An activist’s rallying cry at Monday’s protests

The snow, the flashbulbs, the group of OMON thugs materialising from behind a statue of Alexander Pushkin, the sudden realisation that the middle of a frozen pond probably wasn’t the smartest place for the opposition’s leaders to hole up. You always remember your first face-to-face with a fellow in a riot helmet.

One didn’t need to be on the side of the opposition’s more radically inclined leaders — who were more or less deliberately provoking the police, intent on securing a propaganda victory against the regime even as they made the strategic blunder of ensuring that their rank-and-file would be wary of attending all future protests — to be against the group of men with truncheons.

But Monday night’s events nevertheless threw into sharp relief the difficulties now faced by those same opposition leaders. It is is difficult to imagine at this point that Russia’s Moscow-centric, non-systemic opposition can continue to move forward with a strategy that relies so heavily on home-made signage and mixed-message speeches. United solely by their shared dislike for president-elect Vladimir Putin and his regime, as those speeches continue to make uncomfortably clear, the oppositionists’ main success thus far has been to ensure the celebrity of Alexey Navalny, whose own main success has been to get 100,000 private citizens to sign on as independent election monitors.

Kick-starting Russian civil society is no mean feat, of course. But the anti-corruption blogger and lawyer, widely unknown outside the major centres and not especially well-known inside them either, wants to kick-start a revolution.

A couple of hundred people sliding about on a frozen pond isn’t one, especially when then vast majority of them are journalists, and, barring the publication of the president-elect’s personal finances or some other potentially game-changing revelation, they also show no signs of becoming one. If we take the opposition’s likely inflated estimate of the protest’s turn-out at face value, Navalny’s call for civil disobedience went unanswered by roughly 19,000 people, or 95% of those present. If Monday night’s protest threw the mass rally model of protest into question — the opposition leaders were expecting 200,000 attendees at a minimum and were hoping aloud for half a million — then the blogger’s preference for escalation was rejected by the rank-and-file out of hand.

With protests likely to show diminishing returns — especially now that even an authorised protest has turned violent — and with numbers far too low for a revolt of any kind, the opposition finds itself at an impasse. It’s best bet now is to form a broad-platformed coalition party and to try its luck electorally. The liberal party projects of third-place presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin are nice ideas, but likely to be officially-sanctioned placebos. In any case, any opposition party that alienates the anti-Putin nationalists will be half the size it has the potential to be. Such a coalition can always — and probably will — splinter later. But while the target of the opposition’s ire remains a single man, it makes no sense to split the vote against him.

As for the opposition trying its luck in an electoral system it believes to be inherently corrupt, novelist and oppositionist Boris Akunin has already suggested that a concerted electoral attack on the local and regional political systems, as opposed to the thoroughly monpolised federal one, could be a good way to begin and to set about developing a base beyond the net-savvy urban middle-class.

Which is something that it has to do anyway. Masha Gessen is lying when she says that the opposition transcends class. Anti-Putinism does — hence lower-class voters favouring the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party last weekend — but the opposition itself doesn’t. Worse, it tends to come across as an elite movement wholly dismissive of anyone’s opinion outside of the Garden Ring it so famously lined two weeks ago. Some of the lower-class kids at the pro-Putin rally that gathered near the walls of the Kremlin on Monday night might have been paid to attend, as correspondents never tire of pointing out, but it seems ridiculous to suggest that all of them were. Some genuinely believe that Putin is the right man for the job. No one within the ranks of the opposition appears to have ever tried to convince them otherwise and this is because both they and the media that cover them seem to think that anyone who voted for the president-elect is either an idiot or else someone on the payroll. This position is unwise and self-defeating.

Finally, the opposition needs to start being an opposition rather than a series of oppositions. It needs a leader, not 15 of them, all of whom tend to push a different line every time they’re handed a microphone. That Navalny, the so-called democratic nationalist, or Sergei Udaltsov, the radical socialist, would likely be the front-runners for the position is perhaps unfortunate. That someone should step up, however — most likely the blogger, who remains the only reason many protesters keep coming out, and who received the largest applause at this week’s protest — is nevertheless true.

