'Russia Has Awoken' Anti-Putin Protesters Search for Direction
Where will the Moscow protests lead? Already calling for the creation of their own party, the opposition movement is still searching for a leader. Their hope is to challenge Vladimir Putin in March's presidential election. But the Russian strongman refuses dialogue with the protesters.
Alexei Kudrin showed up to a large-scale protest against his friend and boss of many years, Vladimir Putin, wearing a fancy fur hat and expensive designer coat, and was received with boos from the crowd. But what Kudrin, the former Russian finance minister, had to say at that Dec. 24 demonstration was more astonishing than any other speech given that day.
He had also voted against the powerful United Russia party in the country's recent parliamentary elections, Kudrin informed the demonstrators in Moscow. He believes Russia needs a large, liberal party, that new elections are inevitable and that the country's police, justice system and economy are all in urgent need of reform.
Kudrin, 51, was Russia's finance minister for 10 and a half years, also serving for part of that time as deputy prime minister under Vladimir Putin. An officer's son, Kudrin followed the traditional career path of high-ranking Soviets, studying economics and then working together with Putin in St. Petersburg's city government in the 1990s. Kudrin later helped former KGB man Putin get his career off the ground in Moscow.
Still, Kudrin maintained a mind of his own. Euromoney magazine named him "Finance Minister of the Year" in 2010, after he'd paid off the majority of Russia's foreign debt and managed to pull the country through the global financial crisis more or less unscathed.
This September, when Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev announced their backroom deal to once again switch roles within the government, Kudrin made his disapproval clear -- and Medvedev relieved him of his position.
'Russia Has Awoken'
Was Kudrin's appearance at the Dec. 24 anti-election fraud protest a Trojan horse sent by Putin, as many in Moscow suspect? Didn't the Kremlin put him in charge this spring of forming a new political party meant to pacify liberal-minded Russians?
Several factors speak against that conspiracy theory. Kudrin immediately exposed the political party idea as "artificial," saying it was "meant, in reality, to discredit liberal-democratic ideas." At the Dec. 24 demonstration, he offered to serve as a facilitator between the government and the demonstrators, although shortly afterward Putin called the protesters "Trotskyists" with "no one among them we could talk to."
Putin then proposed outfitting polling stations with web cameras during the March elections to monitor any electoral fraud. "What more do they want?" he asked, a clear -- and arrogant -- refusal to engage in dialogue with the opposition. It is precisely this type of behavior on the prime minister's part that continues to fan the flames of anger toward the Kremlin.
"Russia has awoken," writes author Victor Erofeyev. "As recently as this summer the country was snoring peacefully, and political life looked to remain dormant for years to come." But suddenly, he says, time is "racing madly ahead."
Erofeyev is certainly right on one count -- Moscow hasn't seen such large-scale demonstrations since 1998. Then, though, the people who took to the streets were those affected by the country's abrupt shift to a market economy, who didn't think they would be able to survive on the wages they received.
Elites Cast Off Fear and Indifference
This time, the protesters are well-to-do members of society, people who until now counted among the current system's supporters. In the past, they may have smiled a bit at the Putin regime's clumsy attempts at propaganda, but otherwise they kept quiet, benefitting as they did from the booming economy.
Let Putin go ahead and run for president on March 4, says Professor Valery Solovei in Moscow. But if, as is likely, Putin doesn't achieve an absolute majority in the first round of voting, Solovei says he doesn't really have the right "to take part in a second round of voting," since at that point it would be clear that he, and his regime, had failed as leaders of a unified nation.
Like Kudrin, Solovei is not just anyone. He teaches at Moscow's State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the school that produces Russia's diplomats. Solovei's example shows clearly that Moscow's elite has cast off both its indifference and its fear of the Kremlin.
According to a survey conducted by the polling institute Levada, 8 percent of the demonstrators are business owners, 17 percent managers and 46 percent skilled workers, such as computer experts, doctors and engineers.
Vassily Morshakov falls in that last category. With his pinstripe trousers and slicked-back brown hair, the 24-year-old electrical engineer looks very nearly like a carbon copy of Kudrin, but he's skeptical of the former finance minister. "Kudrin represents the ruling power that's now trying to join in our party," Morshakov says. "But we want new faces."
