Street Fires

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.

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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18 Responses to Street Fires

  1. iastreb says:

    Putin is about to face his first test in the new term. With oil and the ruble dropping precipitously in the last few days, and the signs of the return of the global crisis being unmistakable, the people he mobilized this winter (the Poklonniki) will be looking for economic relief. Thus far, as the prolonged struggle to form the cabinet, and now, the fight over privatization between Medvedev’s people and Sechin seem to show, Putin is dithering. His room for maneuver is shrinking, though it is not yet clear whether anyone, from the “non-systemic” opposition or from any of the clans is ready to step into the breach.

  2. Eugene says:

    I agree. I think that the biggest concern for Putin is if his supporters (Poklonniki) go out to the streets with economic demands and meet there the opposition (Bolotniki) demanding political change. And if these two groups suddenly realize that they have much in common, Putin is is real trouble. I also suspect that people around Putin, being very busy with fighting for financial assets, don’t give too much thought to this scenario.

    Best,
    Eugene

    • iastreb says:

      The significance of the Bolotniki, unlike earlier incarnations of the non-systemic opposition, is that they contain a segment that is ready to make economic demands. From December to May, it seems to have become the leading segment in the street protests. Some of the people around Putin do think about this – that’s why they’ve spent so much effort trying to marginalize Udal’tsov.

  3. Alex says:

    In 1993 it were not the people on the street, but corrupt (or then only hoping to become corrupt) army generals who decided the outcome. And then there was a spark plug – Duma which these days , in its Ochurovannoiy state, is harmless. The scale of recent Moscow demonstrations & police/OMON brutality/stupidity were not really significant compare to eg. to anti-NATO protests in Chicago.( besides, which “democratic” government ever cared about the opinions expressed by its electorate outside the election campaign? ).

    The majority of the demonstrators (and even more so of the population) are, probably, more concerned with Duma elections and something they themselves cannot clearly formulate, rather then with Putin personally. And is there someone who really wants his job ? 🙂 So, he is probably safe on both sides.

    One problem with the demonstrations is that there is a potential for a provocation – with the result that there will be a reason to talk about eg. “Bolotnaya Massacre” and evil “regime” cutting throats of democracy. But, even with US ABM on the Russian border, I hope that NATO countries are not as stupid as to try to run Libya there (even if US will be pushing for it).

    What I cannot understand is the problem with the minor political reforms the Russian Government/Putin has – such as running normal honest elections, free elections of the Governors and removing restrictions on registration of political parties. In a sense, Medvedev’s initial reaction was surprisingly sensible.

    Cheers

  4. Eugene says:

    Alex,

    I believe that Medvedev did want Putin’s job, but apparently not enough to demand it, not just politely ask for…

    Call it tautology, but I believe that the only reason for a protest is to protest. So if these youngsters (or not youngsters) in Moscow want to protest — for whatever reason — they must be given the opportunity to protest. The Russian Constitution doesn’t require the protesters to have ideology, clear purposes or leaders to protest. Otherwise, the smell of being a police state is almost unavoidable. You can’t arrest people for wearing white ribbons or for giving someone a sandwich in a park.

    The problem for the regime that in all recent more-less honest elections (Yaroslavl, Chernogolovka), the candidate of power invariably loses. This adds to the regime’s natural disdain for any “normal” elections at all. Look at the law on the direct election of regional governors. With all the “filters” added, it’s almost impossible for a non-UR-supported candidate to get on the ballot. And yet, since the beginning of the year, the Kremlin replaced 20 governors who’d otherwise be up for elections. Do appreciate the low trust the Kremlin has in its own appointees.

    Best,
    Eugene

    • Alex says:

      Eugene
      We’ve discussed all that already – I absolutely agree about the protest and what to do with them (i.e. do nothing & maybe even give participants state-purchased ribbons & free drinks, perhaps, supply them with a more modern music -eg. Nomans Land instead of Tsoi :)? . The “provocation” scenario I mentioned to discuss possible reasons for obviously nervous reaction of the “regime”. (I do not like to have the “reset” US missiles and the US sheep-like European NATO allies on the border in such situation , either).

      The “regime problem” you mentioned in the last par….whats wrong with having at least some choice of eg. ministers from different parties? Of course, the UR members would not like that, but I doubt anybody asks them.

      Cheers

      • Eugene says:

        Alex,

        I don’t think the US missiles have anything to do with the protests. At least, they should not. After all, the spat over AMD in Europe began well before the protests.

