Kremlinology 2012

Upping the Ante

With 100,000 protesters -- young, old, and everything in between -- out in the freezing streets of Moscow, the heat is being turned up on Vladimir Putin's drive for the presidency.

MOSCOW – There were a few surprising things about Saturday's opposition protest in Moscow. For one thing, the cold -- a bitter -10 degrees Fahrenheit -- didn't seem to keep anyone at home. Nor did the fact that it had been more than a month since the last demonstration, leading commentators to worry that the protest movement against Vladimir Putin's rule would lose momentum. If anything, more people came out than last time, some 100,000 in all.

Which makes the second thing a little less surprising. If the first big protest, on Bolotnaya Square, on December 10, was a mix of the politically active and the young and white-collared, the crowd that reconvened there on Saturday was extremely diverse. There were pensioners and office workers and a group of military history hobbyists wearing fatigues. ("We're freaks," one of them explained.) There were even veteran paratroopers, the saltiest of the salty earth and famous for their August holiday when they strip to their skivvies and frolic in city fountains. One does not expect to see them marching alongside iPhone-toting urbanites and democracy activists. And yet, there were paratrooper flags everywhere. "They think that our people don't think, don't see anything, and don't understand anything," one of the veterans, a 50-year-old named Sergei, told me. "It's time for the country to be ruled by honest people."

Beyond the sloganeering, there were signs this time of genuine political organizing in advance of the national elections on March 4 when Putin will run to resume the presidency he temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago. Several booths had been set up to gather signatures for petitions to contest election violations in court. People recruited election monitors, part of a drive over the last few weeks that's culminated in two projects to train over 20,000 volunteer election monitors: one by the blogger and opposition Alexey Navalny and another, called Voters' League, formed by the creative types among the protest organizers.

I also met two men who had decided to run for office in the Moscow municipal elections in March. "We need normal people to get into government, so that the organs of the state work not for themselves but for the citizens of the district," said one of the candidates, Konstantin Kolisnichenko, 36, who, surprisingly, works for a government bank. (Unsurprisingly, he's had a near impossible time getting on the ballot.) It was a statement that sounded a lot different from the chants of "Putin is a thief" around us. It sounded suspiciously like normal political discourse.

Meanwhile, the pro-Putin forces gathered across town. More accurately, they were bused in, and many were paid for. There were a lot of them, though not nearly as many as the 138,000-person Internal Ministry estimate. And if the tens of thousands at Bolotnaya laughed and smiled, the people at the pro-Putin rally had little to be cheerful about. The message delivered to them as they stood in the frost was one of brimstone and fire: the country was on the verge of collapsing, revolution was around the corner. "They want to drown the country in blood," television star Maxim Shevchenko shouted from the stage about the protesters gathered on the other side of Moscow.

This apocalyptic imagery is strange, given the peaceful nature of the opposition protests. It does, however, reflect the fear and incomprehension about the protests inside the halls of power. "Julia, do you have a pet?" Yuri Kotler asked me the other day. Kotler is a young member of the ruling United Russia party and was once an advisor to Boris Gryzlov, former speaker of the Duma. I had asked him how the slowly mounting protests were perceived in the Kremlin. Yes, I said, I do have a pet. A cat. "Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking," Kotler explained. "First of all, it's a cat, and it's talking. Are you sure it's talking? You have to make sure. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it's talking and asking for something. It's a shock. We have to get used to it."

Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it -- or hoping it will all go away. "It's a bureaucracy, and it works for itself," Kotler told me. "It'll take a long time for them to understand that they're hired."

But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin -- that is, Putin -- is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters' League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition -- and the federal television blacklists -- on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin's performance during his annual Q&A with the public.

Now, there is talk in the capital of "tightening the screws," one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. "They're waiting for the opposition to make a mistake," says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. "Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down." In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov's phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB's successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.

And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.

Saturday's pro-Putin rally in Moscow -- and smaller ones across the country -- have to be seen in this context. If the opposition's strategy is to show the Kremlin that its sheer numbers demand more inclusion in the political process, Putin is answering in kind: there are even more of us. Which is why the official tallies of yesterday's protests in Moscow -- 138,000 for Putin, 35,000 against him -- were so bizarrely off. (Most observers, including police I spoke to on the scene, put the figures roughly in reverse: 30,000 for Putin, 100,000 against him in Moscow.) And why it was so important that, in every city where there was an opposition protest this weekend, there was a larger, mirror one in support of Putin, with titles like "Strong leader, strong nation."

Nor is it a coincidence that, just as people streamed home from the protests, Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has turned his guns on his own citizens. Russia is not Syria, and it is unlikely that Putin, with his European pretensions, would crack down that hard. But his people do warn of blood flowing and, at the last meeting of the Valdai discussion club, in November, Putin spoke of Muammar al-Qaddafi's "gruesome" end. It has been rumored to be something of an obsession for him.

Thus the stonewalling, and what we're about to see: a real escalation by the opposition. If the protests in December were about new, fair parliamentary elections, the focus now is becoming Putin, and there will soon be only one demand: Putin has to go. This is, of course, the logical outcome for a leader who has so personalized Russia's entire dysfunctional political system, and who continues to preclude conceding more than an inch. But upping the ante is a risky game, especially if you lose it.

When Russians -- and those thousands of new election monitors -- go to the polls to vote for Russia's president for the next six years, it's by no means clear what will happen. Putin will likely win, but how? The possible scenarios do not promise a calm Russian spring. If Putin wins in the first round, but with just over the required 50 percent of the vote, few will see it as a legitimate victory, most likely because it won't be. "They've spent a decade building a system that, on every level -- teachers, local elites -- are incentivized to falsify the vote to deliver the right percentages," political consultant and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky told me in January. "You can't just flip a switch, and expect the system to stop on a dime." If Putin forces a win in the first round, Pavlovsky added, "he'll assume the presidency for the first time in an atmosphere of mistrust, skepticism, and depression."

The problem is, by March, it will no longer be -10 degrees outside. If half a million, or even a million people come out -- and chances are, many will -- how will the security forces respond? Will they leave them to protest in peace, as they have in the last two months, or will they crack down, as they did on December 5? If Putin is forced into a second round of the presidential vote and then wins, he will still have less legitimacy than before, especially in his own eyes. "For him, it will be a psychological catastrophe," one government official explained to me. "We're screwed," the official said when I asked him for his assessment. He gave the current incarnation of the system two more years, tops.

But some in the opposition are not too optimistic for their own prospects either. "Everyone was so euphoric yesterday," says opposition leader and former Duma speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. "But I went home last night and thought about it, and, oh boy. We're stuck. We're at a dead end." Dead ends rarely end well in a country where dialogue with the other side is stigmatized, especially when the side with the power -- and the guns -- keeps warning of blood and chaos.

So far, however, those thoughts seem to be far from the minds of the tens of thousands who braved the bitterest cold for a purely political cause. "I had the choice to stay in my warm bed today," said one middle-aged woman in a floor-length mink coat. The strap of an expensive purse crossed her torso, there were Armani aviators perched on her nose. Her skin was clearly familiar with the salons of the city. A former businesswoman, she said she had missed the December protests. "I know I picked a crazy day to come out," she said about the cold. "But I just couldn't sit at home anymore."

Clearly, the times are changing. In the last two months, a surprising addition to the protesting crowds has been Ksenia Sobchak, the popsy, fashionable daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin's political mentor. She has long been part of the gilded, Kremlin-friendly elite, a sort of Russian Paris Hilton, and her joining the protests has been viewed with some suspicion. On Saturday, she weighed in on her Twitter account. "If the government doesn't see now that people are willing to stand out in the frost and defend their rights, that government will be overthrown."

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlinology 2012

The End of Putin

Alexey Navalny on why the Russian protest movement will win.

