The relative success of Sunday’s “Writers’ March” through the streets of Moscow — not in terms of overall numbers, perhaps, but certainly as example of non-violent protest — was cheering.
After last Sunday’s protester-instigated violence and the disproportionate police response that followed, it was heartening to see images coming out of the capital that recalled the high spirits and optimism of February’s Great White Ring protest, which saw 30,000 members of the urban middle-class hold hands to create a human chain around one of the city’s major ring roads. Indeed, with the exception of a few minor flash mob actions last month, the protest was the first since before the presidential election not to end in a series of arrests.
This is telling. With anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov currently serving 15-day jail sentences for attempting to incite last weekend’s riot — a charge that the accounts of even several oppositionists would suggest is valid — the action was one of the first in months that wasn’t characterised by leaders who were actively seeking arrest for propaganda or self-aggrandising purposes. Instead, it was characterised by restraint.
As 10,000 middle-class liberals, led by the detective novelist Boris Akunin and the poet Dmitry Bykov, strolled amiably through their city, there was no delusional talk of taking the Kremlin, no charging of police lines. Indeed, there was no need for police lines at all. If numbers were lower because of last week’s violence, they were arguably higher than they might have otherwise been had those who helped to instigate it been involved.
There are two ways all this could be read. The first is that the absence of a police crackdown on Sunday — hell, even the relative lack of a police presence — demonstrates the extent to which the middle-class democrats who constitute the bulk of the opposition pose little threat to the regime. Navalny and Udaltsov are the ones that it fears and therefore the ones that are most integral to toppling it. This position is likely to be taken up by the opposition’s more radical elements, especially on the left, and those elements’ cheerleaders and mythologisers in the press. (Several of these writers have a vested interest in the blogger, in particular, having talked him up to such a degree that their own credibility is now riding on him.)
The second way the event can be read — and the way this writer would argue it should be — is from a rather less romantic public order point of view: fewer police were required on Sunday because violence simply doesn’t happen when these two and their supporters aren’t around to actively seek it out. In my own, by no means extensive experience of this election season’s protests, I found that the authorities only ever cracked down on small, unrepresentative splinter groups of radical socialists, nationalists and professional colour-revolutionaries, whose rhetoric was as often a direct incitement to violence as a call for civil disobedience, and that while they did so with a good deal of force, they almost never did so with what could be described as a brutal or even excessive use of it.
If last weekend’s crackdown changed all that — and there can be no excuse for the police attacks on non-radical rank-and-file oppositionists or the bizarre wave of arbitrary inauguration day arrests that followed them — we should remember to at least hold both sides to account.
The events of the past two weeks have actually helped to confirm my general sense that the authorities ultimately have little problem with genuinely peaceful protesters, not because they don’t threaten the regime, but because they don’t threaten anyone else. Those who erroneously compared the events of last weekend to those of January 22, 1905, Bloody Sunday, conveniently forgot to mention that Father Gapon and his workers’ procession didn’t hurl asphalt and petrol bombs into the tsarist military lines prior to their being massacred. This latest outbreak much more closely resembled that famous protest, with the sole and rather telling exception that it was allowed to happen and that no one was murdered.
In any case, it seems obvious now that the opposition, never very unified to begin with, has been cleaved into two separate camps: reform-minded liberals, on the one hand, and would-be revolutionaries, on the other. I predicted last week that such a division was likely to follow Navalny and Udaltsov’s pre-planned executive decision to stage a sit-in citing police intimidation, which quickly led to a radical minority attempting to charge the police lines. (Celebrity-turned-oppositionist Ksenia Sobchak gave lie to the seemingly spontaneous nature of the protest on her blog. “I’ll say openly why I decided not to go,” she wrote. “Because I knew in advance that the main objective would be standing on the bridge, charging the police lines, and conducting a sit-in.”)
The week that followed was one of harsh recriminations within the rapidly fracturing opposition. Oleg Kashin, an oppositionist journalist, praised the decision to stage the sit-in. “I know for certain that, if [the usual speakers] had been at the rally (like they were in March at Pushkinskaya Ploshchad or at Novy Arbat), then I’d be ashamed for them, even though I wasn’t involved. But Udaltsov, Navalny and others sat on the pavement, and because of that I’m ashamed because I wasn’t out there beside them,” Kashin wrote in an article on Kommersant’s website.