What is perhaps most striking about this week’s events is not that the opposition appears to have been broken, but rather that it appears to have been broken so quickly. I certainly didn’t think that a little rough-housing on the ice would usher in the dark week of the soul that it has. Oppositionists such as former Duma speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov have been worrying aloud about the long-term efficacy of protests for a while now. “We’re stuck,” Ryzhkov told Foreign Policy’s Julia Ioffe in the wake of last month’s record turn-out. “We’re at a dead end.” Akunin saw Monday’s crackdown coming well before the election and has since said that the “romantic phase of the protests is over”.One certainly would not have guessed, from Navalny’s insurrectionist speech at the protest (in which he essentially said that the opposition, not the Kremlin, was the country’s legitimate authority), that he would be admitting to Time‘s Simon Shuster the following evening that he no longer thought it was possible to occupy any of the city’s squares. He hedged his bets, of course, telling the magazine that such an occupation might be possible “in principle” in future. But it was possible “in principle” on Monday night, too. And he wound up in a paddy wagon.

Shuster himself had an interesting protest, ultimately finding himself on the wrong side of the line between journalist and participant when he became a link in the human chain that formed around Navalny to protect him from approaching OMON officers. He atoned for this by writing one of the most honest pieces about the protest published anywhere. (Mark MacKinnon of The Globe and Mail wrote the single most honest, but Shuster gets credit for putting the level of violence into perspective, especially because he was arrested as a result of it.) It wasn’t long before everyone else with a pen in this town was asking the same question: whither the revolution?

Perhaps the greatest indication of this seismic shift in the media narrative — from Arab Spring to US civil rights movement to a couple of hundred people being forcefully removed from a frozen puddle in the dark — was the fact that correspondents began to pretend that they’d seen the crackdown coming.

Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front attempting to rally the remaining protesters

After spending the first nine months of last year pretending there was a genuine struggle between Putin and his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, the media began to act as though it had always known that the former would return to his former office. After spending the first three months of this year writing propaganda for the opposition, those same writers have now started to act as though they had always known it was doomed to failure. “Another post-mortem of the revolution,” Ioffe tweeted following this week’s protest as she linked to a colleague’s article. “I don’t understand. Were y’all expecting Putin to lose on Sunday?”

Ioffe herself might not have been, but she almost certainly thought the so-called revolution would deliver a counter-blow the following night. “Thousands protesting in cities all over Russia,” she wrote not long after the first mass rally a mere three months ago. “Police don’t crack down. If Kremlin doesn’t hear this, they sign their own death [certificate].” Ioffe clearly didn’t consider the obvious: that the police had merely been told to keep their rifle butts to themselves.

Some would nevertheless seem to believe that the opposition might yet bounce back. “[T]his story could still have legs,” the BBC’s Daniel Sanford told me two days ago. “My guess is one hundred thousand might show on Saturday.” Aside from the rather questionable idea that the story only has legs if the opposition succeeds, the protest in question was later authorised for only half that number.

This might not matter. The city only authorised a protest of 10,000 people for earlier this week and twice that number actually showed. But Navalny has been promising half a million for the past three months. The opposition was quick to blame the timing of this week’s protest for its lower-than-usual turn-out and indeed more than a few in the crowd could be heard to complain about having to protest on a week night.

That problem won’t exist tomorrow. But another almost certainly will. The regime has shown that, whatever an upstart blogger with only 200,000 Twitter followers says, it remains the authority in this country. Every non-sanctioned protest between December and now has ended in violence. The moment a sanctioned one ran too long, it, too, ended that way. The old won’t come out when their hips are in question. Parents won’t put their children in harm’s way. Most members of the middle-class simply have too much to lose.

So the opposition can protest all it wants. It probably won’t be allowed to much longer. And even if it is, the uncomfortable truth remains. The opposition protests at Vladimir Putin’s pleasure.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey