Moscow-based Western correspondents spent the better part of this year holding out hope that Dmitry Medvedev might remain in the Kremlin for a second term and continue pushing his pseudo-liberal platform. Not that they ever attached that qualifying prefix, of course, preferring instead to overlook the mostly rhetorical nature of the president’s liberalism as well as his anti-liberal past.
When Vladimir Putin announced that he and his protégé agreed four years ago that the latter would only ever serve one presidential term, it was not only a blow to the country’s atomised opposition movement, but also to the egos of those journalists whose annual output until that point had been rendered bunk with one fell, cynical swoop.
You would have thought that they might have been humbled into keeping their future pronouncements to themselves, and to avoid peddling the sort of false hope that said more about their own distaste for the regime and its figurehead than it did about the likelihood either would soon be swept from power. You would have thought that, but you would have been wrong. Western correspondents have already dubbed the weekend’s post-election protests the “Snow Revolution” and have started talking breathlessly about a “Slavic Spring”. I am beginning to hate the word “spring” almost as much as the suffix “gate”.
“We have two opposite universes,” WAN-IFRA GIPP Magazine‘s Alexei Pankin wrote in The Moscow Times this week. “The reality of life in Russia, and that life as it is portrayed by the West. It seems to me that Russian television, for all of its state censorship and control, comes closer to capturing the reality than the so-called objective Western media.” Pankin went on to quote media analyst William Dunkerley’s recent book on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the coverage of it in “both reputable and mass-market British publications, [as well as] much of what had been published in the United States”.
“The basic media storyline,” Dunkerley writes in The Phony Litvinenko Murder, “is that Litvinenko was a Russian spy who became a dissident and defected to the West, turned into a sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin and was murdered in an effort to silence him. That may be all true. But maybe it’s not true. I still haven’t found reliable information that supports the storyline. The media coverage of the Litvinenko case has been a fantasy adventure.” Western coverage of the year in Russian politics has by and large been such an adventure, too.
Following Twitter during Saturday’s protest was particularly revealing on this front. Foreign Policy‘s Julia Ioffe, one of the most fervent of the advocate-correspondents, was gushing by the time of its conclusion. “To everyone I saw on the square today: [well done]!” she began. “If [the] Kremlin doesn’t hear this, they sign own death [certificate].”
“Loving the name emerging for what is happening in Russia: snow revolution,” Reuters’ Amie Ferris-Rotman tweeted. “[C]hange is afoot.” The Independent‘s Shaun Walker joined the chorus: “Really don’t think [it’s an] exaggeration to say Russia will be changed permanently.”
It was one, of course, as indeed much of what gets written about the country is. Let us be clear: there is something genuinely heartening about the civil protests that have taken in place in cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg over the past two weeks. The anti-corruption blogger and nationalist Alexey Navalny has succeeded in mobilising a group of young middle-class urbanites in a manner not seen in this country for most of the past decade.
But the breathless claims that Russia has not seen such protests under Putin’s rule nevertheless eludes the fact that it has — most notably against the Kremlin’s campaign against NTV in 2001, when some 20,000 protesters turned up, and against pension cuts in 2005, when tens of thousands did — while claims that it has not seen anything like this since the early 1990s disingenuously creates a false point of comparison. Half a million turned out to witness the collapse of the Soviet Union, some 16 times the number that turned out last weekend.
If the latter protest gave the protesters who attended a sense of purpose or even unity — and with protesters booing each others’ slogans it is by no means certain that it did — it also remains unlikely that these protests will result in anything more than a few heady headlines by editors who don’t know any better and more than a few heady opening paragraphs by correspondents who certainly should. Foreign Policy‘s recent headlines have included “#OccupyMoscow” and “Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin”, both of which are pretty weak and neither of which are accurate.
Saturday’s protest was over in a matter of hours and the Kremlin has played down its importance, not because it is desperate but because it doesn’t see it as much of a threat, or least not as one that it won’t be able to handle.
There are several reasons it isn’t one: the apathy of the wider public, who prioritise order over democracy by a recently reported margin of three to one; the regime’s declining but still high popularity, which would have delivered it victory in the elections even if it hadn’t rigged them; the oppositions’ own lack of unity, with liberals and nationalists still uneasy bedfellows; and the fact that the leaders of these opposition groups are, with the exception of the aforementioned blogger, all but unelectable. (Even Navalny remains a little-known figure beyond LiveJournal and Western profiles of him.)
