By Jeffrey Tayler
Add one more imponderable mystery to Russia's collection: Just how many people showed up in central Moscow on Saturday to demonstrate against the government of Vladimir Putin?
Given the sub-zero temperature, anything more than a handful should be considered a victory, if only a provisional one, for the opposition. The newspaper Kommersant did the math: The Interior Ministry’s figure of between 33,000 and 34,000 sounded like a defeat, since more than 100,000 attended the last rally in late December. The paper then noted that the demonstration's organizers estimated attendance to be no fewer than 120,000, probably closer to the truth.
The discrepancies didn’t stop there. Supporters of Prime Minister Putin also braved the frost to rally under the banner “We Have Something to Lose.” They numbered 138,000 according to the Interior Ministry, while unofficial observers put the figure at no more than 35,000. In principle, the organizers could face a fine, because the number exceeded the 15,000 allowed in their permit. No worry: Putin announced to Interfax that “I’ll do my bit” to help pay the fine in the unlikely event that one should ever be levied.
A further question is how much the pro-government demonstrators actually believed in their cause. The opposition paper Novaya Gazeta described the travails of Yelena Travina, director of a youth center in Zelenograd, near Moscow. Travina, the story goes, ceded to school administration demands that she send her charges to the demonstration, but was released from her duties for complaining about it. Because the real reason for her dismissal would make the government look bad, she was officially fired for – what else? – coercing her students to attend.
At least some demonstrators showed up for money and more liquid forms of compensation, reported Irina Chevtayeva for Radio Liberty’s Russian service. Chevtayeva answered an ad promising transportation (by bus) to the event, five hundred rubles, sandwiches, a sign to carry (“We Won’t Let Anyone Weaken Russia!”) and even alcohol in return for spending two hours at the rally. She was not disappointed, though she reported that organizers made her and her fellows wait so long for payment that one irate “protester” threatened to complain to Putin.
The size of the opposition demonstration has clearly spooked the highest circles of government. Speaking at a security conference, President Dmitri Medvedev warned of looming “extremism” in the run-up to the March 4 presidential elections, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Medvedev called for the Federal Security Service to show vigilance and “nip in the bud possible provocations by extremists of all kinds.” He appeared to be referring to threats emanating from the mostly Muslim North Caucasus, but also mentioned dangers coming from the “informational sphere” – that is, the media. The article noted that authorities have called in the protest organizers for allegedly violating time limits stipulated in their permit.
Some protest organizers are receiving official invitations to meet with Medvedev on Feb. 20 at his residence outside Moscow, wrote the newspaper Vedomosti. The president apparently wants to inform them about new draft bills that would make it easier for opposition parties to register for parliamentary elections. The reforms would repeal the harsh 2005 law that has forbid or deregistered fifteen parties, including those led by ardent nationalist Eduard Limonov, liberal former member of parliament Vladimir Ryzhkov, and People’s Freedom chiefs Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing a “person close to the president’s administration,” described the meeting as the start of a dialogue between the government and the unofficial opposition. The newspaper's source doubted that hard-core opponents of the regime like Limonov or Sergey Udaltsov, coordinator of the radical Left Front, would be invited. The same source said the Kremlin’s intent was to get the opposition to legalize itself and “stop stirring up the people for no real reason.”
Will the oppositionists heed Medvedev’s call? Nemtsov told the paper that he had not received an invitation, but would not necessarily accept one in any case, since any separate negotiations would split the opposition’s ranks. Ryzhkov also said he had yet to be invited, but would go and tell the president of violations of people’s constitutional rights. Udaltsov considered the proposed legislation little more than a ruse to maintain the dominance of the major parties in power.
Things are getting ugly as the presidential vote draws near. The Moscow Times reported on the “unprecedented heaps of mud” being slung about, with the aim of discrediting and dividing the opposition. The methods include leaked emails and private phone conversations, allegedly compromising videos posted on YouTube, and skewed media reporting.
“When human rights activists and opposition representatives arrived at the U.S. Embassy for talks with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and new U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul on Jan. 17, they were met by a film crew that asked them why they had come,” the Moscow Times reported. Later a video of the encounter turned up on YouTube, entitled “Getting Instructions in the U.S. Embassy.”
The paper also reminded readers that “the anti-American spin was introduced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself, who in December accused the State Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of financing nongovernmental organizations that were aiding the protesters.” This time, Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist presidential candidate, took up the attack. Zhirnovsky “demanded that lawmakers be stripped of their seats for visiting the embassy of a country 'that is preparing a war against Russia.'”
With rhetoric already so venomous, one wonders whether Medvedev's peace offerings will actually materialize or go the way of the numerous reforms and initiatives he has proposed in vain since taking office four years ago.
(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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