Faced with a story about last month’s post-election protests in Russia, as well as about those scheduled to take place at the beginning of next, the pun-inclined headline writer might feel moved to paraphrase the great Peter Greenaway, or at least the person who came up with the title of the director’s most iconic film. Russia’s Snow Revolution, as some have rather too hastily been calling it, is a story about the crooks, the thieves, the former finance minister and a blogger.
The crooks and thieves in this construction are the members of United Russia, the country’s dominant political party, which early last month won the country’s parliamentary election with a significantly reduced majority despite having rigged the vote to within an inch of its life. Headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, United Russia has come to be known throughout the country as the party of crooks and thieves. (It even tried to run an advertisement that co-opted the slander in order to dismiss it, serving as a rather humorous instance of self-flagellating propaganda.) With thousands of reports of electoral fraud levelled against United Russia following its victory, it is not difficult to see why the derisive label has stuck.
It came into popular usage last September, when Putin and his faithful lapdog, President Dmitry Medvedev, announced that they would swap roles in time for this year’s presidential election. The first murmurs of widespread discontent began to be heard around this time. Even those who were fans of the former KGB agent’s initial eight-year presidency found that the announcement didn’t sit well with them. Putin was poised to rule for nearly as long as Stalin and no one was going to have a say?
The former finance minister is Alexei Kudrin, whose own murmurs of discontent at the time were among the most notable. After telling a Washington, DC press conference that he would not serve in Medvedev’s cabinet were the incumbent president to become prime minister, the incumbent president promptly asked for the finance minister’s resignation. “Nobody has revoked discipline and subordination,” Medvedev said, as if his own perverse subordination was somehow a model to be emulated.
The former finance minister’s future role has since then been unclear. On the one hand, he appears to have become a vocal critic of the government, in particular as regards the country’s budget and what he sees as flagrant overspending on military programs. He has also criticised the regime’s dismissive stance towards the protesters, who took to the streets again on Christmas Eve for the fourth time since the December 4 election. “I disagree with such an attitude,” Kudrin said, “because hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, and there is no need to provoke them.”
Kudrin has also announced his intention to form a popular liberal party with the billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who headed the Kremlin-backed Right Cause party until September, when he was forced out after thinking too forcefully for himself. On Christmas Eve, Kudrin joined the protesters, saying that the upcoming presidential election should be followed by a new parliamentary poll. “Otherwise it’s revolution,” he said.
Kudrin’s defection to the opposition could have serious ramifications for the regime. Or at least it could if it is a genuine defection. Putin has continued to lavish praise upon his close personal friend and last month told the viewers of his annual call-in telethon that “Kudrin never left my team. We are old comrades. Such people were needed and will be needed in past and future governments.” Until we have seen some real signs to the contrary, it seems safe to presume that the former finance minister remains Putin’s man.
As for Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets, the very fact that Right Cause was a Kremlin-backed venture throws his independence and motives into doubt. While some have suggested that his upcoming presidential run is being fuelled by revenge — Prokhorov sunk some 16 million dollars of his own money into his former party — still more have cocked their eyebrows and suggested that the whole thing is designed to bring angry liberals in off the streets and to channel their votes into an officially sanctioned organ.
Even if this is the case, however, it’s not only angry liberals on the streets. The opposition is famously, perhaps fatally, atomised, with liberals, communists and all manner of nationalists — from the merely patriotic to the xenophobically neo-Nazi — struggling to find some common ground. To the extent that it exists at all, that common ground remains a shared antipathy towards Putin and Putinism. And this is where the aforementioned blogger comes in, because if anyone has thus far succeeded in bringing together these disparate groups, the person in question is Alexey Navalny.
Indeed, Christmas Eve’s protest was to some extent a welcome home party for Navalny and Solidarity’s Ilya Yashin, who were jailed for 15 days last month after failing to follow police orders during the smaller, guerilla protests of the Monday immediately following the parliamentary election. “I am not afraid,” Navalny told reporters upon his release. “These 15 days have convinced me that there is nothing to be scared of. [The authorities] should be scared.” Many who attended Sakharov Prospect on December 24 did so just to hear their fearless leader speak, with significant numbers of protesters leaving not long after he had done so. (In their defence, they were protesting in sub-zero temperatures, which is yet another reason we should probably avoid the word “spring” in relation to all this.)
