Kremlin’s Concessions Don’t Appease Russia’s Opposition: Jeffrey Tayler
The protest movement, born from outrage over apparently manipulated parliamentary elections earlier this month, has gained both momentum and magnitude across Russia. The ruling tandem is taking note and, without admitting it, making concessions.
In his Dec. 22 state of the nation address, President Dmitri Medvedev, looking tired and pale, spoke in conciliatory tones. “I understand those who talk about the necessity of changes, I understand them,” he said. Medvedev then outlined measures for the decentralization of power, including reinstating gubernatorial elections (abolished by Vladimir Putin in 2004 and replaced with direct Kremlin appointments), easing of restrictions on political parties, and reducing the number of signatures aspirants to the presidency must gather to register their candidacy. Surprisingly, and without a hint of irony, he also declared that “The modernization of the political system has made it more effective . . . We have stimulated political competition.”
“Too little and too late,” responded the Moscow Times. Analysts quoted in the Dec. 23 article agreed, however, that “The pledged reforms . . . do matter for Medvedev's own political future and signal his ambition to remain a policymaker after he swaps seats with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin next year” – precisely the turn of events the protest movement is determined to forestall.
But Vladimir Burmatov, a State Duma deputy and member of the ruling United Russia party, told the Moscow Times that the president’s address was satisfactory, opining that, "there's nothing left for participants of the rally” -- scheduled for Dec. 24 -- “to do other than go to the square with portraits of Medvedev and 'yes' spelled on them in big red capital letters."
That’s not exactly what happened. As many as 200,000 people showed up at the demonstration in central Moscow over the weekend to protest the Dec. 4 election results and demand the resignation of both Medvedev and his mentor, Prime Minister Putin. The business-oriented daily Kommersant reported that attending the event were “people with white balloons, ribbons, and packets of condoms” – the latter intended as a sly rebuke to Putin, who ridiculed the ribbons, symbols of peaceful dissent, as “contraceptives” during a recent telethon.
Speakers were many and varied, and those who spoke against the regime while maintaining ties to it were hissed and booed. Popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny delivered an impassioned speech in which he warned the powers that be (“cowardly little jackals,” in his phrasing) that the assembled crowd could storm the Kremlin. “We here are the power! We will bring a million people onto the streets of Moscow!”
Fieriest of all was Sergei Udaltsov, the detained leader of the leftist group Vanguard of the Red Youth. Via a video that was broadcast to the protesters, he mocked the “tandem dwarves” and called for cancellation of the election results. Kommersant noted that although the demonstration passed without incident, a group of presumably pro-Putin “nationalists” tried (and failed) to storm the stage, prompting the organizers to call for police help, which never came.
Putin, according to RIA Novosti, took a hard line in response to one of the protesters’ key demands -- the cancellation of the election results. “There can be no discussion,” he said, “of revising [election results] except as is prescribed by law: going to court.” He dismissed the possibility of further dialogue on the matter: “Elections to the State Duma are over. All parliamentary parties have begun their work, and they’ve elected a speaker. The Duma is functioning.” Yet he then declared, surprisingly, that “we have to get discussions going on the Internet and listen to people.”
The business daily Vedomosti relayed his words regarding the upcoming presidential polls, scheduled for March 2012; they must be “transparent, comprehensible, and objective. . . I as a candidate don’t need any sort of manipulation [of election results]. We have to eliminate completely any possible insinuation” to that effect. Putin shrugged off the opposition: “It lacks a united program, it has no clear and understandable ways of achieving its aims, which are unclear, and it doesn’t have people who could do anything concrete.”
Yet changes continue to be made, or at least proposed. According to the same paper, Medvedev has relieved longtime Kremlin insider Vladislav Surkov of his duties as first deputy of his administration, essentially removing him from politics, and made him deputy prime minister for modernization and innovation. Surkov founded the pro-Putin youth group Nashi and originated the phrase “sovereign democracy” to describe the highly centralized system of government he helped Putin devise.
Not that this has anything to do with the protests that have vilified him. Surkov remarked that, “Rather a long time ago I asked the leadership to give me the possibility to start a new life with the New Year. They understood me, for which I thank them.”
In an interview with the official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, State Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin also downplayed the notion that the “reforms” outlined by Medvedev were related to the demonstrations. “I know that the president and [Putin] discussed these [reforms] some time ago.”
Veteran opposition journalist Yulia Latynina had a different take. In an incisive op-ed for the Moscow Times, she voiced strong doubts that “the lame duck president's proposed reforms will be implemented.” She asked, “how much weight do they carry coming from a person whose name neither Prime Minister Vladimir Putin nor the opposition has so much as mentioned even once in recent weeks? Moreover, Medvedev has never fulfilled a single promise he has made.”
However, Latynina’s main point might surprise those who see the Kremlin as intransigent. She wrote, “It's not the protesters who take signals from the U.S. State Department” -- as Putin claimed. “It's the Kremlin. They might be angry and gnashing their teeth at what they hear, but in the end they follow the West's cues.” To safeguard their assets parked abroad they need to engage in a semblance of democratic reform at home.
But only a semblance. Latynina continued:
To ensure a Putin victory in March, it will be necessary to rig the election. Every government official will take an active part in the fraud to win points with Putin, and the governors know that if they don't secure the "correct" number of votes for the national leader, Putin will blame them for his electoral defeat.
The whole future of the now-awakened civil society will depend on its ability to catch officials red-handed and prove their crimes to the world. The opposition must build an organization that will fully document election violations in the same way that Navalny's RosPil web site exposes government corruption and theft.
If the opposition cannot manage to accomplish this, Latynina warned, “the elections will be won by whichever of the two [sides] has the most money and resources — that is, the Kremlin.”
(Jeffrey Tayler is the 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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