20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 24, around 100,000 Russians showed up for the second antigovernment demonstration in Moscow. While President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for political reforms may appear to signal an early victory for protesters, many experts argue that the proposed changes will not quell growing public discontent. Below, we consider possible outcomes of what some experts believe might turn into a full-blown revolution.



Opposition United

After the overwhelming success of the first rally against rigged parliamentary elections in Russia (on December 10, from 40 to 60 thousand Russians gathered at Bolotnaya Square to protest), many were skeptical that the second rally, scheduled for December 24, would attract the same number of protesters. But as it turned out, even more people took to the streets the second time around, expressing their dissatisfaction with Putin’s regime. Despite the winter chill, the traditional pre-New Year’s bustle, and the typical passivity in Russia, more than 100,000 people (the Russian authorities insist that protesters were not more than 29,000) showed up at Sakharov Avenue where the officially sanctioned rally took place.

One reason for the increased number of protesters was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s attitude towards the protests themselves. During a live (but staged, as usual) TV interview with Russian citizens, Putin said that protesters' white ribbons at December 10th rally reminded him of condoms, and later mockingly quoted Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: “Come to me, Bandar-logs” [monkey-people]. Many were insulted by the reference and even more motivated to take to the street. “We are not Bandar-logs” was a popular sign at the December 24 rally.

Protesters’ demands indicated their general discontent with the status quo in Russia. Like in the first rally, they called for political change (ranging from a re-do of the parliamentary elections in a transparent and fair way, to Putin’s immediate resignation) and economic transformation (from a comprehensive fight against endemic corruption to a modernization of the economy). However, this second wave of protests brought to light not just the strengths but also the weaknesses of this rather unexpected social upheaval in Russia.

One of protesters' main problems is the lack of a concrete agenda and of a follow-up plan. Just as it occured with the Occupy Wall Street movement, many ordinary Russians who weren't directly involved in the rallies had difficulty understanding the protesters' actual demands, besides their slogans' suggestions (i.e., “Russia without Putin!”)

However, an interesting attempt to introduce a blueprint for such an agenda has been made by Andrei Illarionov, a former economic advisor to Vladimir Putin and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, with his “December Thesis for Russian Citizens” article.

Another early stages program, focused on state-building and judiciary reform, was proposed by Vladimir Pastukhov, political analyst and professor of Oxford University, in his article "A Road Map For the Lost Revolution" for Novaya Gazeta.

Protesters' second important problem is the lack of an opposition leader, one accepted by all oppositions' fractions. At the moment everybody protesting — from communists to democrats, from Limonov's National Bolsheviks to Kasparov's Other Russia — is brought together by the hope of demolishing Putin’s regime. It is obvious that neither Alexei Navalny, a whistleblowing lawyer and popular blogger recently released from a 15-day imprisonment, nor Boris Nemtsov, an old-time opposition leader and the victim of a recent telephone-hacking scandal, nor Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire-turned-politician and presidential hopeful, could unite the opposition. Yet, in Vladimir Pastukhov's opinion, uniting protesters around around a single public person is not necessarily a must: Pastukhov sees a much more important objective in creating a new "revolutionary party — a union based on the clear action plan and specific moral principles, supported by civil society."

Lack of such action plan and of a structured party base could hence prevent the opposition from attracting the more passive parts of Russian society to the protesters' side. The most recent poll by the Levada Center showed 91% of respondents feeling that people should have the right to vent their frustration with the powers-that-be at rallies. At the same time, only 15% of Russians said they were prepared to actually attend such political rallies.

When asked whether election violations and falsifications ought to be responded to with mass protests, 44% of respondents said yes, while 41% thought protests weren't the answer. 40% said an election recount should be called for, while 46% said that wasn't necessary. In a nutshell, to reach the more skeptical half of the Russian population, the opposition movement needs structure and a much more coherent political program.


Too Little, Too Late

Interestingly, the Russian government quickly proposed a new program of political reform. Faced with this new opposition reality, the regime has made a few cautious attempts to reinforce its own power, or at least so it seems.

In his final address to the nation last Thursday, President Dmitry Medvedev announced a package of reforms, which included restoring direct elections for regional governors and the State Duma (both abolished by Vladimir Putin in 2004), reducing the minimum membership requirement for new political parties from 40,000 to 500, and reducing the number of nominating signatures required for a presidential candidate from 2 million to 300,000.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, Vladislav Surkov, the key Kremlin ideologist and Putin political regime's puppeteer, was reassigned Deputy Prime Minister for Modernization and Innovation. Surkov, previously Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration, lost this post to an old rival of his — Vyacheslav Volodin, seemingly Putin's new favorite.



The most significant appointment, however, was the one that promoted Sergei Ivanov to the Head of Presidential Administration. Four years ago it was Ivanov, member of siloviki group within the Russian government, who was considered main rival to Medvedev, competing for temporary successors' role to Vladimir Putin. As some analyst conclude, these hasty, unexpected reshuffles demonstrate Putin's loss of trust for Medvedev, who, despite his own weakness, still has the power of dismissing the entire Russian government, along with its prime-minister, with a single decree. Thus, appointing Sergei Ivanov could very well be interpreted as Putin's attempt to secure himself against such an unpleasant possibility.

