Calm for now, Russia seems certain to boil over
#1 Mar 9, 2012
MOSCOW – Vladimir Ryzhkov’s body language said it all.
The veteran Russian opposition leader was up on stage during the first mass protest after Vladimir Putin’s big presidential election win. And he looked like a man on auto-pilot as he introduced one speaker after another, half-heartedly peppering his remarks with calls for “taking power back” and “Russia without Putin.”
A month earlier, Ryzhkov had seemed as energized as Jumpin’ Jack Flash as he barked down his microphone in minus-10 degree Fahrenheit weather and looked out on a sea of humanity chanting for a “New Russia.” But on this much warmer night in the modest Pushkin Square in central Moscow, Ryzhkov’s spirit seemed to freeze over as he gazed on a crowd a fraction of the size of the earlier one. Surrounded by phalanxes of riot police, the protest seemed much smaller than the police estimate of 14,000.
“I’m optimistic and pessimistic,” he told me as the two-hour rally drew to a close.
“If Putin blocks our protests, we will come back in the hundreds of thousands [to commit acts of] civil disobedience.”
Did he think there would be violence?“Yes – I’m afraid there’s no other way,” he said, looking dejected.
This week has been a moment of truth for the mostly middle-class activists who say they want nothing more than what most of us in the West take for granted: a civil society and a level political playing field. The re-election of Putin came with many claims of election fraud from both domestic and foreign observers.
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs writer for the popular Kommersant daily newspaper, seemed to put it best.“The big question for the Russian opposition is whether there is life after March 4.”
As we sipped coffees in the up-market Moscow bistro where many say the protest movement was born, I asked Strokan what the protesters could possibly do next. After all, according to the final tally, Putin won almost 64 percent of the vote. Even factoring in all of the alleged cheating, he still would have garnered a majority of ballots.
“Before they do anything truly effective,” Strokan replied,“they must first admit one simple fact: That Vladimir Putin still enjoys the support of the vast majority of Russians.”
Yevgeny Tinchenko, a 25-year-old, unemployed Russian from Siberia, summed up the reasons behind that support. I met him in Zagorsk, about 50 miles outside of Moscow, where he was looking for a job in a traditionally pro-Putin religious center.
“Putin inspires trust as a person,” Tinchenko told me.“I simply like him. When I see him on TV I think things will improve if he is running the country.” But Tinchenko went on to say that he only saw Putin on state-run TV, and knew next to nothing about the other candidates.
There no doubt Putin used all of the ideological and propaganda weapons at his disposal to exploit those feelings and win big, in the first round of the vote. Now he needs to fulfill the almost $170 billion in campaign promises he made over the past month – from pay raises for school teachers to more housing for war veterans.
Meanwhile, from his renewed position of strength, Putin is doing everything he can to diminish the opposition’s authority, in part by proffering a whole tree of olive branches.
For instance, the Kremlin called on Russia’s chief prosecutor to review the charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch and Putin arch-enemy, imprisoned since 2003 because he dared challenge Putin’s authority. This is seen as a sign they may be softened or dropped.
It’s an example of how, firmly back in the driver’s seat, Putin can maneuver in a chess game he arguably plays better than anyone (except, perhaps, former world champion – and opposition leader – Gary Kasparov).
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