No one's quite sure what's going on in the streets of Moscow -- or what to call it -- but it's growing and powerful ... and could all end badly.
MOSCOW – Tonight is the first night without protests here since some 6,000 young people gathered Monday night to express their frustration with the electoral fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary elections and, more broadly, the institution of Putinism. They came out again Tuesday night, where they were met by thousands of drum-beating pro-Kremlin youth activists. And again on Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested, and many of them — including anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, a political rising star since he coined the phrase "Party of Crooks and Thieves" to describe Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia — are still in jail. Moscow is filled with tens of thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops and armored personnel carriers, and the city’s skies crackle with the sound of helicopter blades.
But what’s next? In short: No one knows. Sure, the Russian blogosphere is deep into planning the next protest, scheduled in Moscow for Saturday and which, according to the Facebook group created for it, more than 30,000 people are planning to attend, and Yandex, the Russian search engine, has posted a map pinpointing the addresses and times of protests scheduled all over Russia. But, meanwhile, the Western press is scrambling to tag this phenomenon with something, anything — the "Slavic Spring," "OccupyKremlin," or "White Revolution" for the white ribbons organizers are handing out — to make it digestible, classifiable, understandable.
Neither the scope, nor the trajectory, nor the efficacy of the growing wave of protests is clear, and predicting, or even gauging, their success is still impossible. What is quickly becoming apparent, however, is that whatever is happening now is very real, and very different from anything that has happened in many, many years. Something, in short, has changed — essentially overnight — and there is no going back to the day before.
At least nominally, the protests are about contesting the outcome of Sunday’s elections. There is some substance to this, as each day brings more and more eyewitness accounts of electoral fraud, of carousels, of ballot stuffing, of dead souls voting. There is a sense that, were it not for such tricks, United Russia would not have gotten even the paltry 49.5 percent of the vote that the authorities claim. In Moscow, according to an exit poll by FOM, a Kremlin-friendly pollster, United Russia got 27 percent, a far cry from the national average. Moreover, the people who came out on Monday night — surprising both the Kremlin and the protest’s organizers — were people who had participated in those elections. For many of them, it was a concrete issue (feeling duped) rather than an abstract one. Perhaps this is why the numbers were so shockingly large by Moscow standards, which has up until now seen only sparse and largely radical or elderly crowds of a few hundred. (Though it should be said that protests over other tangible things, like foreign car imports or monetizing pensions, were always well populated.)
So what changed? It wasn’t simply that people were afraid to get involved and now aren’t. The axiom that people felt that it was pointless to protest was, in large part, true. For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design. So, too, was the official Kremlin line, which boiled down to this: After the chaotic and ruinous 1990s, the country needed stability and material comfort, while democracy and other such nebulous things could come at a later, unspecified time.
Ironically, the problem, at least for Putin now that he seeks to return to the presidency he first assumed on New Year’s Eve 1999, is that he did provide the promised stability and economic benefit to many people, both intentionally — by raising pensions, for example — and unintentionally, as commodity prices took off during his initial tenure as president. This flooded state coffers, lined his friends’ pockets, and at least some of it trickled down. For people who experienced the penury of the 1990s, these rivulets — small as they were compared to the billions the new Putin set of oligarchs was making — were nothing to sneeze at.
Yet it also meant this: Stability worked in ways Putin might now be paying for. As Robert Shlegel, a young Duma deputy from United Russia and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, told me a few days ago, "We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice." That may sound like straight out of a political theory textbook, until you consider what he said when I called him on Thursday to ask about the growing protests. He recalled a conversation with a friend who said he planned on going to Saturday’s demonstration. "I said to him, ‘What is the problem? You have a job, you have an apartment, you have a car. What else do you need?’" Shlegel recounted. Why, in other words, are you suddenly violating your end of the social compact of the 2000s: You get richer and buy cars and take vacations, but leave the politics to us.
What else do you need? As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what Shlegel said they needed: dignity and justice. And not the lofty definitions of those words that one often hears in Washington. I mean something more basic: a state that trusts and respects its citizens, a state that sees its people as citizens rather than as bydlo, or cattle — as the common saying goes in Russia. When Russians describe their political system today, the phrase they most often use is ruchnoe upravlenie, or manual control — which, of course, implies an utter lack of both those things.
So we are right back to Russia’s historical problem, one that bedeviled both tsars and communist commissars before Putin: What to do with a liberal, educated, well-traveled elite that orients itself toward Europe and its democratic traditions — but that is an elite nonetheless, separated from the rest of Russia by a massive chasm in outlook and upbringing as well as aspirations? We’ve seen this story before, and, inevitably, the conflict does not end well for those involved. (See, for example: the 1825 revolt of the Decembrists, the 1917 October Revolution, the 1956 "thaw" of Nikita Khrushchev, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.)
The people who came out to protest here this week were the representatives of this elite. It’s no coincidence that the center of organization for these protests is Twitter and Facebook, two platforms used almost exclusively in Russia by that very refined, and removed, slice of society. They’ve done well in the last decade, but they’ve also become increasingly fed up with being lumped with, for lack of a better term, the cattle. A breaking point seemed to come on September 24, when Putin announced the grand swap: His plan to switch places and resume the presidency while have his puppet successor, Dmitri Medvedev, take his job as prime minister. "September 24 was the signal," says Igor Yurgens, head of the INSOR think tank, once see as Medvedev’s brain trust. "The feeling was, they can’t do this. Six, most likely 12 years with no discussions, no consultations. Even the Communist Party, when they picked the general secretary, even though it was totally clear that they would install whomever they wanted, there were still party meetings across the whole country. Even with the understanding that they’d get their person, they still worked on building consensus. Here, in one day, two people — but most probably one person — decided the next decade without anyone else."