Even the weather seems to be against them: many protesters left early the weekend’s event because they were too cold, and the next protest is scheduled for Christmas Eve when temperatures are likely to be even lower. It is hard to spring, it seems, in winter, especially if you’re not that interested in springing in the first place.
And the protesters are not that interested. The two most significant reasons that this fortnight’s protests are unlikely to result in a larger, more organised movement are that the protesters were more concerned with condemning electoral fraud than they were with reforming or removing the regime that spearheaded it, and that the regime in question has very quickly learnt from its mistakes.
Some would doubtless choose to spin the first of these points in a more positive manner, describing it as a sign that the aforementioned apathy of the electorate is giving away to a more engaged civil society and that the electorate is finally waking up to its situation and demanding respect from the ruling elite. There is at least one point to be made against this reading, however, which is that the protesters represented less than half a per cent of the city’s electorate and less than half of a tenth of a per cent of the country’s. The vastly greater part of the electorate didn’t so much as stir, and while some have suggested that this had more to do with fear of a crackdown than with a lack of support for the opposition’s grievances, as Prospect‘s Tomas Hirst suggested to me on Twitter, it is hard to imagine that those who didn’t turn up out of fear would have pushed the number much higher.
More important still was the incompatibility of the protesters’ widely held view that few if any of their demands would be met and the similarly widely held desire to avoid taking matters much further than they have taken them already. The Moscow Times‘ sober report on the event said that “by and large [the protesters’] expectations appeared low” and quoted one protester as saying that “nothing will change”. At the same time, when one nationalist speaker called for a “new Russian Revolution,” the crowd effectively booed him off the podium. (“So many references to revolution tonight,” Hirst tweeted at the time. “It does the protesters a disservice. They clearly stated today that they don’t want one.”)
“[Rallying] is not the answer,” one protester told The Moscow Times in another article. “In order to change something, the government must do something.” If it chooses not to, however, and if the protesters aren’t willing to either, then the whole thing will have been little more than an excuse for big-city urbanites to blow off some steam.
Of course, the fact that these same urbanites are not yet demanding more radical change doesn’t mean that they might not eventually, should circumstances force them to. They have said that they will return to the streets should their demands go unmet. That the Kremlin more or less immediately announced that at least three of those demands — that the election results be annulled, another election held, and the head of the electoral commission forced to resign — would indeed unmet means that the protesters will almost certainly protest again. (They will likely do so in smaller numbers for all the reasons outlined above, as well as the fact that it will nearly be a month since the elections. Tempers, like the temperature, will inevitably have cooled.)The presidential election and how it is conducted will really determine the course of events: should fraud again be the order of the day, and should the final numbers not accurately or at least plausibly reflect the public mood, then something might just snap. It wouldn’t be the first time that calls for reform have transmogrified into calls for revolution in the face of official intransigence.
But this brings us to the second reason we should not expect too much, which is that the regime has already learned from its mistakes. At least until March, when Putin is widely expected to return to the presidency, official intransigence is likely to appear in the guise of conciliation and compromise. Saturday’s protest was a good demonstration of this.
After wrong-headedly making martyrs out of Navalny and Solidarity’s Ilya Yashin at the Monday protests immediately following the election, arresting the pair for disobeying police orders and sentencing them both to 15 days in custody, the authorities wisely gave the protesters their head. Police brutality inspires solidarity and solidarity is last thing the police wanted to inspire. (Learning from the mistakes of their counterparts in the eastern states, Perth’s police did the same thing at Occupy Perth two months ago and the occupation was over within three days.)
There have been other examples of this tendency in the week since the protest. While those three aforementioned demands were dismissed out of hand, others have been at least nominally addressed. While Putin continues to suggest that the protests were the handiwork of questionable foreign powers, the better to keep his core constituents onside, Medvedev has again been called on to appease liberals.
On Sunday, Medvedev used his Facebook account to inform the public that, while “I do not agree with the slogans or the statements made at the rallies”, “I have given the order to check all instances from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections”. The Kremlin’s original mistake on this front was to dismiss reports, and people’s obvious concerns, about widespread electoral irregularities. The goal now is to publicly restate its commitment to the rule of law.
This commitment is, of course, highly questionable, and few believe that the president’s investigation will result in charges being laid or people losing their jobs. If enough people think that enough is being done, however, it might help to curb a little of the dissent.
