Putin and Protesters

I’m puzzled when someone begins comparing the number of people participating in pro- and anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia: to me, it’s like comparing the number of apples with the size of oranges.  I get even more puzzled when I hear that by putting more people on the streets, the Kremlin “has won” over its opponents.  It’s about the same as to say that because the admirers of Yo-Yo Ma can be comfortably accommodated in the Carnegie Hall with its 2,800 seats whereas Britney Spears can easily attract a crowd of 30,000 fans at a sports arena, the pop diva is ten-time better musician than the venerable cellist.

The folks who organized protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospect can safely ignore such comparisons.  To begin with, there is little doubt that the Kremlin has – and will have for the foreseeable future – vastly superior resources for amassing large crowds of people.  (This is not to say that everyone who showed up at a pro-Putin rally consciously supports the prime minister; but this is a separate topic.)  Besides, and more importantly, the protesters do represent the minority of Russian citizens.  According to recent sociological studies, only about 15-20% of adult Russians consider themselves opponents of the current regime.  These people tend to be younger, better educated and more economically successful than the “average” citizens.  Often business owners or representatives of the so-called creative class, these folks don’t need government, at least for a paycheck.  It’s only natural that they are easily outnumbered by their fellow Russians who depend on the state in almost every aspect of their everyday life.

What the protesters should really pay attention to is their message.  Brought together by the power of a single emotion – the outrage at the rigged Duma elections – they now need to transform their “raw feelings” into a set of comprehensive political goals and demands.  Far from trying to beat the Kremlin in the game of numbers, the protesters should actually reduce the size of their columns by decisively parting with the nationalists, monarchists and the like.  And if they want to broaden their appeal, they would better outreach to industrial workers whose loyalty to Putin is only conditional and may rapidly disappear should Russia’s economic situation deteriorate.  A basis for expanded protest movement does exist: it is worth remembering that about 30% of Russians said they would never vote for Putin and 40% expressed support of protest actions.

At least in public, Putin doesn’t pay attention to the protesters.  His priority number one is to win the presidential election in the first round of the vote.  Besides, jockeying for positions in his future Cabinet has already begun in earnest.  Facing new protests that will inevitably follow the March 4 poll might look relatively easy to Putin compared to other things.

Yet, the major reason Putin so far hasn’t made any attempt to start a dialog with the protesters is that he doesn’t understand them.  Putin seems to be genuinely at a loss to figure out why a bunch of well fed people would go on a protest action, especially if their grievances are caused by such a nuisance as “irregularities” in the parliamentary elections.  The concept that some people may value their principles and their dignity over material well-being seems to be completely foreign to Putin.  (Apparently, there are no such people in the close circle of Putin’s associates.)  That’s why he tries to explain their behavior by something he can comprehend: money, directives from the State Department, or “orange leprosy.”

It’s easy to ignore negative public sentiments with approval ratings in the 70s.  However, when these approval rating are back to the 50s – where they will inevitably be when the pre-election rating inflation is over – to ignore the feelings of one-fifth of the country’s population will become politically untenable.  The longer Putin delays the dialog with the protesters, the more difficult for him will be dictating the agenda of this dialog.

Today’s Putin brings to memory Scarlett O’Hara with her famous “I can’t think about that right now…I’ll think about that tomorrow.”  Very soon Putin will realize that his “tomorrow” has already arrived.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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16 Responses to Putin and Protesters

  1. fareasterner says:

    he shouldn’t understand or give them consessions. it’s politics, winner takes all. nobody would expect the same from Obama or Romney to implement wishes of their rivals. If opposition want to get them they should first win election.

    that’s why I agree with you that opposition need to transform their raw feelings into comprehensive set of policies and overall broaden their appeal. If they can get seats in parliament they can negotiate with Kremlin as genuine representatives of people.

    the problem is most of these people are unelectable, can’t win even local council elections. they tried to enroll neonazi groups to boost attendance of their rallies which exposed them to counterattacks from Kremlin who successfully painted them as dangerous extremists.

    at the same time Putin should think over legitimacy issues. it’s not unheard of in history that one party ruled counries for many decades, rigging elections or not. Japan, Italy etc were such quasi democracies. of course they had favourable Western press due to double standards & geopolitical interests. Putin and his successors won’t have such advantage. Still they have to reform the system in such a way that even losers will accept their defeat.

