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

Kremlinology 2012

The Condomnation of Vladimir Putin

Russia’s embattled ruler meets his public.

MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government -- and anti-Putin -- protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin's reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People's Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain "signal."

This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin's first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. "To be perfectly honest," he said, "when I saw something on some people's chests, I'll be honest -- it's not quite appropriate -- but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms." 

Yes, that's right: in case Russians hadn't been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn't been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn't angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.

The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. ("Happy holidays, friends!" the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: "You're the gondon." In Russian, gondon is slang for condom -- or asshole.

Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to "push it to the side," or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, "a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies" that "doesn't come out of nowhere" -- like Ukraine's Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia's once and would-be future president pointed out that "there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it's often pointless or impossible." And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday's 50,000-person protest -- "fine, let them earn a little money" -- even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin's, to some extent. "I get paid for my time," Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn't get money from the U.S. State Department. "Why shouldn't they?")

Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which "underestimates our nuclear rocket potential"), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who "has blood on his hands"), the one topic -- the "red thread," according to the host -- that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday's protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens' rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, "will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It's a question of political culture."

But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. "There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position," he said. "If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I'm happy. I'm happy that these kinds of people are appearing." He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki's statement that those who came out across the country were "Putin's generation," a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which "Putin, resign!" rolled loudly through the crowds.)

Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. "For God's sake, if it's so interesting to you, then I'll discuss it," he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn't the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren't asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors -- eliminated in 2004 -- but only, as he put it, through "a presidential filter" (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president -- him -- will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections -- which, of course, would be logistically impossible -- but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.

Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin's favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti -- one Russian journalist called him a "random number generator." For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.

And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state's reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions -- like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position -- but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, "Putin, go fuck yourself!" Two other top editors resigned in protest.

The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, "I was not invited to these meetings, I don't know. I'll say honestly that I didn't notice any panic." He was, he added, busy. "I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey," he said, referring to himself as "a cow on ice." "I wasn't really paying attention to what's going on there. And I haven't been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking."

Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin's insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin's snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.

And it's true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. "Come to me, Bandar-logs," Russia's ruler  told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in "The Jungle Book." The ones who chant "We are great. We are free. We are wonderful." ("I've loved Kipling since childhood," crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. "What say you, Bandar-logs," one journalist quipped. "Shall we go prowling?"

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images