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Photo Gallery: Russia's Change from Below

Foto: AFP

'We Are the State' Grassroots Movement Gains Momentum in Russia

President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmed the leaders of Russia's opposition with Soviet-style methods. But he will not be able to stop the modernization of Russian society in the same way. A new grassroots movement is already taking shape.

On an island in the Moskva River, in the shadow of the Kremlin towers, the new Russia fills in the gaps left behind by the old one: artists' cafés, nightclubs and the editorial offices of Internet media have moved into the former buildings of the "Red October" chocolate factory. The factory, nationalized after the October Revolution and renamed "Candy Factory No. 1," is now a gathering place for young and affluent Muscovites, artists and the "it girls" of the Russian capital.

On this day, the opposition's new Coordinating Council is holding its first meeting in a bar that used to be a cocoa warehouse. Waiters have pushed together lounge chairs to form a rectangle, and there are two microphones in the room. One is for the delegates, and the other is pinned to the lapel of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and popular blogger.

A few weeks ago, Navalny was elected chairman of the 45-member Coordinating Council. He heads a colorful group that includes a Jewish poet, a right-wing extremist, a liberal economist and Sergei Udalzov, a neo-Stalinist who called for the return of the Soviet Union in 2004.

The group is united by one overriding goal: to eject President Vladimir Putin  from the Kremlin and offer a direct democratic response to his Potemkin village-style democracy, with its Kremlin-controlled parties.

Blogger Navalny received the most support to head the council via the Internet, where he ended up with the most vote. He was subsequently selected by the body as its chairman. Writer Dmitrii Bykov took second place and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov was third. The opposition TV station Dozhd had previously hosted televised debates among the candidates in the style of American presidential debates. "Our committee is supposed to coordinate the efforts of millions of people who are waiting for changes," Navalny said. "This is something that has never existed in this country before."

A Spark of Hope

That's true. For decades, the opposition was a quarrelling bunch of ideologically entrenched people who tended to tear each other apart. The newly elected Coordinating Council includes both Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB colonel who was expelled from the Russian parliament, the Duma, and blonde socialite Kseniya Sobchak, the daughter of the former mayor of St. Petersburg, one of Putin's mentors.

Sobchak, pretty, rich and largely apolitical for years until she attended the large protest rallies last December, came in fourth in the online vote. Her boyfriend, liberal opposition politician Ilya Yashin, was fifth. Until recently, however, the two were garnering less attention with political statements than with an attractive photo shoot in Hello!, the Russian version of People, which depicted them in various poses at the five-star Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakesh: playing chess, with their arms around each other, wearing Moroccan kaftans and holding iPads.

The magazine spread promptly reinforced the view held by many Russians that "the people at the top are all the same, swimming in luxury." This illustrates the new opposition's next problem: So far, it hasn't managed to tie in the political protests of Moscow's middle and upper classes with social dissatisfaction in the country. Blue-collar workers and farmers are still Putin voters.

Nevertheless, the newly elected council has sparked hope, both in the country and beyond Russia's borders. Could it be true that the traditionally divided opposition is now putting on a united front? Could it even be capable of posing a threat to Putin? Does this first meeting of Putin's opponents perhaps mark the birth of an opposition government, the nucleus of a parliament legitimized by the will of the people?

The composition of the council, with representatives from very different parts of society, suggests that this could be the case, but the numbers do not. Only 81,808 Russians, or less than a tenth of a percent of the population of 142 million, participated in the Internet election. "It wouldn't be a bad result for the Seychelles," the normally pro-opposition Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote derisively.

Important opposition leaders, like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and leftist Duma member Ilya Ponomarev, promptly boycotted the election, partly because of Navalny. "He has a neoliberal economic program inspired by oligarch-ideologues and a nationalist worldview," says Ponomarev. "If he came into power, it would be worse than under Putin."

'Municipal Hell'

The council meeting in the former cocoa warehouse ends in a quarrel. Communist politician Udalzov wants to organize another major rally instead of "rattling on about rules of procedure." The youngest council member, Maxim Kaz, disagrees. The 27-year-old doesn't think much of demonstrations and wants the subject removed from the agenda. "Then go fuck your mother," Udalzov responds.

After the meeting, Udalzov and Navalny attend a rally in front of the Lubyanka building, the headquarters of Putin's intelligence service. They are arrested by the police and released a few hours later. "The usual pointless games," says Kaz, before leaving to give a TV interview on the need for bike paths in major cities.

A few days later Kaz, with his long hair and baggy jeans, drives his SUV into the courtyard of a concrete apartment building in the Shchukino district in northwestern Moscow. After dropping out of three different academic programs, Kaz became the Russian poker champion. He is considered a rising star of the non-parliamentary opposition.

His poker career has made him independent. Kaz's company seeks out talented players, lends them the fees for major tournaments and, in return, collects a share of the prize money. Kaz earns about €250,000 ($320,000) a year, enough to keep his head clear for future political plans.

Kaz gave a much-noticed speech at a major anti-Putin rally, and on March 4, when Putin was elected president for the third time, he captured a seat on the district council of Shchukino, a bastion of Putin's United Russia Party. The district is home to the Kurchatov Institute, the cradle of the Soviet atom bomb, and the streets still bear the names of Soviet-era generals.

Kaz is late, and when he arrives 14 council members are already waiting for him in room 103 of the district administration building. He sits cross-legged on a chair. The chairman, a woman born in 1941, promptly calls him to order: "Feet down, comrade Kaz!" "Municipal hell," Kaz tweets with his iPhone.

