20 years under Putin: a timeline

The grave consequences of a direct confrontation with the authorities and the unlikelihood of victory in today’s managed “elections” do not mean that Russia’s opposition has no chance of success. According to historian and IMR Advisor Alexander Yanov, Kremlin critics must think “out of the box” and make use of international structures.




Readers “on the ground” are in the best position to tell if there really is a storm brewing over Moscow, or if it’s merely a light breeze rippling the surface of the water. But surveying the city from a distance, an uneasy, chilly shiver sometimes sweeps over me. This is probably the way the Decembrists felt on December 13, 1825, one day before they went out into the square.

What I mean is this: for twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the subject of revolution was taboo in opposition circles. Then suddenly, in the twenty-first, the dam burst. Maybe this was in response to the provocatively draconian laws that are constantly being cooked up in the Duma’s special bake house. Maybe the 100,000-strong protest rallies in the winter of 2011 turned the opposition’s head. Or maybe the pressure simply built up. . .

Whatever it was that did it, the dam burst. The taboo was lifted. Revolution is preached, revolution is planned (what is a call for “a total dismantling of the regime,” if not a call for revolution?) In EJ.ru magazine, Mikhail Berg writes: “Today it is only a coward (or idle loafer…) who does not speak of revolution.” Artemii Troitsky in “Novaya Gazeta” is even more radical: “Away into the trash can with it, this goons’ democracy with its crooked elections.” Like the Decembrists, he favors a “revolution of the minority.” Finally, the senior editor of EJ.ru, Alexander Ryklin, argues: “But let us not try to deceive anyone, the question of power in Russia is not decided in elections.”

But if not in elections, where is this question decided? In the street, “through the constant building up of non-violent street protest, as a result of which the current regime will be forced to abdicate its authority. In the ideal case, voluntarily.” But what if we’re not speaking about the ideal case? Unfortunately, today’s opposition has no good answer to that question, just as the Decembrists did not have one. Are we advocating a nonviolent revolution as Berg and Troitsky see it? That would be a sensible answer if the Coordinating Council had the ability to bring a million people out into the streets (as is already happening, for the second time, in Tahrir Square), and if such a colossal expression of the people’s will were to split the ruling elite asunder, as it split it in Egypt. But, unfortunately, the number of people who voted in the Coordinating Council elections is nowhere near a million.


“Impatience of the Heart”

Do not think, though, that the taboo has only been lifted among the “new Decembrists” in the capital. Take the word of this thorough study conducted by the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), which found stirrings of protest not only in large cities, but also in small towns, and among people with incomplete secondary education as well as those with higher education. Even when couched in dry, bureaucratic language, the report’s conclusion sounds like an ominous warning for the authorities: “The awareness of the futility of elections and hopes for a voluntary change of political leaders leads to a rapid escalation of scenarios of protest and revolution for the renewal of the regime.” And this, throughout the whole country! In other words, the modern-day Decembrists of the capital, unlike their forebears of 1825, have acquired the potential support of a substantial number of provincial Russians, a group that apparently shares their aversion to the current regime.

The only hitch lies in that word “potential.” The CSR report also discovered a substantial time lag between groups. While the metropolitan avant-garde, urged on by what novelists call “impatience of the heart,” is intent on a more or less immediate revolution (hence the impression that a storm is brewing), in the provinces, the mood of protest and revolution is still in the process of maturing. The avant-garde, it seems, has advanced too far ahead of its rear lines. Such a rift is clearly fraught with serious consequences for the opposition.


“Decembrist” Inconsistencies

According to Ryklin, the avant-garde agrees on the need for “a total dismantling of the regime, a transitional period, a rigorous multi-level lustration, new elections, a new constitution. . . Navalny and Kasparov and Nemtsov and Yashin and Tor and Udaltsov are all pretty much in agreement with this formulation.”

Unfortunately, this formulation can hardly be called the epitome of clarity—especially when we note the passing mention of a “transitional period.” This call to action raises a whole raft of questions, starting with the matter of who exactly would come to power as a result of a “total dismantling of the regime,” which would presumably involve the removal of the president, the government, and the central and local bureaucracies. Would the Coordinating Council take control on the basis of its 82,000 votes? If such a scenario came to pass, would the internal security forces, the police, and the army obey this group on the basis of such ambiguous legitimacy? Would they still obey if their commanding officers were subject to “rigorous multi-level lustration?” Would all the generals and governors uncomplainingly join the queues for unemployment benefits, or would some among them raise their voices in disagreement with the decisions of the Coordinating Council? And, as a result, would the country not be plunged into chaos, if not civil war? Have the authors of this bold “formulation” considered such an outcome?

The modern-day Decembrists of the capital, unlike their forebears of 1825, have acquired the potential support of a substantial number of provincial Russians, a group that apparently shares their aversion to the current regime.

