Beyond Pussy Riot: What's Next for Russia's Protest Movement?

As its conflict with the Kremlin escalates, the opposition is playing an uncertain game on a changing chess board.

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A man in Moscow walks past screens feeding live broadcasts from polling stations across Russia via a network of webcams. (Anton Golubev/Reuters)

MOSCOW -- If anyone deserves the title of enfant terrible among Russian oppositionists, it is 28-year-old Ilya Yashin, a key figure of the Solidarnost movement and head of the Moscow branch of the People's Freedom Party. Until recently head of the longstanding liberal Yabloko party's youth department, Yashin has spent much of his adult life sparring with the regime of Vladimir Putin, and sometimes literally, socking, kicking, and otherwise duking it out (after provocation) with presumed members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi -- in addition to helping arrange unauthorized demonstrations and doing jail time as a result. A week after attending the last "March of Millions" opposition rally, which in reality only drew tens of thousands, I arranged to meet Yashin to discuss the state of the opposition and its plans in an upscale pizza restaurant within sight of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' grimy, soaring Stalin-era towers.

Yashin arrived bearing a MacBook Air and an iPhone. He took off his jacket; in his t-shirt, he looked surprisingly slight for one of such pugilistic prowess. (You can see clips of him mixing it up here and here.) He was alone. Didn't he have a bodyguard, as other prominent members of the opposition often do?

"If I'm going to a demonstration," he said, "then I go with friends. Otherwise, it's important not to get paranoid." He casually opened his computer and showed me vicious, profanity-laced threats he has received via his page on vKontakte, a popular Russian social networking site. "This has been going on for five or six years. I'm used to it." He is, of course, one of the formative members of the opposition, one of the stalwarts of protest rallies that for years drew more police than demonstrators and frequently ended in detention.

Yashin-JJG-300.jpgIlya Yashin (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

I asked him if he thought the movement had stalled, since fewer people have been attending marches lately than in the heady turbulent months of outrage following the tainted elections to the State Duma last December that turned the opposition into a force for Putin to reckon with. (This was not the first March of Millions that drew only tens of thousands.) After all, since then a raft of new, repressive legislation has been introduced that raises fines on demonstrators and turns libel and slander into a felony, among other things. Perhaps more important, the government has met none of the opposition's demands. Currents of skepticism and discouragement have understandably run through the talk of many of my Russian friends when the subject comes up.

"Well, any movement has its ups and downs," Yashin said. "Some folks are tired, the ones who expected quick results. But quick results are unrealistic." He summed up the changes in fortune of the Soviet-era protest movement, which petered along in the late 1980s -- until 1991's reactionary coup attempt brought a half-million people onto Moscow's streets and effectively broke the Communists' grip on power. "You can't run a marathon in a sprint, you have to pace yourself. We will have the next action in December, since we don't want to tire people out."

So what is the next step? I asked. The Coordinating Council? Which former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov announced at the last demonstration, and which anti-corruption activist Aleksey Navalny has begun promoting on his Live Journal blog?

"Yes. The Coordinating Council will be the legitimate organ of the opposition and will represent the demands of society to the government. Some 30,000 have registered to vote, and we have about 250 candidates for 45 seats. Putin has said there's no one to talk to in the opposition. Well, the Coordinating Council will be the one he can talk to."

But was a council really what's needed to galvanize the Russian masses?

The council was not to be just another committee staffed with that eternal bane of Russia, bureaucrats. "We want to use the council to form a new kind of political culture," Yashin said. "Those who want to be on it must show all the time that they are engaging in politics, not just that they have a well-known name. We have to keep our politicians in shape. It was not for nothing that Navalny said that we have to go to demonstrations as we go to our jobs."

Would the movement widen its demands to rekindle enthusiasm, as the last demonstration's broaching of social topics indicated it had begun to do?

Yashin nodded. "We're now focusing on social justice, on the huge income disparity we now have. Seventy percent of Russians live on $500 a month while a few people buy yachts and airplanes. And we have constantly rising utility bills. We have to talk about the issues worrying average people. Before, the opposition talked about what worried it. We have to find a balance between issues of social justice and political demands." Reducing corruption ("corruption cannot be eliminated but it can be cut back," he said) and reforming the country's graft-seeking security organs will also be priorities.

"But we need a free media to fight corruption, and we don't have one. ... And the Duma still hasn't ratified the UN Convention on Fighting Corruption."

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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