By Jeffrey Tayler
Russia's event of the week was a television call-in show, in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spent nearly five hours fielding questions on many topics, including mass demonstrations demanding an end to his regime. His message to the protesters: Bring it.
In one telltale episode, Putin sought to turn the white ribbons that have become the protests' symbol into a crude joke. "When I saw those ribbons on screen," he remarked, "I thought this was anti-AIDS propaganda -- that they were, pardon me, contraceptives." Condoms, that is. "I just couldn’t understand why they were unfurled."
Putin recognized Russians’ right to assemble, but took an ominous swipe at demonstrators. Protests "must be carried out within the framework of the law. Often people run into injustice and they both can and should react. But it’s wrong and impermissible to be drawn into plans to destabilize the country” – which presumably, in his view, the protesters were plotting to do.
Putin still wields an impressive, though diminishing, lead over his three officially sanctioned rivals in presidential elections scheduled for March 2012. The Russian Public Opinion Research Center gives him 42 percent of the vote – eight points less than what he will need to prevail in the contest’s first round. Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov comes in a remote second, with 11 percent.
The polls do not cover the recently announced independent candidacy of nickel magnate (and New Jersey Nets owner) Mikhail Prokhorov. During the kick-off ceremony for his campaign, reported by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, the 46-year-old oligarch promised that “the first decision I’ll make will be a humane one, to pardon [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky," the former oil magnate jailed in 2003 on fraud charges widely regarded as politically motivated. Prokhorov also declared his willingness to abandon his famously colorful bachelor life for the sobering bonds of matrimony “if the country and my victory in the presidential elections require it.” It remains unclear exactly who would help him fulfill this high duty.
Putin's legitimate opposition is also having a hard time understanding what it means to get together. The newspaper Kommersant dashed hopes of a united front when it reported that the liberal Yabloko party would nominate as its presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran politician who isn't likely to gain broad support. Some party members had favored backing Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger with much wider appeal.
One other opposition figure, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, achieved notoriety when the website Lifenews.ru published obscenity-laden conversations apparently intercepted from his cell phone. In the recordings, which Nemtsov later said were partially accurate, he calls protesters “little hamsters” and “fearful penguins," and rips into opposition figures such as environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova and revered radio journalist Alexei Venediktov with language that would make a sailor blush.
Nemtsov quickly apologized in his Live Journal blog, and pointed out what most of his colleagues will accept as self-evident: The aim of the leaked conversations is "to disrupt the demonstration called for Dec. 24” and “sow discord” among opposition leaders. He remained defiant: “I’m convinced that the Kremlin scoundrels won’t manage to stop the rally on the 24th, and the departure of Putin along with the crooks and thieves” – that is, the ruling United Russia party – “is inevitable.” Nemtsov and Chirikova reconciled in front of television cameras.
All the political turbulence has been too much for investors, who pulled a net $214 million out of Russia during the week ended Dec. 14, according to the newspaper Vedomosti. That's up from $16 million the previous week. “There’s no doubt that this is payment for political risks,” the paper quoted an analyst at Alfa-Bank as saying.
President Dmitri Medvedev sought to calm investors by appointing a new finance minister: Anton Siluanov, a close ally of the widely respected former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who departed after a public spat with Medvedev over government spending. This may well be a clever way to allow Kudrin to exercise influence over fiscal policy, while letting Medvedev save a modicum of face. As the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets put it: "Who says" Kudrin himself "has to return to his old office? His faithful student can do that.”
Wherever the country's political turmoil leads, there will be fewer Russians to experience it. The Federal Service of Government Statistics reported last week that the country's population declined by 2.3 million in the eight years ending with 2010. Over the same period, 8,500 villages ceased to exist.
A shrinking population, growing political instability, a fragmented opposition, and increasing capital flight all augur ill for Russia’s New Year. In an op-ed for the Moscow Times, former parliamentary deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov placed blame squarely on “Putin and his corrupt clan,” who “have created a serious, crippling crisis of confidence in government and the political system as a whole.”
Ryzhkov issued an appeal: “Society must now do all it can to ensure that this crisis does not lead to the country's collapse.”
(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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