Kremlinology 2012

Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin

But what's next for Russia's newly emboldened protest movement?

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

MOSCOW — At around midnight on Saturday, Dec. 10, while much of Moscow had long since fallen into a collective happy, drunken swoon after some 50,000 representatives of the urban middle class successfully came out to protest the results of Russia’s Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Ketchum, the American PR agency hired by the Kremlin, sent out a news release. It came from Dmitry Peskov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s longtime press secretary.

"What we witnessed today was a democratic protest by a section of the population who are displeased with the official results of last week’s elections," Peskov said. "In the past few days we also witnessed demonstrations by other segments of the population who were supporting those results. We respect the point of view of the protesters, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them. The citizens of Russia have a right to express their point of view, in protest and in support, and those rights will continue to be secured as long as all sides do so in a lawful and peaceful manner."

Given the scale of the Moscow protest and the demonstrations by thousands more in dozens of cities all over Russia — the largest by far since Putin came to power nearly a dozen years ago — it was a strange and strangely muted response. It was not as strange, however, as what Putin said earlier that day, also through Peskov. "The government has not yet formulated a position," he said.

One person, however, had. On Sunday, President Dmitry Medvedev took to his page on Facebook — the nerve center of the protest’s organization — and said the following:

Under the Constitution, the citizens of Russia have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. People have a right to express their position, which is what they did yesterday. It is good that all took place within the framework of the law. I do not agree with the slogans or the statements made at rallies. Nevertheless, I have given the order to check all instances from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections.

This was truly bizarre. What, after all, did the president of Russia — at least president until next year, when Putin proposes to swap jobs with him again — mean by it? And, odd too, not least because of the extraneous, redundant reminder that citizens have the right to freedom of speech and assembly, a right Russia’s rulers have not often been eager to proclaim. The equally strange worry — mostly on the side of the Kremlin — that Saturday’s protest, which had been permitted by the Moscow city government, would end in bloodshed seemed to imply that everyone, including Putin and Medvedev, needed this reminder. Then there was the constant marveling (including on state-owned Channel One, which on Saturday finally acknowledged that these protests exist) that the demonstrations had happened peacefully, in accordance with the law.

Perhaps the main issue was simply one of credibility: Medvedev, already about as lame a duck as a president can be ever since Putin announced in September his plans to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections, has personally, and grandiosely, ordered many investigations into scandalous things, and none has resulted in much. (Last fall, Medvedev promised to investigate the case of journalist Oleg Kashin, who was savagely beaten. He even promised to Kashin to "tear off the heads" those responsible. "Sitting here, smoking my pipe," Kashin joked on Facebook.) Perhaps this is why so very many of the nearly 13,000 comments on Medvedev’s Facebook post this weekend were negative. "This is called detachment from reality," one commenter said. "You need to go see a psychiatrist."

"The president’s response is ridiculous," Igor Yurgens, head of a Moscow think tank closely associated with Medvedev, told me. "’I don’t agree, but we’ll figure out.’ That’s not an answer." So far, none of the protesters’ demands, from registering new parties to freeing those arrested in protests earlier last week, Yurgens pointed out, have been taken seriously.

Indeed, the trickle of official statements since the Saturday protests implies that the Kremlin is either stalling or brushing these demands aside. One of the protesters’ demands was that Vladimir Churov, Putin’s childhood friend and head of the Central Election Commission, be fired. He has denied well-documented election fraud and said the reams of video evidence being put forward by activists since the elections were faked by being filmed in apartments made to look like polling stations. For his services to the state, Medvedev, to his everlasting Internet shame, called Churov "a magician" last week. Yet on Sunday, the Central Election Commission shot down a proposal to consider Churov’s dismissal.

Another demand was new elections. On Friday night, the eve of the big protest, the commission certified the results. On Monday, Peskov dismissed not only the possibility of new elections but the possibility of a recount. "If we take into account this so-called evidence, then they’ll account for about 0.5 percent of the overall number of votes," he said. "Even if, hypothetically, every single complaint is proved in court, they would still not affect the overall outcome of the vote." Russia’s prosecutor general voiced a similar view.

And speaking of the Russian Constitution, the ruling United Russia party had a rally in Moscow on Monday called "Glory to Russia!" to celebrate Constitution Day. The party promised a crowd of 30,000 people, perhaps to prove Putin right that there were just as many happy with the elections as there were who were outraged. According to the police, 25,000 people showed up. According to various reporters on the scene — and according to photographic evidence — there were at most 2,000. Many attendees had been bused in, a common tactic. "I don’t know why the fuck I’m here," one young man told a reporter. "It’s for television. These fucking KGB guys, they’re lying to people on television, promising everything and doing nothing. I don’t fucking need this. They canceled our classes for us to come here."