    • Eugene says:

      I don’t think that I agree with your description of politics as a zero-sum game. I can list a number of examples when Obama moderated his position to accommodate his critics. Even Romney is constantly changing his views depending on what his opponent say. Besides, he isn’t a winner yet to take it all🙂

      Nor do I think that you must be a member of parliament in order to be heard. In fact your position sounds very similar to Putin’s approach: if you don’t have a united platform and a united leadership, there is no reason to talk to you.

  2. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    We differ in our analysis on many things but to a very great extent I agree with you here. There is no doubt that there are people in Russia who oppose Putin and we have seen many of these people participate in political protests. However the protest movement has so far failed to coalesce into a political movement or come up with anything remotely resembling a political programme.

    Three points I would make:

    1. Putin has not ignored the protest movement. On the contrary he has mobilised his supporters to engineer a backlash against it and with what appears to be some success. Some of the words and actions of the protesters have played straight into his hands.

    2. I have argued elsewhere that the leaders of the protest movement have shown an incredible insensitivity to industrial workers. Their emphasis on the middle class nature of the protest is a case in point. To the extent that the protest movement is a movement of the middle class that in political terms is a weakness not a strength. Referring to themselves as the “creative class” is also calculated to be offensive to industrial workers who also like to think of themselves as a creative class. In addition if the protesters do want to win over industrial workers then they must start addressing working class concerns, which they show little interest in, as well as come up with economic and social policies that would appeal to industrial workers.

    3, Lastly, and here you may not agree with me, but I do feel that if the leaders of the protest movement are to gain significant traction with the population they need to address publicly what went wrong in the 1990s. One of the reasons why Putin is able to exploit memories of the 1990s so effectively is because the liberals have never faced up to their failure in that decade or given the mass of the population any reason to think that things would be different next time.

  3. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    When I said that Putin “ignored” the protest movement, I meant that he chose to not address their demands and concerns. I don’t count as “addressing” Putin’s attempts — successful, I agree — to denigrate the protesters by organizing more populous pro-Putin demonstrations.

    I fully realize that my suggestion of outreaching to industrial workers was a stretch (as immediately pointed out by someone on Twitter). Yet, there are at least two reasons why trying to bridge the “creative class” with the industrial workers is worth attempting. First, that would broaden the ideological and (potentially) electoral appeal of the protesters. Second, doing so may prevent the industrial workers going to the nationalist camp — should they get disillusioned with Putin, as may well happen in the future.

    You’re right, I’m not very enthusiastic about your #3. With certain reservations, I could agree that, say, Prokhorov needs to address what happened in the 90s. But why should the bulk of the protesters? Navalny and Chirikova were both 15 when the privatization happened; Akunin and Parfenov never profited from it. Why should they any responsibility?

    Best,
    Eugene

    p.s. I’m going to DC tomorrow to take part in a seminar on US-Russia relations. I’ll try to tweet from there, but won’t be available here or on Facebook.

  4. zed244 says:

    Hi, Eugene
    “The concept that some people may value their principles and their dignity over material well-being seems to be completely foreign to Putin. ”
    Exactly right. IMHO, this “for sale only outside US” ideology – that one can built a functioning society where everything (and, thus everyone) must be for sale – is the single reason for almost all the development problems in Russia.
    Cheers

    • Eugene says:

      As a venerable prophet from Australia said recently: Amen🙂

      Cheers,
      Eugene

      p.s. I’m going to DC tomorrow to take part in a seminar on US-Russia relations. I’ll try to tweet from there, but won’t be available here or on Facebook.

    • marknesop says:

      “The concept that some people may value their principles and their dignity over material well-being seems to be completely foreign to Putin. ”

      I’ve noticed that nearly all – not just some – people value their principles and their dignity over material well-being only when they reach a comparative state of well-being. Until that point, their principles and their dignity are trodden underfoot as they plead for somebody, anybody to make their lives better.

      When someone does that, voila!! They rediscover their principles and their dignity. And I certainly hope the argument here is not that the likes of Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny (who would like to take the Kremlin by force), Yevgenia Chirikova and Garry Kasparov represent “principles and dignity”.

