Kremlinology 2012

Won't Get Fooled Again

With unprecedented protests in Moscow this weekend, Russia's growing opposition movement is making it clear they won't stand for Putin's march to power.

MOSCOW – Going into today's protest against the fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, it was unclear how many people would come. Would there be more people than the some 50,000 that gathered on Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10, in the election's heady aftermath? Would there be less, given the holiday season, the dropping temperatures, and the distance -- three weeks -- from the insult of the election fraud that cemented the ruling United Russia party, however weakly, back into power? Would there be more, given the lack of a crackdown last time, when, it should be noted, no one knew how many would show up either? And even if there were more, what would it mean?

Crowd counting, especially from the ground level, is an inexact science at best, but it was clear to everyone -- from police to journalists to the event organizers -- that thousands more people came out today to Sakharov Avenue than did two weeks ago to Bolotnaya Square, which has become the new by-word for the still hard-to-pin spirit of change creeping through the Russian political system. The crowd -- its estimates ranging from 30,000 to 120,000 -- was also different from the protest of Dec. 10. If Bolotnaya was packed with the young and the white-collared ("office plankton," as they're known in Russia) today's demonstrations brought out a more motley assembly.

Anarchists clustered by the gay activists, themselves within spitting distance from the radical young communists. Their elderly counterparts, with fur hats and voluminous, unkempt eyebrows ("You tell America," one of them, an 83-year-old World War II veteran, said, looking at my press badge, "that Russia will never be its colony!") were also nearby, flanked by the wry and rowdy hipsters from Leprozorium ("Leper Colony"), a closed and harshly meritocratic web forum famous for cultivating some of the Russian internet's stickiest memes. Jumping up and down, they chanted "Fuck, you're tall! Fuck, you're tall!" at the 6-foot-8-inch Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest person in Russia and a newly minted opposition presidential candidate, whose head loomed over a scrum of people eager to ask him about orphanages, corruption, and Soviet history.

All around these islands was a sea of grandmothers, of the middle-aged, of the well-heeled, the more modestly compensated, and, of course, the office plankton. It was bitterly cold on Saturday afternoon in Moscow and, huddling under a steely sky flecked with white balloons, people drank whiskey from flasks and tea from thermoses; they jumped in place to keep warm. As on Bolotnaya, the speeches coming from the stage -- though clearly audible because of speakers placed along the avenue -- were almost of secondary importance. It wasn't about the speakers, some of whom, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, were booed; people talked politics among themselves, periodically stopping to join in the chanting of a slogan echoing from the stage.

And yet, despite the obviously bigger numbers than the protest earlier this month, many of the people I spoke to today didn't sound like they were at the biggest display of civic upswell in 20 years. Gone was the euphoria, the ebullience, the anger. The people who came out to Sakharov Avenue were more muted than the crowds of Bolotnaya a fortnight before, and despite the friendliness in abundance -- a rare sight when so many Muscovites cluster so closely together -- there was a calmness and a quiet that Bolotnaya, its air crackling, did not have. Even the polite and peaceful police presence, such a novelty on Dec. 10, didn't even merit a shrug.

At Bolotnaya, when everyone was surprised by the fact that so many thousands of other traditionally atomized Muscovites coalesced to voice their frustrations, there was something of a sense of elation, a delight in discovering that people who share the same frustration existed, and existed in such large and friendly numbers. In the two weeks since, however, a lot has happened. That surprise, that "now-now-now" euphoria, has morphed into a firmer sense of civic entitlement. The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor's office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information. Contrary to the near universal expectation that this amorphous and motley crew would fracture and do itself in by squabbling, the diverse movement has surprised everyone, including itself, with its growing sophistication.

Part of the reason is that it has also tasted success. In the two weeks since Bolotnaya, the government response has gone from messy and panicked to largely symbolic gestures -- tossing the infamously crass Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov under the bus and handing some parliamentary committee chairmanships to the "loyal opposition" -- to the beginnings of something that's starting to look like actual concessions and, more shockingly, real change.

In his four-hour live question and answer session on Dec. 16, Vladimir Putin floated the idea that Russia may see a return of elected governors, though a strange device called a "presidential filter." (Gubernatorial elections, done away with in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism, have been the signature of Putin's centralized -- and now wobbling -- political system.) This week, Dmitry Medvedev, still formally president, delivered his final state of the nation address to the country's political elite. He laid out plans for political reform, including the direct election of governors, something that would begin to address the deafness, inflexibility, and ineffectiveness of Putin's power vertical. "People are tired of having their interests ignored," Medvedev said. "I hear those who talk about the need for change and understand them."

Today, while however many tens of thousands stood around on Sakharov Avenue -- a protest echoed in dozens of cities around the country -- Sergei Naryshkin, until recently the president's chief of staff and now the new Duma speaker, went on television to suggest that maybe they didn't need a "presidential filter" after all, that maybe political parties' own selection process was enough.

Even the official rhetoric has begun to shift away from insinuations of American provocation and Putin's swat at demonstrators that their white protest ribbons reminded him of limp condoms. Today's statements from top United Russia officials steered clear of insulting the crowd, choosing instead to focus on their leaders, and to hint that, maybe, they had come out not to get State Department money, but because they had legitimate grievances. "It's obvious that there is a huge chasm between those Russian citizens who came out to protest, and those who address them from the stage," said United Russia deputy Irina Yarova, in a press release sent around by the party on Saturday afternoon. The participants, according to Yarova, are "simple" and "sincere" -- a far cry from Putin's assertion that they had come out in exchange for money. Alexander Khinshtein, another United Russia deputy, spun it a different way. "I think that the existence of the opposition is testament to the health of the country," he said, pointing to the "ripeness of our political system." Compare that to the pre-Bolotnaya talk of provocateurs, traitors, and other characters unworthy of direct dialogue with the state.

That is not to say that many things, many of the most important things, will be left unchanged: The deeply fraudulent parliamentary elections of Dec. 4 won't be nullified and held anew; Vladimir Churov -- the odd and flamboyantly partisan "magician" in charge of the Central Election Commission -- shows no signs of resigning (he's a childhood friend of Putin); and, come March 4, unless things completely come apart, Putin will win the presidential election. He will still be the deeply conservative, change-averse, hands-on Putin; the system will still be deeply corrupt, unresponsive, and weak.

That said, there's three months to go -- and there's still the chance, however much it shrinks with each peaceful protest protected by extremely civil police officers, that things could explode into violence and screw-tightening.

But, if the people who have been coming out despite the cold this month -- 100,000, for Putin's Russia, is still an unimaginable amount (most protests in the last decade drew no more than a brave few hundred) -- don't fall asleep on March 5 when their slim hopes are dashed by Putin's victory, if these small victories make them hungrier rather than nauseous, if the surprise at discovering that one's political opinions are not at all singular or marginal does not sour when the number at these protests inevitably plateaus, then Putin's system, come 2012, will already be a very different one. It will find itself dealing with a new constituency whose wizened, suspicious regard for his maneuvers will make them harder and harder to trick, which will therefore make it more and more necessary for the system to actually deal with them, and take their concerns seriously.

And perhaps, if this new protest constituency can be trained by its experience to see small concessions as big successes, perhaps the political system and political life can finally become somewhat "normal" -- the utterly subjective gold standard for Russians. "We're setting a precedent," said Alexei, a 25-year old computer programmer, shivering in the cold. "The reason the word 'politics' always had this negative connotation in Russia is because there was an understanding that we're not going to get involved in it, especially not as decent people. We want to give the word a different connotation, so that a decent person doesn't have to get red in the face when he says the word 'politics.'"

Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

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