The Anti-Putin Momentum Between Davos, Courchevel and Bolotnaya Square

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 20

There has been much more talk about Greece than about Russia at the World Economic Forum last week, which shows that the Davos crowd typically tries to discern the future challenges by looking backwards. The Greek financial fiasco should have been debated two years ago, while it is the Russian repercussions that are looming large for the near future. A planeload of ministers and directors of state-owned companies has duly arrived in Switzerland, and their collective message is that only Vladimir Putin’s confident win at the presidential elections in just one month could secure gradual implementation of necessary political and economic reforms (Kommersant, January 28;, RBC Daily, January 27). A dissenting voice was Aleksei Kudrin, former finance minister turned free agent, who calmly pointed out that the outrageous defense expenditures and unsustainable social programs were not a budget problem but a product of an ineffective and outdated political system (Vedomosti, January 27, New Times, January 23).

Another sign of deepening troubles in Russia is the very quiet January at the French ski resort Courchevel, which used to be a true vanity fair where Moscow high society celebrated their good fortune (, January 24). It was flamboyant billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov who introduced this seasonal extravaganza, but now he is busy on the campaign trail presenting himself as a credible alternative to Putin (Vedomosti, November 27). His ideas about sharply reducing state control over economic life and curbing bureaucratic predation would have won approval at Davos, but in the eyes of too many Russians he remains a symbol of shameless self-enrichment by grabbing privatized assets on the cheap and selling them way above their value. Prokhorov has also made a strong pledge to set free Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other political prisoners, and this direct hit on Putin’s personal vendetta resonates so strongly among the electorate that President Dmitri Medvedev finds it necessary to explain his reluctance to grant him a pardon (, January 25).

Khodorkovsky has argued for many years that the crucial issue is the discontent with the yawning social inequality that turns into anger when nouveaux riches flaunt their luxurious yachts and frolic in Alpine resorts, and this year Davos has awakened to this problem (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, January 27). The developing political crisis in Russia is driven by the resentment against social injustice, but it involves only the urban middle classes demanding political representation, while the masses of have-nots remain passive. Putin seeks to exploit this disconnect by portraying the opposition as a Moscow ‘thing’ and playing on the pronounced resentment in many regional and provincial cities against the arrogant capital that concentrates too much power and money. That might bring him some extra votes and support the wobbling support rating but his conflict with Moscow is set to escalate (Novaya Gazeta, January 28).

The focal point of this conflict is the rally organized by the opposition on February 4, and the Kremlin used every administrative pretext and procrastination to derail this event, aiming to provoke quarrels between micro-parties led by ambitious rebels. By the end of last week, however, it had become clear that unless an official approval is granted, thousands of Muscovites would partake in an unsanctioned rally, which the authorities would have to suppress. Medvedev did not want such a violent confrontation to mar his presidency, disappointing as it is, so he called the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, whom he had appointed just over a year ago, and an affirmative answer was communicated to the puzzled group of activists (Ezhednevny zhurnal, January 27; Moscow echo, January 26). The march will go to the same Bolotnaya Square where the first mass protest shattered the habitual apathy on December 10. The opposition has to demonstrate that the drive has not dissipated and new tens of thousands from the ‘creative class’ are committing to the ‘Russia without Putin’ cause.

What makes this commitment problematic is that the angry Muscovites have nobody to vote for at the forthcoming elections; Grigory Yavlinsky was perhaps not a very promising option, but still he was eliminated from the list of candidates on technicalities (Kommersant, January 24). Putin tries to regain confidence from the weakness of leadership in the opposition camp, which indeed cannot have a leader because the agendas of veteran dissidents and successful entrepreneurs, popular authors and bloggers go in all sorts of directions (Vedomosti, January 27). Mikhail Gorbachev argues that this diversity reflects changes in the society that have become too complex for over-centralization. The former Soviet leader suggests a referendum on constitutional reform that would reduce the concentration of power in the hands of the president (Novaya Gazeta, January 27). This strategy of peaceful dismantlement of the dysfunctional regime requires an acceptance of non-sustainability of the existing order by the ruling and self-serving bureaucracy, which might appear impossible but could turn out to be attainable. This bureaucracy constitutes a large part of the urban middle class and is therefore exposed to all the emotional frustration with, and intellectual opprobrium of the dreary Putinism (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 26).

It is a very delicate balance between sustaining pressure on the disheartened regime by gathering larger and larger rallies, and avoiding radicalism that could scare the power-holders and trigger violent clashes that would push Putin into a corner. The leaderless but tightly networked opposition has been remarkably successful in preserving this balance, seeking to discharge building anger and convert it into a more cheerful and positive offensive. Bolotnaya Square resembles more the Kreshchatik Square in Kiev in late 2004 than the Tahrir Square in Cairo in early 2011. Putin, on his side, has made a few mistakes of judgment on the merits of his own leadership and quite a few errors in verbalizing his feelings about the unruly Muscovites – but refrained from acting on his belief in an ‘iron hand.’ The real test is shaping up after the election, in which Putin is set to produce for himself a mandate for action – but the rallies would become more determined. The only way to pass this test without a tragic breakdown is to make sure that Bolotnaya becomes too big to fail.