MOSCOW – On the night of Monday, Dec. 5, blogger, anti-corruption activist, and budding politician Alexey Navalny was one of 500 people arrested at a protest denouncing fraud in the previous day's parliamentary elections. Surrounded by some 6,000 people -- an unheard-of number for a protest in the center of Moscow, a dozen years into the apathetic Putin era -- Navalny had delivered an angry, guttural, less-than-diplomatic speech. "We will cut their throats!" he proclaimed, then tried to lead a march down the street to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the powerful successor to the KGB known by its Russian initials FSB. This had not been permitted in advance, so he was bundled up, stuffed into a police van, and shuttled around nighttime Moscow to keep his supporters from picketing his detention. The next day, he was given a 15-day sentence for disobeying police orders.

By the time Navalny came out in the early morning hours of December 21, he was received with a hero's welcome. "I went to jail in one country and came out in another," he told the cheering journalists and supporters who had braved a blizzard to catch a glimpse of him.

It was true: Russia had changed while Navalny was in jail. He had missed the huge rally on December 10 on Bolotnaya Square, when the numbers who came out in peaceful, euphoric protest -- an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 -- made the original demonstration at Chystie Prudy look like a civic sneeze. Navalny had missed Vladimir Putin's stuttering, insulting response, and the energetic, often fractious and messy planning for the next protest, which took place -- with Navalny front and center among the 100,000-plus who turned out -- on Dec. 24.

It was particularly ironic that Navalny had missed the first mass demonstration in recent Russian political history.

Navalny has been in opposition politics for nearly a decade, but in the last two years, he has become the man to watch, becoming the first of his opposition colleagues to turn rhetoric and abstract principles into concrete action. First, Navalny (trained as a lawyer) started taking corrupt state corporations to court and blogging about it. Then he created a site called RosPil that crowdsourced the work of exposing questionable government deals. When he asked his supporters to donate money for the cause -- and for hiring lawyers to work on the project -- the Russian web responded, delivering double the amount he asked for. "People donating money is extremely significant, given Russians' cynicism," Aleh Tsyvinski, a Yale economist who has become a sort of mentor to Navalny, told me when I profiled Navalny for The New Yorker in the spring. "Writing to Navalny is, in some ways, a way of exercising power. He is tapping into a huge demand for a grassroots movement."

In effect, Navalny trained a set of thousands of Russian Internet dwellers to do something concrete with their disaffection. And by the time the election season kicked off, in March, Navalny's mantra of "vote, and vote for anyone but United Russia" found a deep resonance among his following, and quickly spread. His alternative title for Putin's ruling United Russia party -- the Party of Crooks and Thieves -- became a sticky meme, with one-third of Russians now identifying the party in this way, just three months after the phrase flew out of Navalny's mouth on a radio show.

So when the huge crowd gathered in Bolotnaya on Dec. 10, it was his crowd -- a largely white-collar crowd, and the crowd that his campaign had driven first to vote (an unusual activity for this set), then to come out and protest. (When I asked him, a year ago, if he was scared, given the fates of previous dissidents like jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, in taking on the regime, Navalny trotted out his trademark pluck. "If tomorrow ten businessmen spoke up directly and openly, we'd live in a different country," he said. "Starting tomorrow.") The protest was a game-changer, and it was, to a large extent, the fruit of his political labors.

And yet, it was a crowd whose size and support he -- and everyone else -- had underestimated. Most of the people I spoke to at the protests have come to see Navalny as not only the most viable opposition politician, as well as the one most representative of their views. But there's one big caveat: his nationalistic views. Navalny had joined the scarily nationalistic "Russian March" in November, alienating many in his core constituency of the urban bourgeois, who fear Russian skinheads -- the most violent in Europe -- almost as much as they worry about Putin's plans to return to the presidency for another 12 years.

Now that he is out of prison and back in the game, what is his plan? How does he view the most recent Kremlin attempts at placating the street? How does he visualize his own political future? We spoke as the euphoria of December's protests fades into exhaustion. "I hope to go somewhere for a week in January, and not have to answer emails," he said. He paused and added, "Not that I've been answering them for the last three weeks anyway."  

What follows is a transcript of our conversation:

FP: What did you make of last Saturday's record-breaking protest?

