Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 74

Protesters in Moscow

At first glance, the event in Moscow that made much international news over the weekend was blown out of all proportions. A few thousand “radicals” tried to stage a march on April 14. They had only been allowed permission for a “rally,” and consequently a few hundred of them were briefly detained by police, a miniscule figure in a metropolitan area of 15 million. However, what the state-controlled TV channels opted to overlook was that a crowd of about the same size had gathered around the White House on the Moskva River one chilly night in August 1991 and stood firm as tanks approached, securing the collapse of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. And the Moscow crowd was not much smaller than the one outraged by the blatant falsification of elections that stormed the parliament building in Tbilisi in November 2003 and dislodged the corrupt regime, triggering the first “color” revolution.

Memories and parallels are hardly reliable tools for political analysis, but what really testifies to the significance of the “march of the discontented” is the Kremlin’s visible alarm and forceful response. Up to 9,000 police officers were dispatched to keep order in the streets, and some 2,000 special riot control OMON officers were brought to Moscow from neighboring regions as reinforcements; an undisclosed number of plain-clothes agents were deployed as well (Kommersant, April 14). Easily outnumbering the protesters, the police did not hesitate to apply force at the first sign of disturbance and just waited for a serious provocation — which fortunately never came (Novaya gazeta, April 14). The authorities responded with the same pattern of massive deployment of action-ready forces and “preventive” detainment of activists used ahead of the first march of this kind in St. Petersburg on March 3 and then in Nizhny Novgorod on March 24, and in St. Petersburg again last Sunday (Newsru.com, April 15).

The authorities even decided to stage a counter-rally. The Kremlin-controlled “Young Guard” duly gathered some 15,000 members around the high-rise buildings of Moscow University for no reason other than to show that they outnumber the protesters. Nationalists were also allowed to hold a gathering under the slogan “Moscow — a Russian city,” which failed to attract even a thousand supporters — much the same way as the rather pathetic “Imperial march” the previous weekend (Grani.ru, April 10). Public attention and increasingly public sympathy is, nevertheless, clearly centered on the opposition force that calls itself “Another Russia.”

What worries authorities the most is Another Russia’s ability to attract opinion-makers of different persuasions, so that veterans of the democratic movement march together with somewhat exotic radicals that have accepted the name “national-Bolsheviks,” and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov joined ranks with his former opponent, State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, and chess master Garry Kasparov. This embryonic “popular front” took shape and attracted international attention ahead of the G-8 summit last July, and the Kremlin is quite jealous about this broad range. Hence the demonstratively harsh protests from the Foreign Ministry and both chambers of the parliament against the new, mildly critical U.S. State Department report on democratic processes and human rights protection in the world (RIA-Novosti, April 11; Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 13).

The obsessive idea that the activities of the non-governmental organizations are financed and directed by “hostile forces” might seem ridiculous, but the well-fed and tightly disciplined political elite really cannot understand what drives so many “decent” people to defy the OMON shields and bludgeons. As one commentator reminded, the clue may be in the old song by the Russian rock star Boris Grebenshchikov: “The people who shot at our fathers now make plans for our kids” (Grani.ru, April 15). The young political generation is indeed the source of new energy for the “discontented,” and activists like Maria Gaidar can count on hundreds of teenagers who do not fear getting into trouble by demanding such a simple thing as free and fair elections. Kasparov’s column in the Wall Street Journal (April 1) might appear a voice in the wilderness, but Valery Panyushkin in the business-oriented Vedomosti (April 13) argued insightfully that most of the people who feel disgusted about the lies of Putin’s regime do not take to the streets, because they are afraid to be seen in the company of “extremists,” but this fear evaporates as the lack of freedom becomes suffocating.

The panic in the Kremlin is not entirely irrational, it is not just the specter of “orange” Kyiv that haunts Moscow streets, it is the increasingly pervasive feeling that the dilemma of preserving Putin’s system of power without Putin has no solution. It is self-evident that the president, who has just some 45 weeks left in his term, seeks to avoid becoming a “lame duck” and so postpones naming a successor. In the meanwhile, the clans in the hermetically sealed “inner circle” cannot agree on a compromise figure who would not cherish dangerous presidential ambitious but still be electable. This, however, is not the whole problem, and Boris Berezovsky, who has managed to attract much fuss with his statement that he is sponsoring some high-level intrigues seeking to facilitate a revolution, quite certainly has nothing to do with the brewing crisis (Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 14).

The heart of the “2008” problem is the feebleness of the “vertical structure of power” damaged by predatory infighting and immeasurable corruption. The sudden escalation of pleas and demands for Putin to discard his solemn promises to step down and accept a third presidential term is simply a form of collective denial of this degradation of power. Putin, however, insists on maintaining the imitation of democratic norms (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 6). He values political stability above all other achievements of his “era” and suspects that the growing discontent hits at the very center of this carefully built illusion. The terms of the public contract to pretend and accept pretense are about to expire; now he only needs to find some “historic” words for the last address to the parliament.