The end of June marks two months of active confrontation between the opposition and authorities. Moscow seems to have come out of the political coma it was in for the better part of the last decade and resumed the dynamic political life of the 1990s.
Just a year ago, it was impossible to imagine anything like the mass rally that took place on May 6, which ended with violent clashes with police, or the opposition rally on June 12 that drew about 40,000-50,000 protesters. There have also been a variety of cultural events that turned into anti-government rallies like the Writers’ Stroll on May 13 with 10,000-12,000 participants, a six-week relay race of protest camps under the symbol of Twitter hash tag “#occupy,” and a series of protests that took place virtually every day in front of official buildings and invariably ended in detentions.
Despite all this, the first round in the battle for the streets was won by the authorities. For a while, the authorities spent some time alternating between the carrot and the stick. But apparently, after seeing that crackdowns were drawing a mute reaction from the West, President Vladimir Putin decided to continue on this path. In a few days, all the #occupy camps were dispersed. Twelve people were arrested for rioting on May 6 and face up to eight years in prison. In addition, the police carried out a series of searches at the homes of opposition leaders with the obvious aim of scaring them more than finding something.
A law amending the Code of Administrative Violations significantly augmented punishment for participation in street protests. The code has been rewritten so that virtually any unsanctioned gathering of more than four people may be regarded as a violation of the law (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 9).
Among the first victims of this new law was, however improbable, a group of Michael Jackson fans that had gathered outside the US Consulate in St. Petersburg to mark the anniversary of his death (http://top.rbc.ru/society/26/06/2012/656870.shtml). This law on public gatherings allows the police to even break up events that were given official permission – like the one that took place in Moscow on June 24. Marat Salakhiev, the organizer of a sanctioned protest, was sentenced to seven days of detention and a fine of 20,000 rubles ($610) because the protesters unfurled a banner reading “Russia Without Putin” (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2012/06/25/n_2406553.shtml).
The Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights has also been under great pressure. In the past, changes in Council membership were essentially determined by the members themselves. But it was given a new mandate and now new members will be selected by Internet vote. In Russia, such a procedure opens the door to vote-rigging and fraud. Fifteen out of 38 members resigned in protest, including human rights veteran Lyudmila Alexeeva and Medvedev loyalist Igor Yurgens.
Another new draft law of amendments to the Code of Administrative Violations might have serious consequences for freedom of the press. The draft law expands censorship of the Russian language Internet. In the future, a simple link to a site that “contains calls to carry out extremist actions” can be punished with a fine or arrest of up to 15 days with confiscation of computer equipment. The current draft is vague on its application to search engines like Google or Yandex, but it has the potential to lead to Chinese-style Internet regulation (http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2153901/luchshe_ne_ssylatsya).
China is not the only country that comes to mind. The Belarusian political scientist and political emigrant Viktor Martinovich wrote, “A joke is making the rounds in Belarus: in exchange for fraternal aid in the form of loans, the “younger brother” sent the Russian “older brother” techniques for controlling the population” (http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2012/06/26_a_4642633.shtml).
In his fight against the opposition, Putin is playing by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s playbook. To stabilize his regime after mass demonstrations in December 2010, Lukashenka used a similar combination of draconian laws and selective repression. However, the comparison between Moscow and Minsk is not entirely accurate.
First, Internet remains almost free in Russia, and it continues to play a crucial role in the exchange of ideas and information. It also serves as a platform for the consolidation of oppositional forces.
More importantly, in December 2010 all the main opposition leaders were arrested in Minsk. In Russia, the opposition leaders remain free. They have moved from the streets to the conference rooms where they are working on a political platform. There are already two rather detailed reform programs. One – a more moderate position – was proposed by the “Group of Three,” headed by Dmitry Gudkov, a State Duma deputy from the party A Just Russia (http://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/news/2154476/chego_hotyat_revolyucionery?full#cut). There is also a more radical program, the Manifesto of Free Russia, adopted during the June 12 opposition rally (http://grani.ru/Politics/Russia/activism/m.198289.html#manifest). Neither program is ideal, and both have received deserved criticism. But now the opposition is gathered around conference tables, jointly writing new programs and their Russian roadmaps to democracy.
The newly formed Republican Party of Russia, headed by the experienced politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, is likely to play a more active role. This party is one of the few oppositional organizations to win official registration. It has inherited virtually the entire leadership and membership of the Solidarity Movement and the unregistered PARNAS party, which made up the backbone of the recent political demonstrations. At this stage, the Republican Party is focused on taking part in local elections, where the opposition plans to agree on candidates to run against the ruling United Russia Party.
Public opinion polls also show that the ideas of the opposition are popular, and a significant part of the population is ready to continue the battle. In a poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) at the June 12 rally, 90 percent of the respondents were prepared to participate in opposition events in the future. Sixty-nine percent want to see a change in the country’s top leadership, and 28 percent support democratic reforms and the return of political freedoms (http://wciom.ru/index.php?id=459&uid=112859). These figures provide quite a good idea of what to expect from future political events in Moscow.