We were all worried because the 10th was an unprecedented event. It was an unprecedented, new reality so what we were all worried that it was just a one-off. In the last two days before the protest, though, everyone infected me with their optimism and confidence, and on Saturday it became clear that it's not an accidental protest, that these people are upset and that they will continue to protest and demand what they want, and will get what they want. It became clear that they would come out a second time, a third time, and a fourth time.

You missed the last protest, on the 10th, because you were in jail. What did you hear about it?

They brought us a radio to our cell, and we heard that there was a group on Facebook [for this protest] and that 20,000 or 30,000 indicated they were coming. I have a popular blog and I know that you can get a ton of "likes," but are they convertible into real attendance? That is the big question. So we were discussing whether there will be more people than at the rally on Dec. 5 when there were 6,000 people. But, honestly, I was very skeptical about the idea of 50,000. I guess I just underestimated it.

When you heard that 50,000 to 60,000 people came out, what was your reaction?

There were 18 of us in the jail cell, and out of those 18, 16 were political prisoners. And we were of course really happy to hear this. We felt our own involvement in this, and we knew that, to some extent, we were one of the reasons that people had come out. It was really cool. One guy in our cell, a soccer fan who had also been arrested, he said something I really liked: "It's like a really great birthday party. You weren't invited to it, but it's still really nice to see." That's how we felt.

No one expected these numbers, but, in a way, you seem to have underestimated the size of your electorate.

What is my electorate? People who don't like corruption? Everyone is my electorate because 95 percent of people strongly dislike corruption. But the question was, do they dislike it enough to come out with me and protest? These people aren't serfs. I can't take bring them out onto the square, or not bring them out. I can't say, "Go here, do that." I wasn't the one who brought these people out to protest. The events of the last month are what brought them out. They are the crest of the wave, but the wave didn't rise up because of them.

Why then?

Putin created the wave. Injustice, deceit, fraud, falsification created the wave. Of the approximately 75 people who got jail terms after being arrested on the 5th, almost all of them were volunteer election monitors. There were not very many political activists like me. Most of them were there completely by chance. One guy was a programmer, one was a film director, a soccer fan, a random teenager -- people who had never in any way participated in politics or activism. But they come out on the 5th and marched because they were furious, because they had been kicked out of polling stations, because they saw the election protocols that gave United Russia 100 votes, but then saw that the official results were 500.

Putin's main mistake was to pull this nonsense in Moscow. United Russia got 46 percent here, even though it got 32 percent in the Moscow region [which is rural and votes more readily for the ruling party]. In Yekaterinburg, United Russia got 25 percent. Of course, everyone expected that, in Moscow, they wouldn't get more than 28 percent and then -- bam! -- 46 percent, and areas in the center populated by the intelligentsia were delivering 90 percent for United Russia. 

When I asked people at the protests on the 10th and the 24th if there was a politician who reflected their views, most said "Navalny, but … " because they were disturbed by your participation in this year's nationalist Russian March, in November. Some saw this as a cynical attempt to widen your base. Have the December protests convinced you that your natural, white-collar base is big enough?

I didn't go to the Russian March to find another base. I do what I do because I think it's right. I am very grateful to the people who support me, but I'm not going to rule by poll results or focus groups. I have a set of views on what I need to say and do, and I will continue to say and do them regardless of whether my support is rising or falling. I'm not flirting with anyone, not liberals, not nationalists. I think my line on most things is sufficiently clear. 

If you go into "big politics," though, won't you have to pay attention to polls and take your citizens' views into account?

It's one thing to listen to people's opinions, and another to let your supporters manipulate you. I formulate my political positions by looking at polls, by taking into account the views and opinions of those who surround me every day. At the same time, I am a person just like these people and I want exactly the same things that they do. Mostly, though, you're talking about political activists who are saying, Navalny should do this or that.

No, the people I spoke to were a random average, and they said, "I like Navalny, but his nationalism scares me." How do you respond to them? 

If there are still people who are made uncomfortable by my participation in the Russian March, or are scared of "Navalny with his nationalistic views," that points only to a problem of clarity. That means I wasn't able to clearly and correctly explain my views. Because every person with whom I am able to discuss this subject in depth, they agree that my views on this are correct, reasonable, and appropriate. So I guess I'll just have to keep explaining.

Many thought your speech at the protest on Dec. 5 was very aggressive -- "we will cut their throats" and so on -- and it was very different from your speech on Dec. 24, which was much calmer. What changed?

Dec.5 was an angry, aggressive protest of a minority. Election observers were the core of this protest, which was and wasn't officially permitted; they were completely surrounded by the police. They were in the minority, and they understood that they had lost. It was a lot of people, but it was still the protest of a minority, of the persecuted, the angry, of those who hate this regime. I was speaking to them. But when, on Dec. 10 and the 24, it became clear that "we" is actually everyone, then the rhetoric changed.

The questions people seem to come back to over and over again is: to what extent can one change the current system from within, and can one compromise with it? How do you answer these questions?

You can't change this system from within. Its founding principles are corruption, hypocrisy, and cynicism. If you join this system, your main instruments become corruption, hypocrisy, and cynicism, and it's impossible to build anything with such instruments. I have my own experience with trying to reform the system from within -- I spent a year in Kirov [as an advisor to the Kirov governor] -- and I've also seen the experience of other wonderful people, like [former finance minister] Aleksei Kudrin, who became part of the system instead of changing it.

People who talk about changing the system from within are lying. They're trying to justify their own hypocritical position, to defend the fact that, as part of the system, they're deriving material or political benefits from it.

So then what's the plan? How do you change the system?

You can change the system using a tool invented by human civilization. This tool is called "democracy" and "free elections." We need to have free elections. Then we need to participate in these elections and win, to show that our principles for building a government, unlike those of corruption and cynicism, are better.

The people who came out to protest in December, whom should they vote for in the presidential election on March 4?

I don't know who they'll vote for on March 4, and I don't think it's important. First of all, they need to vote against Putin. Second of all, there won't be an election on March 4. It will be a throne inheritance procedure. Who people vote for is not important. We need to use this procedure to get another strike against the regime.

What results do you think we'll see on March 5? Because Putin will probably win, and can win even without falsifying the vote. But then what?  

We have to do what we did before: demand free elections, continue to develop protest activism, to press on the state until we get parliamentary elections in which anyone who wants to can participate, and to demand new presidential elections.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again, but Putin's power is not based on elections but on his very real popularity. His popularity is based on the good deeds he did a long time ago, and on television. But he hasn't done anything good in a long time. In fact, he's done a lot of very bad things. We can use the television to tell everyone what we know on the Internet, to tell people about his horrible, disgusting, corrupt dealings. And that will be the end of him.

What do you think about the Kremlin's proposal to reinstate gubernatorial elections?

They've obviously realized that they've reached a certain limit, and that there's a very real danger that they will be booted from the Kremlin, so they're trying to lower the pressure inside the political system by breaking down everything they've done in the last ten years. Right now, though, it smacks of deceit because there will still be ways to block candidates and parties from registering, to remove them from the ballot on technicalities. It's a starting bargaining position.

What do you make of Putin's reaction to the growing protests of the last month?

He's trying to save face. If he betrays any confusion, his support will drop further. He's in a situation where he can't do anything to make his support grow. It will continue to decline; the only question is the pace of that drop. If they showed him on television holding his head and crying over the protests, his support would be evaporate overnight. But he's not an idiot. His image is that of a tough guy, and he's playing the tough guy to the last. 

What do you make of [businessman Mikhail] Prokhorov's candidacy for president?

It's the Kremlin's Trojan project. He's absolutely not independent. He will not win the presidential elections. Nevertheless, his entry into politics is a good thing because any new people, any new political entities make the political system better by offering more choice, more competition. He's fine. I have nothing against him.

You missed registering to participate in the 2012 presidential election because you were in jail. Did you want to participate?

Our goal is to have free elections. If we achieve this, if the 2012 presidential election is open to all those who want to participate, not just those who were invited and who negotiated the terms of their participation, if at this point, I have a level of support that gives me grounds to participate, I will, of course, participate.

And you want this?

Like any politician who is fighting for power, I want to fight for power in a real way and to get the kind of post that would allow me to change something.

Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images