        Cheers,
        Eugene

        • Alex says:

          Well. One country should not think they know what sort of regime or leader is better for the people of another country either.

      • Alex says:

        sorry, not “ministers” of course – members of Duma’s committees. Let them do what they are supposed to do – думать.for the President.

        • Eugene says:

          Дума не место для думать🙂

          • Alex says:

            да нет , это – то место. Просто те кто туда приходят, не умеею это делать.(а те, кто из туда послал – уж давно разучились)

            • Alex says:

              вот, кстати, где еще реформа нужна http://www.besttoday.ru/posts/5744.html
              Медведев говорил, что проблема есть, но судей настолько много что их нельзя всех разам заменить. По-моему даже прстой бинарный генератор случайных чисел вместо судьи произведет лучшее впечатление на массы, будет дешевле – и несравнимо справедливее (на судьбу же бесполезно жаловаться)
              Пока

              • Eugene says:

                Да и судей менять не надо. Просто тем, кто их туда послал (тебя парафразируя), нужно запретить им звонить.

  5. Dear Eugene,

    I don’t think the protest movement as it exists at the moment poses any danger to Putin.

    There is one point I do want to emphasise. This is that political protest is both normal and necessary in any democratic country. On any weekend someone somewhere in London is demonstrating about something. If Russia is to become a fully stable and fully democratic country then this has to start being the case there as well without this giving rise either to predictions of the apocalypse or to threats of a government clampdown.

    If one approaches the question in that way then Russia this winter has moved forward. Demonstrations have been able to take place, the behaviour of the demonstrators has been impeccable, being overwhelmingly orderly and peaceful and the authorities so far from clamping down on the protestsn have by and large not merely tolerated them but have cooperated with the leaders of the protest movement to ensure that the demonstrations happen in an orderly and peaceful way. Likewise the Constitutional Court has shown great good sense in saying that protesters should not be punished simply because more people turn up to a protest than was previously agreed.

    Against this there are some worrying signs:

    1. The hyperbolic language of some of the leaders of the protesters, who call the government illegitimate and who make no secret of their wish to overthrow it by what can only be non democratic and non electoral methods; and

    2. A certain tendency on the part of a very few young demonstrators to turn to more violent behaviour as the protests have dwindled to their more militant core, possibly it must be said under the influence of the more militant protest leaders such as Navalny and Udaltsov; and

    3. The risk of an overreaction by the authorities of which I consider the proposed new law a possible example.

    On the subject of the new law, laws made in haste and anger are repented at leisure. I completely disagree with the proposed new law. There is no need for this law. If demonstrations take place in a lawful and peaceful way as they did during the winter then the new law has no bearing on them. If the law is broken then there are already laws in place to deal with the law breaking. The people who suffer most from law breaking by some protesters are the majority of protesters who want to protest peacefully, which is no more than their right. Increasing the penalties for breaking the law will not deter law breaking but will simply radicalise the protesters, which is what the more extreme and hotheaded amongst the protest leaders want and make the government look frightened and weak, which will merely embolden the more extreme amongst the protesters. The proposed new law is therefore both wrong on its merits and a mistake.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      I agree that in its current form, the street protest movement doesn’t represent serious challenge to Putin’s rule. However, two potential dangers do exist. First, should the economic situation in Russia turn to worse — I’m not saying it necessarily will, but some experts do accept such a possibility — we may witness public protests by the core Putin’s electorate — something similar to 2005. And if these protests will overlap with the current STREET WALKING by the youngsters, the combined result might have not even additive, but rather synergistic effect.

      Second, as I repeatedly alluded, the elite may not like the disappearance of the proverbial stability — embodied by the never-ending protests — and try taking the matter in their own hands. In this case, the size of the protest doesn’t really matter. What does matter is Putin’s apparent inability to take them down.

      I absolutely share you negative reaction to the new law on meetings. After all, violent acts are nothing new in Russia: Limonov’s supporters and the group Voina have practiced violence for years. Yet, the authorities decided to think about “public safety” only when the protest became truly massive. And what I find very repulsive is that the authorities don’t even try hiding the fact that the new law is specifically targeting the planned action on June 12. If one needs an example of making law for the sake of political expedience, that would be it.

      Best,
      Eugene

  6. Alex says:

    I hope you did not miss it – the new law in action :
    http://rudoyandrey.livejournal.com/8435.html 🙂

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