My first impression after talking to Moscow residents is that the protests that erupted in Russia as a reaction to the rigged Duma election were a great surprise to not only the government but also to the people themselves.
Russia has always had manipulated elections, but even the first rally on Bolotnaya Square attracted tens of thousands of outraged people who demanded Vladimir Putin’s resignation and a new and fair election. These demands united the motley bunch that is the current Russian opposition. On December 24, the rally on Sakharov Avenue attracted nearly 120,000 people. Moscow has not seen protests this large since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was about to fall apart.
What this rebellion of “office hamsters,” as Boris Nemtsov described the Moscow protests, will lead to is anyone's guess, but the Russian opposition says that if “things are done right, we’ll be OK.” Strangely, the majority of those who have taken to the streets, including the opposition leaders, are mortally afraid of a revolution and in no way want to resort to radical actions – at least they do not say anything of the kind out loud. They hope to force authorities into concessions in an exclusively peaceful way through mass protests. “A revolution? God forbid!”; “We have had our share of revolutions. Enough is enough,” they reply every time when asked about whether they are ready for more radical action.
So the slogan “Putin, go away!” and variations on this theme are a kind of banner for the Russian protesters and are likely to remain a mere slogan for a long time to come. Most of those who are discontent are perfectly aware that Putin will not go away on his own. And it turns out that in Russia, the people fear a revolution and will avoid it like the plague.
Even the most radical members of the opposition do not risk threatening the Kremlin with anything more specific than popular anger. Everyone is hoping to change the situation peacefully by staging increasingly large rallies and putting pressure on the leadership. Nevertheless, the things that are happening now in Moscow seem unreal. It is very unlike the contemporary Russia we have known.
Most protesters who came to the December 24 rally rejoiced over the very fact that there was a protest, that it was not banned and that so many people joined in. To them, it was nothing more than a natural way to protest and voice their outrage over justice. They do not know what to do next and hope to hear that from their leaders. The feelings of many of them fall into a few common themes: “I have come here like everyone else to protest against my vote being stolen”; “I'm not supporting anyone at the moment”; “I don't see a candidate among the opposition leaders that I would want to cast my ballot for”; “I hope that a candidate will soon emerge.”
So far people are cherishing hope. They cannot say for certain what they want, but they know exactly what they cannot stand any longer – lies, contempt and Putin. Russian writer Boris Akunin, who has energetically supported the protest movement since its inception, offered The Ukrainian Week an apt description of the current state of affairs: “This is a wave. It has risen. It may have whatever crest and foam on top, but a wave is a wave, and it will continue to rise.”
However, the question is who will be this foam, because the strength of the protest movement will hinge on its spearhead. None of the opposition leaders has so far risked announcing his desire to take charge.
One of the most vivid figures among the protesters is blogger Alexey Navalny, who has become something of a celebrity. He is supported by the bulk of Internet users, who actually make up the core of the protests, as well as by the older generation. Judging from the way the crowd reacts to speakers on the platform, Navalny is the most respected figure among current and would-be opposition leaders, because his name has not been, unlike many others, smeared with compromising material. He is fairly radical, but he does not risk crossing the line in his radicalism. Answering a question about what the opposition could do if the government rejected its demands, Navalny said with nearly no emotion: “We will continue to come out until our demands are fulfilled. I am absolutely convinced that outraged, although peaceful, people will be pressing their demands with increasing urgency. I believe that everyone understands that it is no longer possible to use force. The government is already afraid of all this. They cannot simply disperse or imprison all of these people.”
Ill-wishers in the crowd immediately quip that Navalny is one of the Kremlin's projects, while supporters counter that the Kremlin simply failed to see how he rose to prominence, and now it will not risk putting him back into his place.
Navalny may be right. Watching the protesters, one senses that Russian society may have crossed the Rubicon of fear and is no longer afraid of its government. At one point, Putin stopped being an idol and turned into a laughing stock. People are not afraid of openly mocking him, and this speaks volumes. Traditional Russian awe before “God-given authority” has gone out of the window.
In any case, the current protest leaders will have to change their tactics and strategy with time, because the scale and outcome of the protests depend on it. Putin has already said that the Duma election results will not be reviewed and he is not going anywhere, adding unambiguously that he does not consider the protesters to be human beings. The future of the protests still depends on the Kremlin’s reaction strategy. Akunin does not rule out “the danger that all of this may turn into a revolution, but this will only happen if the government tries to act in an idiotic and aggressive way. Then anything could happen.”
