Protests in Moscow Gain New Momentum and Come to a New Territory

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 110

Opposition deputies in the Duma (Source: AFP)
The protest rally planned for June 12 will probably not be much different in numbers and slogans from the half dozen rallies that Moscow has seen since the blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections of last December. Yet, it will deliver more proof that the opposition, disunited as it is, can sustain the momentum of pro-active discontent within the quasi-democratic system of governance and bring tens of thousands of “white ribbons” to the streets on the official national holiday, making the chant “Russia without Putin” particularly relevant. The difference this time around is made by the new law on rallies and demonstrations, adopted by the State Duma in great haste and signed by President Vladimir Putin last Friday. The law increases the penalties for disobedience to a minimum of $300 and a maximum of $10,000 and prescribes that any public gathering must be approved by local authorities (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 7;, June 8). The opposition claims that the law violates the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the Constitution, but Putin asserts that “our law does not have a single provision that is harsher than the measures stipulated in similar laws” in Germany, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and France. 
This reference point is rather odd given that Putin signed the law immediately upon his return from a long Asian trip that started in Uzbekistan, included three days in China, and ended in Kazakhstan. Presidents Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan) and Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) expressed their sincere satisfaction with Putin’s return to the Kremlin, as did Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus, where Putin had made his first official visit. And there is no reason to doubt their common desire to see the opposition in Moscow crushed and exterminated. It is China, however, that worries Putin most. Russia is quickly becoming China’s raw materials supplier and a subordinate partner, useful to Beijing for taking the blame for obstructing Western efforts in hot spots like Syria (Vedomosti, June 7). Putin had to employ his best diplomatic skills in order to delay the Chinese attempts to assume the dominant position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but he understands full well that Russia’s claims to an equal partnership are tolerated by Beijing only so far as he remains both in full control of the domestic situation and on speaking terms with Western leaders (Moskovskie Novosti, June 6;, June 7).  
Putin’s European counterparts have so far kept a neutral stance toward the political crisis in Russia, but Putin has few doubts about their sympathies to the opposition even if his accusations of interference are reserved solely for the United States. He understands that the limited application of police force against the protesters on May 6 tainted his inauguration and damaged his international reputation, so the new law is expected to provide a cover for further targeted repression. In a peculiar coincidence, the law was demonstratively broken on the day of his signature when thousands of football fans staged a celebration of victory in the opening match of the European championship, which was exactly the kind of unauthorized street action that is now banned (Moscow Echo, June 9). The law can be applied only selectively and arbitrarily, and the opposition parties in the Duma tried to demonstrate its flaws attempting by the first ever filibuster (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 6). Nevertheless, it was rushed through as if June 12 is set to be a decisive “battle,” defying the logic of the official discourse that portrays the “non-systemic” opposition as a marginal and ephemeral phenomenon (Expert, June 4).
It is clear that the Kremlin cannot comprehend the nature and dynamics of this phenomenon, but the opposition leaders are equally at loss. They experiment with several mobilization strategies seeking to expand the base of the protests, which gained unexpected momentum in the winter but then hit a ceiling. The rallies in Moscow have not grown beyond 100,000 participants and remain in the low thousands in other cities. Several seasoned dissidents work on registering new political parties and cultivating alliances – the Democratic Choice party works closely with Yabloko, and the reconstituted Republican party joined ranks with Parnas (Moscow Echo, June 9). There are also useful attempts to build on the success of the Occupy movement and engage students and bloggers, who care little about political parties. Perhaps the best bet for the opposition is to connect with the spontaneous reaction in society to the blatant injustice of the “counter-revolutionary” policy and to the awkward lies of the official propaganda intended to cover up the confusion in the supreme headquarters (Novaya Gazeta, June 8).
The newly-formed government tries in the meantime to find a modus operandi as the reformist ideas of minister-technocrats find only lukewarm support from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and are treated with suspicion in the presidential administration. The looming problem is the fall in petro-revenues. Low oil prices stand in the way of expanding social welfare commitments and add urgency to the task of revamping the bankrupt pension system. At the same time, assessments of the probable discontent caused by the rise of domestic energy costs from July 1 are discomforting (, June 9). Some key players in the government tend, however, to ignore this problem, focusing instead on the far more exciting issue of control over the money flow in the energy sector. In presiding over an “oil club” of key companies, the former deputy prime minister, Igor Sechin, is keen to keep this money flow in his hands (Kommersant, Vedomosti, June 9). 
The privatization of juicy energy assets is indeed an exhilarating prospect for those who can appoint themselves as beneficiaries, but it only makes sense if the political system continues to provide protection for this scheme. The survival instinct should inform the power-holders about the need to co-opt the moderates in the opposition camp. Yet, the prevalent urge to suppress confirms the impression of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most prominent political prisoner, that the Kremlin is inadvertently provoking a revolution by undermining the society’s trust in state institutions (, June 7). Putin proceeds confidently along the political track of obsession and denial, pretending to be benevolent and tough – instantly believing his own pretenses. This schizophrenic track wavers at every reality check, however, and can end with even just one failed test.