Protest in Russia
Building up the castle wall
Jun 13th 2012, 11:05 by J.Y. | Moscow
IN the weeks and months after Vladimir Putin’s victory on March 4th for a new term as Russian president, the Kremlin appeared unsure about exactly how to deal with a protest movement that it had assumed would disappear on its own after the election. The signs were contradictory: tentative hints at a more conciliatory policy were followed by signs of looming crackdown, and vice versa. One day wearing a white ribbon in the street or eating breakfast in front of the wrong café was enough to get arrested; another day tens of thousands of people were able to walk along Moscow’s central boulevards unimpeded by police.
Then came the events of recent days, when a coherent strategy on the part of the authorities for snuffing out the resilient opposition movement—or at least that part embodied by large-scale street demonstrations—appeared at last to settle into view. The Duma Russia’s parliament, passed a new bill raising fines for participating in unsanctioned protests to $9,000, almost as much as the average annual Russian salary. Organisers could face fines of up to $30,000. Mr Putin signed it into law on June 8th arguing that society must “protect itself from radicalism.”
In the morning of June 12th, officers from the country’s Investigative Committee raided the apartments of opposition leaders, supposedly looking for evidence in connection with a criminal case related to the violence between police and protestors that broke out at the last big opposition rally on May 6th. Men with black balaclavas and Kalashnikovs stood guard while investigators rummaged through family photo albums and stacks of political leaflets. After all his mobile phones and computers were seized, Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and opposition leader, joked that he felt like he was back “in the twentieth century.”
The apparent logic of these moves was to scare off the educated, middle-class professionals who made up the critical mass of this winter’s protest core, while radicalizing those who remained, perhaps setting up a ready excuse for more forceful confrontation down the road. It was a crude, risky move reflecting the unpredictability of Russian political and social life at the moment, an unfamiliar sensation for Mr Putin and those close to him. It also illustrated the passing of an era from Vladislav Surkov, who as Mr Putin’s chief domestic adviser liked to play intricate games of political manipulation, to Vyacheslav Volodin, Surkov’s successor since last December, a man of direct, heavy-handed action.
In the immediate sense, the new law and the raid were meant to dampen the mood and limit attendance at the next opposition demonstration, scheduled for yesterday, a public holiday in Russia. The effect, if anything, was the opposite. Tens of thousands flooded the capital’s central boulevards in a march that rivaled this winter’s mass protests in size. Many people said that they came to show they took offense at the Kremlin’s attempt at intimidation.
Ilya Ponomarev, a deputy from Just Russia, says that the Kremlin’s moves of recent days “do not frighten anybody, but only get them angry.” Just Russia was a once reliably pro-Kremlin party that, as the protest movement gained momentum, emerged into something resembling a proper opposition force. (Last week Mr Ponomarev and others from Just Russia tried, in vain, to block by filibuster—known as an “Italian strike” in Russian— the new protest bill in parliament.) As Mr Ponomarev explains, the epoch of Russia’s recent past under Mr Putin, when the country’s politics were an illusory “carnival” and its citizens were nothing more than “trembling hamsters” has definitively come to an end.
Another member of Just Russia, Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB man, agrees: “It’s impossible to shove this many people back into the kitchen,” he said. (In Soviet times the privacy of the kitchen was the only place where political discourse could be conducted relatively safely.) Mr Gudkov says that throughout the winter and early spring he had some channels of communication with high-level officials; those channels are now closed, he says, leaving both sides dangerously unaware of the other’s intentions.
The protest march on June 12th finished on Prospekt Sakharov, where a stage was set up for a rally. Yet speeches somehow felt beside the point: the crowd had seen these faces and heard these slogans many times before. Many protest leaders, including Mr Navalny, were absent as they had been ordered to give testimony to the Investigative Committee at the very time the march was meant to begin. After a long season of protest, without much of a concrete response from the state, it was unclear to protestors where to direct another round of chants and hard to imagine what effect they might have.
In the immediate future, this near total lack of dialogue between government and opposition may benefit the Kremlin. The opposition has yet to come up with a clear, executable plan for taking power. It remains split among various factions and ideologies, and is not in a position today to force the state’s hand. But that short-term victory of the government may be setting in motion a deeper and more unsolvable crisis, as the authorities are becoming more and more oblivious of the demands on them from society and the threats to their rule.
A report last month by the Centre for Strategic Research, a think tank with government ties, argued that the Russia’s political standoff had become “irreversible”. It said the lack of dialogue is making the probability of more destabilising escalation quite high. Then, earlier this week, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a respected sociologist who studies Russia’s elite, told the Dozhd television channel that the country was in “a revolutionary situation.” So far, under the 13 years of Mr Putin’s rule, the regime has been very skillful at protecting itself. But the danger of very high castle walls is that it’s hard to tell what’s happening in the kingdom outside.