Some 30 years ago, as a volunteer, I took part in extinguishing a forest fire in Northern Russia. Even today, I can’t call the adventure a fun. My clothes hardly fit the occasion. My only firefighting tool was a rusty three-gallon water bucket. Yet, the scariest part of the whole experience – haunting me for years in bad dreams — was sudden bursts of flame coming from tree hollows in which the fire was supposedly put down by pouring multiple buckets of water. After a few hours, I felt completely exhausted, and not from a physical tiredness, but from a constant fear of being hit from behind by a fireball.
The protest fire that erupted on the streets of Moscow and other large Russian cities in the aftermath of the December Duma election caught the Kremlin completely off guard and brought the country leadership on the verge of panic. It was Dmitry Medvedev, not his mentor Vladimir Putin, who reacted first to the situation on the ground. In a commendable display of the self-preservation instinct, Medvedev – back then still president –proposed a number of political reforms. Medvedev even attempted to engage the opposition in a dialog – if you can call such the patronizing hectoring delivered by Medvedev to a group of people hand-picked by his aids. In addition, the Kremlin orchestrated a series of demonstrations of its own supporters whose numbers obviously matched, if not outnumbered the protest crowd.
But having peaked in February, the protest wave – a motley pool of the often marginal groups lacking common purpose, ideology and leadership – began showing signs of fading away. Immediately following Putin’s victory in the March 4 presidential election, the impression settled that the protests were over.
Friendly analysts didn’t wait long to begin pleasing the Kremlin with victorious reports. Political scientist Dmitry Orlov argued that “Russia had cured herself from the protest virus.” Orlov’s soulmate Vladimir Shapovalov reassured the authorities that Putin and his supporters were “winning the fight for the street.” Even the self-described “liberal” Vladimir Milov, jealous of the media attention enjoyed by the leaders of the protest movement, gleefully concluded that “the street was over.”
The Kremlin took this as an indication that it was time to backtrack. Both of Medvedev’s signature political proposals – the return of the direct election of regional governors and the new law on registration of political parties – have been reduced to sham on the Duma floor. In the meantime, courts reviewing allegations of the election fraud kept blatantly ignoring clear evidence of the vote falsification.
And then, like a fireball from a tree hollow, the protests suddenly exploded in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, a bizarrely staged event bringing to memory the opening scenes of Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Wild Strawberries.” But this time, the protests have immediately turned violent, and only incorrigible optimists would now argue that they will be soon gone.
Having forgotten that it was “winning the fight for the street,” the Kremlin is taking the protests very seriously: draconian amendments to the law on meetings are being rushed through the Duma. If adopted, they will essentially criminalize any street protest that the authorities would deem a threat to “public order.”
At first glance, the protests don’t pose any direct threat to Putin’s presidency – due to the relatively small number of protesters and the fact that the protest actions are confined mostly to Moscow. And yet, the protest movement represents the most serious challenge Putin ever faced in his political life. The major factor of Putin’s success as the national leader has always been his ability to provide “stability,” which was interpreted by the Russian ruling class as a carte blanche to pursue their parochial economic and political interests. The rapid political maturation of Russia’s middle class – to say nothing about the growing radicalization of the protest movement — has been a rude awakening for the country’s political elite. The elite will be closely watching for any signs that the “stability” is gone and that Putin is losing control over the country. As I argued before, should the elite decide that Putin has exhausted his potential, an alternative to him will be found. There is hardly a reason to even wait for the next presidential election.