The Saturday rally in Moscow gathered so many thousands and generated such a resonance that all concerned parties – the authorities, the participants and the abstainers – have to quickly figure out what it really means. Nobody had expected the protest against the crudely but customarily falsified elections to gain such strength – and nobody knows whether the momentum is sustainable. There is a perceptible new quality in the political situation, but it has little to do with the composition of the State Duma and cannot be captured by the opinion polls, which show greater approval for permanent Putinism than for undisturbed ballot boxes (Moskovskie novosti, Nezavisimaya gazeta, 12 December). What is clear in the developing political crisis, which cannot be denied after the Bolotnaya square breakthrough in building street power, is that its focus has shifted from the party of ‘crooks and thieves,’ as United Russia is aptly branded, to the persona of Vladimir Putin.
This imperative of challenging the omnipotent leader will inevitably increase the divisions inside the always bitterly divided opposition camp, where worries about unleashing an unwanted revolution prevail over interest in exploring unexpected opportunities. Three ‘loyal’ opposition parties represented in the State Duma have nicely benefitted from the appeal of the ‘anti-systemic’ opposition groups to vote against United Russia. However, their plans for harvesting dividends from expanded capacity for lobbying are upset by the wave of protests (Kommersant-Vlast, 12 December). Communists and other leftist populists understand the need to connect with this movement of masses but have to follow the lead of the ‘radicals’ who initiated the discontent. The resolution adopted at the rally goes far beyond the feasible aim of cancelling the most blatant rigging and demands new free and fair elections (Vedomosti, 12 December). Only a few hundred participants actually heard these demands and the speakers at the joyful rally, but millions have experienced the rare feeling of togetherness.
The authorities were taken by surprise, but fortunately did not panic and have apparently opted for shrugging it off, while hastily gathering a counter-rally in support of themselves (Nezavisimaya gazeta, 12 December). The Kremlin ‘technologists’ expect that the next disunited opposition rally planned for December 24 will be a non-event despite the presence of popular blogger Alexei Navalny, who will by then have served his minimal sentence of 15 days behind bars for violating public order. Further protests, they expect, will evaporate as the long New Year’s holiday creates a cheerful distraction (New Times, 12 December). These tactics could have worked if presidential elections were not scheduled for early March, but the opposition has just enough time to re-energize its drastically expanded base with the idea to vote for any candidate but Putin (Gazeta.ru, Ogonyok, 12 December). One piece of good news for the Kremlin is that the Fair Russia party has approved as its candidate dull Sergei Mironov and not charismatic Oksana Dmitrieva, otherwise Putin could have come in third after her and the veteran Communist Gennady Zyuganov.
The very emergence of such a prospect could propel the power-holders along the most natural path of all authoritarian regimes – repression. Plenty of police muscle was indeed shown during the Saturday rally even if in a very ‘polite’ manner, but the ‘law enforcers’ did not dare to stage a provocation that could have created a stampede on Bolotnaya square similar to the horrible Khodynka of 1896 (Novaya gazeta, 8 December). The professional OMON units are known for brutality acquired in tours of duty to Chechnya, but they cannot control crowds above 20,000. The military units, on the other hand, are entirely unreliable not only because their soldiers are untrained conscripts but also because their officers are angry at the Commander-in-Chief for the badly mishandled military reform (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 25 November). Putin’s regime cannot reinvent itself as genuinely tough and authoritarian because corruption has eaten too deeply into the FSB and other special services. Besides, the elite of Putin’s ‘class’ have invested too heavily in real estate and other assets in the West to take the risk of personalized sanctions similar to those enforced against the key figures of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.
All authoritarian rulers are vulnerable to oppositionist activity via social networks, but Putin’s system of power has a particular weakness created by the fact that its master has little understanding of how the Internet really works. This inexcusable ignorance causes information blocks and inadequate reactions in the bureaucratic machine since nobody is keen to inform the boss about the dynamics in the fast-moving Russian blogosphere. Medvedev’s attempts to develop a presence there are utterly counter-productive. Bloggers make great fun lampooning his Twitter-messages and suggesting that if the participants at the protest rally were counted the same way as the voters for United Russia, it would be 500,000 strong, so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would have had big problems paying out honoraria to the rally participants (KermlinRussia, 5 December). The response from the authorities is limited to occasional hacker attacks and greater pressure on the print media, targeting particularly Kommersant. But that only adds to the scorn and anger in the Internet-media (Newsru.com, 13 December).
The majority of the opposition is interested in engaging in a dialogue with the authorities aimed at correcting the crudest violations of the fairness of the political process – for instance, replacing the unashamedly servile head of the Central Electoral Commission Vladimir Churov (Vedomosti, 12 December). The Kremlin, however, is afraid that any compromise would encourage more demands, eliminating the slim majority the United Russia still has in the Duma. Furthermore, one impression that Putin wants to avoid giving at any cost is that of weakness. He will try to reassert the image of a benevolent but stern father-figure at the traditional all-nation Q & A session scheduled for December 15, and there certainly will be no whistles or booing from the carefully selected ‘workers and farmers.’ The main effect of this stale show is certain to be deeper disappointment in this pretense of complete control. However, Putin – as every other self-made sultan – just cannot internalize the possibility that his loyal followers might simply get fed up with ‘more-of-the-same.’ Vladimir Putin’s problem is that he has never been a politician, so he does not understand how important a timely and graceful exit can be.