An eerie calm has descended over Russia's political scene as the ruling elite and the newly enlivened opposition gird for their next confrontation.
Even as the opposition announced via Facebook that the next mass protest meeting will be held on Feb. 4, opinions on the success of the last one in December diverged. In his Live Journal blog, diehard nationalist Eduard Limonov, the leader of the Other Russia party, wrote the "the protest forces did not manage to successfully dispute the results of the parliamentary elections," which are widely regarded as fraudulent. The new State Duma "has begun to function.”
Limonov added, though, that “history is giving us a second chance: the upcoming presidential elections” -- scheduled for March 4 -- "which have been falsified in their initial stage by the selection of safe candidates.” Safe, that is, in the sense that they're not likely to undermine the electoral prospects of presidential candidate (and current prime minister) Vladimir Putin.
Momentum for change is steadily building. At dozens of metro stations across the capital, according to the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Other Russia members picketed in protest against the 10-year jail sentence authorities meted out for narcotics possession to Taisiya Osipova, the wife of Sergey Fomchenkov, a member of their party’s executive committee. They claim the drugs were planted and the ruling was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, Kommersant reported on the Jan. 4 release from detention of Sergei Udaltsov, the firebrand leader of the Left Front. Still suffering the effects of the hunger strike he launched to protest his Dec. 4 arrest, Udaltsov struck a defiant note: “We will work to bring to trial those who illegally detained me,” he announced. “We will continue to struggle actively.”
Udaltsov was not kidding. According to Vesti.ru, on Monday he led a 300-strong protest in central Moscow, in which he called for clearer opposition demands focused on correcting the “social injustice” suffered by the majority of Russians. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, he cited the Occupy Wall Street movement, and declared that “we need social justice, otherwise the world is heading for a catastrophe, for war.”
Past and present members of the ruling regime are aware of the tension. In a blog post on the web site of the radio station Ekho Moscow, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin wrote that the government must recognize the “unjust character of the parliamentary elections,” or the next presidential polls will be “of questionable legitimacy.” He also warned of the “yawning abyss” separating the opposition movement and the government, judging that the latter “is willing to consider dialogue, but doesn’t see a negotiating partner.” In his view, it will take one and a half to two years for the opposition to produce a viable candidate, and Putin’s victory in March’s elections is a sure thing.
The oligarch and newly minted independent presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov would appear to differ. Though doubts persist about his motives for running for office, at least officially he hopes to unseat Putin, and has just published his campaign platform. His priorities: “man, his dignity and freedom,” the “defense of private property,” and “democratic values” as guarantees against “the arbitrary rule of bureaucrats and the security services.” He pledged to disband the current State Duma, hold new elections and then resign after serving five years.
It remains to be seen how the public will respond to Prokhorov’s initiative. But in his Ekho Moskvy blog, economics professor Konstantin Sonin judged the proposals “most likely the result of examining citizens’ complaints and not a well-thought-out and consistent political program.” He concluded that there is one way a future President Prokhorov could prove his “seriousness” about changing Russia: by putting an election observer "with a mobile phone in every polling station.”
One person who is definitely serious about winning in March is Putin. According to an interview given to Izvestia by prime ministerial press secretary Dmitri Peskov, Putin is composing his campaign platform on his own, prioritizing issues that worry the common man. These are, Putin thinks, “monthly utilities payments, alcoholism and drug addiction, crime and corruption.” Peskov called the document, to be made public before Feb. 12, the "world view of Putin himself, as a personality and a politician.”
If the initiative remains with the non-official opposition movement, divided as it is, it is too early to make predictions about Russia’s future. In an op-ed for the Moscow Times, Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, warned that “the looming recession and the possible failure of the euro zone in the West could lead to falling oil prices and, thus, serious economic and political consequences for Russia.” That's not good for Putin, but disgust with the government “by no means indicates that protesters have a deep trust or admiration of the opposition leaders.”
Kagarlitsky predicts that if the liberals fail to win concessions from the government, the "masses will become more radicalized, uncontrollable and prone to violence, or the reverse will happen: They will grow tired, divided, demoralized and increasingly difficult to mobilize. Either outcome would be catastrophic for the liberals.”
Acknowledging rumors that secret negotiations are taking place between members of the opposition and Putin, Kagarlitsky warned that “for the ruling elite, Putin's additional six or twelve-year hold on power is their guarantee of stability, and they will not sacrifice him to satisfy protesters.” As a result, the protesters "could very well push the situation toward an impasse in which violence is the only option available.”
That's one outcome no one should desire.
(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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