If the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union have had any meaningful effect on Russia's leadership, you would hardly have guessed it from the president's traditional New Year's Eve address to the nation.
Standing rigidly in front of a nocturnal backdrop of illuminated Kremlin towers and gilt onion domes, Dmitri Medvedev said that a “completely special atmosphere” reigns in every home, and that “how the coming year turns out will be up to us.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin veered closer to reality in his own New Year’s address, reported Interfax. After stating that Russia remains an “isle of stability” in a turbulent world, Putin opined that “politicians” were “exploiting people’s feelings” and the electoral cycle, with the result that “everything gets a little shaken up” and starts “boiling,” all of which is “the unavoidable price of democracy. There’s nothing unusual in that.”
Earlier, on Dec. 29, Putin expressed a willingness to enter into a dialogue with the opposition, according to the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. Exactly what sort of dialogue? “I’ll have to think about that,” he responded.
Would Putin recognize as a negotiating partner Alexei Navalny, the popular anti-corruption blogger and leading oppositionist? “There are all sorts of leaders out there,” Putin answered, declining to discuss the matter further. His New Year’s gift to Russians? “Honest presidential elections in 2012.”
Russians aren’t buying it. Just a day earlier, via its Facebook page, the newly emboldened opposition movement “For Honest Elections” published the date of its next mass demonstration: Feb. 4. The protest this time will involve a march down central Moscow’s Garden Ring Road and New Arbat Street.
Key opposition figures also delivered New Year’s messages of sorts. Speaking to the opposition paper The New Times, Navalny declared that he believes in the “victory of good over evil.” He then stated that the powers that be can:
...elect anyone they want to in March 2012, but in April everything will be finished. I believe that power in Russia will not change hands as a result of elections . . . The earlier the government itself, [or] its more clear-sighted representatives, will agree to negotiate, the less likely becomes the scenario in which they’re yanked out [of power] by the scruff of their necks.
Former World Chess Champion and longtime opposition stalwart Garry Kasparov, through his web site Kasparov.ru, expressed his conviction that “we will put an end to twenty years of disturbances and lay the foundation for a new, free Russia.”
While in detention, Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Vanguard of the Red Youth and the Left Front, took a much harder line. By way of his wife Anastasia’s Live Journal blog he pronounced it “premature” for opposition forces to talk of negotiating. But should such negotiations be planned, they must be carried out “openly and collegially” by “all fundamental political and civilian forces." Separate talks of any kind with the authorities would be “impermissible."
Udaltsov called for the immediate formation of a “committee for national salvation” which would resolve all issues related to “the carrying out of mass protests, the putting forth of concrete demands, and the organization of negotiations.” This committee, which should include “all who accept the demands laid out in the demonstrations of Dec. 10 and Dec. 24” should, "if need be, form the basis of a transitional government.”
Making no exceptions for holidays, on New Year’s Eve some 200 hard-line oppositionists took to the streets on their own in central Moscow, and asserted their constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful assembly, reported Magnus7253 in his Live Journal blog. The authorities broke up the meeting, which they had not authorized, and arrested some 60 participants, including Other Russia leader and staunch nationalist Eduard Limonov.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta offered a dark view of where the standoff between protesters and the Kremlin might lead, noting that “never before has the Russian government planned such sharp decreases in social programs and such swift increases of state expenditures on defense, security, and law-enforcement.” Given the absence of an external enemy, only one conclusion seems reasonable: The ruling tandem is buying the security organs’ loyalty should trouble erupt at home.
Some members of the opposition are still aiming to work within the system. Veteran liberal politician and Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky is trying to gather the required number of signatures to run in the presidential election. In a video address entitled “One Against All” and posted this past Tuesday on his web site, Yavlinsky confronted head-on the questions about his participation in what is generally perceived as a manipulated electoral process.
“Why are you participating in this farce? How much have they paid you?” he said people have been asking him. Comparing the electoral process to a game with card sharks, he declared that he will “sit down and play. Yes, alone. Yes, against all the cheats . . . An experienced player who knows he’s playing one against all” has a chance to win. “I’m going to sit down with the cheats and beat them.”
A Yavlinsky victory remains a highly unlikely prospect. One thing, though, seems probable: this year, in the ongoing struggle for power in Russia, the gloves are likely to come off.
(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)
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