I joined the crowds of people protesting against the sentence handed down to opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg on 30 December. Surrounded by Muscovites preparing for the long New Year’s holiday, we were a motley crowd – activists, students, artists, intellectuals, pensioners, and people from every class …
Nadezhda Sorokina, a pensioner who turned out in freezing cold weather, together with several thousand other people, hadn't thought of the rally as a proto-Euromaidan until I specifically asked her about it. That's when she said, ‘We're dreaming of a Euromaidan. But our people probably won't go for it. How do you ignite it?’
Maidan in Moscow
Despite some residual hope among the marginalised opposition, the common wisdom this year is that Moscow couldn't have a Maidan – the massive, protracted popular protests that toppled Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych last winter.
There are practical reasons for this: unlike Ukraine's, the liberal opposition that took to the streets in Moscow in 2011-2012 isn't represented in parliament in any way, and thus has no viable, vertically-integrated patrons to seek support from or to help them organise. Exactly four Duma deputies took part in Moscow's White Ribbon movement: Oksana Dmitriyeva, Ilya Ponomaryov, Gennady Gudkov, and his son, Dmitry. Since then, Gudkov Sr. has been stripped of his mandate, ostensibly for his active role in the protests.
Another reason is that a largely peaceful, middle-class intelligentsia that made up the Moscow protests has no recourse to muscle. Radical groups active on Kyiv's Maidan were eventually able to deploy their own thugs in order to stand up to the so-called titushki deployed by pro-government forces. Russia's handful of radical groups may be able to muster a fighting force, but they are so marginalised and splintered that they would be no match for groups co-opted and bussed in by the Kremlin, not to mention the OMON [riot police].
Under these circumstances, preventing a Maidan-style street revolution in Moscow should be a cinch for the Kremlin: just let them protest, arrest a handful of activists to keep them in line; and don't given them any ideas.
Under these circumstances, preventing a Maidan-style street revolution in Moscow should be a cinch for the Kremlin
The Kremlin strategy
To a certain extent, that is the strategy the Kremlin adopted in reaction to the wave of protests that greeted Vladimir Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin in 2011-2012. In the short term, it worked: by 2013, the opposition was splintered and the protests ran out of steam. By 2014, a good part of them, including the nationalist Eduard Limonov, were openly supporting the Kremlin, for its annexation of Crimea and incursion in eastern Ukraine.
But Putin's Kremlin is not one for consistency: allowing the protests one day, then raiding protesters' homes the next, it showed all the symptoms of indecision and internal debate. Its indecisiveness was particularly obvious in the way it handled opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In July 2013, it jailed him on fraud charges, then suddenly released him after a Moscow protest, allowing him to run in the mayoral elections.
This time, the government's behaviour showed outright panic rather than indecision. After tens of thousands registered to turn up to a protest on 15 January (the date Navalny was scheduled to be sentenced in his second trial), the court, acting as instructed from above, moved the date forward to 30 December. With most commentators expecting real jail-time, Alexei Navalny was instead handed another suspended sentence, which seemed to defeat the whole purpose of putting him on trial in the first place, since he already has a suspended sentence from last year. But his brother, Oleg, was jailed for 3.5 years; it was this sentence that sparked accusations of hostage taking, something the Kremlin has never resorted to so overtly until now.
This time, the government's behaviour showed outright panic rather than indecision.
Again, the Kremlin's short-term logic here is clear: deflect and deflate the protests by giving Navalny a suspended term at a time when protest is likely to be muted. The potential demonstrators who haven't left for the New Year’s holiday may well wonder whether protesting a suspended sentence is worth it when the government has made it quite clear that retribution will follow.
That was why Tuesday's protest seemingly differed little from any other unauthorised rally held beneath the Kremlin walls: a few thousand people, a clash with pro-government activists here and there, a few hundred arrests. Even Navalny, who broke his house arrest to join the demonstrators, was kindly taken home by the police, with a court later deciding not to punish him for his illegal excursion. And the police seemed bent on insisting that nothing out of the ordinary was happening: when I asked an officer in the underpass by Manezh Square, what was going on, he said it was just a police drill, ‘so we can serve you better.’ And smiled knowingly.
But there is a difference, just not so quantifiable. Like the sudden change one notices when moving from a brightly-lit shopping street, glittering with Christmas kitsch, and then turning to the haunting menace of the nearby Kremlin – the beauty of a frozen Moscow night patrolled by OMON – so the rally on 30 December had a deeper element of fear coming from both sides than any such protest before.
For the demonstrators, that fear is the culmination of a year of unprecedented turmoil: a plunging rouble, a destabilisation operation in eastern Ukraine that went awry very quickly last spring, falling oil prices, and a sanctions regime that is crippling the economy. Rumours are wandering around Moscow and Twitter undeterred: of how Putin may sack his government, or resign, exactly like Yeltsin did – his mentor – 15 years ago.
Rumours are wandering around Moscow and Twitter undeterred: of how Putin may sack his government, or resign.
But the real source of that fear, like the source of just about everything in Russia, lies in the Kremlin. Its latest military doctrine spelled out its defence strategy, one aimed at deterring a Maidan-style scenario: NATO's combat ‘instruments,’ according to the doctrine, include the use of ‘political, economic, informational and other non-military measures implemented along with a broad utilisation of the willingness to protest inherent in the [Russian] population.’
In other words, the Kremlin believes that any protest in Russia is an instrument in the enemy's hands and is to be treated as such. So its response is to take its own underhand involvement in Ukraine, and spread it to the rest of the world. ‘This is how we meet our objectives,’ it seems to be thinking, ‘and that must be how our enemies solve them too.’ This is not just a propaganda tool to rally the masses – it's a matter of survival: blaming everything on the West, turning into both the government's only strategy and its greatest fear, thereby eclipsing any long-term goals the Kremlin may or may not have ever had; and thus crippling its decision-making capabilities.
In the short term, the Kremlin has succeeded in suppressing protest. But in the long term, it has run out of ideas.
Standfirst image, The Kremlin from behind bars. Photo by Arseny Bobrovsky @KermlinRussia