Russia’s Smouldering 'White Revolution'

The Putin regime has little to fear from the latest public protests which, despite drawing large crowds, are apolitical. True politics will only become possible in Russia when both the opposition and the regime focus on the tedious work of practical politics, says Nicolai N. Petro in his highly personal view of recent events.

Kudos are due to both the Russian police and opposition leaders for having managed the second successful mass protest in Moscow without incident and in an appropriately festive spirit. After the Christmas eve demonstration in Sakharov square, the crowd was told that the next protest meeting would be held some time in February since, obviously, nobody wants to disrupt the extended Russian winter holidays which last well into January. By February, presumably, holiday cheer will have subsided and it will be time for another manifestation of civic outrage. As Putin quipped during his televised Q&A with the nation, if these protests are a product of 'the Putin regime,' he is only too happy to take credit for them.

'Protest of the satiated'

All this mock civility suggests just how smoldering this 'protest of the satiated,' to use journalist Andrei Kolesnikov’s memorable phrase, truly is. The opposition and the regime are shadow boxers in a co-dependent relationship. They joust, they jab, yet they also need each other to survive.

Sakharov_Square_Meeting

The organizers of the Moscow rally estimated the number of participants from 100 000 to 120,000. Nationalist, liberal and communist groups and activists could be seen there but the main part of the crowd was Moscow's educated middle class.(Photo: azovblog.ru)

For now, at least, the Putin regime is quite comfortable with such protests. First, because they are an argument for pushing through the reforms that president Dmitry Medvedev has been promoting these past four years.

‘...the only thing that the protesters seem to have in common is a deep loathing for all things political, including all political leaders and all political parties. This contempt is not reserved just for Putin and United Russia. It assails the very notion of politics as careful social management or, to use Max Weber’s words, as 'the strong and slow boring of hard boards, managed with both passion and perspective.’

 Almost overnight Medvedev was able to produce  proposals that vastly simplified procedures for registering political parties and reintroduced gubernatorial elections, making it is clear that these initiatives had been in the pipeline for quite some time and could be 'pulled off the shelf' at a moment's notice.  

Far from objecting to these rallies, as the Kremlin’s former chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov explained to the newspaper Izvestia, the regime expects to benefit from them. By demonstrating that 'even strong turbulence is . . . but a variant of stability,' Russia can show that it is as resilient as any traditional democracy. In fact, the government and the opposition actually share the same values, which is why the government is doing everything in its power to recapture 'the moral high ground' by fostering 'renewed, open, honest political institutions that people can understand.' If public discontent were to be quelled by force, it would play into the hands of the opponents of modernization, but so would political apathy. What reformers in the Kremlin want, therefore, is an impressive, but peaceful, display of civic activism that puts continued pressure on recalcitrant bureaucrats. Surkov then went out of his way to thank the protesters for demonstrating such initiative. 'If you think strategically,' he says, 'and listen to the minority, you will find tomorrow’s leaders among them.”'1] 

While Surkov’s reasoning is clearly self-serving, there is another reason why the regime is at ease with the current protests—they pose no threat to the regime because they lack any actionable political agenda.

Take a look at the five demands of the opposition: immediate freedom for all political prisoners and 'those unfairly convicted,' revocation of the last election results, the firing of the head of the Central Election Commission, the registration of 'all opposition parties' by February, and the holding of 'new, open, and fair elections.' Each demand sounds reasonable, but could only be imposed by fiat. And since these demands are specifically tailored to suit the opposition, it would undermine any semblance of impartiality on the part of government institutions. This is the exact opposite of the rule of law that Russia needs.