How can the prime minister's return to the Kremlin be stopped, though, and who is capable of leading the anti-Putin movement? Kremlin detractors disagree on these questions.
No Clear Candidate
Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta writes that it's difficult to see a potential opposition candidate in any of the speakers who received the most applause at the Dec. 24 demonstration. All are popular among the Russian middle class: author Boris Akunin, television journalist Leonid Parfyonov and pop singer Yuri Shevchuk.
One significant reason is that all three of these individuals support the new movement only for reasons of political "hygiene," as Akunin phrases it. They aren't looking to instigate an uprising against the Kremlin, and certainly not a revolution along the lines of the one that took place seven years ago in Ukraine. Both scenarios, they say, would be far too dangerous, considering the lack of education among the Russian people.
Meanwhile, well-known opposition politicians, such as former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, don't score very well in polls conducted among the demonstrators. This trend leads political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov to describe a "divide not only between the people and the Kremlin, but also between those who talk big from the stage and their audience, who prefer the high they get from clever slogans on signs and the power of the Internet."
Indeed, Morshakov, the engineer, falls silent for quite a while when asked who might hold the best chance of standing up to Putin as an opposition candidate. "The important thing is for us to show our dissatisfaction, and then things will change," he says hopefully.
This naiveté draws scorn from the other camp of protesters, the side that would like to finally turn the so far "toothless uprising" into a force to create a powerful political party fielding its own presidential candidate.
Tough Situation for Middle Class
That will hardly be possible by March, though, which leaves an alternative not quite as radical as Professor Solovei's suggestion: forcing Putin instead into a run-off election. The second candidate most likely to challenge the prime minister in such an election, though, would be Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party outperformed even Putin's in the Dec. 4 elections in many major cities.
Being forced to choose between a Communist and a former KGB officer would put Russia's middle class in an uncomfortable position, but human rights activist Marina Litvinovitch says "it doesn't matter." The Communists no longer pose a danger, she believes, and there's no chance they could turn back Russia's clock.
Meanwhile, in the face of brewing resentment among tens of thousands of voters, Putin has resorted to the old Kremlin bag of tricks, last week removing Vladislav Surkov, architect of Russia's "managed democracy," from his post.
Surkov, long considered Moscow's éminence grise, worked under orders from Putin to tighten control over national television, found the pro-Putin youth organizations Nashi ("Ours") and the Young Guard, and create puppet political parties to do the Kremlin's bidding.
Putin's decision to reassign Surkov as one of the country's seven deputy prime ministers may look like a promotion, but in reality it's tantamount to a demotion, punishment for Surkov's failure to shore up Putin's crumbling popularity and to create a political party that would represent the interests of the urban middle class.
Putin has made concessions in recent days -- the mass demonstrations in downtown Moscow wouldn't have been possible otherwise -- but in all other respects, he has stayed his course, refusing to hold new elections for the State Duma, Russia's parliament. He's presumably noticed that protests further away from the capital have waned, although he has still been unflagging in working to discredit the opposition, for example, by releasing tapped telephone conversations in which politician Boris Nemtsov badmouthed fellow opposition members.
Former Putin adviser Andrei Illarionov, who now lives in the United States, doesn't believe Putin will give in. He fears something along the lines of a coup from above and goes so far as to predict murders of opposition members and terrorist attacks -- circumstances Putin would then use as grounds to declare a state of emergency.
Rumors are flying throughout all levels of Moscow politics. Some say that, after the presidential election in March, Putin will violently suppress protests and revoke Medvedev's halfhearted reforms, since the hawks in his administration blame Medvedev for triggering the current protests through his criticism of conditions in Russia. Two recent appointments by Putin -- making hardliner Sergei Ivanov his new chief of staff at the Kremlin and anti-Western NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin the deputy prime minister in charge of the military and the defense industry -- seem to support this line of thinking. Others, though, hope the scale of the protests will force Putin into making reforms in March.
Kudrin, the former finance minister, doubts Putin will be able to regain control of the situation. Kudrin was undaunted by the crowd's jeers at the Dec. 24 demonstration, and he has now joined the ranks of those who do opposition politics the modern way: via Twitter. "Friends, now I tweet too," read his very first message last week.