Hope, Facebook and Fear in Russia: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

The mass demonstrations held Saturday to protest manipulation of Russia's parliamentary elections achieved something even greater than a turnout of some 50,000 in Moscow: They showed that rebellion doesn’t have to involve violence.

The peaceful outcome surely owed something to marchers’ preparedness to deal with often heavy-handed riot police. Writing for the opposition online paper The New Times, journalist Olga Romanova offered a detailed “User’s Guide for Protestors.” Once detained, she advised, “don’t resist. Relax and yield to the arresting officers, put your chin to your chest and cover your head with your arms. . . . Politely confirm the ranks and last names of the policemen. Don’t shout, argue or threaten." Crucially, “don’t say you just happened to be walking by” and got caught in the protest, “or they could slap you with the charge of hooliganism." Instead, she counseled people to state clearly that they came to protest, "to attend a meeting that was lawfully announced beforehand," straightforward counsel for a generation too young to be daunted by the Soviet legacy of fear and repression.

The Moscow Times also published helpful pointers for foreigners who get caught up in the unrest: For example, don’t greet “a division of cops armed to the teeth and in full riot gear” with the Russian for "Hello! How are you?"

Saturday's meeting resulted in a list of demands, according to RBC.ru: Cancel the results of last week's parliamentary elections, allow genuine opposition parties to register and investigate all instances of vote rigging. President Dmitri Medvedev posted his disagreement with demonstrators' slogans on his Facebook page, but recognized Russians’ right to gather freely and express themselves. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda relayed his promise to investigate the causes of their discontent: “I have given the order that all reports concerning the observance of electoral law” -- that is, alleged violations – “from polling stations be checked out.”

One repercussion: In a surprise move, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chose the All-Russian People’s Front (and not United Russia) as his principle campaign vehicle for next year’s presidential polls, Moskovsky Komsomolets reported. Also, Mikhail Prokhorov, the 46-year-old nickel magnate and New Jersey Nets owner, blogged his bid for the top position: “This is the most serious decision in my life. I’m going to run for president.”

Prokhorov -- who last May joined, and then quickly abandoned, the largely pro-Kremlin Right Cause Party -- garnered some cautious support from a Russian and foreign business community shaken by the return of street politics to Russia and a corresponding drop in financial markets, according to the Moscow Times. But “there is no sign that the Russian blogosphere, where the recent protest originated, shares the businessmen's enthusiasm.” Net scribes are proffering their “immense support” to anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, still in jail after being detained during the first protest on Dec. 5, the Moscow Times reported. “Further complicating Prokhorov's potential support base is the opaque relationship between [his] business associations and the current regime,” to say nothing of his remark, made a few days earlier, that there was “no alternative” to Putin.

A group supporting another presidential candidate, radical ultra-nationalist Eduard Limonov, had to get registered in the street. Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that the Hotel Izmailovo, where the group had planned to stage its registration, suddenly decided that the relevant meeting room was closed for renovations.

How will the ruling regime ultimately react? Aside from hacker attacks on election day, the areas of the Internet where protestors gather remain open. Social-networking site Vkontakte, Russia's version of Facebook, bravely rejected a request from the Federal Security Service to shut down groups calling for revolution, according to the Moscow Times. Blogger and cyber-pioneer Anton Nosik said he does not expect the authorities to “act Mubarak-style,” but noted: "If they decide they do not want the Internet, it will be gone tomorrow."

In an op-ed for the Moscow Times, political analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center attempted to dissuade those prematurely inclined to celebrate the Putin era’s passing. “As the Kremlin's soft approach to Saturday's rally on Bolotnaya [Square] demonstrates,” she wrote, “it decided to imitate dialogue with the people, pretending that it was listening to their demands.” But parliamentary polls were just “a trial run” for the presidential contest, which, she warned, “will be even dirtier.” She pointed out the government’s ominous 33-percent increase in funds (over the next two years) for the siloviki, or security agencies, which she believes will be tasked with suppressing the inevitable reaction.

"A confrontation between the ruling authorities and the people might be nearly impossible to avoid," she wrote. "Can the pragmatists within the government unite in time to avoid this confrontation? Or are they already too late?"

(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.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.

-0- Dec/15/2011 22:22 GMT