Transparency International Russia’s Elena Panfilova, who was “out there beside them”, slammed them, claiming in a comment on Snob.ru that “it was a small group’s plan to demonstrate their own strength and show that they can do everything they think necessary. […] It became clear that those standing had a plan: demonstrate the strength of the protest movement […]. They deceived people!”
The leader of the liberal Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, wrote a similarly impassioned post about the descent into violence on his LiveJournal blog. “If organisers are counting on the brutality of riot police to multiply the number of people wishing to join their fight,” he wrote, “I think that’s a flawed count. The experience of Triumfalnaia [Square] shows that no such multiplication occurs. On the contrary, people stop coming to rallies and marches, if blood is being spilled there, or if people are being beaten. Do some people really believe that anything can be accomplished with a head-on collision, or a civil war? […] We have to take up serious politics, win elections, and take power. Will it be a long time? Yes, six years is very long, but we’ll not manage this any sooner.”As events of the past two months have at times made painfully clear, Yavlinsky’s long career as the liberal opposition’s standard-bearer is rather rapidly nearing its end. The response to his article — which was widely seen as a desperate attack on the young socialist and nationalist Turks who are his ideological opponents and who have usurped his position — only demonstrated his increasing irrelevance further. “Yavlinsky has declared the meaninglessness of the protests,” Dmitri Ivanov, a political satirist, tweeted. “The protests have declared the meaninglessness of Yavlinsky.” But the opposition leader’s post it was nevertheless a clear expression of the increasingly deep divisions that exist within the anti-Putin camp on tactical matters and a clarion call for a concerted electoral strategy that unfortunately seems to be going unheeded.
A similar cleavage of opinion appears to have taken place within the foreign press corps, too. Unreconstructed cheerleaders for Navalny such as Foreign Policy’s Julia Ioffe have remained unreconstructed: Ioffe, in fact, has started referring to the protesters as “we” in her tweets, if not in her articles, the latter of which are among the only ones I’ve seen anywhere that had the gall to run the unsubstantiated, widely discredited rumour that the authorities had paid provocateurs to go and have their heads smashed in by charging the police lines last weekend.
But others, such as the BBC’s Daniel Sandford, have allowed a heretofore unfamiliar tone of scepticism into their reporting, especially as regards the decision to set up an Occupy-stye tent city beneath a statue of the Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuli in the Moscow neighbourhood of Chistye Prudy . Sandford seemed particularly surprised when such expressions of scepticism brought down the wrath of the oppositionist twitterati upon him over the weekend. It is somewhat concerning when even constructive criticism is shot down so readily.
I found myself on the end of some of that wrath myself when I felt it necessary to debunk one protester’s claim that Russia was the single most repressive police state in the world. The fact that he had been attending mass protests for six months, reading about them in independent newspapers and hearing about them on independent radio, and then tweeting about them on an uncensored internet, was entirely lost on him.
Those who exaggerate the nature of the regime betray a worried and worrying sense that the moral argument for free and fair elections isn’t enough to generate popular support or the desired level of international opprobrium and that things probably need to get worse to get better. Such thinking is precisely what has led figures such as Navalny and Udaltsov — the former of whom mobilised tens of thousands of independent election monitors and once showed a genuine willingness to encourage civic engagement rather than revolutionary fervour — to court confrontation.
It is the sort of thinking that Yavlinsky has so roundly condemned. Those who refuse to listen to constructive criticism — to the argument that the civic engagement their leader once encouraged has a far greater chance of changing the country for the better than what he now seems to be proposing — betray a sneaking suspicion that their critics may be right. Both tendencies lead almost inevitably to #OccupyAbai: the protest that will never grow large enough to change a thing — The Moscow Times’ Victor Davidoff has already made the Tahrir comparison despite its incarnation here being at least 300 times smaller — but might last long enough provoke the sort of response that makes headlines in the foreign press. No long-term electoral strategy necessary. Just add water cannons.
Newspapers this week ceased referring to Navalny and Udaltsov as “protest leaders” and started referring to them as “the protest leaders”. For anyone who values non-violent protest and wishes to see Russia’s liberals gain some real purchase within the political system, the addition of the definite article was depressing.
Thankfully, Sunday’s march proved that it was unnecessary at best and premature at worst. By marching peacefully through the streets of the city without attempting to provoke a confrontation or allowing themselves to be provoked the marchers suggested that if the opposition wishes to grow — to expand its base, attract more followers, and win back those whom insurrectionary rhetoric and escalating violence has scared away — then these so-called leaders and their tactics need to be recognised for what they are: liabilities.