Political life in Russia, normally tightly controlled, last week focused on an event that was not ordered or sponsored by the authorities. The “Russian march,” a series of rallies planned for Saturday, November 4, by several nationalist organizations, motley extremist groupings, and a few State Duma deputies, alarmed not only marginalized liberals but also mainstream commentators and the whole crowd of Kremlin lackeys. Only one year ago parliament approved a new state holiday — the Day of National Unity — on President Vladimir Putin’s initiative in order to cancel the habitual celebration of the Bolshevik revolution of November 7. The occasion for jubilation was found in the conveniently distant past — the expulsion of Polish troops from Moscow in 1612 that marked the beginning of the end of Russia’s “Time of Troubles.” Apparently, it did not occur to the Kremlin “political technologists” that the new holiday could be embraced by nationalists eager to unfold slogans such as: “Russia for the Russians” and “Russian order on Russian land” (Lenta.ru; Grani.ru, November 2).
The agitation and even panic in the presidential entourage were caused by the easily observable growth of xenophobic intolerance and even rage. These ugly undercurrents broke to the surface in Kondopoga, Karelia, in late August, when a minor brawl escalated to a real pogrom aimed at migrants from the Caucasus. Putin addressed the issue in his recent live TV show when a direct line for questions was opened to Kondopoga. The blame was put squarely on the shoulders of local authorities and corrupt police, and Sergei Katanandov, the head of Karelia, who happened to be on vacation in Portugal, was summoned to the Kremlin for a reprimand (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 3). At the same time, Putin was very vague when answering the question about fascism in Russia and did not say a word about Russian nationalism and xenophobia (Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 26). That encouraged the extremists to raise the slogan “Kondopoga — city of heroes” at the Saturday rallies across the country (Ekho Moskvy, November 3).
Another reason for concern in the Kremlin was the very awkward intersection of the nationalist rallying cry and state policy for Georgia. Putin took pains to emphasize his “great respect” toward the Georgian people and explained that “ethnically motivated” law enforcement actions were “inadmissible” (Vremya novostei, October 26). However, the series of punitive measures against Georgia, from the ban on importing wine and mineral water to the demand for exorbitant prices on exported gas, and particularly the demonstrative expulsion of labor migrants, tell a very different story. Moscow has been pursuing a distinctly jingoist course and that has stirred up “patriotic movements” of a quite dubious and even dangerous nature. In fact, one of the main driving forces behind the “Russian march” was the Movement Against Illegal Migration, which could sincerely claim that they were only seeking to implement the orders issued by the president (Gazeta.ru, November 4).
At the end of the day, the hotly debated and nervously anticipated demonstration of nationalist “unity” turned out to be a non-event. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko denied groups permission to stage “Russian marches” and promised to take all necessary measures against extremists who might try to disrupt public order (Ezhednevny zhurnal, November 3). A few thousand activists from various marginal groupings held small rallies in several places in downtown Moscow under the watchful eye of 7,800 policemen; some 560 “suspects” were detained but released by the evening (Newsru.com, November 5). Russia’s capital was spared any embarrassing street violence, but nothing in the alerted and heavily policed city resembled a national holiday.
In fact, only 12% of Russians, according to a Levada Center opinion poll, had planned to celebrate this holiday, while 23% remained faithful to the Great Revolution day and 58% preferred to abstain from any seasonal celebrations (Vedomosti, November 3). National Unity Day is by every account the least popular of the “new holidays,” primarily because the cause for celebration is so bizarre, even compared with the Yeltsin-era Russia Day (June 12) and Constitution Day (December 12). With all their PR skills, Putin’s courtiers cannot invent a plausible explanation for making their own red mark on the calendar, and so the initiative is left to nationalists who are eager to take the cause of “Russian unity” far further than the Kremlin is comfortable with.
This self-made trap reflects more than just an inability to assess even the immediate consequences of a “smart” initiative coming from the top of Putin’s colossal bureaucratic pyramid; it betrays a peculiar weakness at its ideological foundation. There is a very pronounced desire in the group of presidential minions to get rid of the democratic ideas of the 1990s, inconsistent as they were, and to paint this period as “dark days” of decay and chaos (Kommersant, November 3). For that matter, Putin did not say a word about the 15th anniversary of the August 1991 putsch and the chain of events that led to the birth of a new Russian state.
The new ideas about re-constituting state control and restoring Russia’s power and international prestige boil down to two simple points: Russia is very rich in energy resources and Putin is enormously popular among the electorate. The first point is increasingly undermined by the stagnation in the oil-and-gas sector and the looming winter energy shortages that trigger questions about the “sacred” export contracts. The second point sits well with the glorification of Russian traditions of highly centralized power, but it is inevitably punctured by Putin’s firmly announced intention to step down in spring 2008 as prescribed by the constitution. There is nothing else to leave as political base for the yet-unknown successor. The continuity of the regime is problematic, because nobody can tell what Putin’s Russia is about — except spending oil revenues.