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

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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."

After nine months of protests, the opposition is as determined as ever to oust Putin but has still not united behind a single candidate and remains variegated in a way unseen in the West. There is, to name a few of its top figures, the staunch nationalist Navalny, the former Stalinist Sergey Udaltsov, the democrat Kasparov, and, of course, Yashin, who described himself to me as a "European-style liberal." But they are not even trying to settle on a leader now. Yashin and other opposition members say that just who would head a post-Putin government depends on elections supervised by the Coordinating Council -- first parliamentary polls (after a reform of the country's electoral legislation) and then presidential elections (following a referendum that would decide on amendments to strip the presidency of its preponderant powers and hand many of them over to the State Duma). Beyond that Navalny and veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky have advanced a program that essentially boils down to the slogan, "don't lie and don't steal."

That's not exactly a philosophy of governance, but it's fine by Yashin, who praised the opposition's diversity and declared, "The Coordinating Council will be the umbrella organization that will lead to a new parliament and all these issues will be decided there, through elections."

And what of the two-year prison sentence meted out by a Moscow court to three members of the Pussy Riot band for performing an anti-Putin "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral? A majority of Russians have come out against the act and a third think the prison sentence was just.

Key opposition figures have advanced a program that essentially boils down to the slogan, "don't lie and don't steal."

"I'm also against what the Pussy Riot girls did," Yashin said. "People went there to pray and not see girls jump up and down in miniskirts. They should have been fined and not jailed. But everyone is in shock over [over the sentence]. When the state and church combine, you get inquisitions."

In fact, the Pussy Riot affair plus recently proposed legislation mandating stiff prison terms for those who "offend religious sentiments" mark an escalation of the Kremlin's conflict with the opposition (and Russians at large) by which the government hopes it will intimidate protesters, according to Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. I met her in her office above the capital's central Tverskaya Street. She spoke of the "pact of non-intrusion" that for centuries has dominated Russian life: the state rules with divine right without supervision from the population in return for the government's non-interference in their lives.

"This pact has been broken, people want their voices to be heard," said Lipman. "First the population broke the pact, coming out into the streets, but then Putin broke it himself, with his interference in Russians' daily lives by forcing the church on them." She went on to say that he's counting on a traditional Russian passivity toward the state that has partly disappeared, but which he well remembers from the Brezhnev era of stagnation, when things, she noted, were "dead and cold and cynicism was the norm. That's nothing people want to go back to."

But Putin has further, and more substantial, reasons to feel he can eventually prevail. Leaving aside issues of campaign fairness (a field of straw-man candidates, near-total dominance of the airwaves), he was, after a winter of opposition demonstrations, reelected to the presidency in March. He won, if not with 64 percent of the votes, as was officially announced, then with 50.2 percent, according to the independent vote-monitoring group Golos. And he is still popular, with an approval rating hovering in the mid-60s, according to the reliable public opinion research center Levada. (This, after 12 years at the helm!) The approval, based to an extent on fear of the unknown and a desire for stability, forms part of the "deep reserves" the state possesses, which otherwise include the military, the security services, and the courts -- all of which Putin has commandeered and which he can deploy against the opposition at will -- plus state-controlled media. (There is "no sign that the FSB, the police, the army, or the courts are becoming disloyal," Lipman said.) Faced with such resources, the opposition's look puny indeed -- at least for now.

The absence of a single candidate of paramount stature (a Russian Nelson Mandela, as it were), the abstract nature of the opposition's plans (free elections, in effect, being abstract in a country that has never had them, or not had them for long), and the lack of a gripping vision for a post-Putin Russia, to say nothing of a deep-rooted reluctance to confront a state considered, at least in the past, omnipotent and dangerous, all coalesce to provide powerful disincentives for the development of a truly country-wide opposition movement. Moreover, Navalny, according to a VTSIOM Center poll, is now known by more than half the population, but this in nowhere near enough, and he has not yet broken ranks with his cohorts to declare himself the One Who Shall Rule Russia. And surely there is no coincidence in his newfound visibility and Russia's level of Internet penetration, which this year reached 49 percent. "The country needs an opposition, that would excite the provinces" -- where a majority of Russians live, and where the Internet is only just arriving -- "and not just the Moscow elite," Lipman said.

The Democracy ReportLipman recognized that Russia changed with the outbreak of demonstrations last December. Russians are becoming more liberal, more exposed to the world, now that the Internet is expanding its reach. But even this statement she qualified. "The young want to live as Europe does, as they see it when they travel. But most others, especially away from big cities, want to live as they always have, they want power to remain sacred." She was skeptical of the opposition's oft-repeated claims that Putin's downfall is only a year or two away. "Don't confuse the opposition's chances with the social advances and changes Russia is making now." In fact, she hesitated to use the word "opposition," but preferred the term "civil protestors." An opposition would "have people who come out and say I want power, I want to be president, vote for me. But they shy away from that."

A split that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev inadvertently engendered in the elite led to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and such a turn of events could theoretically force Putin out today, but given that the Kremlin still controls the security services and the courts, "It would be extremely risky for the elite to unite in public in opposing Putin," said Lipman. "Anyway, for the elite to oppose him, they have to have some alternative to him. And they don't." Western pressure, even that which may be applied through the Magnitsky Bill, would not work either, since Russia's hydrocarbon-based wealth is vast, and, as threats mount to Russian bank accounts held in the United States and to the availability of cherished U.S. visas, the elite can shift assets to safer offshore zones and otherwise prepare for their country's coming pariah status.
 
Which leads to a dilemma. If the opposition appears unready to transform itself dynamically and seize the popular imagination with a bold vision of a new Russia, or even put forth a single candidate willing to challenge Putin directly, and Putin's hope that he can edge Russians back into a Brezhnev-era quiescence is unrealistic, then a stalemate will come about. Using force against the demonstrators would be problematic, according to Lipman: "Putin can't take Russia back, won't become a new Ivan the Terrible." Times have changed and Russians have evolved. But she allows that, "if the state doesn't have the resources to launch mass terror, it could make a huge change if it arrested 30 oppositionists. The other oppositionists may not be bent on suicide and could decide to go abroad."

Change, then, will end up pivoting on unforeseeable, possibly catastrophic events -- a worldwide recession, for example, that sends oil prices plummeting and crashes the Russian economy. Kasparov has voiced such an eventuality, telling me that "this regime cannot survive on oil at $40 a barrel." Yashin is agnostic about where change will come from: "No one knows what will finally make Putin go. In December the falsified elections set people off, but then we've haven't had real elections for 10 years. We can't know."

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

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