By Jeffrey Tayler
Vladimir Putin may be down, but don't count him out.
In the wake of Russia's largest anti-government demonstrations in two decades, the popularity of the country's prime minister and leading presidential candidate is, by some accounts, rising. As of January 14, Putin’s rating -- that is, the percentage of votes he would receive in immediate elections, according to the respected Russia Public Opinion Research Center -- stood at 52 percent, up from 45 percent in late December. Communist Leader Gennady Zyuganov, Putin's most formidable opponent, came in a distant second, at 11 percent. Veteran liberal Grigory Yavlinsky garnered only 1 percent.
“It turns out that the mass December demonstrations have paradoxically led to an increase in the popularity of the politician" whom protestors "told people not to vote for under any circumstances," announced the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Putin is trying to make his case directly to the people. While voicing a willingness, at least in principle, to enter into a dialogue with the opposition, the prime minister won’t be participating in pre-electoral debates with those officially permitted to run against him, said a “highly placed source” cited by Moskovsky Komsomolets. (He may, however, dispatch “representatives” to do the task for him.) Instead, in a letter published on his web site, he reminded his cyber audience that when he took the reins of power in 1999, Russia was “living through the shock of the Soviet Union’s dissolution and degradation” as well as the first separatist war in Chechnya. “We had to mobilize all our resources to climb out of that hole,” Putin wrote, noting that many have forgotten how difficult a job that was. He then sought to take ownership of the protest movement, declaring that “exactly that forgetfulness and society’s readiness to apply the highest standards in quality of life and democracy are the best proof of our success.”
In an op-ed for the Moscow Times, Victor Davidoff sought to assess the reaction in the readers' response section of Putin's web site. He observed that “the political comments are roughly evenly divided between polar points of view,” though Putin-averse remarks tended to disappear or show up at the bottom of the list. On top were “proposals to ban foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations, return the death sentence and shut down a number of television channels, including MTV.”
The ruling elite's own cognitive dissonance was on display in the public comments of Yuri Chaika, the country's prosecutor general. In an interview with the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Chaika claimed that unnamed actors were financing the unofficial opposition movement “from beyond Russia’s borders” and “using people as tools to achieve their unscrupulous political objectives.” Soon afterward, though, Chaika presented President Dmitri Medvedev with a dossier stating that “approximately three thousand violations of electoral law have been uncovered” – relating to December’s elections to the State Duma, widely regarded as rigged – and ninety-five people have been “brought to account administratively,” with investigations continuing, according to Interfax. Thus, Chaika has both validated demonstrators’ concerns and implied that they are dupes of a paid opposition.
Meanwhile, the opposition is hardening its tone. On pik.tv, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov warned that the government should negotiate now or face a “people’s uprising” this coming spring. At the same time, Udaltsov raised his stature and credibility by persuading Zyuganov to promise a raft of reforms sought by the demonstrators in the (unlikely) event that he should win the presidency. The Moscow Times reported that their eleven-point agreement included amending the constitution “to transfer power from the executive to the legislative branch,” “free and fair Duma elections in 2013,” and an “end to unofficial censorship of the media.” The paper noted that the agreement is “the first concrete merger between street protesters and leaders of the so-called ‘established opposition,’ who have neither appeared at the protests nor previously embraced their demands.”
Former State Duma deputy and inveterate oppositionist Vladimir Ryzhkov, in an op-ed for the Moscow Times, presented a detailed exposition of just what the protestors want. The authorities must “immediately release all political prisoners” (as listed on Politzeky.ru) and those who were deliberately incarcerated on trumped-up charges, as well as “tens of thousands of innocent businesspeople who were convicted on fabricated charges after their businesses were seized by corrupt government officials.” They must also “dismantle the police state, eliminate politically motivated prosecutions and respect fundamental human rights.”
Ryzhkov reminded readers that “Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhironovsky, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin have all demanded that the Dec. 4 elections be annulled,” meaning fresh elections to the State Duma must be called. Other demands: the dismissal of Vladimir Churov, the head of the Central Elections Commission, and criminal investigations into instances of alleged fraud.
Ryzhkov called political reforms proposed by Medvedev “incomplete and superficial,” and warned that even if they were enacted, “fundamental obstacles to the holding of democratic elections at all levels would remain. These include the barring of election monitors and representatives of civil society from polling places, the widespread use of so-called administrative resources, media censorship and the frequent bans on political rallies and demonstrations.”
(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)
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