Toy Soldiers – Russian democracy facing a real test

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As Russia goes to the polls today in a presidential election fraught with tension, Rowan Emslie considers the Kremlin’s decision to ban the use of toys in political protest.

In an attempt to baffle their detractors with a display of Daily Mail worthy self-parody, the Russian authorities recently banned toys from ‘protesting’ on the grounds that they are not citizens and, therefore, do not have the rights of citizens. The protests took place in the Siberian city of Barnaul in response to reported corruption and electoral fraud.

Well, yes. As toys, they do not have freedom of speech – just ask a Furby living in a foul mouthed household – or voting rights or the right to remain silent. They don’t, in fact, have any human rights at all, much to the chagrin of humanity at large. I’ve already written to Pixar with an outline for the toy-rights based caper that could should be Toy Story 4*. Here’s a sneak peek:

Exterior: Moscow.

Series of shots showing the grand monuments and tourist sites of the Russian capital.

Advisor (in voiceover): They’re an unstoppable force. They’ve infiltrated the homes of the good population of Russia for years without us noticing. Who knows how many have heard their messages of dissidence? The police can’t track them because of the scale of their numbers. They don’t sleep, they don’t eat, they don’t feel the cold – they just grin and protest. All day, everyday.

Cut to Interior: Kremlin.

Putin is being briefed on the new threat to his power by his most senior advisor. He is sitting behind his desk. He looks worried.

Putin: What can we do?


Putin: So you’ve come here with nothing? You give me problems without solutions?

Advisor: There is one thing that we can do.

Putin: What is it?

Advisor: It’s completely mental.

Putin: Will it work?

Advisor: Possibly but, with respect, Mr President, it will make this government look deranged, I cannot adv-

Putin (slams desk with fist and rises): Tell me, damn it!

Advisor: We can ban them from protesting.

Putin walks to the advisor and grabs him by the lapels, drawing his face very close. He speaks very slowly.

Putin: It’s just crazy enough to work. But it can’t come from me.

Advisor (visibly relieved): I shall make the arrangements, sir, I’ll find our spokesman.

A pretty spell binding opening scene, I think you’ll agree. The main character in the film will be a much lesser character than Putin. The more quickly I can introduce my new favourite spokesman for an increasingly out of touch monolithic government, the better. Please stand up, Andrei Lyapunov.

“As you understand, toys, especially imported toys, are not only not citizens of Russia but they are not even people,” Andrei Lyapunov, a spokesman for Barnaul, told local media.

What I really like about this statement is the phrase ‘especially imported toys’, as if that makes them not Russian citizens even more. I cannot get enough of this guy:

“It is possible that the people who have applied are inspired by their toys … and consider them their friends but the law unfortunately has a different point of view,” said Lyapunov. “Neither toys nor, for example, flags, plates or domestic appliances can take part in a meeting.”

Amusing as this guy is, he indicates a wider problem facing the Russian government. There have been, in the last few weeks, an unprecedented number of attacks on Putin and his party United Russia. Youtube spoofs and unprecedented public marches and protests all over the country. The Moscow Times used the term ‘witch hunt‘ when talking about the way in which the opposition has been attacked by the government. The opposition is, for the most part, simply demanding reforms rather than complete revolution – the view being that, at the top of the tree, Putin and his power base is too great a challenge to overcome. What they would like is for the lower branches, ones that represent local authorities and terminally corrupt officials like the ones in Barnaul, to be pruned drastically.

The issue of corruption in Russia has long been a sticking point. It started at the very top when the oligarchs, led by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, started to agitate somewhat over corrupt business practices – usually focused on the degree of governmental control over oil – something that led to Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, an act that led the other oil billionaires to seek new pastures overseas. While their battle was more to do with profits – it’s a lot easier to do business and make money when you aren’t losing so much of it to bribery – the new battle seems to be more of a reaction against petty despots, the relative stagnation in the economic progress of the country and, most importantly, the way in which people are punished when they try and speak out against it. With the presidential elections just around the corner, the issue has come to a head.

The Moscow Times put it very well,

There is only one peaceful resolution to this standoff. The authorities must hold real and sincere negotiations with the opposition. When authorities and Kremlin-friendly journalists and analysts label the opposition “radical,” it is a clear attempt to demonize the protesters and delegitimize their legitimate complaints. The opposition is ready and willing to engage in substantial talks. It advocates reforms, not revolution.

The point at which toys become enemies of the state is the point where people start to realise that the state has lost its mind. Russian people would like their chance to engage with a real electoral process and with a government interested in anything other than itself – there’s nothing crazy about that.

Follow Rowan Emslie on Twitter: @RowanEmslie
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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