The rest of it is to be funnelled elsewhere. It is clear that the Kremlin feels that one its greatest mistakes this year was to oust the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov from the leadership of the Right Cause party, which was to serve as an officially sanctioned repository for the liberal vote, after the billionaire showed signs of thinking for himself and began to bristle at too much official handling. His ouster effectively neutered Right Cause by highlighting the fact that it was a Kremlin-controlled party and it received less than 1% of the parliamentary vote.
Prokhorov this week announced his intention run against Putin as a candidate for president. While some suggested that the New Jersey Nets owner may have inspired to run by a grudge — he sunk some $16 million into the party he was forced to leave — it was difficult not to see the ruse. Writing in The Guardian, David Hearst even suggested that the Right Cause affair was part of an “as yet unpublished script”. Did Prokhorov denounce the Kremlin’s Potemkin democracy in order that he might have some degree of legitimacy when he ran as a Potemkin presidential candidate?
There are plenty of reasons to believe that he might have. Two days after the Duma election, Putin’s chief spin meister and the brains behind the country’s managed democracy, Vladislav Surkov, told the radio host Sergei Minayev that the country’s political system lacked “a popular liberal party. Or, rather, a party of disgruntled urban communities”, the likes of which were protesting at the time. Two days after last weekend’s protest, former finance minister and close Putin ally Alexei Kudrin told the business daily Vedomosti that he was himself in the process of establishing such a party and had spoken with Prokhorov about getting involved. (Surkov was the target of Prokhorov’s ire when he was forced to leave Right Cause in September, but there’s nothing to say that this wasn’t a part of the script, too, or that the pair haven’t come to some understanding since.)
Prokhorov’s announcement was one of the few developments in Russian politics this year that most correspondents didn’t misread. “For someone who had just taken the self-declared most important decision of his life,” Walker wrote in Foreign Policy, “he sounded like a man without a clue about what he stands for — or, more likely, a man waiting for instructions”. The New York Times misread the announcement anyway, and then misread Kudrin’s remarks for good measure. “Like Mr Prokhorov, Mr Kudrin was expelled from the Kremlin’s inner circle this fall, after disagreeing publicly with Mr Putin’s decision to trade jobs with President Dmitry A. Medvedev,” the paper claimed, describing the dual announcements as “the latest wild card[s] in a week that seemed to return real politics to Russia”.
In fact, no such expulsions occurred, and while the protests may have been a sign of real politics the announcements most certainly were not. During Putin’s annual call-in show yesterday, the prime minister answered a question about his former finance minister by stating categorically that “Kudrin has never left my team” and that “such people were needed and will be needed in past and future governments”. (It seems increasingly likely that Medvedev’s upcoming prime ministership will be a short one.)
Asked about Putin’s performance during the call-in, Kudrin criticised the prime minister’s derogatory comments about the protesters — the latter made some characteristically crass comments about the protesters’ white ribbons and how they reminded him of prophylactics — claiming that “hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and there is no need to provoke them”. But that is precisely what one would say if, like Medvedev and his Facebook message, one had been tasked with mollifying those same protesters in order to bring them in off the street and back into the fold.
Whether or not this strategy will work remains to be seen. Then again, whether or not the opposition’s will work remains to be seen as well, not least because no one really knows what the opposition’s is. Alexey Navalny’s release towards the end of next week is sure to reinvigorate the protesters as they prepare to go out and protest again. What is less certain is whether they will be able to maintain their momentum between next weekend and the presidential election. If the police continue to behave themselves, and if minor concessions like Medvedev’s investigation unexpectedly result in a sacking or two, doing so will prove difficult enough.
But the opposition then faces a variety of factors — the Prokhorov candidacy, unprecedented appeals to urban liberals, and potentially even a presidential election so uncharacteristically clean that it could almost be considered characteristically cynical — that have the potential to siphon off enough soft-core moderates that its overall numbers will no longer pose a threat.
In the meantime, Western correspondents with a soft spot for the opposition would do well to stop sounding the regime’s death knell. The former has to keep people angry for at least two more months in order to stay relevant. The latter just has to behave for that long, and then it can get back to not behaving at all. This is not to say that the former won’t succeed or that the latter will. But we should nevertheless refrain from using the word revolution until something has, you know, actually revolved.
Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba, and will cover the presidential elections in Russia next year for Crikey.