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.