Under Political Pressure, Putin Moves His Powerbase to the Kremlin

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 3

Protests in Moscow brought together unlikely allies (Source: AP)

A massive pro-democracy movement has emerged in Russia, bringing together all shades of political opposition from leftist Marxists to pro-Nazi nationalists. Still, the backbone of the protest rallies on December 10 on Bolotnaya Square (60,000 protesters) and the larger rally on December 24 on Sakharov Avenue (some 100,000) were not political activists, but middle-aged middle-class professionals, entrepreneurs and white collar employees. Only half of the Sakharov Avenue protesters were on Bolotnaya Square, and some 90 percent of them learned of the coming action from the Internet (Vedomosti, December 26).

After the rigged Duma parliamentary election on December 4, the mobilization of mass protests in the Moscow region was swift and efficient. Only 15.5 percent came to the Sakharov Avenue rally out of curiosity or along with friends. Over 70 percent say they are angered by electoral falsifications and frustrated “with the state of the country and the policies of the government,” while more than 40 percent are disillusioned by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev’s failed promises of “modernization” (Vedomosti, December 26).

The vast majority of Russians have been disenfranchised by the corrupt kleptocratic petro-state built by Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a third six year presidential term. Putin’s state propaganda machine has been selling the Russian public a narrative about stability and prosperity. In fact only Putin’s henchmen, clientele and state-appointed oligarchs enjoy stability and prosperity, while the populace is at the mercy of corrupt police, security officials and judiciary. The economy is faltering, taxes are growing and a tight network of extortion has covered the nation, forcing practically everyone to pay off. Putin’s United Russia party “of thieves and crooks” did not win a majority at the polls on December 4, but through massive fraud has taken control of the Duma. The vote rigging initiated the mass pro-democracy movement, but the movement soon picked Putin as its archenemy.   

The protests are centered in Moscow, though smaller rallies have been held in other Russian cities. The pro-democracy movement is a self-organized community of Internet social network users led by an often bickering rally organizing committee. Putin has indicted the protesters for lacking a common leadership or ideological platform, though acknowledging the people have genuine grievances (http://premier.gov.ru/events/news/17531/, December 28). Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists the protesters represent a minority of Russians (Ekho Moskvy, December 25).

Does Putin in turn represent the majority? Attempts by the authorities to organize credible mass pro-Putin demonstrations in Moscow and in provincial cities last month, have been unimpressive. Even if the authorities manage to organize bigger pro-Putin rallies by bussing in supporters from other cities, using pay incentives and coercion, the possible clash of tens of thousands of rival crowds in Moscow would only cause havoc in the capital already infested by terrific traffic jams. Moscow is the nerve center of Russia – its administrative, military, security, law enforcement, finance and transport networks. If downtown is paralyzed, if ministries, banks and oil corporations’ headquarters become dysfunctional, Putin may lose control not only in Moscow, but in the entirety of Russia.

The danger seems to be understood. Putin’s main objective before the presidential elections on March 4 is to avoid any serious direct confrontation, to placate and split the opposition by offering concessions that do not change the essence of the ruling kleptocracy and that may be easily withdrawn after Putin gains legitimacy by re-election.

Medvedev in his last annual address to both houses of parliament has called for reforms that may make it easier to register opposition parties and candidates in future Duma and presidential elections scheduled for December 2016 and March 2018. Medvedev has called for the creation of a public TV channel that may reflect opposition opinions, restoring the public election of provincial governors and additional anti-corruption measures (www.kremlin.ru, December 22).

The proposals seem to be deliberately vague and their introduction is postponed to the distant future – too little and too late to placate the growing pro-democracy movement. Russians want Putin and his cohorts out of power now, not in the distant future. The new Duma is seen as illegitimate, elected through fraud and any reform it approves will be suspicious.

Putin has promised the March presidential elections will be “fair” and offered to introduce web cameras at all polling stations. It was later announced that less than 60 percent of the approximately 95,000 polling stations in Russia may be equipped with web cameras before March, at the cost of some $500 million (Kommersant, December 22). Since most electoral fraud happens during the vote counting and, apparently, the same officials that rigged the vote on December 4 will run the presidential election, Putin’s planned re-election will be anything, but just and fair.

A hard-line Putin loyalist Vyacheslav Volodin has been moved to the Kremlin as first deputy chief of administration, replacing Vladislav Surkov, who controlled Russian TV channels and internal politics from behind the scenes since Putin became prime minister in August 1999. Surkov’s longtime strategy of splitting and disabling political opposition to Putin using bribes, provocation and propaganda utterly failed last month with the emergence of a mass anti-Putin protest movement. Surkov has been appointed deputy prime minister responsible for coordinating scientific and satellite positioning (GLONASS) modernization programs (Interfax, December 27). It has been reported that Surkov was for some time seeking a new appointment that could allow him to control massive government spending programs and be entitled to big money paybacks as a reward for long years of service hunting down Putin’s political enemies (http://top.rbc.ru/politics/27/12/2011/632016.shtml).

Volodin – a non-decadent political thug – is now in control of the United Russia party machine and Putin’s re-election campaign. Reportedly, Volodin will be sending out orders to provincial governors to drum up the popular vote on March 4 to bring in over 50 percent nationwide, ensuring Putin’s re-election “without doubt” in the first round. Such a scam can only be achieved through massive fraud (www.gazeta.ru, December 28).

After Putin secures his re-election, his only option is to terrorize the inevitable public backlash by aggressive political repression, imprisoning activists and opposition leaders. It seems Putin is building a team that may do the job. In addition to Volodin, Putin has moved to the Kremlin as chief of staff his old-time KGB buddy, former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. But the inherent “splintered” nature of the diverse and “headless” pro-democracy movement may help it to eventually prevail in the coming showdown: a network of hundreds of thousands cannot be disabled by exemplary arrests.