The response to this moved quickly. First, there were anguished calculations of how old people would be when Putin finally left the presidential throne, then numerous incidents of booing United Russia and even Putin himself, and, finally, the protests of the last week. The slogans were less about United Russia, and the farce of the elections hardly got a mention on Monday night. The main target was Putin and the brazen cronyism — and brazen brazenness — of his system. "Russia without Putin!" shouted the crowds. "Putin is a thief!"
This is also why people who had never voted before, or hadn’t voted in many, many years, went to cast a ballot this time around. The results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it. (The results, by the way, were very deeply telling when broken down by region. For example, among the areas that really swept United Russia back into power were the republics of the North Caucasus; areas, plagued by an Islamic insurgency, that are flooded with Kremlin cash -places where money for loyalty still seems to work.)
The other question, of course, is what will come of this unrest. The official response, despite Putin’s admissions of "losses" and vague promises of new reforms, so far, has been more of the same. It didn’t help when Medvedev and Putin proved dismissive of reports of electoral fraud, or that the top election official in the country, the openly partisan Vladimir Churov, flat-out denied electoral fraud and darkly accused the opposition of working for "dollars."
On Thursday, Medvedev was finally pressed into calling for a full report to investigate electoral violations, but we’ve seen all too well how his personally demanded reports work out: the report, for example, that he ordered into the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in police custody resulted in Magnitsky himself being named as a party to the fraud he was trying to investigate when he was arrested, and in medals for the police officers who, quite likely, killed him. And what did Putin say about the electoral losses suffered by the party created to support him? "Putin has never been directly connected with the United Russia party since he is regarded as an independent politician," his press secretary told the BBC.
And the protests? Putin acknowledged them on Thursday, which, given the fact that his television stations haven’t, means they’re actually important. "While going by the vast majority of our citizens, we need to have a dialogue with those who are oppositionally minded, give them the opportunity to speak their minds, giving them their constitutional right to protest, to formulate their opinions," he said at a meeting of his People’s Front. But Putin also reminded people not to be naïve and hinted, as he has in the last two weeks, at shadowy connections to the West. "When you’re talking about people who leave for America, and get some training there, get some money, acquire some equipment, and then come back here and spend their time being provocateurs, dragging people out into the streets," he said, "even these people cannot be measured with a single yardstick."
It was a clear rebuke to two parties. One of them was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had expressed her concern with the way Sunday’s elections had gone down. This, Putin said, was "a signal" to the opposition — a fifth column, in Putin’s KGB-minted mind. "They heard the signal, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work."
The other swipe was at the very people that Putin proposed talking to: the opposition not lucky enough to win seats in the Duma. There is, for example, former prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who spent time teaching in the United States. And Navalny, who did a six-month fellowship at Yale. This is a standard Putin bogeyman, an easy way to deflect blame and to discredit whomever he’s up against. As for dialogue, Putin certainly didn’t have in mind negotiating with opposition figures like Nemtsov and Navalny. "He means the parliamentary opposition," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who, until recently, worked for Medvedev, and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. "He has never taken people like Nemtsov and Navalny seriously. He sees them as nihilists and anarchists. He’s mistaken about them, of course, but there really is no consolidated opposition and there really is no one for him to talk to."
And that, unfortunately, is true. The protesters, as massive as Saturday’s gathering promises to be, are still a diffuse group with no formulated demands. What do they want? A vote recount? A new election? Putin’s ouster? Good luck. Tonight, in a compromise with the Moscow city government, the protest was moved to a different location, which caused a minor war among the opposition, which in recent days, has been remarkably unified. This kind of squabbling over tactics, and whether or not to compromise with the authorities, will severely hobble the movement, too.
So far, the Kremlin has been buying time — keeping the protests off television, leaning on liberal media (like RainTV) and social networks to cut off oxygen to the protests, dismissing them as a vocal minority trying to impose its view on a majority happy with its apartments and cars. But Saturday promises to be the day when both the opposition’s approach and demands, as well as the Kremlin’s response crystallizes.
"I suspect the situation will be very serious on Saturday," says Yurgens. "If the Kremlin has enough brains to enter into discussions, to form a coalition government, to fire the current government before the elections, there’s a chance. But if they just carry on as if nothing happened, we can expect rough times ahead." Gennady Gudkov, an outspoken Duma deputy with the Just Russia party, agreed. "If they carry on like nothing happened, if there’s one more election like this, there won’t be a country anymore," he says. "If the government doesn’t react, the protests won’t go away. They’ll simply take another form, and it will boomerang back to the Kremlin."
As for the opposition, things are also unclear. Even if Saturday is a success, what next? What are its demands? And how long can this wave of protests keep going, and to what end? So far, no one, not even those leading the protest, knows.
Originally, Saturday’s big event was supposed to take place, fittingly, on Revolution Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin. For the past week, there have been orange and yellow banners there celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defense of Moscow. It is a strange anniversary to mark, and, in the absence of any unifying ideology, World War II has been a standard theme to harp on in Putin’s time. But it’s worth noting that the defense of Moscow worked mostly because a harsh winter literally froze the Nazi machine in its tracks. So far, Moscow has had a rather mild winter, with sunny skies and temperatures hovering above freezing. Should they dip, it may make protesting under the Kremlin’s walls much more difficult. Tahrir Square, after all, had the benefit of a Mediterranean clime.
Gudkov, the rabblerousing Duma deputy, doesn’t agree. "I don’t think people will be scared of the cold," he told me. "Cold has never stopped people here. Look at the October revolution, the February revolution. When did the Decembrists come out? Whenever it gets cold in Russia, it only heightens people’s activity. I wouldn’t play around with that."