More than a month has passed since Russia’s Muscovite opposition last took to the streets to protest the results of last December’s State Duma election. It takes to them again tomorrow, February 4, which coincidentally also marks the official beginning of this year’s month-long presedential election campaign.

I have to stress the words “Muscovite” and “official”, the former because the larger protests remain isolated to the capital, not to mention to a select handful of liberal and nationalist activists within it, and the latter because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has already published a series of articles in national newspapers, on social policy, economic policy and nationalism, that critics say represent a breach of the law stating that candidate cannot campaign in the mass media until tomorrow. I shouldn’t stress these words too much, however, or at the very least should qualify them.

To call the opposition “Muscovite” is admittedly to ignore the handful of protesters who have taken to the streets in St Petersburg, Vladivostok and other cities throughout the country over the past couple of months. More importantly, it is to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the capital’s residents have avoided taking part in the protests at all. As for Putin’s alleged jumping of the gun, the country’s electoral commission has already dismissed it, stating that the prime minister’s articles fell “within the framework of his authorities”.

From Vladivostok, from which your faithful correspondent has been monitoring events this week, it is difficult to say which way tomorrow’s protest will go. (I will be about 40 hours into a 63-hour train ride when it begins.) Most Moscow-based correspondents have toned down their rhetoric since the heady days of early December, when many continued to predict revolution even after the protesters themselves had stated plainly that they weren’t interested in it. Those that haven’t toned down their rhetoric have simply gone very quiet.

Rather than reporting on the fact that many of the opposition’s leaders decided not to agitate over the holiday period in favour of taking holidays abroad, their chief cheerleaders in the Western press, Foreign Policy’s Julia Ioffe and The New York Times’ Ellen Barry, decided not to report anything at all. Ioffe’s last piece for her magazine’s website, besides a throwaway piece on what oligarchs take with them on holiday, was the ludicrously titled “The End of Putin”, a star-struck, if not entirely uncritical, interview with the opposition activist Alexey Navalny.

If the protesters weren’t interested in revolution in December, it will be interesting to see how many of them are interested in reform tomorrow. Far fewer have pledged to attend the protest on its Facebook page as pledged to attend those of December 10 and 24, and the last two, somewhat under-reported, protests, which took place on December 29 and January 29, drew only 200 and, depending on whether you believe the police or the protesters, between 300 and 2000, respectively.

(The constant under- and overestimations of the interested parties recently caused biographer Richard Lourie to publish an open letter to Google co-founder and native Muscovite Sergey Brin in The Moscow Times, calling on him and his company to develop an application that can “produce real-time realistic estimates of crowd size”. Brin, to this writer’s knowledge, at least, has not replied.)

Navalny’s involvement with tomorrow’s protest will almost certainly ensure a higher turn-out than at the two most recent ones. (If many of those who attended a recent pro-Putin rally in Yekaterinburg, the country’s fourth-largest city, were strong-armed into attending by their employers, a significant number of those attending the anti-Putin protests are doing so primarily to get a look at his likely replacement.)

But the opposition’s month-long hiatus — Navalny, for his part, went to Mexico instead of keeping up the pressure on the authorities — has given those authorities even more of an upper hand than they already had. While The Moscow Times and other opposition-minded papers have continued to report on Putin as though he was dazed and confused by the recent protests against him, the fact is that he and the apparatus he has constructed around him have handled the situation before them with cynical aplomb.

The opposition points to the liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky’s disqualification from the presidential election, and therefore the inability of his party, Yabloko, to supply its own election monitors on election day, as a sign of the forthcoming election’s likely nature: rigged and illegitimate. The Potemkin candidacy of Mikhail Prokhorov, who recently said that he looked forward to working with the election’s winner, all but showing off the fact that his campaign has been designed to bring liberals in off the streets and into the polling booth, has merely fuelled this consensus.

(The defection of former finance minister Alexei Kudrin to the opposition has been tarnished accordingly. Kudrin may be trying to distance himself from the Kremlin, and from Putin’s on-air claim in December that the former minister “didn’t leave my team” when he offered President Dmitry Medvedev his resignation last September, but born-again oppositionist’s goal to set up a popular liberal party with the billionaire oligarch’s involvement hardly seems legitimate in light of the latter’s increasingly ludicrous candidacy.)

But I think Putin is smarter than to steal another election. I also think he’s smarter than to think that a show of strength at the polls is what he needs right now. He has always known that he doesn’t have to steal an election to win an election. The most recent independent poll has him well ahead of all his so-called competitors, including unofficial ones like Yavlinsky and Navalny, while the most recent state-sponsored poll has him trumping every Russian leader of the past century, with Medvedev coming a distant, and actually rather surprising, second. (The complete failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s appeals to the Russian government to hold December’s parliamentary election again doesn’t seem so surprising in light of the fact that he came last in the poll, losing out, not only to Lenin and Stalin, but to Tsar Nicholas II, too.)Given December’s protests, Putin now realises that stealing an election to win an election is likely to cause more trouble than it’s worth. His recent comments to a meeting of election monitors that the presidential election may go to a second round, and, what’s more, that there isn’t anything wrong with that, weren’t designed to play down expectations for his performance in that election, but to remind his opponents that a seemingly hard-won victory will completely dismember their accusations of his regime’s essential illegitimacy.

If the vote is rigged at all, it seems, it will be rigged, not to look like a cakewalk, but to look like a struggle. The opposition, by choosing reform over uprising, and by demanding little more than fair elections, actually poses little threat to the regime at all: the opposition is asking it to curb only one of its many illicit activities, and one, what’s more, that it will be happy to curb if it means it can remain in power. Curbing this one won’t cost it anything.

If fewer protesters take to Moscow’s streets tomorrow, it won’t be because the temperature is -11, and it won’t be because their taste for reform has suddenly dissipated. It will likely be because the regime has made all the necessary moves to satisfy that taste: the legislative overtures, however compromised, and the hints that the race will be rigged to look unrigged.

Some, noting the strained negotiations that allowed tomorrow’s protest to take place in the first place, are worried that this may be the event at which the authorities’ gloves finally come off. The fact that the parties finally reached an agreement that allows for both a march and a rally is enough to suggest that this isn’t likely. The fact that they agreement was reached at all suggests to me that, even if it hadn’t been, brutality probably wouldn’t have followed.

Brutality, as the regime learnt in the immediate aftermath of the parliamentary elections, on December 5-6, breeds solidarity, and solidarity among protesters is the last thing a regime needs when it is trying to ensure its own survival. The police have behaved themselves, not because they necessarily agree with the protesters, as some have claimed, but because their commanding officers have told them to keep their rifle butts to themselves. The protests are small enough, isolated enough, and moderate enough in their aims to fizzle out of their own accord: the regime’s strategy, in startling contrast to the strategies employed by the likes of Gaddafi and al-Assad, is to provide the protesters with as little oxygen as possible.

They’ve done a very good job of doing so thus far and are unlikely to change their tact tomorrow. They’re only likely to do so once the election is finally over and won, and then they’re likely to do so with a vengeance. Predicting the weekend’s events may be difficult, in other words, but the long-term outlook is somewhat easier to foresee. This time next year, 11 months into the president’s third term, there mightn’t be much of an opposition movement at all.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey