Moscow Prepares for a Weekend of Rallies: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Russia's protest movement faces a major test this weekend, as Moscow plays host to a cacophony of competing demonstrations. The greatest danger: Signs of fatigue among the tens of thousands who have been calling since early December for free and fair elections.

The main event, a march organized by the group "For Honest Elections," got the green light in an eleventh-hour deal struck last week. City authorities allowed the event to go ahead as planned on Feb. 4, moving along a route that will terminate with a meeting on Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow. The weather forecast has also improved: Temperatures may hit relatively balmy highs in the teens or twenties Fahrenheit. The oppositionists have a war chest of two to three million rubles to cover expenses for the stages, “toilets, and other amenities,” including “vehicles with loudspeakers," opposition politician Boris Nemtsov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Organizers are expecting a turnout of about 50,000 -- less than half the number of the last rally on Dec. 24.

All might not go smoothly. A “provocation” may disrupt the march, wrote the same paper, citing Communist Party official Yevgeni Dorovin. Rival movements and state-owned companies will be staging various counter-rallies in favor of the embattled Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leading candidate in presidential election scheduled for March 4. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, ultranationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic party and perennial presidential hopeful, will muster his own mass meeting under the banner “For an Honest and Fair Democracy” in the city center on the same day, according to The Moscow Times. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has appointed the reputedly hawkish Alexei Mayorov as chief of regional security -- a move that could bode ill for demonstrators should trouble break out.

Demonstrators accustomed to deploying social networks are concerned about Twitter’s declaration that it possesses the ability to block tweets on a country-specific basis. Journalist Oleg Kozyrev, in his Live Journal blog, called the company’s decision “a bow to local dictators.” Independent social networks are a crucial tool for the opposition, given the state of mass media in Russia. Reporters Without Borders now ranks Russia beneath Zimbabwe in terms of media freedom.

Protestors are using whatever means available to ridicule the ruling elite. On Wednesday, activists briefly managed to hang a giant yellow and black banner with the slogan "Putin, Leave!" directly across from the Kremlin, reported the opposition newspaper The New Times. Nonetheless, Putin still leads the pack of officially sanctioned presidential candidates: He would win 52 percent of the vote if elections were held this Sunday, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center. That might not be enough to win outright in the first round of voting, a reality Putin himself now concedes. “I understand that a second round is possible in accordance with legislation in effect,” Ria Novosti quoted Putin as saying. "There’s nothing terrible in that. I’m ready for it.”

Current president Dmitri Medvedev is holding up less well. Rather than a lame duck, “he's a dead duck," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, in the Moscow Times. The newspaper reviewed Medvedev’s once ambitious agenda, which began “in 2008 with high hopes for the creation of a ‘modernized’ Russia. No area of life was to go untouched: He would tackle corruption, modernize the economy, open up the political system, streamline the country's bloated bureaucracy and even get Russians to live healthier lives.” Little actually happened. The diarchy’s September announcement of their intention to switch roles “sparked a furious reaction among many voters, who felt their powerlessness over the political process was being rubbed in their faces. Adding insult to injury, Putin said the decision was made well in advance, giving credence to the suspicion that Medvedev had been a puppet all along.” Even Medvedev’s proposed concession to the protest movement, the return of gubernatorial elections, is now in jeopardy.

Medvedev is increasingly a burden to Putin, fueling speculation that the latter might choose a different prime minister if and when he becomes president. Stanislav Govorukhin, Putin’s campaign manager, suggested in an interview with the newspaper Izvestiya that Medvedev could be doing more to help Putin win reelection -- a notion that Putin’s press secretary sought to downplay.

Alexei Bayer, in an op-ed for the Moscow Times, counseled caution as the Feb. 4 demonstration approaches. “If the weather stays cold, if the sense of euphoria engendered by the earlier protests wears out — or if Muscovites, who have children, families and jobs, and face all the usual pressures of middle-class life, suffer a bout of protest fatigue — the number of participants may fall short of the rally on Prospekt Sakharova on Dec. 24.” This would constitute a defeat for the opposition, "corroborating the Kremlin's claim that the protest movement doesn't represent the country.”

In Bayer’s view, the opposition should do what it has still not done: “quietly solidify its gains by building political parties and a broad alliance of opponents to the regime. It should draft a set of demands, develop a strategy for the March 4 election and beyond, and build a network of political organizers and election monitors around the country.”

(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- Feb/03/2012 19:35 GMT