The mass protests that gave Vladimir Putin a wintertime scare may be on the wane, but many Russians' dissatisfaction with his regime is not. They are now looking for a way to express themselves more effectively.
On March 10, no more than 30,000 attended an opposition march down Novy Arbat, one of Moscow's central thoroughfares. That's less than half the turnout similar events attracted before the March 4 election. Some nationalists, who have been regulars at such events, made a show of splitting off.
“It became absolutely clear today that liberals have caused the protests to fall through,” said Dmitry Demushkin, leader of the nationalist movement The Russians. “We are leaving and we will not take part in this.”
Putin fans gloated. “The market in human emotion has shut down,” Sergei Zheleznyak, one of the leading figures in Putin's United Russia party, told the loyalist Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Pro-Putin legislators are working to roll back the political reforms outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev offered as a concession to protesters. Another Kremlin-loyal newspaper, Izvestia, reported that United Russia, the largest faction in parliament, was planning to amend a bill allowing any citizen to participate in gubernatorial elections. The revised version would allow only candidates put forward by political parties.
The amendment might not be too much of a hurdle, given that another Medvedev-sponsored bill would allow any 500 people to set up a party. But many in the opposition see even this reform as a sort of trap.
“Of course they are counting on us to set up a dozen tiny parties,” one of the protest leaders, Alexei Navalny, told me. “And it's clear to everyone that such parties will present no danger.”
Navalny's typically creative response is to set up something different from a party: his own propaganda machine to counter the government's hold on national television. Unlike some others in the opposition camp, the anti-corruption crusader believes that the protesting middle class lost the propaganda war to Putin, who drummed three simple ideas into his voters' brains: If Putin loses, there will be war; Putin is against the “accursed 90's,” a decade of painful post-Communist reforms; Putin fights for Russia against Americans.
“It's total nonsense, but it worked,” Navalny wrote in his blog.
The blogger wants to set up a grassroots network of activists who would sign up on a special website to perform tasks such as handing out leaflets, posting on social networks, putting up lawn signs, or calling their friends regularly to pass along the latest news on police brutality or Kremlin corruption. Navalny hopes the system will reach 50 million urban Russians, a much broader audience than the hundreds of thousands of politically aware Internet users who now support the opposition cause. He calculates he needs an average of 1000 to 1500 activists in each of Russia's 50 largest cities.
The activist network, which Navalny calls the Good Propaganda Machine, could be turned into a party in a matter of days to mobilize for important elections. "In my view, this is the best type of political action that can be taken now," Navalny wrote.
Navalny has succeeded in building grassroots organizations before, but never on this scale. His ambitious plan has an obvious weakness: Far from everyone in the protest movement is willing to accept him as their leader. The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who enjoyed a relatively strong showing in the March 4 presidential elections, especially in the wealthier cities, is highly unlikely to support Navalny's cause. Instead, Prokhorov intends to take the conventional path and set up his own party.
It might appear that Putin can now rest on his laurels, having routed the opposition and dampened its spirits. But that would be a primitive view of the next political cycle, said Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the influential Center for Strategic Studies. In a widely quoted interview, the intellectual, who predicted the past winter's protests as far back as March 2011, said that Putin still faces growing discontent from two sociological poles: well-to-do city dwellers like the ones who marched in Moscow, and dispossessed provincial folks who increasingly favor the Communist Party.
“Now both protest groups are united by an understanding of the unfairness of the current system,” Dmitriev said. “They become allies in wanting to transform it. But afterwards it is inevitable that they will fall away from each other because their economic interests are mutually antagonistic.”
According to Dmitriev, Putin is missing a chance to lead the discontented Russians by offering real political reforms, removing censorship and even calling for early parliamentary elections. “Continuing political manipulation, counting on a trusting or indifferent population is a political seppuku,” Dmitriev warned.
Putin's team gave little indication of heeding such warnings. Medvedev's wife Svetlana, for example, made headlines in Italy and then in Russia with the luxuriousness of her Italian vacation. Some media reported that she had rented out an entire five-star resort hotel, though the establishment's owner later said she had booked only two relatively inexpensive rooms. In any case, the Kremlin's response may have done the most damage: Officials insisted she had been spending her own money, even though her official income and property declaration showed zero balances in her three bank accounts.
Unmoved by the scandal, Putin intends to make Medvedev his prime minister after the presidential inauguration in May. So much for concessions.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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