Yet it could hardly be otherwise, for the only thing that the protesters seem to have in common is a deep loathing for all things political, including all political leaders and all political parties. This contempt is not reserved just for Putin and United Russia. It assails the very notion of politics as careful social management or, to use Max Weber’s words, as 'the strong and slow boring of hard boards, managed with both passion and perspective.' [2] 

This indictment, by the way, comes not from one of Putin’s cronies, but from Nikita Belykh, the former head of the Union of Right Forces, who resigned in 2008 rather than see the party become a Kremlin 'project.' He later accepted President Medvedev’s offer to become governor of the Kirov region. Two years in government, he says, have opened his eyes to a lot of things, including the paternalism that pervades Russian politics in both its official and opposition versions. He seems to suggest that the opposition has yet to develop the courage and maturity needed to enter the political arena. Could the impressive mass protests of December 2011 help to overcome this? So far the signs are not good. 

Five groups of the protest movement

As presently constituted, the protest movement can be divided into roughly five groups:

(1) The most popular group consists of artists, poets, television personalities, writers, and journalists. People like Artemy Troitsky, who came to the last rally dressed as a condom, Leonid Parfyonov, Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Olga Romanova, singer Alexei Kortnev, and socialite Kseniya Sobchak. They all make it a point, however, to declare that they are 'non-political,' that their concern is to give the nation back its 'moral voice.'

2) Another large group at these protests have been Russian nationalists like Vladimir Tor, and 'true communists' like Sergei Udaltsov. Udaltsov, a scion of the Old Bolshevik elite—one of Moscow’s streets is named after his great-grandfather—parted ways with other communist organizations when the failed to adequately reflect, in his view, worker’s interests. His latest project, the Russian United Labor Front--Left Front, also objects to mere party politics and calls for power to be transferred directly to the working masses. Tor, on the other hand, is one of the perennial leaders of the right wing 'Russian March,' which also counts blogger Alexei Navalny among its participants.[3]   He also abjures the divisive term 'party politics', preferring to speak on behalf of the whole Russian nation.

While many at Sakharov Square might wish to distance the protests from his appeal 'Russia for Russians,' as Tor pointed in his address to the crowd, the nationalist protesters in Manezh square in Moscow who battled riot police last February share one important bond with the current protests--an uncompromising hostility to political authority. 'Without the heroes of Manezh,' Tor reminded the audience, 'there would never have been a Bolotnaya.'[4]

(3) Smaller in number, but much better known, are the perennial leaders of the Old Opposition, figures like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Garry Kasparov, and Grigory Yavlinsky. While some have worked in the government, they have all publicly broken with Putin, and now demand that the entire political system be reconstituted. Their personal ambitions have prevented them from agreeing on a common political strategy, much less a joint list of candidates. As a result, while theoretically they could represent the beginnings of a political opposition, in practice they have placed themselves at a safe remove from the political process.

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The blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was released from prison on 20 Dec, four days before the Moscow rally.  He was jailed for 15 days for marching in one of the previous unsanctioned opposition protests.  ‘I see enough people here to take the Kremlin and the White House right now, but we are a peaceful force,’ Alexei Navalny told the crowd. (Photo: drugoi.livejournal)

(4) A fourth group is one I call the new Internet Opposition. It is composed of people like Alexei Navalny, Evgenia Chirikova, Grigory Melkonyants, and Ilya Yashin, who have developed a core following among Russia’s rapidly burgeoning internet community. Navalny is the most charismatic of this group. He has made clear that he considers himself a politician, and that he will run for office (under a different system). For now, however, his political views are hard to pin down. He is all things to all people, refusing, for example, to even discuss whether a (hypothetical) political party he might lead would be on the left or the right side of the political spectrum.[5] 

With the exception of Navalny and Yashin, who were once active in Yabloko (Navalny also served briefly as an advisor to Belykh in Kirov), their  rise to prominence has been largely due to persecution by the authorities and devotion for a single cause, be it corruption, the environment, or election monitoring. Their persecution has garnered them “street cred,” but not much else. Some in the Old Opposition thinks these youngsters look to them for guidance, and that they will ride into political office on the latter’s coat tails. I very much doubt it.

