Based on the Helsinki accord of 1975, the international community should unite in its efforts to support Russian civil society.

Russia is a proud country with a proud people. The international community should speak out plainly and act firmly. But ultimately change must and will come from within. Watch out Putin, spring is coming.

Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium, is leader of the group of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament.

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