But not everyone is thrilled with the 35-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption advocate. While Navalny has galvanised the opposition for their first time in years, his willingness to reach out to — and, indeed, give voice to the concerns of — the country’s nationalist opposition remains a concern to many. The liberal Yabloko party refused to consider Navalny, a former member, as its presidential candidate on the grounds that he fraternised with such groups. (He was expelled from the party in 2007 for his nationalist views.) In November, Navalny marched with nationalist skinheads bearing banners reading “Russia for Russians” and “Stop Feeding the Caucasus”, and while some have suggested that he is more interested in their numbers than in their views, it remains true that he faces an uphill battle in adding those numbers to the opposition’s mainstream.
Whether that mainstream’s distaste for Putin outweighs its distaste for nationalistic rhetoric remains to be seen, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it proves to be the case. Oppression inspires strange bedfellows, as last year’s uprisings across the world have shown. It is similarly true that brutality inspires solidarity. With the exception of the first two post-election protests, which saw the arrests of Navalny, Yashin and thousands of others, the authorities have for the most part been on their best behaviour, perhaps with this essential truism in mind.
It is arguable that they have the upper hand for this reason and it is their upper hand to lose. With no more protests planned until February, and with the key opposition martyr no longer serving as a symbol behind bars, the oppositions faces substantial difficulties in trying to claim it for themselves.There are already signs that they will struggle to do so when they come out of hibernation next month. While more protesters took to the streets of Moscow on Christmas Eve than earlier in December, the overall number of protesters dropped nationwide. On December 29,the opposition failed to get more than 200 protesters out to a rally in support of the activist Sergei Udaltsov, whose imprisonment following the parliamentary election, as well as his subsequent hunger strike, they had hoped might help to maintain interest in their cause over the holiday season. (Uldatsov was released last week.)
Neither of these stories fit in particularly well with the Western media’s narrative of imminent revolution — the day before the Udaltsov rally Foreign Policy ran an interview with Navalny under the bombastic headline ‘The End of Putin’ — and as a result neither was very widely reported. The independent Levada polling organisation recently found that more than half of Russians surveyed were against the parliamentary election being re-run — one of the opposition’s key demands — and that a full two thirds expected the protests to subside before too long. Whatever one thinks of opinion polls, especially in Russia, it goes without saying that these numbers were not widely reported, either.
As I have written previously, the opposition has to maintain its momentum for at least two more months, and most likely for many more beyond that, not only to see that its demands are met but also just in order to survive. The Kremlin, on the other hand, only needs to behave itself for that long before it can get back to not behaving itself at all. It certainly appears to be doing so. Even if the Kudrin-Prokhorov alliance isn’t a Kremlin-backed vote-trap designed to placate liberals, the authorities are nevertheless making minor concessions to the protesters, announcing an investigation into voting irregularities and proposing changes to electoral system. The transfer of the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, to a non-political role has been widely interpreted as an attempt to keep the protesters placated.
While ignoring the opposition’s big-tickets demands, such as the aforementioned annulment of the parliamentary election results, the authorities are nevertheless giving the protesters some of what they want in return for what it wants for itself: continued power.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. I may well be wrong about Kudrin and Prokhorov, and for the sake of the opposition even hope that’s the case. To some extent, Navalny is the easiest of the major players to read. Since his release on December 18, his rhetoric has had a touch the insurrectionist about it. On Christmas Eve, he hinted at the essential fact that an opposition faced with official intransigence can choose between revolution and submission, but it cannot choose reform. “I can see that there are enough people to take the Kremlin and the White House right now,” he told the crowd, “but we are peaceful people and we won’t be doing this — at least not yet.”
No one does official intransigence better than Putin, who has thus far dedicated the inter-election period to deriding the protesters wherever possible. The regime’s brand of self-preserving conciliation has its limits. Even when the prime minister told reporters he would be happy to engage in dialogue with the opposition, it seemed that he was only doing so to take a shot at their lack of cohesion. “They should formulate some kind of shared platform,” he said. “Who do we talk to?”
The obvious answer, of course, is the blogger. But Navalny is the one subject Putin refuses to field questions about and that subject seems less interested in dialogue than he is in revolution. His comrades, for the most part, are not: speakers advocating such a path have routinely met with catcalls at the protests. (Navalny himself has been careful to use violent rhetoric without actually calling for a violent uprising.) But there is no saying what might happen should the presidential election go the way of the parliamentary one or should something go wrong at one of the rallies and result in a clash between protesters and police.
Should the opposition decline to choose submission following the upcoming poll, which the target of their ire is still widely expected to win, then the target in question may well be forced to choose suppression in response.
Greenaway’s film ends with an act of cannibalism: the wife has the cook feed her lover to the thief. It is not beyond Putin to eat his children in a similarly grisly denouement. The real question is whether the opposition has it in them to make him feel like he has to.
*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