Russian Protests: The Big Guessing Game
St. Petersburg and Moscow
At the end of Monday's anti-Kremlin rally in central Moscow, Garry Kasparov, one of the leaders of the Other Russia opposition movement, announced that he and the other organizers had decided against marching out of the designated rally area in Pushkin Square, a move that city authorities had already rejected and that would have led to clashes with riot police and the OMON, Russia's paramilitary forces.
"There are too many OMON forces waiting for us," Kasparov said into the microphone. "But the fact that we have decided not to march out of here isn't our defeat, it's the Kremlin's defeat, and that--"
Kasparov's voice suddenly vanished. The police had pulled the plug on the sound system. Their allotted ninety minutes was up.
Thus ended a surprisingly peaceful weekend of protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow (along with a smaller march in the northern port city of Murmansk). There was a palpable sense of letdown when the rally broke up without any serious incidents, both among protesters--most of them were young and curious, ranging from middle-class bohemians and professionals to left-wing radicals, and many had come expecting to confront The Man--and the unruly swarms of Western journalists, who vastly outnumbered their Russian counterparts and who came with expectations of witnessing the Russian police state in action.
Until this past weekend, there appeared to be an increasingly dangerous trajectory in the Kremlin's strategy to crush the opposition movement, which seeks to end President Vladimir Putin's ever-tightening control over the country's politics and its media. It was a trajectory that seemed to be leading inexorably toward greater bloodshed and violence, perhaps something cathartic and awful, like a Russian Tiananmen Square. Rallies in St. Petersburg in March and April, and in Moscow in April, all featured overwhelming government forces pitted against a few thousand protesters, capped by savage and at times seemingly indiscriminate beatings and arrests.
The one exception was a planned protest last month in Samara, a Volga River city, during an EU summit there. Rather than attack protesters, the authorities allowed the march in Samara to go ahead but arrested scores of activists in the days leading up to the protest and detained the opposition leaders along with scores of Western journalists at the airport in Moscow, thereby strangling the rally in its bed. This "softer" strategy didn't lead to a quieter reaction: Opposition leaders came off as victims and heroes in the Western press and what remains of Russia's free media, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly clashed with Putin during the postsummit press conference in Samara. Observers and opposition leaders were left wondering if the Kremlin had intentionally created a PR fiasco, and if it meant that Putin had now decided that he didn't give a damn what the West thought about him.
It was under this atmosphere of fear, paranoia, intrigue and guesswork that the opposition headed into this past weekend's rallies.
Things got weird even before we flew to St. Petersburg on Saturday. While Putin was hosting CEOs from around the world at his pet Economic Forum conference in Russia's Second City, authorities in Moscow scrupulously checked the Other Russia entourage's documents in what seemed like a possible repeat of the Samara strategy. But at the last second, we were allowed onto the plane. When we landed in St. Petersburg, the flight attendant announced over the intercom that all passengers had to show their passports to police guards waiting at the airplane's door.
On the drive from Pulkovo airport into central St. Petersburg, Kasparov's bodyguards pointed out at least two inconspicuous cars--a blue Lada and a Volga--that were following us. At a stoplight, a goon's thick arm poked out of the partially opened smoked window, flicking a cigarette onto the street, before withdrawing back into the rickety Lada's shadowed interior. Just then, one of Kasparov's bodyguards from Moscow called, clearly shaken: He'd been "visited" by police at his home that morning and had been warned not to continue working with the opposition.
We spent hours in a basement cafe waiting for the late-afternoon rally, not knowing what to expect. But Petersburg's rally, like Moscow's, ended peacefully--a move that has only increased the paranoia and guesswork.
Now that the first half of this year's protest season is over in Russia, both sides will take time off to consider their position and that of the other side. What is the Kremlin strategy? Why did it change tactics so often, and what does that bode for this autumn, when protests are set to resume? And does the Other Russia movement really have a chance?
The answer to the last question lies in the answer to the first: Even though this past weekend's rallies drew only about 2,000 protesters in each city, the Kremlin's overwhelming response makes clear that it takes the protests extremely seriously and is fishing around for an effective strategy to crush them, experimenting with both brute force and "soft authoritarianism," as opposition leader Edward Limonov calls the harassment. The reason the Kremlin is worried lies partly in the makeup of the protesters--they're not the usual crusty protester-trolls but rather overwhelmingly young and energetic, a broad cross-section of students, intellectuals and even a growing number of professionals. In effect, it looks like a miniature version of the Color Revolution crowd that evolved in Serbia and Ukraine, about one-fiftieth the size in terms of numbers.
Moreover, the opposition's message is extremely effective and potentially contagious: "We're ashamed of our government." They are Russians dissatisfied with being ruled by what Limonov calls an "archaic regime" in which a tiny group makes all the decisions in the back rooms and beams increasingly crude propaganda from government-controlled television.
After the recent rally in Moscow, I asked Limonov if he wasn't disappointed that the opposition leaders had allowed the authorities to stop their planned march, restricting them to a mere rally in a single place. His answer was surprising: "We decided collectively that since the authorities fulfilled their promises in St. Petersburg and allowed us to march without attacking us, in Moscow, even though we didn't get to march as we wanted, we thought it would be better to show them that we can hold back also, so long as the authorities are willing to negotiate," he said. "In a way, it is like a kind of dialogue that the Kremlin is having with us, and we don't want to be the ones who are seen as being responsible for breaking it off."
It was the most surprising possible ending to the first big round in the Kremlin-Opposition standoff: after months of violence and dramatic talk, the first signs of dialogue.
As both sides take a two-month break, the question is, When September rolls around and the protests start again, what will the results of this rather undramatic weekend be? Will the apparent Kremlin relaxation lead to less fear and therefore swelling numbers of protesters at future rallies? Or will it deflate the movement's energy by taking away the sense of danger, excitement and possibility that fuel the rank and file's interest?