(5) The latest addition to protest movement are individuals who have been part of, or directly benefited from, the Putin regime but have since abandoned it. They include former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, and “A Just Russia” deputy Ilya Ponomarev. While they too reject the Old Opposition and share the values of the Internet Opposition, at the last two mass rallies they were met by resounding disapproval. Prokhorov, for example, chose not to address the crowd in Sakharov Square after being hectored by shouts of “Go back to Courchevel”—the Swiss ski resort favoured by Russian nouveau riches. The crowd’s antipathy to individuals with practical political experience are once again on full display here. 

Thus, by default, the government retains the sole practical political agenda and, as such, its dominance is unassailable. It can easily afford to wait for opposition leaders to devour each other as they have so often in the past.  It can then step in to co-opt the best and the brightest by giving them the opportunity to apply themselves in the only meaningful political game in town.

‘… the government retains the sole practical political agenda and, as such, its dominance is unassailable. It can easily afford to wait for opposition leaders to devour each other as they have so often in the past.’  

Despite what opposition leaders may say, the fault for this lies primarily with them. They have ritualistically rejected any meaningful political dialogue with the government, despite the fact that under president Medvedev attempts were regularly made to set the stage for a liberal political party. But no matter what the Kremlin did to encourage the emergence of such a party--simplifying party registration, reducing the percentage quota for a parliamentary seat from seven to a five percent minimum, guaranteeing federal funding and air time to parties that get even three percent of the popular vote--the opposition has been either unable or unwilling to assume its proper political role in a democracy, that of constructive gadfly.

Those few opposition leaders who have accepted the challenge of constructing real political life from the ground up, however, have found the current regime to be, if not a friend, then at least a receptive partner. Asked about his differences with his former aide Alexei Navalny, Nikita Belykh summed them up as follows: 'By my actions I am attempting to mitigate the crisis [of confidence in government] and improve relations between government and society. He is attempting to tear apart what connections remain.'[6] 

Belykh did not attend the meeting on Sakharov Square in Moscow. Instead, he attended the rally in Kirov and spoke to a small crowd of opposition supporters that gathered there. His impromptu remarks were an appeal for the kind of personal civic engagement that could transform 'opposition to everything' into a true revival of politics. “I believe that civic activism must be constructive in nature, not destructive. In my opinion, the government took a step in our direction today. A major and truly significant step. And we need to seize this opportunity, instead of telling the government to go to hell. The ball, he says, 'is now in society’s court.'[7] 

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NOTES:

[1] Vladislav Surkov, “Sistema uzhe izmenilas’,” Izvestia (December 22, 2011). Available online at: <http://izvestia.ru/news/510564> (accessed 12/23/2011).

[2] “Die Politik bedeutet ein starkes langsames Bohren von harten Brettern mit Leidenschaft und Augenmaß zugleich,” Max Weber, Politik als Beruf. München und Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1919, p. 66.

[3] BBC Monitoring, “Russian Protest Icon Navalnyy Discusses Plans, Ambitions in Marathon Interview,” Ekho Moskvy Radio, December 26, 2011.

[4]Lucian Kim, “A Russian Fairy Tale for Christmas,” http://lucianinmoscow.blogspot.com/, December 25, 2011,

[5] “Russian Protest Icon Navalnyy Discusses Plans.”

[6] Nikita Belykh, “Chto mozhet delat’ v Rossii odin gubernator?” Polit.Ru (June 3, 2011). Available online at: <http://www.polit.ru/lectures/2011/06/03/belykh1_print.html> (accessed 6/3/2011).

[7] “Miting ‘Za chestnye vybory-2’. Nikita Belykh prishel, otvetil,” Gorod Kirov, http://www.gorodkirov.ru/article_view?a_id=23784#ixzz1hsBjKUBF, December 26, 2011.

About the author

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island (USA). He served as the U.S. State Department's special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under George H.W. Bush.

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Nicolai N. Petro, personal web site: www.npetro.net