RUSSIAN MEMBERS OF THE OPPOSITION SPEAK THEIR MINDS
Dmitry Bykov, writer:
There are far fewer differences between men and women than between libertards and faschizoids. Nevertheless, somehow we managed to overcome mutual preconceived ideas and life on earth continues thanks to that. I believe that it will be the same here.
Ilya Yashyn, one of the leaders of the Solidarnost (Solidarity) Movement:
There are many historical examples when the government was intent on ruling for a long time but was forced to step down under pressure from society. There are some very recent examples: in November 2010, Hosni Mubarak’s party won 80% in the so-called election in Egypt, but in February he was already in a prison medical center.
Alexey Navalny, blogger:
Why are so many people taking to the streets? Because so many voices have been stolen, at least half a million in Moscow alone. The corruption is evident. The fraud is evident. It was committed so brazenly that it was no longer possible to tolerate. I believe that no less than 150,000 people came out today in this subzero temperature. Even if it were 20 degrees below zero, the same number would show up. I am sure that one million will soon protest. I believe that everyone understands that it is no longer possible to use force. The government is already afraid of all this. [All these people] cannot be either dispersed or imprisoned.
Boris Akunin, writer:
We are in a completely new situation. I don't even know what it can be compared to in world history. It is something very positive. You can tear down what is being built in the top-down fashion, but it is impossible to tear down what is growing from the bottom up. The top may be changed with time. But this is a wave and it has risen. It may have whatever crest and foam on top, but a wave is a wave, and it will continue to rise.
Mikhail Kasyanov, ex-premier and leader of the People’s Democratic Union:
Society must refuse to cooperate with authorities and no longer buy all of these lies that are now being invented. Some people have said in the past several days: “Do you see how the authorities are reacting? Do you want to humiliate the government?” No, we want it to keep face, and we want the demands of Russian citizens to be fulfilled. And these demands are very simple: put the situation back on the constitutional track. Free and fair elections are a key to solving all problems. All the rest will be decided automatically if the main thing is there – free elections controlled by civil society.
Garry Kasparov, the leader of the United Civil Front:
The protest movement in the country is certain to grow. Of course, there may be declines, but the vector is one – people do not want to have this regime; they don't want to have Putin. So as long as the main irritant is there, the sentiments will not go away. People are demanding a stop to being treated like cattle. But what lies in the very foundation of Putin's regime is utter disregard for public opinion. So, the conflict cannot be resolved in the framework of this confrontation. Either society must be completely trampled underfoot – which I think is impossible – or Putin must step down.
Viktor Shenderovich, political writer:
At some point, moral demands must become political. If your higher-ups have been spitting in your face and walking all over you, a sense of human dignity suddenly becomes political. We are seeing now how this moral sense is transforming into a political one before our eyes. Of course, everything depends on numbers, because as we can see, these men in the Kremlin and the White House in Moscow have a hard time understanding words, but they are quick to grasp numbers. They are already prepared to bring back elections and other things. They have started fidgeting, because — pardon my outrage —they sense they are being confronted by the people. In a historical sense, Putin is, of course, going away. I won’t tell you where – it was written on that sign over there – but he is already gone.
Boris Nemtsov, leader of PARNAS:
They (government representatives – author) come across as a kind of provocateurs in this thing. Moreover, they are also violating the Criminal Code and the Constitution, but they couldn’t care less, of course. They wanted to disrupt our rally and play the opposition forces against each other. You have grasped everything about the rally, and now, concerning the opposition, you will see that everyone will be speaking together and in unison. They are mortally afraid of people – peaceful and calm people at that. They are trying to break the waves of protest with promises to reform election legislation. But we do not believe their promises. We do not trust a word they say.
Alexei Kudrin, ex-Finance Minister:
I, too, am dissatisfied with the election results, in particular with the fairness of the procedure. I, too, believe that an additional count is needed to identify where violations and falsification occurred. The guilty must be punished without stopping short of criminal persecution in line with law. [Head of the Central Election Commission Vladimir] Churov has lost credibility and must resign. A person who has everyone's trust should take his office, all the more so before the next election.
WHO IS WHO
Where did Kudrin come from?
The Kremlin seems to have decided to avoid violence and instead allow protesters let off their steam by striking a deal. Some of Russian opposition members do not rule out that Alexei Kudrin, ex-Finance Minister and Putin’s close friend, was dispatched to the opposition rally on Sakharov Avenue for this precise purpose. His main message to the protesters was fairly simple: We need to make a list of our demands, sit at the negotiating table and urge the government to fulfil them. Kudrin said he was prepared to help make this happen by being a bridge between the government and the opposition.