Small Victories

The struggle between the new and the old Russia is also a generational battle. Kaz's main adversary in Shchukino, Sergei Yeremeyev, head of the district administration, is 59. He worked in a secret arms factory during the Soviet era, and today he is part of Putin's feared "vertical power structure," the system that guarantees the Kremlin influence, even at the local level. It has little to do with democracy and much to do with feudalism. Yeremeyev, for example, was appointed by prefects, who in turn were appointed by the mayor of Moscow. The mayor, in turn, is appointed by the president. None of them is elected, and yet they hold considerable power. The same holds true throughout the country.

Shchukino's budget is the equivalent of €200 million ($257 million). "But the elected representatives of the people can dispose of only 2 percent of the budget," says Kaz.

He is currently spending a lot of time attending meetings on kindergarten budgets and building renovations. He is also scrutinizing the activities of administration chief Yeremeyev. Is it corruption when he only obtains the approval of the district council for construction projects after the work has already begun?

Kaz has learned to write petitions and read laws. "We have to understand the system so we can change it," he says. In Shchukino, he pushed for the purchase of park benches so that retirees could sit down and rest. He has the district council meetings videotaped and posts the videos on the Internet.

But Kaz achieved his greatest success last year, when city officials turned sidewalks along Tverskaya Street into parking spaces. He found 50 volunteers who spent a day keeping track of how many drivers benefited from the parking spaces and, conversely, how many pedestrians had to squeeze past the parked cars. The results were so clear that the city quickly imposed a stopping restriction along the street.

It is small victories like these that he talks about in the McDonald's restaurant on Pushkin Square as he picks French fries from a tray. It's a new and different way to make life difficult for the Kremlin. In the long run, it could be more of a threat to Putin than any Coordinating Council.

'Change from Below'

Kaz plans to run for a seat in the Moscow city parliament next year. "We have to establish a counterweight to the old people and the conservatives," he says, "a reformist camp that brings new leaders to the top."

A new grassroots movement consisting largely of young urbanites is currently taking shape, says sociologist Natalya Subarevich. "Putin will not be able to stop change from below," explains political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, saying that while Putin's methods hail from the Soviet era, "the society is now post-Soviet."

Thousands of kilometers south of Moscow, a 25-year-old has just demonstrated how to undermine the dominant position of his party United Russia. Irina Oleinikova spearheaded a local protest movement and entered into an alliance with the Communist Party. Then, in the municipal election in the small city of Kuleshovka, she beat the United Russia candidate. Oleinikova is only half her rival's age, but she captured twice as many votes, and today she is Russia's youngest mayor.

Kuleshovka, a city of 14,000, is in the grasslands of the Don River delta. The ruins of a combine for child nutrition, the largest in the country during the Soviet era, stand on the town's outskirts. Some aspects of the Soviet Union have survived in the city administration. The unfriendly receptionist is a holdover from the 1980s, when the aging Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the country, and gaudy sports trophies are still on display in the office.

The new mayor requested the personnel files of all her employees and asked for a list of all real estate owned by the city. Her predecessor had as many incriminating files as possible destroyed. Now Oleinikova wants to gain an overview of what's left. She has two main objectives for the first few weeks after taking office. First, she wants to speed up internal communication by having a modern telephone system installed. Second, she plans to retrieve the right to dispose of real estate owned by the city from the county executive. "Big changes start with small things," she says. "We are the state."

Oleinikova's path to the highest office in the city began last April, when more than 200 angry citizens stopped a crew of workers who were cutting down trees on the edge of a popular oak forest in the center of the town. Oleinikova was also fond of the area, which brought back memories of picnics with her parents and the games she used to play there when she was in school.

When the police arrived to arrest the ringleaders, Oleinikova, a lawyer and sociologist, forced them to document that 29 healthy trees had been cut down. From then on, she was the leader of the protest movement. As it turned out, the mayor had only given permission to clear allegedly sick trees, but a developer had plans to build at the site. It was obviously a backroom deal.

"People are starting to fight for their rights," says Oleinikova. And what is taking place in Kuleshovka is now happening all over the country.

'Dramatic Changes'

In the neighboring city of Bataysk, residents recently went to court because of election fraud. In Usinsk in northern Russia , an environmental initiative group is fighting against pollution in the Pechora River caused by an oil company. And in St. Petersburg, a young lawyer advises and represents female workers, on a pro-bono basis, who were let go because they were pregnant. Tens of thousands of large and small non-governmental organizations are currently active in Russia, despite new, repressive laws.

Is all of this a sign of change from below, a paradigm shift in 1,000 years of Russian history, in which subjects were always waiting for a strong czar? And times when Russian rulers clung to power until revolts flushed them away? It's still too early answer these questions definitively, but it is clear that something is indeed changing.

The Center for Strategic Research in Moscow has been studying the coordinates of Russian society for years. It was the only institute to predict last winter's mass protests.

"We are witnessing a growing divide between the people and the government," says Mikhail Dmitriev, the center's president. The Kremlin, he adds, is deluding itself when it celebrates shrinking numbers of participants in demonstrations and the declining popularity ratings of opposition leaders like Navalny and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov as a victory.

Dmitriev, an economist, believes that Russian sensitivities are reflected in statistics. He knows the rows of figures that attest to the successes of Putin's early reforms by heart. He is also familiar with the figures showing that Russia has managed to eliminate extreme poverty, which is defined as having to make do with less than €2 a day. He can also name the indicators of a growing middle class, including the fact that there are now 180 registered mobile phones for every 100 Russian citizens. According to another statistic, Russians now spend more on cat food than the Americans.

"All of this points to dramatic changes," says Dmitriev. "Now that the refrigerators are full and trips abroad are affordable, citizens want legal certainty and more political say." And perhaps they also want change from below.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan