What Lies Beneath Russia's Latest Round of Protests

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr / AP

Alexei Navalny, a prominent blogger, speaks to protesters gathered near the presidential office in Moscow on May 8, 2012

Has the Russian Spring — so vibrant with huge demonstrations in the winter — been revived? Even after Vladimir Putin was inaugurated on Monday, protesters, many identifiable simply by their white ribbons, managed to remain on the streets of Moscow. Activists including blogger Alexei Navalny and radical leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov declared a sit-in at a memorial on a square not far from Putin's presidential office. Hundreds gathered, someone brought tea and, inevitably, a guitar. A genial police commander strolled among the crowd, tapping his foot to the busker playing Beatles numbers and letting people know that as far as he was concerned, he saw no crime being committed.

The party atmosphere lasted until 2:30 a.m., when the police opted to send in a street-washing truck to soak the protesters off the square rather than use batons. "Right!" Navalny told the crowd from the pedestal of a monument in the center of the soaked square. "We're just going for a walk!" The nightlong march through Moscow, with Navalny and Udaltsov at the head, was made up of several hundred and moved from one boulevard to the next, with riot police in patient pursuit. A curb-crawling red Lexus convertible escorted them and blasted out the Soviet national anthem. The police needed little more than the gentle application of menace to move the crowd on if they settled somewhere. By Tuesday afternoon a few hundred were still huddled about a memorial on Chistie Prudi Bulvar.

Is the opposition reborn? Almost definitely not. It was clear the police were in absolute control throughout and seldom needed to use more than their presence to force crowds to do their bidding. Ill-disguised plainclothes policemen, knowable by their haircuts and watchful use of camera phones, kept an eye on faces and movements, and anywhere the protesters chose to walk, they were greeted by a phalanx of police blocking their path. And it was also a long banking holiday. Once the country goes back to work after Wednesday's victory-day celebrations, many of the protesters will find that they have other commitments.

And the lead-up to Putin's third presidential term was proof that the government was in control. The opposition had called for a "million-man march" on the Sunday before the ceremony to remind him, and the rest of the world, that resentment at his rule has not receded since demonstrations fizzled out after the March election. About 70,000 people turned out to the rally planned for the same location and format as previously successful demos. But when marchers arrived, they found police had sealed off a large portion of it, contrary to the deal the protesters thought they had secured.

That was when things got ugly. Some of the demonstrators, led by Udaltsov, decided to push through the police cordon. The police pushed back. Flares, bottles, lumps of tarmac and, at one point, a Molotov cocktail were thrown. Police responded with frequent and brutal baton charges and arrests.

Elements within the crowd fought back and, in places, ferociously. In what might become the defining image of that day, a riot-police helmet was raised atop a flagpole as a trophy. By the time police had cleared the square, several helmets and other items of police equipment were bobbing in the river below. Across the canal a crowd hurled coins, plastic bottles and a carton of milk at a television van belonging to NTV, a government-friendly channel. A car belonging to the state-owned Vesti news channel got the same treatment.

More moderate oppositionists were livid at the confrontational strategy of Udaltsov's followers. It was, said one, a complete defeat: surrendering the moral high ground and handing the authorities the perfect excuse for a crackdown. Ksenia Sobchak, a TV host and all-round celebrity who has attended all previous rallies, stayed away on Sunday because she knew there was a plan for confrontation. It was, she wrote on her blog, "one of the most difficult decisions of my life." But many of the middle-class professionals who defined the peaceful flavor of previous rallies appear to have done the same, either out of distaste for the confrontational attitude of their allies or simple fatigue at a movement that has, to all intents and purposes, achieved very little.

In December, many middle-class professionals — derided by critics as "office plankton" and "hamsters of the Internet" but who lent the earlier protests much of their peaceful and creative spirit — were horrified when Navalny, the opposition blogger, told a rally that they had the numbers "to storm the Kremlin right now." The fact that some protesters seem to have been willing to try just that on Sunday has alienated the professionals even further.

There is little doubt the discontent that burst into the open before Christmas is as strong as ever, and that the protests will continue. But Sunday's violence changed the narrative for both sides — the opposition movement, that has so successfully united very disparate parts of an increasingly disgruntled population, has to take a hard look at what it wants to be.

More depends on the government response, however. One option is to offer the proverbial carrot: Putin spent his first afternoon as President signing a flurry of populist decrees, promising everything from pay rises and housing perks for soldiers, teachers and doctors to an end to kindergarten waiting lists.

Then there is the stick. One Russian news agency reported that detained young men who had not completed their military service would be drafted into the army — a particularly harsh 12 months in an institution with a notoriously brutal culture of bullying, and hence routinely evaded by anyone who has the means to.

Sobchak, who joined the protests on Chistie Prudi Bulvar on Tuesday afternoon, called on the Kremlin to start fundamental reforms immediately. The middle class, she wrote, ought to be natural enemies of radical left wingers, but they have become allies because of the government's willful refusal to reform. The alternative, she said, was an opposition movement that makes "even Udaltsov look soft," and a downward spiral into violence — and even civil war. "I don't want civil war; I really don't want blood," she wrote in an open appeal to the Kremlin. "But if I'm honest, I don't believe [Putin] will find the strength to go to perestroika, and that means we will find ourselves in the turmoil of a complete division of society into two camps." The Kremlin, for its part, was not differentiating between the two kinds of protesters. Sobchak and Navalny were both arrested early Tuesday evening.