Given the money poured into loyalist youth groups — and the money spent on busing in young bodies — Monday’s rally was an epic flop. It is also a testament to the ineffectiveness of United Russia’s stubbornly sticking by its old and less-than-convincing tactics. The staged rallies are complemented by rhetorical gymnastics, parroted up and down the United Russia food chain, that smack of denial at best. Never mind that Saturday’s were the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union, the line goes; they were nothing unusual. What’s 50,000 people, after all, in a city of 12 million?

Putin and Medvedev, meanwhile, are clearly trying to buy time, though in a less-than-organized fashion. "Putin is obviously stalling," said political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who until recently worked for Medvedev and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. "Medvedev rushed to say something negative, but Putin said he’s thinking about it. I think that’s the right way to go about it. They’re frightened, and this has been good for the state because it has forced them to start thinking about its actions instead of going with the usual knee-jerk reactions."

Pavlovsky, who has told me he is deeply disillusioned with an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Putin, also pointed to the lack of violence and chaos at Saturday’s rally. "This was maybe Putin’s first correct step this whole year," he said of the Kremlin’s decision not to crack down on protesters the way they did on Dec. 5 and 6, arresting nearly 1,000 people in two days. "The day of [Saturday’s] protest, everything was done right from the point of view of maintaining power. If the Kremlin tried to fight it, it would now be in a deep, deaf, and probably bloody siege. Will it continue to do the right thing? — that’s the question."

Certainly, the Kremlin has shifted its rhetoric, starting out after the first post-election rumblings with vague warnings of "provocations" and civil war, to the more recent claim that many who came out on Saturday were simply curious, one-off rubberneckers. Still, there’s a sense Russia’s rulers haven’t fully grasped the scope of the dissatisfaction they’re dealing with among a largely well-heeled, well-educated, white-collar crowd.

Some insiders clearly sense trouble. On the eve of Saturday’s protest, Vladislav Surkov, first deputy presidential chief of staff and the man who micromanages Russian politics and media, summoned a who’s who of the loyal intelligentsia to discuss unfolding events — a sign that he gets it. Yet those present at the meeting haven’t exactly been offering soothing words about compromise. Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russia Today, said dismissively that the next protest, planned for Dec. 24, will draw fewer people "because people have to go buy presents." Maxim Shevchenko, an anchor on state-owned Channel One, in a riposte titled "Answering Fools," said the best course is to let the opposition have its protests in order not to make martyrs of them. "They are no one and have to remain no one," he wrote.

Still, Monday brought some evidence of compromise. United Russia announced it is ready to cede some of the leadership posts in the Duma to the parliamentary opposition. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired by an irate Medvedev in September, said in an interview with the Russian business daily Vedomosti that he was ready to head up a liberal political party, presumably one catering to the largely white-collar crowd — lawyers, doctors, consultants, finance workers, graphic designers, engineers, and the like — that came out on Saturday.

Then, in a surprise and very telling twist on Monday afternoon, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced his intention to run for president in March 4’s election. Over the summer, he tried to run exactly the kind of party Kudrin is now suggesting, but quit in frustration as the project quickly and loudly jumped the rails, for reasons that seemed to boil down to the Kremlin’s insistent desire to control it and Surkov’s rather intensive curation of the project. At the time, Prokhorov announced that he wasn’t planning on leaving "big politics," and his return suggests that the Kremlin has allowed him back in order to distract from Saturday’s events or to give people an option of a somewhat credible alternative. This would help defuse tension so that protests don’t further mar Putin’s one-man presidential race — which, let’s not forget, he will win — and which will allow him to campaign without further antagonizing the already antagonized white-collar crowd.

As for the white-collar crowd ("office plankton," as they’re known in Russia), many of these newcomers to political activism are now promising to come out again in two weeks, on Christmas Eve. Most likely there will be fewer people than there were on Saturday because it will be colder, because the Kremlin will throw them some scraps, because they will lose interest, or because there’s still no one on the Russian political field who represents them. As most of them take pains to point out, this is no Arab Spring, and they are no revolutionaries, just some people who have woken up and who want into the system. "Alas, it will be a protest vote," said one young office worker when I asked him about what new elections — should they happen — would look like. "And, unfortunately, there still won’t be anyone in the Duma who will represent my stance for the next five years. But it’s a step. It will happen in steps, and that’s OK."

That, despite its alarmist rhetoric, is exactly what the Kremlin is banking on now. As Pavlovsky put it to me, "This doesn’t smell of revolution."

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