These “Decembrist” inconsistencies of the avant-garde appear even stranger in light of the current regime’s determination to retain its authority in full. In its November 3, 2012, issue, The Economist reported that at a recent meeting of the Valdai Club, the regime’s representatives (very much in the style of Muammar Gaddafi) described the opposition as  “elitist, unrepresentative and easy to deal with.” In other words, both sides have set a course for confrontation.

We already know from the 1825 Decembrist experience how such a confrontation is likely to end. Of course, there is always the consolation offered by Decembrist lieutenant-colonel Gavriil Batenkov, writing from the Peter and Paul Fortress prison: “Our society consisted of people in whom Russia will always take pride. . . With the forces so unevenly matched, the voice of freedom could only ring out for a few hours, but how splendid it is that it did ring out!” But will such a brief triumph satisfy today’s Decembrists?


In Alexander Yanov's view, the lead roles in uncovering the corruption of Russia's current regime should belong to the Coordinating Council of the Opposition (left) and the European Parliament.


A Vicious Circle?

Nevertheless, do the potentially suicidal consequences of premature confrontation and the unlikelihood of an opposition victory in managed “elections” mean that the opposition’s cause is hopeless? Not in the least. As long as the opposition has enough political imagination to formulate unorthodox but effective strategies to liberate the country from this ruinous regime, it may see some success.

Here, for instance, is one such strategy. Imagine what would happen if Boris Nemtsov’s conjectures about the billions of dollars stolen by Putin’s entourage and safely stashed away in European offshore accounts were not only confirmed, but the actual billions were dragged out into the light of day by a group of independent international experts and confiscated. Imagine too if the Swiss and Monacan banks involved in laundering money on such a massive scale were publicly punished by a recognized international authority, and this thieving regime’s entire operation was openly discussed in the international press. Would the Russian masses believe the television reports telling them that the entire world had ganged up against Russia, as they believed them during the Iron Curtain era? Today, that curtain is full of holes, and an attitude of “protest and revolution” is maturing among the masses far from Moscow. After such a stunning revelation of the regime’s corruption, how much would it take to bring millions of Russians into the streets?

Imagine what would happen if Boris Nemtsov’s conjectures about the billions of dollars stolen by Putin’s entourage and safely stashed away in European offshore accounts were confirmed.

Even more important is the fact that a substantial section of the Putin elite simply could not live in conditions of international isolation. In a situation in which Putin’s Russia is threatened with transformation into an international pariah, the cosmopolitan part of the elite could not escape a deadly confrontation with the regime’s upper circles and isolationist fanatics. The ruling elite would be well and truly split.

What could come of such a divided leadership? Judging from the experience of the Eastern European velvet revolutions, neither an instant “dismantling of the regime” nor a “multi-level lustration” would be likely. A round-table agreement to settle the terms of the regime’s capitulation would have to be sought, in much the same way that Solidarity approached the transition in Poland in its day.


What are the Difficulties?

The only thing that remains unclear in this hypothetical scenario is where the panel of independent international experts who would provide the initial impetus for the unseating of the regime would come from. In simple terms, who would hire the experts and pay them for their work? After all, only world-class specialists—at least the equals of those who stashed away the assets of Putin’s “Politburo-2”—would be capable of undertaking such a job. And the services of people like that are very expensive.

In my view, the organizational initiative in this matter should be taken by the Coordinating Council, while the “deep pocket” of the undertaking could come from the European Parliament, which has recently passed a number of trenchant resolutions in support of the Russian opposition. Unsurprisingly, these resolutions have not produced any concrete results. What is required is practical action. For Europe’s parliamentarians, such action could take the form of hiring a panel of authoritative experts.

It is self-evident that the Coordinating Council cannot have anything to do with foreign money – the European Parliament will be hiring its own experts. It has its own interest in this matter: to put an end to money-laundering and punish the criminal banks. The role of the Coordinating Council can only consist of political support—just as in the case of the Magnitsky Act.

The scenario proposed here is based on the assumption that the Achilles’ heel of Putin’s regime is the colossal corruption in his close entourage. The regime undoubtedly understands this—the proof being that it ostentatiously sacrifices pawns like Anatoly Serdyukov and Elena Skrynnik, in imitation of an anticorruption campaign, in order to deflect attention from key figures on the board. So the task at hand is to take advantage of the regime’s cunning gambit by involving international authorities in the game and retargeting the campaign against the key figures, thus paralyzing the regime. No one beside the Coordinating Council is fit to organize such an operation.

Readers may formulate other viable solutions to this unorthodox scenario. The important thing is to understand that the entire situation in Russia today is unorthodox. I will consider my object achieved if this article serves to jolt readers’ political imaginations. Sometimes it is useful to move beyond well-worn paths of thought—to think “outside the box,” as the Americans say. Especially when there is a storm brewing.