      • Eugene says:

        Mark,

        That’s exactly my point: Putin missed the moment when it’s not enough to feed your citizens; you have to respect them.

        I see no reason to reiterate my negative attitude towards Nemtsov and Kasparov, but what kind of problem do you have with Navalny (except that the guy needs to watch his mouth) and, especially, Chirikova?

        Best,
        Eugene

        • marknesop says:

          Hello, Eugene;

          I am imagining each of them in contrast with Putin. Last year Kasparov addressed a crowd of liberal-minded supporters in Moscow, in English. Who do you suppose that was for – the supporters, or the western press that was eager to capture the pearls of wisdom he might bestow upon them? I don’t like Navalny because he is an impatient revolutionary, and the west courts him and flatters him because it would love nothing better than a violent revolution in Russia, and because he is an irresponsible fool who would hurl shopkeepers and university students and cab drivers against the Moscow police and even the military without a second thought in an effort to “take the Kremlin”. A lot of people would get hurt and some might get killed, all so Navalny could stretch his cult of personality muscles. He likes to lead from the front; I’ll give him that, but he is so angry that he has no thought for his followers and sees only the goal. Chirikova is an airhead who is already way out of her depth, who knows little beyond her environmental views and nothing of international affairs, and who was so plainly awestruck at being invited to meet McFaul that it is difficult to imagine her negotiating anything meaningful for her nation. She would give away the store for a pat on the head, and fall apart if she had to take a tenth of the abuse Putin gets every day. I’m certainly not opposed to women as leaders, but I don’t see leadership in Chirikova.

          Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I think; I’m not Russian, don’t live there and can’t vote. But I believe if you’re tired of somebody and are determined to vote them out, you should vote in somebody who is an improvement. If you can’t find an improvement, voting in somebody less capable just to validate the democratic process and have a different pair of hands on the wheel is a stubborn act of self-immolation. Best,

          Mark

          • Alex says:

            Mark, actually, at the moment it looks like anybody will be an improvement – with, perhaps, one reservation – the Russian external policy, Here i would prefer to have him
            Cheers

          • Eugene says:

            Mark,

            As I stated many times, Medvedev would have been an improvement — if not in personalities, then in the development of democratic institutions in Russia.

            Both Navalny and Chirikova are good in what they are doing as civil leaders. Neither was groomed to become a political activist, but both are young to get some education. However, no matter which real or perceived crimes against the Russian state they might have committed, one must not deny them — coming back to our original point — their right to have principles and dignity.

            Best,
            Eugene

      • Alex says:

        Mark,

        I don’t think we have an argument – just a discussion. At the moment I don’t have final opinion about the extend the people you listed really have principles (defined in the context as something you cannot buy for money). At the very least, these people appear to be very different in the sincerity of their desire to serve the nation first and themselves – last. But, perhaps, it is safer to regard them all as crooks. The discussion, however, was mostly about other people – the “mass” which does not expect any material or personal benefits, but simply does not want someone they do not trust voting instead of them (as a minimum). Which leads us to the observation you made in your second paragraph.

        The observation , IMHO, was very interesting. But it is not precise. Especially when discussing different cultures. I would say your description is much more (~100% indeed) applicable to the Australian and American, but much less to the Russian culture. One day, when we meet, we should buy a good scotch (yes, an expensive one🙂 ) and discuss this interesting topic in details – eg. whether the truth has its price and how much (some) people are ready to sacrifice for their right to tell it. Then we also could test a proposition that the less material possessions people have, the more they are prepared to part with all of it.

        Cheers

  5. That’s why he tries to explain their behavior by something he can comprehend: money, directives from the State Department, or “orange leprosy.”

    One doesn’t need to “comprehend” anything it is obvious on its face.

    Fortunately the liberals can’t even disguise their contempt for ordinary Russians and their values so they will never succeed, thank God.

    Now these Ukrainians I can understand, they are honest and respectable in their motives.

    • Alex says:

      Anatoly, it is, indeed, not difficult to understand these people, but to respect them? Ameba deserves your respect more – they at least, by design, are not burned with any ability to predict the consequences of their actions beyond the immediate… Here is an illustration of similarly respectable behavior by IBM.

      Cheers

  6. Pingback: My Blog » » Russia: An Overview of the Pre-Election Anglophone Blogging

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