Russia's Opposition Headed for Trouble: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Russia's opposition, for all its efforts to remain peaceful, could be headed for a confrontation with authorities as the date of its next major demonstration draws near.

The Moscow municipal government rejected the opposition’s request to hold their protest march “For Honest Elections” as planned on Feb. 4, on the grounds that it would "disrupt the normal functioning of vital municipal services, create obstacles . . . for traffic, and violate the rights of citizens not taking part in the event,” according to a document published on an opposition Facebook page. The authorities proposed an alternative route starting at Luzhniki Stadium, far from the downtown venue the opposition announced weeks ago, and even suggested changing the day. More than 22,000 people have signed up on Facebook to attend the march, despite a forecast temperature of 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Opposition leaders are discussing the possibility of holding the march without a permit -- a move that may expose demonstrators to arrest and even violence. In his blog on the web site of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, the journalist Sergey Parkhomenko stated the grim truth: “Everything, of course, depends on the protestors themselves, on their courage, decisiveness, and sense of responsibility.”

Meanwhile, the opposition and the government are taking measures to ensure that presidential elections, scheduled for March 4, are free and fair -- or at least perceived as such. Last Wednesday, reported the Moscow Times, 16 prominent cybernauts announced the foundation of the League of Voters, which, acting as “a coordinating and advisory body for activists,” will “use the Internet to connect activists nationwide who are agitating for fair elections.” Firebrand anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny “was barred from being a member because of his stated presidential ambitions,” the article said. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swiftly responded by avowing his willingness to meet with the League, though he added that a number of its founders had refused dialogue with him in the past.

In a separate article, the Moscow Times announced the start of the authorities’ campaign to install webcams in every polling station throughout the country. “Skeptics say the camera initiative will fall far short as there are other ways to cheat.”

Elections can hardly be free and fair if the government prevents some politicians from taking part. Veteran liberal and presidential aspirant Grigory Yavlinsky found his application for candidacy rejected, wrote the newspaper Vedomosti. The Central Election Commission has disqualified as illegitimate 25.66 percent of the signatures his Yabloko party presented for registration in the upcoming polls. Yabloko will appeal the decision. Billionaire political neophyte Mikhail Prokhorov fared better and won the Commission’s approval to run. Thus, Putin will vie with Prokhorov, Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov, Just Russia’s Sergey Mironov, and Liberal Democratic Party chief Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the Kremlin throne.

Not all Russia’s oppositionists believe that Putin plans to falsify the polls. After meeting with him, Alexei Venediktov, Ekho Moskvy’s editor in chief, declared on air, in comments also carried by the web site Relevant Commentary, that “Putin needs elections that will be recognized as legitimate by all Russians,” adding that “the route to this leads through procedures and dialogue.” He noted, though, that Putin may only be prepared for dialogue with “the non-political opposition, the League of Voters.”

Putin has not deigned to recognize his fiercest political opponents, such as Navalny, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov and chess celebrity Garry Kasparov. But he has taken oblique swipes at them. In a lengthy article he published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and posted on his web site, the prime minister called mounting nationalism in Russia the chief danger to the state, and attributed it “directly to the break-up of the U.S.S.R. and, in essence, of the Greater Russia that had been formed all the way back in the 18th century.” The fall of the Soviet Union left Russia “on the brink of civil war, and in some well known regions” -- Chechnya, for example -- “beyond the brink,” in armed conflict. Given Russia’s multiethnic composition, Putin professed to be “deeply convinced that attempts to preach in favor of building a monoethnic Russian national state contradict our thousand-year history,” and would lead to “the destruction of the Russian people and Russian statehood.”

Putin's target was most likely Navalny, who “coined the phrase “Stop feeding the Caucasus” and has joined in several prominent nationalist rallies,” the Moscow Times noted. Navalny has had little trouble rallying Russians behind the flag. After all, “43 percent of Russians support the notion of 'Russia for Russians' and . . . xenophobic sentiment is on the rise.”

With emotions running high, and without a dialogue between the government and its most determined opponents, the countdown to a possibly violent clash has begun.

(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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-0- Jan/26/2012 14:50 GMT