Vladimir Putin finally acknowledged the opposition four days after the second rally (albeit in Putin's typically controversial manner), saying that he was ready for a dialogue with the opposition but that he didn’t see a common political platform or anyone he could talk to, also came as a surprise.

Even a few months ago these compromising measures could have worked, experts say. Today, however, Putin's tactics seem rather useless, since protesters' main demands — new parliamentary elections, the dismissal of the head of the Central Electoral Commission, the release of political prisoners — remain unfulfilled. Besides, most of the reforms announced by Medvedev would only take effect in the next electoral cycle: that is, 6 years from now.

In his “Too Little, Too Late: Putin Offers Concessions to Stay in Power” article in World Affairs, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. concludes that Vladimir Putin has fallen into a classic trap for dictators: “…Giving enough concessions to show weakness, but not enough to satisfy demands.” Kara-Murza stresses that this time around protesters are too numerous to be marginalized, and that their aspirations are not for the false attempts at change offered by the government, but for changes that are tangible and profound.


Three scenarios

With country's political situation being this unstable, giving a precise assessment of the current crisis — let alone offering predictions for further developments in Russia — is anything but easy. However, some analysts were willing to taken the risk and tried to analyze a number of credible scenarios for the country’s uncertain political future.

In his blog at grani.ru, Aleksander Goldfarb discusses the idea of a revolutionary scenario for today's Russia. Even though Russian protesters do not consider themselves revolutionaries and would rather push the regime out constitutionally, Goldfarb believes them to be true revolutionaries. Since protesters do not recognize the results of the recent parliamentary elections and most probably won’t accept the outcome of the presidential election, Goldfarb argues, they will eventually demand to overthrow the regime in the public interest — which, by definition, will be a revolution.

Goldfarb doesn’t believe in the authorities promising change, and insists their corruption means they will end up in jail once they lose power. That is why the authorities will fight till the end, using all political methods at their disposal (even force, if/when necessary.)

Assessing the latest shifts within the Russian government, Goldfarb concludes that the moment, in which suppressing this social upheaval in its early stages was possible, has already passed, and now the authorities are playing the waiting game, hoping protesters’ enthusiasm will eventually fade. “Time is the key factor protesters must take into consideration,” Goldfarb writes. “It is important the opposition leaders didn't miss the culmination of the regime being at its most vulnerable. By all accounts, this culmination should come right after the March presidential elections, when everyone will suddenly realize that Putin isn't going anywhere. Just like it happened this past December, the shock caused by an absence of some kind of a miracle will bring people to the streets again, with maximum energy. And that will be the moment for some life-changing decisions.”

Goldfarb then looks into three possible scenarios. In the first (and the worst) scenario the military and the police will join protesters to overthrow the regime by force, and blood might end up being spilled, if things somehow go wrong.

In the second scenario the regime simply wears protesters down, back into apathy and submission, by initially acting polite and respectful, only to smash the opposition when least expected.

The third scenario describes what, in Goldfarb’s opinion, the opposition should be doing as soon as it is reasonably possible: declaring the current regime illegitimate, while offer a real alternative by creating its own center of power. This new power center should run new, fair elections without involving any of the official agencies. These opposition election results should create a dual power system in Russia, which is a mandatory stage for any revolution. Goldfarb leaves the rest of this scenario up to the opposition leaders' creativity, encouraging them not to miss the right moment for action.

Three more alternative scenarios are described in Georgy Bovt's article “While Not Everyone Is Awake Yet”. Bovt’s worst case scenario involves severe repressions, scaring away a significant part of the Russian population — those, who prefer a precarious peace to any political and economical instability, let alone a revolution.

Bovt's second scenario involves political reforms. The only way these political reforms should work though, is if the government really invests into them, making them advanced and meaningful. The government might even foresee the protesters' demands before they are laid out, Bovt speculates. At the same time, the author himself assesses this last scenario as a highly unlikely one, and, like Kara-Murza, points out that Medvedev’s recent reforms proposal came too late.

Bovt's third scenario is based on cooperation between the opposition and the current regime. The expert lists a number of immediate priorities: canceling the results of the December 4th election or - alternatively - announcing the current Duma a temporary assembly, rescheduling the presidential elections, and forming a roundtable for negotiations with unofficial opposition parties.

“Along with the opposition, the government should create a new agenda and list of top priority measures, such as a tough fight against corruption by introducing severe criminal punishment (and not only this — all current forms of political manipulation should be broken in the name of a new and sincere national consensus).”

Bovt includes the conflict in the North Caucasus, the immigration influx from Central Asia, education reform, and an acknowledgment of recent police and judiciary reforms failure, along with the passage of new education, police and judiciary reforms in his list of the most urgent problems to be addressed by the government.

It is interesting that both Bovt and Goldfarb come to the same conclusion: time is crucial, “delay equals defeat.”

Because of the upcoming New Year’s and Russian Orthodox Christmas break, which in Russia traditionally lasts from December 31 to January 10, the opposition (along with the rest of the country), is forced into a lengthy time-out. And the Russian opposition leaders ought to use this time wisely, carefully considering the course of possible action, while their fellow Russian citizens are anxiously wondering: what now?


Olga Khvostunova