As Protests Grow, Putin Looks for an Exit

What a difference three months can make. On September 24th, after Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his return to the presidency, analysts—both in Russia and in the West—were discussing whether his regime was being prolonged until 2024, 2030, or 2036. On December 24th, as tens of thousands gathered in central Moscow to demand free and open elections and an end to authoritarian rule, the question on most people’s minds was whether Putin’s regime will end within months, or whether it will be able to survive for another year or two.

This Moscow Spring, which began on December 10th with a mass pro-democracy rally on Bolotnaya Square, continued this past weekend, when between 70,000 and 120,000 people (the most precise headcount, by Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was 102,486) gathered on—symbolically—Andrei Sakharov Avenue, 1.6 miles from the Kremlin, to demand the registration of opposition parties, early parliamentary elections, and the immediate release of political prisoners, and urged fellow citizens not to give “a single vote to Putin” in the upcoming March presidential poll. Days before the rally, the Kremlin tried to appease the protesters—and reduce their numbers—by promising to reinstate direct gubernatorial elections and direct single-member district elections for Parliament; and to reduce the threshold for registering new political parties from 40,000 to 500 members, and the number of signatures required for registering presidential candidates from 2 million to 300,000. In addition, the authorities promised to install Web cameras at most polling places, and proposed to make ballot boxes transparent to prevent fraud.

The regime’s “too little, too late” advances failed: more people came to Sakharov Avenue on December 24th than to Bolotnaya Square two weeks earlier. “Our goal is not just to remove this or that person from power; our goal is to change today’s corrupt, venal, closed, deceitful, and illegitimate system,” liberal presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky declared at the rally, “We want to establish a system in which no one dares to call us sheep or monkeys; a system in which no one ever calls you, the citizens of Russia, ‘an Orange contagion.’” (“Monkeys” was how Putin recently called opposition supporters; “Orange contagion”—in reference to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution—was the Kremlin-friendly LDPR party’s description for the rallies.) “Four years ago, the Marches of Dissenters … were very small in number, and the authorities tried to convince us … that we are few, and they are many,” said opposition leader Garry Kasparov. “Today, we see that we are many, and they are few … They are afraid because we have lost fear.” In another marked retreat by the regime, the anti-Putin rally—including Kasparov’s speech—was covered on primetime state television; an inconceivable proposition just a few weeks ago.

By its sheer size and scope, the protest movement of December 2011 is being compared to the anti-Communist revolution of August 1991. In one respect, today’s movement is more significant. The protest against Communist rule was both political and economic: not just against totalitarianism, but also against the economic misery of Soviet socialism. Today, economic demands are non-existent: the December movement is unequivocally and consciously about political rights and civic dignity. The protests are led by Russia’s emerging middle class—young, successful, and educated—which has already achieved economic wellbeing, and which now strives for the rule of law. According to a survey by the Levada Center polling agency, 73 percent of the protesters are financially comfortable; 62 percent are university-educated; 56 percent are aged between 18 and 39. Sixty-nine percent describe their political views as democratic or liberal. Only 13 percent are communists; just 6 percent are nationalists.

The March 4th presidential election that, until recently, was considered a mere formality, is increasingly looking like a decisive moment. If votes are counted fairly, it is difficult to see how Putin can win in the first round (the latest national poll numbers put his support at 36 percent), while a second round—not seen since 1996—presents a real possibility of an “anyone-but-Putin” protest vote. If, on the other hand, the authorities attempt fraud on the scale of the recent Duma election, the opposition’s plans to bring out 1 million people to rallies across Russia may well be realized.

In public, the regime is still defiant: Vladimir Putin has rejected the calls for a new parliamentary election, while the judicial authorities responded to the demand for releasing political prisoners by sentencing prominent opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov, already in custody since December 4th and severely weakened by a hunger strike, to another 10 days in jail. Privately, Putin is already looking for an exit. On the eve of the rally, he met with longtime friend and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin to discuss a “dialogue” with the protesters. Kudrin, who attended the rally, has offered to act as a mediator between the opposition and the Kremlin.

The man who has ruled over Russia practically unchallenged since 1999 is finally waking up to the fact that all things, sooner or later, come to an end.


Photo credit: Bogomolov.PL

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